Alternatives to Facing the Future

Some people find it hard to face the future: they prefer to live in the past, or at least, that part of the past which they really enjoyed. That’s OK, though. Some people can make a good living out of their nostalgia.

Artist Lawrence Cassidy is used to making the most of things. When he saw that his local High Street clothing store was shutting up shop in Manchester, England, he walked in and asked them to give him the plastic coat hangers that they had planned to throw out. They offered him two huge cardboard boxes, full of unwanted hangers. They would be ideal for his new show, he explained: he had a series of blown-up photographs and the prints would look great dangling from string, in lines, from the coat hangers, high up on the walls of the exhibition space. The new ‘installation’ opened in Salford in February 2008.

A year before, Lawrence had mounted a show at Salford Museum and Art Gallery. That mainly consisted of family photographs that people had given him and old maps of the area, but the unique feature was a series of road signs, abandoned when that part of Salford was being redeveloped recently. Lawrence had approached the men working on the demolition project and they were happy to save the street signs and let him take them away. They missed some of them, so the artist went back in the dead of night and prised the plaques off the walls of the collapsing buildings himself. It’s probably not legal, he agrees, but they’re vital relics of bygone days, he says, and need to be saved.

Is everything that Lawrence Cassidy works with ‘found’ and saved? Not at all, he says. Most of the photographs, he points out, are domestic snaps, donated to him by interested families. He is happy to scan them on to his computer and return the family albums, once the contents have been added to his collection. He collects the views, it seems, and one day he hopes to build up a complete archive on the internet of all the vanished streets of East Salford, an A-Z of lost roads and buildings, most of them swept away in the widespread clearances of the 1970s. People like to remember those times, he says. Visitors to his exhibitions certainly seem to share his enthusiasm, and are happy to stay and chat, swapping stories with other people they meet at the shows. Sometimes people have even met up with old friends and neighbours, men and women they haven’t seen for years. They happily remember the old days.

Why? What was so great about these former times? After all, the main focus of Lawrence’s exhibition ‘Retracing Salford’ is on life in the 1950s and ’60s. In those days there were street after street of tiny terraced houses, most of them with no inside bathroom, with small bedrooms that sometimes large families had to share. One couple admitted that they came from homes with eight or nine children in them, all of the family sharing a mere three bedrooms. How did they all fit it? Also, at this time, money was scarce and hard to come by. Food was adequate but not often plentiful. Sometimes people went hungry. And yet – The most remarkable thing to come out of the experiences that Lawrence is cataloguing is how happy most people claim to have been. ‘Great times’, ‘Good Days’, ‘Happy Lives’, are just some of the comments. So, in those simple times, before most families owned a television, let alone had a car in the household, people say that they were content and enjoyed life.

There’s a huge lesson here for planners and politicians. Too many of these do-gooders seem to be still convinced that all you need for Inner City redevelopment is to demolish the tumble-down houses of yesteryear and replace them with new concrete and glass constructions. Once people have a new bathroom, they argue, they will be happy and content. It isn’t true. It wasn’t true in the 1970s, the last time that East Salford was ‘improved’, and it isn’t true now. Still the old terraces are still being swept away and new soul-less blocks put up. Still the residents express dissatisfaction. Why is nobody learning lessons from the past?

The only way that ordinary people will ever be happy with the world they live in, is if they feel accepted by their neighbours, are known and respected, and live next to people in roughly the same social group. It’s as clear as day, people like Lawrence Cassidy are saying. “People tell me,” he says, “that ‘we were all in the same boat’. They say, ‘We were poor but we were happy’. It’s clear what they mean.” Some people don’t find it so clear: they think that next year, if they get a new house, a replacement kitchen or a new model of car, they will find contentment. But these prospects don’t make a future worth looking forward to. The people who were happy in the past were those that knew the people in their street, and felt as though they had a place in society. Every photograph they have saved, and every street sign they see, reminds them of those years, those ‘Good Old Days’. It wasn’t the assets they could count, but the friends they knew they could count on. Not the material goods but the friendships that made them feel good. If we can’t see our lives developing in places that include other people who love and value us, then there’s precious little of value in the future, and it isn’t worth looking forward to. That’s the lesson of the past.

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