The term was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer (1669–1752) in his Basel dissertation. Hofer introduced nostalgia or mal du pays "homesickness" for the condition also known as mal du Suisse "Swiss illness" or Schweizerheimweh "Swiss homesickness," because of its frequent occurrence in Swiss mercenaries who in the plains of lowlands of France or Italy were pining for their native mountain landscapes. Symptoms were also thought to include fainting, high fever, indigestion, stomach pain, and death.
English homesickness is a loan translation of nostalgia. Sir Banks Joseph used the word in his journal during the first voyage of Captain Cook. On 3 September 1770 he stated that the sailors "were now pretty far gone with the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia," but his journal was not published in his lifetime (see Beaglehole, J. C. (ed.). The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks 1768-1771, Public Library of New South Wales/Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1962, vol. ii, p. 145). Cases resulting in death were known and soldiers were sometimes successfully treated by being discharged and sent home. Receiving a diagnosis was, however, generally regarded as an insult. In 1787 Robert Hamilton (1749–1830) described a case of a soldier suffering from nostalgia, who received sensitive and successful treatment:
In the eighteenth century, scientists were looking for a locus of nostalgia, a nostalgic bone. By the 1850s nostalgia was losing its status as a particular disease and coming to be seen rather as a symptom or stage of a pathological process. It was considered as a form of melancholia and a predisposing condition among suicides. Nostalgia was, however, still diagnosed among soldiers as late as the American Civil War. By the 1870s interest in nostalgia as a medical category had all but vanished. Nostalgia was still being recognized in both the First and Second World Wars, especially by the American armed forces. Great lengths were taken to study and understand the condition to stem the tide of troops leaving the front in droves (see the BBC documentary Century of the Self).
I have moved fourteen times in my life which sounds quite a lot. Some of these moves have been concertinaed together and others have been into rented accommodation, once I moved four times in three years then settled for sixteen years, and now I will have done two moves in four-and-a-bit months. I ought to be getting good at it, but I am still a reluctant mover; I need roots. I am so reluctant that friends will have no idea how often I have upped-sticks. I have friends who do up houses for living, small- scale property developers, and I generally tut-tut when they plan to sell up and move on yet again. How can you bear to? I say, hiding from them my own, albeit reluctant, itinerant behaviour.
I am moving to a cottage, never having lived in a cottage before, unless you count ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ which I don’t. Living here is like inhabiting one of those experiments from a BBC social history unit , where they send families back to live in times of yore, back to hey-noni-no and a tussle with a range along with a ridiculous level of garment washing in a dolly-tub and a pig in the yard. The sheer effort of staying alive in freezing conditions has taken up all my time and much of my energy. To think that I actually believed I would be able to re-write and revive a former novel (one of two in the drawer) in the fallow winter months here. While in front of my computer my core temperature dropped so low that I drove to the local Georgian market town and wandered around a rather fine well-heated department store in order to thaw. Being freezing cold is quite tiring, you eat more carbohydrates and wear uncomfortable layers of outdoor clothes, losing touch with both your usual wardrobe and your writing.
Now (April 6th) the sun has come out, there is the merest hint of spring and one or two daffodils have taken the bold decision flower. And I have taken to buying magazines, home-maker magazines: Country Living, Country Homes and Interiors, Homes and Gardens etc. Between these pages I encounter another world - an idyllic world. A world made up of appealing features about attractive countrywomen pickling and preserving comestibles of huge variety and disporting garden trugs and other nostalgic ephemera. My metropolitan self should scoff at this wonderland of Housekeepers boxes and Butler’s bells sold by merchants called Scumble and Goosie, The Oak and Rope Company and Cabbages and Roses, but I revel in every muted moment. After writing, my second love is design and now I am free to indulge in a feast of fantasy home-making I am even considering a sewing machine. What has come over me and the nation? Vintage, nostalgia and up-cycling are everywhere, clearly a counterpoint to North Korean threats: Cyprus, deficits and bad bankers – when the going gets tough the tough get nostalgia.
It began with cupcakes (I was an early adopter of the fad) then I advanced to muffins; my white chocolate and raspberry muffins a particular favourite. Now I have moved on to all things homely. I am displaying a curious interest in foul, quails in particular. I can tell you what they eat, what they shouldn't eat and that they cost - three pounds each - and they lay eggs (200 a year) beginning at just seven weeks old. What has come over me? I blame Country Homes and Interiors, where ‘Vintage touches and an eye for eclectic detail bring charm and individuality to Caroline Cowan’s country farmhouse.’ Caroline has a country home festooned in bunting, vintage crockery, chickens, Persian rugs and damp dogs. Refined pieces of up-cycled lace be-deck pine chests, harmonious vintage quilts and a rocking chair ‘…underpin this rooms nostalgic appeal..’ Really this ought to make me gag, but it doesn't it makes me take a note of the lovely soft pre-war green that covers half of Caroline’s vintage caravan and decide, that yes, Farrow and Ball Saxon Green 80 will be the perfect colour for my base units in the kitchen at Meadow Cottage. It’s not a dissimilar colour to the green gloss paint on the lower portion of the hospital walls of my childhood – odd thing nostalgia – how can I possibly feel nostalgic for National Health Service green? But I do.
It’s surprising that we aren't in the midst of a Busby-Berkeley revival, with uplifting tap dancing and huge set-pieces shot from above, requiring an extraordinary level of synchronisation with feather fans, this, the filmic-fodder in the nineteen-thirties during the depression. We need to feel safe and secure in a perilous world and if that means up-cycling, vintage and full on nostalgia then I for one am ready to dive in. So you may yet find me on a Pashley bicycle pedalling gaily around the byways of Norfolk with my picnic tucked into the handlebar basket and a ready supply of bunting to hang amongst the glades. There I will be joined by like-minded friends eating potted shrimp and sharing my carefully preserved fruits and my quails eggs without a podgy North Korean despot in sight…bliss. I may even resort to turning the signposts around to confuse the enemy.
Nostalgia an illness? Certainly not.