21 Pages

The need for a ‘bit of history’

WithPlace and past in English identity* jeanette Edwards

Given the political and economic changes that have occurred in this region since the development and collapse of the textile industries, and the readiness of residents to evoke the past, it could be argued that Alltown is a good example with which to explore the assertion that a contemporary British preoccupation with the past is driven by nostalgia in the face of economic and social decline in a fragmented and postindustrial world. Indeed, elderly residents recall an Alltown which used to be a thriving, busy milltown where, on a Saturday evening, recalls one woman, you could ‘hardly fit on the pavement’ because there were so many people taking a stroll. Parading themselves and their families (if single, looking for romantic liaisons and, if married, for affirmation), Alltown people appropriated public spaces. Elderly residents, as well as the not-so-elderly, tell me that although ‘people used to be poor’, they looked after each other. Doors were left unlocked without fear, and ‘neighbouring’ (described as a constructive and intentional activity) was more prevalent than today. Such narratives do indeed portray nostalgia. But the same people also talk of how dirty and polluted the town was: factory chimneys bellowed out smoke and soot, houses were dark and overcrowded, health was poor and life and living difficult. The majority of Alltown people, they remind you, had to work long hours, in poor

conditions, for little reward, and women recall the injustices perpetrated by men as bosses, husbands and fathers. There is no evidence of nostalgia in these narratives, and no sentimental longing for an expurgated past.