Sorting through old papers deciding what to throw out has to be one of the most disspiriting activities there is. With financial information, there are clear rules about how long you have to keep records for tax purposes but not, as far as I know, for old research materials. I am always haunted by the fear that, long after a report has been published, somebody will demand to see the evidence. If I can’t produce it, will I be forever deemed guilty of having made it all up?
I have never experienced the supposedly cathartic effects of decluttering; my motivation for doing it now is rather more negative: partly to open up some space and partly not to inflict it on anyone else after I am gone. The stratum I reached today is even more depressing than usual but I suppose it has a certain topical poignancy, although the past labour processes it recalls could not be more old-fashioned. Dating from around 1990 this batch comprises box after box of computer print-out (on that wide green-and-white striped paper with sprocket holes down the edges for engaging with a dot matrix printer), yellowed faxes with fading brown text and a curiously sweet chemical odour, first drafts of reports printed more readably from a daisy-wheel printer with graphs (generated in Harvard Graphics and printed out separately) laboriously glued into manually-calculated gaps in the text, overhead projector slides printed out on thick cellulose, and innumerable photocopied comb-bound reports sporting now-defunct acronyms on their covers..
Quite a lot of this material relates to research about what the impact of joining the EU would be in Britain at a local level (the exact reverse of the situation we face now). We looked at which sectors of the economy were growing and which were shrinking, which might be able to take advantage of new opportunities to export freely across Europe and which might be threatened by competition. And then we looked at how these were distributed across UK counties and combined that information with other information about things like educational qualifications, levels of unemployment, the extent to which businesses were locally owned as compared with being branches of multinationals (this I remember being a huge exercise, only achieved with a lot of help from the late lamented Henry Neuburger). And then we did various analyses (including a cluster analysis which in those days was not a very respectable thing to do) to see how these things correlated with past trends in each county and mapped it all, trying to identify which sectors in which parts of the country might be winners or losers as a result of the UK joining the single European Market and which policies might help to address the risks. It has all gone into the recycling now. I did not give in to the temptation to reread any of it, but I do remember that one of the more surprising findings was that one of the best predictors of having a resilient local economy was having a strong public sector. This could be because the existence of good local public sector jobs gave workers a degree of insulation from the ups and downs of the business cycle, especially in areas with a lot of manufacturing industry. It could also be that having large universities, hospitals etc, acts as a magnet for relatively high-earning graduates and helps keep local economies diverse. I honestly can’t remember the detail.
As I lug the recycling bags downstairs it is of course sad to think of all that dead labour (and all the fun things I might otherwise have done with the time if I hadn’t needed the money so badly) but sadder still is the thought that the political results too have been wasted. Maybe there are people out there now doing similar analyses of what Brexit will mean for local communities around Britain, but I see no sign of them. Into the bin goes ‘The Impact of the Single European Market on the Economy of Mid-Glamorgan’ and its more upbeat sister report on ‘The Impact of the Single European Market on the Economy of South Glamorgan’ (the former, I seem to remember, recommended that Mid Glamorgan’s economy would be much improved if it could be persuade to move its administrative offices into its own territory, rather than leaving them in the middle of Cardiff where they conferred the right to discounted rugby tickets on councillors). And all the reports on Sheffield, and Leicester and so many others. All that reading and writing and consultation with now-gone experts and local political representatives. All that proof reading….into the bin.
And as I listen to the supporters of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt try to explain their increasingly deranged plans for a no-deal Brexit it is hard not to think of our collective futures going into the bin too.