The neurological magic of Bygone Croydon

By - Friday 8th March, 2013

There’s more to Bygone Croydon than pictures of old sweet shops. Liz Sheppard-Jones takes a closer look, with just a little help from neuroscience and Proust

Those of us who grew up after the ’60s look back on this time as a golden age. Our lives have a very different backdrop, beginning with the oil price shocks of the mid-’70s which led to economic upheaval and national disunity. In the ’80s came industrial contraction, the miners’ strike, and mass unemployment. Even when the economy appeared to recover, the glad confident morning of the Apollo moon landings was never to return. For us, the excitement of the space shuttle was marred by repeated catastrophe, with the losses of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. History, we were briefly led to believe, ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, ushering in a new era of international understanding. But closer scrutiny made that supposition appear flimsy as Islamic terrorists tried to blow up the World Trade Centre in 1993. Eight years later they tried again – and the world since 9/11 has been shadowed with horror and fear.

In 2008 we learned that our economic success was built on debt-driven delusion. Now we face austerity and falling living standards. It’s hard to see how our economy will ever again generate jobs for all our people, or how the planet itself will feed the ever-increasing billions attempting to live on it.

Schemes and dreams

For Croydon, there is an additional dimension of difficulty. Tendencies to pessimism are magnified here by a deeply-felt uncertainty. In order to have a clear future, identity matters; before you can decide what you want, you need to know who you are.

Croydon was once a Surrey town which was absorbed by the sprawl of South London and became a London borough in 1965 – that ’60s confidence again, showing its willingness to embrace the new. Since then, the borough has sought on no fewer than five occasions to become a city – 1977, 1992, 2000, 2002, and 2012.

It is clear that the Bygone Croydon Facebook page is indeed a repository for enormous shared nostalgia

City status is granted by the Queen under her powers of royal prerogative, and it has to be said that at the last attempt to get her attention, our hearts weren’t in it. The 2012 city status bid boasted of services which the very council that wrote it was in the process of closing down. It contained a selection of spelling mistakes, factual inaccuracies and exaggerations and for those reasons alone did not deserve to succeed.

Plans and ‘visions’ are also frequently mentioned here. Sadly, they are not delivered, although we do have a go-forward-together slogan for every day of the week : ‘The 20:20 Vision’, ‘The Future Is Now’, ‘CroydON, ON site, ON our way’ – the last of these invariably appearing next to derelict ground. As a result of it all, levels of cynicism about change and future plans are extremely high among Croydon’s population. Add to this the devastation and distress caused by the riots of August 2011, and it’s not difficult to see why Croydonians might be more attached than most to the notion of certainty.

So, when the present is challenging and the future seems filled not with promise but with danger, our attitudes to the past shift and change. The Oxford English dictionary defines nostalgia as ‘a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past’ and it is clear that the Bygone Croydon Facebook page is indeed a repository for enormous shared nostalgia.

Closer examination reveals, however, that it is much more than this. The page is fascinating because it embodies the very nature of memory itself.

Marcel Proust, 1871 – 1922, famous cake-lover

Treasury and guardian

‘Memory’, said Cicero, ‘is the treasury and guardian of all things’. Cicero, however, was not a neuroscientist, for this is by no means all that memory is. Although experienced as a series of thoughts and feelings, memory is actually a biological process in the brain, as all experience is.

Memory is divided by psychologists and neurologists into two distinct elements : voluntary and involuntary. Involuntary memory is spontaneous and autobiographical. Voluntary memory is characterised by a conscious effort to recall the past.

Bygone Croydon operates first by eliciting voluntary memory from its members. People are asked to recall the past and to search out artefacts – chiefly photographs, but items such as carrier bags from now-defunct department stores, concert tickets, and milk bottles have also been shared. To post on the page is to perform an act of voluntary memory.

Those who receive the posts are then triggered into involuntary memory. This is the state of mind we refer to when we declare that ‘it all came flooding back’. Marcel Proust, (1871 – 1922) was a well-known French novelist and critic whose most famous work is ‘Remembrance of Things Past’. He was the first person to describe how vivid the process of involuntary memory can be, and to observe that it often begins with a strong trigger from one of the five senses : sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch.

Proust’s description simply cannot be bettered

In the case of Proust’s most famous memory, the sensory trigger was taste. On eating a small cake, he was immediately overtaken by vivid recall of his childhood and visits to his aunt – a memory which until tasting the cake, had been far from his mind.

On Bygone Croydon, the trigger is sight. The appearance of a picture on the page begins a cascade of recollection, clearly shown by the large numbers of people responding and how quickly they do so (a Facebook comment is always accompanied by a tag indicating how long ago it was made). Within minutes, a photograph on the page sets off a wave of involuntary memory which ripples outwards for many hours or days.

Proust’s description of this, written somewhere between 1909 and 1927, simply cannot be bettered: ‘An exquisite pleasure… invaded my senses… the vicissitudes of life became indifferent to me… this new sensation had on me the effect which love has… filling me with a precious essence… Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?’

It is this shared experience which creates the warmth of Bygone Croydon. Receiving updates from the page is an almost entirely (more on ‘almost’ in a moment) positive sensation – exciting and uplifting in equal measure. The page fills its members with Proust’s ‘precious essence’ without them even realising it.

And the reason it happens is this : young experiences have an intensity which later life generally fails to match. (It’s just as well, as our heads would likely explode if it continued). First love, the closeness of adolescent friendships, the excitement and trepidation of starting out, the time of our lives when our brains are most receptive to the world, to ideas, thoughts, and experiences – all these things are deeply, lastingly imprinted upon us. Anything capable of bringing it all back will be heady indeed. This is the neurological magic performed by Bygone Croydon.

Next week, Liz will explore some of the other sentiments raised by Bygone Croydon. You can read her first piece about it here.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Andrew Dickinson

    Wow.Cleverly constructed article Liz. I’m enlightened about how memory works and I’ll be reminded of this when i look at the Bygone Croydon page

  • Terry Coleman

    A very fine article Liz, it certainly struck a chord for me.

  • George Harfleet

    Jolly interesting post. Strangely enough I’ve just read Alain de Botton’s book (How Proust can Change You Life) which included his experience of dipping a Madeleine cake into his tea and is immediately in raptures because of the memories that flooded back. Memories that previously had not erupted at all. Almost volcanic.

    Whenever I see a photo of the little Classic cinema (now long gone from South Croydon) I too have a memory of being there with my first love, Stella, and how she made the earth quake and the volcano erupt simultaneously that night.
    Thanks for this excellent piece of writing.