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Everybody do the dinosaur

From the Brontës to brontosaurus, we are indulging a perilous obsession with the past

A long time ago in a land far away, my mother and I were arguing about whether someone my age should be allowed to attend the Jam's last ever concert. I was too young, she said. What did she mean? I was 13 and wise enough to have worked out a strategy for avoiding any post-gig violence. I'd take off my parka, then the skins waiting outside the venue wouldn't see I was a mod. I'd tell Vicky and Sam to do the same, and we'd all live to tell the tale of this legendary night to remember. Incredibly, she wasn't reassured. There would be other concerts, she said. Not like this one, I retorted, and I was right.

Twenty-seven years later, I am still furious. On mod websites, people still boast about having been there in Brighton. I know so many details - the bottle thrown at Rick Buckler's drum kit, Paul Weller's terse performance, the rucks on the rainy seafront concourse - that it's easy to forget I wasn't present. When asked about my first gig, I never say Paul Young in 1985. "The Jam's Last Concert" rolls off the tongue more readily.

Many of us have lied in a similar vein. Two of my ex-lovers claim to have seen the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall in '76. My ex-girlfriend really did, but considers it in poor taste to mention it. Always where "it" was at, she never had to cope with the pain of being elsewhere during some key moment in cultural history. When Weller was singing "Start!", I was playing sardines at Juliet Ramsey's birthday party.

Listening to Sound Affects today, I am discomfited. I want the tunes to transport me back to a time when politics and pop music were at full strength. Expecting a comforting hit of nostalgia, I am confronted with an enigma: the recession of the 1980s is evoked in an encoded form. A scene from my adolescence comes to mind. I can see what it looked like - the Tennent's Extra-soaked beer mats, my mother's softened features as I rehearse my "lead off" on Trotsky's Transitional Programme - but not what it was like. Our conversation in the Park View is unintelligible.
I am speaking another language.

Far from connecting us, the music confirms to the present me that this girl is unknowable. I long to bridge the gap between us, but can't think of how I would accomplish that. Then I hit on it. If the Jam re-formed, that would relieve my horror in the face of this loss of the past.

Watching the Jam Mark II at Latitude or Bestival, I would raise a glass to my former self in the belief that we had more in common than I'd supposed. She was just like me, really - we both wanted "relevant" music. This claim of relevance has underpinned many comebacks. We are in a recession, the Specials have pointed out in many an interview since they re-formed, so their oeuvre is "relevant".

This recession is not the same as that one. Poverty was more of a problem than a televisual diversion in the pre-internet age. Our town centres were Strada-less wastes. The reassuring claim that things are what they used to be denies real difference. Some cultural critics attribute the desire for bands to re-form to our penchant for the retro, when really it shows a profound disrespect for the past. Severed from context, Take That are pantomimic. In their Nineties heyday, they were super-square, vacuous and alluring, just like Tony Blair. Reciting selections from their oeuvre at the O2 arena, they convey merely niceness. The once-poignant "Never Forget" comes across like one of Gary Barlow's bad jokes. This song about endings refuses to die.

People say this doesn't matter. In an incredible volte-face, pop writers are no longer sneering at re-formed bands. It's no longer embarrassing but OK, they say, as long as they don't attempt any new material. Well, they would, wouldn't they? Everyone wants to justify their desire to retrieve a few morsels from the dustbin of history. As consumers, we want to possess the past. Our belief that it's possible seems reasonable, in this age of the playlist approach to music. This method of delivery makes everything feel contemporaneous. There's no worn record sleeve to remind us of the gap between then and now. It feels like an easy step to recall entertainers from every historical period, even though it's clear the practice has generated monsters.

This attitude lies behind the present pandemic of cultural grave-robbing. Triceratops and T Rex are the latest veteran rockers to be summoned from Beyond. The Walking With Dinosaurs live experience brings visitors face to face with lifesize replicas of their favourites. The animatronic models render fossils obsolete. Why would anyone bother looking at frozen bits of stone, when the "real" thing is rearing up in front of them? My daughter perceived correctly that she was being invited to upgrade from an outdated mode of dino-delivery to something more user-friendly.

She doesn't care for fossils or empty rooms full of dead people's belongings. The artefacts at the Brontë museum wouldn't hold her attention,
as they once did mine. When I visited, aged ten, I was under no illusion about my heroines' accessibility. The past was another country, I knew that, as illegible as the writing in the sisters' “little books". It could be approached by various means, but was never accessible. Standing in rapt contemplation in front of the sofa on which Emily died, I was painfully aware of the impossibility of deciphering the enigma of her existence.

To appease the pain, the present curators contrived a "happening". For a limited period in August, visitors were treated to an audience with Mr Rochester. Publicity for the event suggested we shouldn't shy away from asking "tricky questions" like "What did you have for breakfast?". The Smash Hits-style interview would lead questioners to the comforting conclusion that Roch­ester and his creator were moderns in fancy dress.

A few years ago, the remaining Jam members re-formed sans Weller. But Weller himself said he'd have to be "destitute" before he'd consider it. His resistance isn't about selling out, but about something more subtle - a sense that endings are important. "I wanted this to count for something," he said in an interview after the final concert. Weller killed the Jam, knowing that this allowed his statements about one specific time and place to stand as he had intended. On record, they are more alienating than inviting. Recited in the present day in a field in Suffolk, they would convey a palatable version of subversion.

In a similar way, our collective fear of endings may render our activities meaningless. Cultural grave-robbing is perilous, as well as addictive.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken