"I miss the M&S car park"—How the pandemic supercharged Britain's nostalgia for the ordinary

I thought I’d mourn my long-awaited holiday to the US that was cancelled, but in fact I’ve barely given it a second thought. What I miss are bus stops; crowded shopping malls, and my favourite branches of Boots

February 17, 2021
When I asked about other people’s "Old Normal” fantasies on Twitter recently, more than a thousand replies rolled in—each more romantic than the next. Photo: Prospect Composite
When I asked about other people’s "Old Normal” fantasies on Twitter recently, more than a thousand replies rolled in—each more romantic than the next. Photo: Prospect Composite

For the past few months I have had a recurrent fantasy about standing in the queue for the toilets at St Pancras station.

Not the flashier toilets opposite the Eurostar terminal—the dingy ones at the end, down the side of the left luggage counter. I am juggling a cup of burnt coffee and a slightly sweaty breakfast roll. My train ticket is lodged between my teeth as I wrestle a wet umbrella into a tote bag. There’s enough time to catch my train but I’m agitated anyway, in the default way of the urbanite who must always be going somewhere. I don’t know where exactly—Luton? Loughborough?—but that it isn’t important; it’s the loo queue I’m focused on. My new happy place.

There are other fantasies too. The saggy chairs in my dentist’s waiting room. The newsagent near my parents’ house. Robert Dyas. I can barely remember what I did last week (nothing) and yet if I close my eyes I can conjure up the very specific olfactory profile of the roundabout at Old Street. I find myself in deep reverie about drab, gnarly corners of London that not even the most enthusiastic tourist would take photos of. I yearn for the Pizza Express on Euston Road more than I yearn for, say, Italy.

As with everything just now, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one. When I asked about other people’s "Old Normal” fantasies on Twitter recently, more than a thousand replies rolled in—each more romantic than the next. “The M&S car park in Sheffield”; “TK Maxx homewares department”; “Someone else's downstairs toilet.”

Together, they formed a surprisingly moving tribute to the minutiae of life and the infrastructure we took for granted. Multistorey car parks and anonymous stairwells. Libraries, leisure centres and charity shops. The communal, unremarkable places that gave us somewhere to go when we had nowhere to be.

Favourite branches of Boots were a popular choice (nothing says “pre-pandemic” like a giddy sesh in the 3 for 2 miniatures aisle), as were sticky cinema carpets and homogenous chain cafes. Forget far-flung golden beaches; we just crave the cool breeze of an aggressively air-conditioned Itsu on our skin.

“Picking up some bits” was a common theme, as was the mid-afternoon office sugar run. Little did we realise what a luxury it was to shop for snacks and treats, not basic essentials. Replies were full of gorgeous phrases like “noodle around”, “pottering” and “killing time.” Beneath the more obvious and brutal things the pandemic has robbed us of, it has also taken away our freedom to be aimless in the world. Having a purpose every time we leave the house is exhausting.

Not every scene was serene, mind you. Others, like me, fantasize about the kind of common hassle that we used to call “stress”. “John Lewis. Overheated, hungry and flustered with a hand covered in smears of eyeshadow and lipstick,” described one tweeter. Oh, to feel stressed because we have to buy a birthday present and go to the Post Office on our lunch hour, rather than because we’re trying to keep everyone we love from dying.

What was odd about the reveries is that they’re nearly all solitary. You might think that having been starved of so much social contact, our daydreams would be filled with faraway faces, warm hugs and laughter at perilous, droplet-spraying proximity—but in nearly every case they’re more about the anticipation of warmth and togetherness, or its afterglow. “On my way to a midweek social event that I just can't be arsed with” wrote one; “Waiting for the 176 bus home after too many Soho wines” said another.

Of course, solo doesn’t really mean alone. Psychologists have long argued that interacting with strangers can be good for our mental health, while even being a face in a crowd can have its benefits. It makes sense that a year of enforced distance could make us wistful for the rush hour crush.

Up until the 19th century, nostalgia was viewed as a neurological disease. Once known as “the immigrant psychosis”, associated with chronic homesickness and displacement, the word itself is a combination of the Greek nostos, “homecoming”, and algos, “pain.” Yet the past year has shown us that it’s possible to be homesick for places beyond our four walls. Offices, pubs, favourite day trips, and the daily commute—they all make up our broader understanding of home. In the well-trodden paths we mark out by days, weeks and months, we forge a sense of belonging.

There could be a self-preservation instinct behind this nostalgia for the mundane too. It’s less heartbreaking to revel in the mundane and familiar, than to yearn for dazzling places we could never get to see. Just as famous homebody Emily Dickinson once wrote, “It might be easier / To fail—with Land in Sight / Than gain—My Blue Peninsula / To perish—of Delight”, so it might be easier to daydream about standing in someone’s armpit on the Central Line than sipping Pina Colada under a palm tree.

I thought I’d mourn the long-awaited holiday to the US that was cancelled last spring, but in fact I’ve barely given it a second thought. The alternate reality in which I hiked in Los Angeles and brunched in San Francisco feels almost like a science fiction fantasy, whereas the dreams in which I stand at bus stops in the rain cradling a Leon meal feels solid enough to hold out for. It’d be nice to think that the next time we’re on a rain-lashed night bus, lingering in a department store stairwell or drinking bad coffee in a railway station loo queue, whenever that may be, we’ll feel grateful. But let’s be honest—that wouldn’t be normal. And what we’re missing right now, more than anything else, is normal.