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All our yesterdays: looking back to the future

June 13, 2016

I was clambering around in the attic recently and found a dusty box of mementos dating back to my ‘O’ and ‘A’ level years of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It’s always a bit unnerving looking at the visual evidence of your past life through the lenses of today, not least when you don’t know what you might find.

Aged 17, my face looked more like I was a ten year old, it’s shocking how young and thin and geeky I looked, old terylene school blazer and tight, tiny tie knot. I was in my Latin-American-Marxist affiliated with Tony Benn phase – intellectual posturing, because I could be cantankerous, irritable and juvenile back then. I was all about Devolution for the North – ahead of my time.

There were also photos of me outside our touring caravan in Cornwall in the hot summer of ’76 in obscenely tight blue Adidas shorts, and another going to a Joy Division concert trying to look earnest and intense. My mum and dad preferred Abba, to them it was bleak, harsh music. You can almost hear the overcast Manchester skies in their music.

A quick rummage through school exercise books revealed a one-sided view of religion as a CoE Protestant, despite the behaviour of King Henry VIII, who cut off his lovers’ heads, was sexually voracious and destroyed the monasteries. My history books were pretty empty. I only learned about the Spanish inquisition from Monty Python.

Some nice photos of me, mum and dad, and my sister Jane suggested there was a simplicity to life in the ‘70s, perhaps having just three part-time TV channels made family values more prescient. Our suburban existence was very pleasant. Manchester was 45 minutes away on a bus, a very different place than it is today. My only forays were to visit record shops and to buy cool music that wasn’t in the charts.

Another colour photo was of a trip to Blackpool. We used to go every year and drive up and down the Golden Mile looking at the Illuminations from the car. Staggering though it may seem now, it was exciting to see trams covered in light bulbs to look like they were space rockets. We didn’t even get out of the car except to buy fish & chips.

My dad seems to have had the same hair cut for about 40 years looking at the photos. There was a photo of a wedding where the young blokes had long hair and looked like Mungo Jerry. My dad’s short haircut made him look like the men from NASA Ground Control. He always had an air of polite defiance and measured individualism. Meanwhile there was me with an elasticated snake belt – an elongated ‘S’ as a buckle.

I have acquired some of my dad’s wisdom, but none of his practical nous. I remember him telling me in detail how a toilet cistern worked – I don’t recall what he told me and I’m rubbish at plumbing today. I also remember him crawling about under the floorboards laying the central heating system and drawing diagrams of the pipes and connections, saying when it breaks he wouldn’t be here. Suffice to say both are still going strong.

Thinking back, I realise I am part of the television generation, although it was rationed and books were considered to be far more important and outdoors play was always encouraged. I am very nostalgic about the television I watched in my youth, I recall watching Star Trek and Coronation Street with my mum. Of course, you had to watch and listen carefully because there was no recording or playback.

Teletext was part of my education, I was addicted to the smorgasbord of information. I remember my Mum always liking Sean Connery as James Bond and having no time for Roger Moore. My dad never liked Jon Pertwee as Doctor Who. I recorded Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns and football matches with microphones balanced on cushions in front of the television on my portable cassette player. I listened back to these cassettes time and again. Sadly, I spent so much time listening to these comedies and commentaries I could repeat them verbatim.

Finally, I came across some old copies of the NME and Sounds, my first crush was Kate Bush, then Siouxsie. Siouxsie is 60 this year. Where has the time gone? Music was tribal at school, we had the Genesis, Roxy and heavy metal lads, then the punks and new wave. My wife Susan’s claim to fame is that she once had a lift in the back of the Buzzcock’s van on a way to a gig. Being so near Manchester was surreal in the years from 1976 to 1983, bookended by Joy Division and The Smiths.

As you can see, I’ve always been slightly obsessed with how we mark the passing of time, none more so than I have a clear recall being at school at 12.34pm on 5 June 1978. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. I also recall 31 December 1979, the end of the first decade I can remember, and where I was and whom I was with. Mark, Paul, and Nick at The Railway. Funny what sticks in your mind.

Pulp’s song Disco 2000 released in 1995 has always stuck with me, won’t it be strange when we’re all fully-grown. It will. I loved maths at school and was obsessed with the year 2000, I remember writing it down and thinking about the passage of time and the digits, must have been my liking for science fiction from Asimov, Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke. Oh nostalgia, it makes us a bit more human.

Nostalgia, a longing to return home, is a word that comes from Greek –nostos (to return home) and algo (pain or ache), first coined by C17th Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer as a label for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries in their return from fighting away from home.

I’m sometimes a little wistful, but I see nostalgia as passing history forward – it’s not just reliving the past, but thinking about how events in that past affected where I am today. Nostalgia has a strong social side to it. It engenders feelings of belonging. As a son, husband and dad, I feel closer and happier when sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

Alas there is no room for nostalgia in today’s business world. In the last few weeks it’s been announced that 120 branches of Austin Reed will close, costing 1,000 jobs, and British Home Stores will close 163 stores with the loss of 11,000 jobs. They join a list of well-known High Street stores that have disappeared over the last 40 years.

It’s 1976 and you’re out shopping. If you want to buy a record or some sweets, try Woolworths. Shoes? Have a look in Freeman, Hardy and Willis. For a shirt, go to C&A. If you need some money, join the queue in the Midland Bank, and for tonight’s tea, pop into Dewhurst for meat and Fine Fare for the rest of the food shop.

So, what happened to these shops whose logos once dominated the High Street?

Woolworths The US-founded store opened in the UK in 1909, selling goods ranging from hardware to pick ‘n’ mix self-service sweets, records to toys, but failed. All 807 stores went, the last in Glasgow’s Argyle Street, closing in January 2009. Around 30,000 people lost their jobs.

C&A The chain of clothing stores, founded in the 1920s by the Dutch brothers Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer, closed in 2000, with the loss of 4,800 jobs. Its 109 shops had come under increasing competition from other mid-market clothing retailers. The last UK store in Bradford, closed in May 2001.

Radio Rentals Set up in Brighton in the 1930s, Radio Rentals catered for a growing demand for radios. The rental model continued through the introduction of televisions and, later, video cassette recorders. But, as consumer electronics became cheaper, more people bought than rented.

Freeman, Hardy and Willis The shoe manufacturer was founded in 1870, and became a familiar presence on hundreds of High Streets. It ceased trading in the mid-1990s.

Comet Founded in 1933 as a business charging radio batteries, Comet opened its first store in Hull in 1968, expanding rapidly. There were 236 stores when it went into administration in November 2012.

Dewhurst The chain of butchers shops was founded on Merseyside in the late C19th, and had 1,400 outlets by 1997 but went into administration in 2006. Its traditional model faced increasing competition, as the supermarkets started packaging meat in plastic containers, so it became commoditised, rather than people wanting to request specific cuts or a certain weight of meat.

Midland Bank With its distinctive griffin logo, Midland was one of the ‘big four’ UK banks in the 1970s, along with Barclays, Lloyds and NatWest. In 1958 it had become the first UK bank to offer unsecured loans and in 1966 the first to provide cheque guarantee cards. Midland, established as the Birmingham and Midland Bank in 1836, was taken over by HSBC in 1992 and its branches were renamed HSBC from 1999.

Nostalgia can add significant value to brands that have the opportunity to tap into the heritage and stay relevant to the customer choice and demands of today – consider the resurgence of the Mini – whilst there are some iconic brands have defined Britain for years, some remain as strong as they were when they were founded – Hovis (1886), Marmite (1902), Brasso (1905), Bisto (1908), to name a few, have all stood the test of time as has Lyle’s Golden Syrup, Britain’s oldest brand, founded in 1885.

But wallowing in nostalgia can create inertia. It took 75 years to connect 50 million telephone users, 13 years for there to be a million TVs in the US, and four years for a million users of the internet. Today, a simple iPhone App can reach that milestone in a matter of days.

The challenge is to focus on the future, and not let nostalgia block innovation. What should your thinking be to keep a forward view on your business horizon?

  • Think relationships not transactions; offer experience not products; listen to customers, don’t sell.
  • Think bigger – past strategies may fail to engage new customers; commit a budget to R&D; create a culture of intrapreneurship
  • Move faster and more purposefully; play multiple bet; don’t just run neck and neck with rivals, look for ways to pull ahead of the pack

The future rewards those that press on. Have a picture of your future self and make decisions on that basis. Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future. Control your own future, or somebody else will. Like I say, Devolution for the North.

 

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