The that oral history does has a tendency


The study of deindustrialization emerged as a
political response of scholars to the unprecedented collapse of manufacturing
and basic industries. It is a fairly new topic for historians and thus inevitably
historians are constantly adapting and refining the meaning of it all. Oral
History is also a new and modern outlook which faces a great deal of criticism
as many see it as being too subjective and inaccurate. Furthermore, the oral
history of deindustrialization clearly does indulge in ‘smokestack nostalgia’
as it is human nature to have a selective memory when reflecting on the past. Thus,
oral histories on the social life of industrial workers, their economic
situations since de-industrialisation and their yearning for the past all serve
to highlight that oral history does has a tendency to indulge in ‘smokestack


First, oral history tends to indulge in some “smokestack
nostalgia” when reflecting on the social aspect of industrial work. Interviews
reveal that people generally reflect on their life in a way that romanticizes
the past. Breaking down ‘smokestack nostalgia’ is significant in order to fully
engage with this question. The “nostalgia “comes from two Greek roots, nostos meaning “return home” and algia “longing”1. Nostalgia appears to be a
longing for a place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time.
Historians often consider “nostalgia” to be a negative word, or an affectionate
insult at best. Historian Clarke
in his seminal work reflects on the politics of nostalgia for industry with a
particular focus on the situation in contemporary France2.
For example, he analyses the issues raised by some of the most-high profile
factory closures of recent years, provoked by the demise of the Moulinex
domestic appliance company. This resulted in four factories shutting down and
over 3000 people losing their jobs in Lower Normandy, where much of Moulinex’s
manufacturing capacity had been concentrated3.
Clarke argues that Moulinex epitomized the Fordist mode of production which was
typical of this period and thus had been seen as an ’embodiment of the optimism
and prosperity’ of what are known in France as les trente glorieuses4.
Furthermore, the Moulinex factories predominantly hired women. This is
particularly interesting as, usually, deindustrialization is associated with
the loss of male dominated heavy industry. Clarke notes that there is evidently
nostalgic feeling in the narratives of ex-Moulinex workers. Kathryn Dudley
found that assembly-line workers did indulge in a certain nostalgia for the
production line.  Furthermore, Dudley
found that assembly-line workers spoke about the line with a certain pride,
countering the popular representation of the worker as robot or ‘line rat’ with
a self-representation that emphasized their ability to keep up with the pace
when others might have wilted5.
This therefore illustrates that industrial work united these women and gave
them a sense of camaraderie. Madame Berthaume, who spent thirty-two years at
Moulinex, elaborated with both pleasure and pride which was for her, ‘defined
by the kindness and friendship of her immediate colleagues6’.  Hence, this indicates that the factory floor
was a site of social integration. Social theorist André Gorz argues that
industrial society never offered more than a very imperfect form of social integration
and that to believe that it did is to perpetuate industrialism’s own myths7.The
sense of camaraderie in industry before deindustrialisation is also seen in the
interviews of the ex-ship hands in the North East of England. The interview of
Peter Fairney highlights that there is a sense of “smokestack nostalgia” as he
remembers fondly the social unity of the shipyards8.
He mentions his respect for Ritchie Young- a top tradesman who was a father
figure to him. This showcases the inevitable ‘smokestack nostalgia’ of oral
history as it is human nature to glorify the past and slightly resent the
present. Moreover, he claims that ‘he enjoyed it from day one’ 9.
This corroborates with the interview of Derick Young. Like Fairney, Derick
Young places emphasis on the respect for each other and he describes his
experience in a thoroughly positive way. The fact that both the women in
Moulinex and the majority of these interviews conducted by Newcastle Oral
Historians are overwhelmingly positive suggests that ex-industry workers tend
to indulge in ‘smokestack nostalgia’ especially when speaking of the social structures
surrounding the industry before deindustrialisation.

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One aspect of “this smokestack nostalgia” is the
growing number of coffee table books and other publications on abandoned
industrial plant and buildings. Jefferson Cowie and Joseph Heathcott’ emphasize
the urgency to stop a “creeping industrial nostalgia from dominating the
In reality, it was tough work that people did because it paid well and because
it was located in their communities.  These
coffee table books indulge in ‘smokestack nostalgia’ as they beautify and
glorify these wrecked building sights in a way which makes the public long and
yearn for the past and in a manner which is rather disrespectful and removed from
the painful reality. Moreover, Strangleman exemplifies this in his article. He
references Paul Clemens in this article. Clemens’ strong opinion on these ‘outsiders’
taking pictures of Detroit’s deindustrialisation and the destruction from it is
very revealing11. It
illustrates that these “spelunkers” who invaded Detroit to capture the
devastating losses lack any ‘care, authentic and respect for what they fetishize”12.
Thus, the study of deindustrialisation is often handled in a way which is disrespectful
to the ugly truth of the process of deindustrialisation. Unlike what these
photographers and oral historians who fuel this ‘smokestack nostalgia’,
deindustrialisation was a brutal and painful process which resulted in mass
unemployment.  This is showcased in the
interview of Peter Fairney. Peter Fairney emphasizes the economic destruction
caused by deindustrialisation in the North East. He is clearly disgruntled by
the closures and argues that Walls Send was a ‘thriving community’ which ‘went
to the wall’13.
Fairney’s portrayal of the economic situation in the North East seems valid.
For example, the percentage of people seeking Jobseekers Allowance today in
Newcastle Upon Tyne is 4.5% and the percentage receiving any benefit is 16.9%.
Both these statistics are much higher than England whereby the averages are
3.3% and 13.5%14. Thus, it
is fair to say that deindustrialisation did have a massive and long-lasting
effect on the North Easts’ economy.  Moreover,
Fairney’s interview reveals that current generations wish there was still a
shipyard industry as he worries for the future of the children who have nowhere
‘to go in to’. Furthermore, all these interviews reveal the need for older
generations to reflect on the ‘glory days’ of industrial work. Strangleman
offers a valuable explanation. Strangleman’s reflections on the reason behind
this widespread national ‘nostalgia’ are persuasive and significant. He notes
that the ‘attachment to the past tells us two things’.  First, that nostalgia tells us more about the
present than it does about the past. Secondly, he notes that nostalgia is
rarely “simple in form” but it is more often than not a vehicle for reflection15.
Thus, he concludes that the manifestations of smokestack nostalgia are ‘symbols
of unease in contemporary culture’ which is why humans prefer to reflect on the
relatively stable past. It gives them fixity16.
Therefore, oral history does have a tendency to indulge in ‘smokestack
nostalgia’ especially when reflecting on the previous economic situation for
these working-class people- they view the shutting down of the shipyards and
mines as a huge tragedy.


Finally, Jim Philips’ argument that deindustrialisation
is not a “politically-neutral economic process” means that oral history
indulges in “smokestack nostalgia” when reflecting on the past.  Oral historians and those interviewed tend to
exaggerate and perhaps skew the effects of deindustrialisation and celebrate ‘the
glory days’ of industry. Philips illuminates that in a ‘post-industrial era,
industrial workers are assigned to the past, not the present’.  Philips argues that this is counterintuitive as
there is still a sizeable percentage of the workforce that remains employed in
traditional blue-collar occupations. This thus shows that there is a large contingent
of the population who hold an overly sentimental view of the industrial past
and fail to move on despite the prevalent industrial employment in Britain. The
interviews conducted by Newcastle University students corroborate with this
view. Fairney is still evidently disgruntled with the actions of the Tory party
under Margaret Thatcher17.
For example, he makes a sweeping statement about how at the Meadow Well Estate,
before Thatcher came to power,’99% of people were working’. Yet, within ten
years, no one was working. He notes that it left a wake of destruction and is
primarily responsible for the high crime rate in that area. This claim is
clearly an exaggeration. Nevertheless, it does hold some validity as the
statistics about poverty in that area are devastating. For example, 45% of
children are living in poverty, nearly a quarter of adults have no
qualifications and the life expectancy is 10 years less than in neighbouring
Tynemouth18. Thus,
Meadow Well is now known for the riots in 1991 which were presented by the
press in a damning light considering the unfortunate circumstances. Steven High
shows that nowhere has the past overshadowed the present quite as much as in
former coalfields of the United Kingdom which “long formed the bedrock of
discussions of class and place”19.
His argument that he presents has substance as it is clear that the election of
Margaret Thatcher represented a shifting balance of class power which meant
that there were no other viable job alternatives when the shipyard and
industrial industry closed. Steven High’s concluding thoughts sum up the harsh
realities of the deindustrialisation on the working-class populations. As John
Kirk wrote “economic obliteration incurs a cultural and social cost”20.
His thesis that the working-classes may not have been erased but that the last
few decades have represented a ‘devastating political and cultural defeat for
working people’ is valid in many ways.  For example, Deindustrialization in Britain
bankrupted many working-class families in the North East and Scotland whilst
the middle and upper classes remained unaffected. This perhaps explains why
oral history tends to indulge in “smokestack nostalgia” because it is a chance
for the older generations to seek comfort in the days when their job was a
principle part of the British economy. Thus, one cannot blame these people
interviewed who give uplifting accounts of what would have been dangerous and
even mundane jobs. Instead, oral history is extremely useful in uncovering the
thoughts and opinions of the repressed.

In conclusion, the oral history of deindustrialization does indulge in
‘smokestack nostalgia’ in a myriad of ways. First, despite oral historians’
best efforts to labour against the charge that they (and their subjects) are
indulging in ‘smokestack nostalgia’, namely in an overly sentimental view of
the industrial past, it is human nature to reflect on the ‘glory days’.
Historian and Sociologist Tim Strangleman offers the most persuasive argument
as he interprets the memorialization of the industrial decline because his
rationale behind why people are fixated on the past is logical and incredibly
detailed. The least convincing argument would be that the oral history of deindustrialisation
manages to not be nostalgic in any way because the idea that these interviews
of people whose lives have been shaped by industry can remain neutral even when
these industries were shut in such a brutal and dehumanized manner is implausible.
Therefore, deindustrialization remains a highly political and controversial
subject as it represented a widespread disinvestment in the nation’s basic
productive capacity which left thousands of displaced workers and a large group
of ghost towns.

1 Sveltana Boymn, Nostalgia and Its
Discontent, Hedgehog Review, Summer 2007, Vol 9 issue2 ,P7

2 J Clarke, Closing time:
deindustrialization and nostalgia in contemporary France. History Workshop Journal, 2015, p2

3 Clarke, Closing time, p 2

4 Clarke, Closing Time,  p3

5 Clarke,
Closing time, 5

6 Clarke,
Closing time, p7

7 Clarke,
Closing time, p9

8 Peter Fairney. Interview by Owen
Stratford, oral history project on deindustrialisation, Low Lights Museum,
Newcastle Upon Tyne, 10/11/2017

9 Derick Young. Interview by Daniella
Thackray, oral history project on deindustrialisation, Low Lights Museum,
Newcastle- upon-Tyne, 10/11/2017

10 Tim Strangleman, “Smokestack Nostalgia”, “Ruin
Porn” or Working-Class Obituary: the Role and Meaning of Deindustrial
representation “, January
2014,  p23

11 Strangleman, “Smokestack nostalgia”,

12 Strangleman,
“Smokestack Nostalgia”, p26

13 Peter Fairney. Interview by Owen
Stratford, oral history project on deindustrialisation, Low Lights Museum,
Newcastle Upon Tyne, 10/11/2017


15 Strangleman,
“Smokestack nostalgia, p 32

16 Strangleman, “Smokestack nostalgia”,

17Fairney. Interview by Owen Stratford,
oral history project on deindustrialisation, Low Lights Museum, Newcastle Upon
Tyne, 10/11/2017

18 Craig Thompson,
, 17 December 2016

19 Steven High, Beyond Aesthetics:
Visibility and Invisibility in the Aftermath of Deindustrialization, Concordia University,
Canada, 2013, p144

20 High, Beyond Aesthetics, p 146