My new book, Dear Granny Smith, describes the job of a postal worker 30 years ago, and compares this with the job today. Slightly unexpectedly, people keep referring to it as a nostalgic book, which wasn’t its purpose at all. Robert McCrum’s review in the Observer, for example, trades extensively on the notion that the book is an elegy for a lost world. There’s a false dichotomy being set up, between ‘nostalgia’ and ‘modernisation’. Nostalgia is the yearning for the loss of an idealised world, whereas modernisation is the grim reality we are faced with, whether we like it or not. Nostalgia has a rosy hue, but my book is about ordinary things: like people having time for tea-breaks, and for catching up with the gossip, things that, 30 years ago, were just part of the normal round of working life. They weren’t ideal times: they were ordinary times. Having time for customers and their needs used to be an important part of being a postie, and it’s not ‘nostalgia’ to regret the loss of that.
We used to be told that there were three elements to the postal trade: the business, the customers and the staff, and that all were equally important. These days we are clearly being told that only the business matters. So now the ‘modernisers’ are moving in. They are young, thrusting, in-your-face and they think they know all the answers. According to them, the future is the application of new technology within the discipline of the market. But the market doesn’t tell us what to do: people tell us what to do. The ‘market’ is essentially a ploy by which one group of people’s interests are imposed on the rest of us. The postal trade is at the front line of a battle between people’s needs and the demands of corporations to make ever increasing profits. That’s what they mean by ‘modernisation’, and it’s not ‘nostalgia’ to remind ourselves that things used to be different.