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Why Sarah Hampson’s down with Downton Abbey (retrophobes be damned)

I don't know what happens to you when you're stuck in seemingly endless traffic, but that's one of the times when I start thinking that I was born into the wrong century.

It can happen when my computer decides to lose things, too. If I'm forced to wade through spam about penis enlargements, well, I can't help it: I am immediately Lady Mary in Downton Abbey in a drop-dead gorgeous gown, with neatly pinned hair, surrounded by portraiture, tapestries and pleasant dinner conversation.

I suffer from bouts of cultural nostalgia, and my affliction, as some might call it, is enflamed everywhere I turn. In theatres, period dramas are churned out regularly: Anna Karenina and Great Expectations will be released later this year, while The Great Gatsby is in the works for spring. Television abets me, too, with new seasons of Downton, Mad Men and The Borgias forthcoming. Jane Austen festivals have also popped up in several countries. And this month's issue of Vogue includes a lavish, 18-page Downton-esque fashion feature on the life of Edith Wharton, the American author who wrote about the sophisticated and circumscribed life of the upper class in belle époque New York.

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But I'm not as worried about this cultural nostalgia as some people who are turning retromania into a kind of alarmist retrophobia, suggesting that a love of the past is anti-progress and that we're stagnating in a habit of unproductive recollection. A vibrant culture, they argue, should involve deep engagement with the present.

Earlier this year in Vanity Fair, Kurt Andersen argued that the "nostalgic gaze" and the lack of significant change in contemporary culture and style in the past 20 years (with the exception of technological innovations, of course) suggests that Western society is experiencing "an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound non-stop newness ... on the technological and geopolitical and economic fronts." He went on to worry that this could be the beginning of the end of great Western culture in a "long, nostalgic whimper."

Matt Ridley, author of The RationalOptimist , bemoans nostalgia as a pessimistic view that the world's problems are too complex to solve. Relentlessly bullish about the force of innovation, he pooh-poohs those who dream of life in earlier eras as simpler and more peaceful. Those Stone Age guys may have enjoyed a pollution-free environment, but, hey, they had mastodons to worry about.

And if you lived in Austen's time, Mr. Darcy probably smelled bad and had Austin Powers teeth.

But, look, who doesn't get it that nostalgia is often sentimental, whitewashed memory? "Nostalgia is to memory as kitsch is to art," Charles Maier, a history professor at Harvard University, once remarked. True, but sometimes kitsch is fun. However kitschy our cultural nostalgia can be, its practice is complex.

Part revenge on the present, part wistful grief for a time that is forever lost (the Romantic movement of the 1840s was, to some extent, a reaction to the Industrial Revolution) and part escape, nostalgia can also be productive in a way, even instructive.

Take Apple's use of nostalgic icons for programs and apps that reference outdated versions of themselves – the ink pot and quill for Pages, the bandstand mike for recording, the boxy, sixties-era TV for YouTube. Sure, nostalgia is a good marketing tactic – studies show that the sentiment creates a sense of well-being and belonging because the memories recalled are usually happy ones – but isn't there another emotional connection being made here that is helpful? After all, not all the customers are boomers who are old enough to recall happy childhood time in front of a big, fat TV. Such icons are also a reassuring, friendly wink, reminding us that the past connects with the future. Neither is a foreign country. They're just different versions of now.

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Nostalgia and progress are intertwined, one reflecting – and maybe even informing and preparing us for – the other. Interestingly, two of the more popular period TV series, Downton and Mad Men , take place during a time of profound change that's about to or has recently happened. In the case of Mad Men , that was the advent of the turbulent Sixties; with Downton , it's not insignificant that the first episode of the opening season hinged on the sinking of the Titanic, an event that marked the end of an era of optimism.

Part of our fascination with these shows is in the collapse of one period and how the characters find their way into the next. Sound a bit like how you feel in 2012? Nostagia is not necessarily unthinking. It can involve a teachable past, giving us a place to pause and find comfort as change rocks the way we live in the present.

Besides, it's not as if we want, fully, to inhabit the past. I tend to like my nostalgia à la carte, to pick the bits I admire and find ways to integrate them into the present. In Downton mode, I want Mary's dresses and shoes (okay, the jewellery isn't bad, either) and I am a big fan of grace and manners (which are in short supply today). But I also want a job and, if I'm to live in the country, I want my iPad so I can connect instantly to the world while I gaze out across green hills.

I can, I figure, have it all.

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