Every now and then you’ll be involved with, or overhear the conversation that begins, “I wish I’d lived ‘then’, life was so much simpler", and every time my jaw drops in the face of such stark idiocy.
‘Then’ can cover a multitude of sins according to the nostalgic whimsy of whichever plonker comes over all misty eyed at the time. At this point my eyes roll up, because I’m certain that more often than not the main reason that life was simpler 'then' was simply because there was a distinct lack of choice, and indeed considerably less of life to complicate.
There seems to be some particular affection for the Victorian period. It must have been smashing. A time of 'family' and moral standards, (did you know that it was quite commonplace to deposit the product - babies that is - of the illicit union between the master of the house and a ‘downstairs’ maid in the Thames?)...but that’s an aside.
I always try to imagine where I might have fitted in to a past society relative to where I am now. I might have been lucky and had a job in a bank or I may have been a salesman, toting my wares in a suitcase from business to business or even household to household. God forbid I would have enlisted into the burgeoning army arriving from the countryside to man the fires and jennys of the industrial revolution.
I might have married, we might have had children. If I did work in the mill I would have been working for 12 hours a day, and like everyone else in the same situation I would have had a whole half day to do with as I please – polish my clogs I suppose. And my wife would have worked there too, a slave to the machine. The children, when they were young, would have been left at home, stunned senseless and inert with a dose of laudanum from the crack of sparrow fart until late evening.
Ah deep joy, the simple life for me. No supermarkets, no prevaricating between these beans or those beans, which loo roll to go for, air fresheners, do I need the 2ft roll of cling film or the 30 inch roll, none of the daily folderol and flimsy….nooo, actually hardly any choice at all, or nutrition for that matter. I don’t need to worry about what to do with the kids at the weekends, we’ll do as we always do and go down to the shore of the Thames to scavenge coal, what fun! There’s not a thought in my head about their education – what in god’s name would they want one of those for, I can’t read or write or do ‘guzintas’ and I put bread on the table every week thank you very much. And my pension is the furthest thing from my mind, after all it’s unlikely I’m going to live beyond 40, what a blissful existence.
As if our daily lot in the factory weren’t dangerous enough, (Arthur lost an whole arm to the furnace yesterday and he’ll never work again, of course he’ll never get paid or masturbate again either), there’s a whole host of really exciting diseases out there just waiting to experiment with my body; rickets, whooping cough, dysentery, cholera (we don’t have sanitation at home as such, well we do, but we call it a bucket), diphtheria, there was even a rumour of a spot of plague up on Cheapside last week – and whatever viral exotica the rats and the fleas bring with them to Canary Wharf from distant corners of our most excellent and apparently far flung empire. There’s something called the "‘flu" (I think)coming in from India next week, I’m sure we’ll all enjoy that .
Of course our favourite nights are in the winter months where we hunker down, as a family, under the blanket with our broth and think how lucky we are to have salvaged enough faggots of wood for this meagre fire. On Sundays we can hear the chimes of Bow Bells summoning the toffs for the evening service and we chuckle – we chuckle because we know – we know that they are struggling through the cold night air made thick as treacle by the smoke which pools and swirls, unable to rise in the frigid air, our own dear smog – and for once, unprotected by their windows, they are as susceptible as us to the great leveller, consumption, the grim reaper of our age. So we laugh, unless one of us coughs, which is an awkward moment.
I should not want a tooth ache though. The man a few doors down died not too long ago from a toothache. He was afraid you see, too scared to visit the blacksmith, so he endured the pain as long as he could, he picked and picked at his swollen gum until it looked as if he had a pigeon egg in there, until eventually one night, wracked with agony he had his wife strike it with a chisel – and out it popped! Too late, too late, his blood was poisoned and the fever took him away. Never be afraid of the blacksmith is my motto, better a fast, clean pain than the torment of leaving a rotting tooth. Easy for me to say I suppose because I only have 6 teeth left now.
I did hear tell that the old Queen has wooden teeth, imagine that, who’s ever heard of such a thing, they’re pulling our legs.
And back in the pub my eyes un-glaze and I pop back into the reality of health care and fresh food, and the simpering idiot is still extolling the virtues of the ‘simple life’, and I think oh do shut up...Dickens was wasted on you.
“Anyone fancy a pint?”