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Not Nostalgia

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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.

Comments on “Not Nostalgia”

  1. Phil says:

    things that, 30 years ago, were just part of the normal round of working life. They weren’t ideal times: they were ordinary times.

    I got my first job in 1983, working for an electricity board; I remember the entire building stopped at 12.30 for a proper cooked meal, and a good half of it stopped at 10.30 and 2.30 as well. The morning and afternoon breaks were mostly just for a bar of chocolate, but Tuesday and Thursday mornings the canteen made doughnuts. Impossible to imagine now – these days I’m in a much better job, and I eat sandwiches at my desk like everyone else.

    And yes, those were ordinary times. But there’s the rub – believers in modernisation would argue that they were ideal times, or at least that they were self-deluded, reality-denying, fool’s-paradise times. And there’s a certain common-sense force to that argument – after all, things have changed massively in the last thirty years, and we know we’re living in the real world now, so by deduction…

    At the end of the day it’s a battle: working people will always have an interest in working a bit less hard and being paid more (I don’t think this is anything to be ashamed of) and the people making the profits will always have an interest in extracting more work for lower pay. (The Italian workerists were very good on this and managed to build quite a substantial movement on that basis – see Steve Wright’s book and indeed mine.) What’s really disgraceful, coming back to 2009, is the way it’s generally accepted that being sheltered from those pressures (as the post used to be and as my electricity board was) is somehow a bad thing. Larry Elliott likened it to dealing with strong winds by insisting that everyone open all their doors – there’s no use hiding from that wind, it’s not going to go away! that’s what the world’s like!

    Which I guess it is, now. But no, it’s not ‘nostalgia’ to remind ourselves that things used to be different.

  2. Matt Giles says:

    Hear, hear. As there was also an exchange over the use of ‘nostalgia’ in the LRB earlier this year—

    Gilberto Perez: “The first film Andrei Tarkovsky shot outside the Soviet Union was Nostalghia – spelled that way because ‘nostalgia’ is too weak an equivalent for the Russian word, the Russian emotion.”

    Tony Wood: “The Russian word nostal’giia is perfectly translatable into other languages, because it was borrowed from them in the first place. The distinctively Russian emotion Tarkovsky might have chosen instead would be toska, which Nabokov defined as ‘a feeling of physical or metaphysical dissatisfaction, a sense of longing, a dull anguish, a preying misery, a gnawing mental ache’.”

    —it might be time to dust off our Fowler’s Modern English Usage:

    “nostalgi(a)(c) is formed by compounding two Greek words so as to give the meaning of suffering caused by an unfulfilled wish to return home; it was invented as a medical name for homesickness so severe as to amount to a disease. It would be unreasonable to condemn, on etymological grounds, its now common use to describe the wistful melancholy that comes from thinking not of the home that cannot be revisited but of the years that cannot be relived. But its popularity seems to be putting it in danger of less venial extensions which would deprive it of its essential ingredient of pain or suffering.”

  3. Phil says:

    Actually, when I think of that canteen what I feel is precisely nostalgia in that strong sense – νοστ-αλγια, the pain of a place (that I can’t return to). And I realised this evening that I’d sold them short – the 2.30 break was for chocolate, but the 10.30 break was for sausage sandwiches five days a week, with the alternative of fresh doughnuts Tues & Thurs. It is the land of lost content, not to mention lost waistlines.

  4. Roy Mayall says:

    Every year at Christmas one of the guys comes in on his day off and makes everyone bacon and sausage sandwiches. You won’t believe the lift it gives you. Back in the old days the cleaning staff were all ex-posties. There was a tea club going. The cleaners would make everyone cups of tea and coffee and bring it to your frame. That’s the sort of thing that is being labelled “nostalgic”, which, rather than the definitions above, has come to mean something unrealistic.

  5. JP says:

    Don Draper:

    Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.

    Teddy is wrong, etymologically, isn’t he?

    •  Thomas Jones says:

      Yes, Teddy is wrong (what do you expect? he’s an ad man…) , Fowler is right: algia means pain (as in neuralgia, analgesic etc) and nostos means a return home.

  6. Roy Mayall says:

    Whatever it’s origin it has come to mean something negative, a hopeless longing for lost times, as opposed to the dynamism of “modernisation” and living in the present. It’s all spin, of course.

  7. Mainwaring says:

    The big threat to our way of life is not Global Warming or Global Terrorism it is Global Academia, more precisely those courses in Business and Management.

    Very few people, if any, can really run a business or an organisation in a sensible and sustainable way if they do not know it and understand it from the bottom up. Look at the most successful companies like Microsoft, Google, etc. They are still run by the people who started them up in garages or their student bedroom. They could learn what they needed to know about management, but no-one with only a management degree could begin to understand the technicalities of what those businesses do.

    Everyone would accept that as pure common sense. Why then do they think that a young idiot with a degree in administration can understand and organise what a Postie does when throwing off his frame and then making his lonely round? Of course they can’t, not without first doing it themselves.

    The route to the top in any organization should be from the bottom up, with the brightest employees who have a bit of experience being sent off to learn administration, then promoted. Don’t the Police still do it that way?

    It used to be well understood that the path to the boardroom started in the mailroom. It worked. But since New Labour came to power there’s been a mania for fixing it, with the appalling results that we see everywhere. We’ve forgotten the mantra: “If it works don’t fix it.”

    Of course most of the New Labour apparatchiks come from the world of Academe and fancy theories. And they care only for their fellow graduates, not a jot for the real dirty hands workers. They are all the same; Tories, Liberals, the lot.

    There’s no hope for Britain.

  8. Norrie says:

    Businesses are run by and for people, customers are part of the business staff are part of a business and management are part of the business, we seem to have forgotten this in Britain. Having been both a fireman sorry firefighter and for the last 20 years in various businesses started and run by myself and my staff I am certain of two things. One; the people with the power, bank managers and politicians, do not and in the main have never run a business of their own and therefore have no idea about the realities, they operate on statistics. Two; if you want to run a successful business you need money once you have that, good happy staff are your largest asset and the sooner the thrusting young men and women from the universities realise that the better for all of business in Britain.

    You always get more out of people by giving them respect, decent money and in my experience, a wee rest when they need it leads to more productivity, and a much happier workplace, which again leads to more productivity. Bring on the doughnuts and bacon butties.

    The fire brigade certainly has a bottom-up system, as do the police, however the police introduced fast tracking some years ago which allowed more promising younger promotion candidates to leap over the older and more experienced police. Not sure how successful this has been but to date the police haven’t yet been privatised.

    I believe there is hope for Britain as even the young thrusters eventually become old gnarled and experienced, I can think of a few from the past who are beginning to sound a little bit like me.

    Norrie

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