Give me knockabout nostalgia, not this

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The Independent Online
I have just been round one of the National Trust's recent triumphs, in Worksop. It is Mr Straw's House, an Edwardian semi which an eccentric pair of brothers turned into a timewarp. They locked the place into the early Thirties (when their father died) and lived in it thereafter as though in a museum.

In 1990, the surviving brother left the Trust pounds 1.5m and the contents of the house. It apparently had not occurred to him that he was living in an icon of prelapsarian respectability. The Trust decided it wanted the whole property, which is now open by appointment.

The visit was surprisingly unmoving. There was a 1932 Worksop Gazette on the table in the front room as it had been for years. There were tins of old paint, the letters of a lifetime. I should have loved all this. I have always liked anything that smacked of the Marie Celeste.

One of my first sentimental experiences was when I came across an elderly shipwrecked yacht which had fetched up against the quayside of a small Scottish harbour. I loved the idea of reconstructing the life that had been lived in the boat, and the feeling that I could plunder it. I used to love rattling through demolished buildings in London, and quite often came away with things I treasure still.

In France, I adored going round long-abandoned French wine caves, when in a good year my patron and I had to find spare capacity, and by bare-bulb light scrubbed out huge concrete vats and mobilised ancient handpumps. I still have, and am guilty about, the lovely enamelled 'Albion' nameplate I stole from a nettle-strangled lorry in a breaker's yard perhaps 20 years ago.

This version of nostalgia has more than appreciation in it, it has longing. It has more than curiosity, it has imagination. At its most intense, my nostalgia has included a strong element of discovery and privacy, of exclusivity and even piracy. It was about finding worlds that were free for the taking, and seeking spiritual bargains.

I have worked among French peasants, Welsh shepherds, London bicycle repairers, and perhaps been ridiculous in pretending to be like them. I can at least claim to have felt no sociological or anthropological curiosity, only a romantic passion for ways of life I thought were dying.

So I think one of the reasons why I did not like Mr Straw's House is that I found I did not much like the idea of the men who made it, and I thought their enterprise pretty neurotic and bizarre. I would have preferred it to be the scene of a horrendous crime, or of delicious maudlin heartbreak. Instead, it just seemed humdrum, ugly and odd.

Perhaps this is just a matter of horses for courses: I like the idea of tugmen, train drivers and peasants. Someone else may find Mr Straw's House resonant. One could, for instance, explore the place for clues about Margaret Thatcher, who was born into roughly that background.

Mr Straw's House could not be robbed or shared, only admired or wondered at. It hovers between the kind of hands-on knockabout nostalgia I loved, and the museum-status of a 'proper' National Trust house. I shall like it more when I stop wanting to find the former in it.

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