Got a ‘mail this morning from my friend (and Samizdatista) Midwesterner. Someone had brought up the issue of neglected literary classics and pre WWI Germany and this is what I had to say. Mid said I ought to public it. Well… Samizdata saw fit to take him on and their technorati ranking makes me and Cats look like a bloke in a shed in Cheshire and a bloke in a flat in Queensland. Which of course is what we are. so here goes…
Neglected classics. On the subject of Germany shortly before WWI I suggest you read Jerome K Jerome’s “Three Men on the Bummel”. It is not as good as “Three Men in a Boat” but, especially towards the end, it makes some points about pre WWI German society which are disturbingly prescient. It’s also quite a fun read about three blokes having a lark cycling through the Black Forest. It and “Three Men in a Boat” are bizarrely contemporary. There is a section in which J bemoans folks who tinker with other folk’s cycles by the road-side which parallels exactly how I feel about folks who tinker with computers. The analogy still works.
JKJ is highly recommended. He is a brilliant comic writer. But there is more to him than that. He exposes something which gives me enormous hope. Those Edwardians were very similar to us. The idea that they were a bunch of misogynist stuffed shirts is surely a construct of the 60s. J, George and Harris were in so many ways freerer than we are and so were their wives that they lived in mortal terror of.
I have read a lot of late Victorian/Edwardian literature (it’s out of copyright and therefore cheap) and I feel I could fit right in there. I mean the EU likes to pretend that before them we couldn’t live and work in France or Germany – not true. Philip Larkin wrote (mockingly) “Sexual intercourse started in 1963/After the Lady Chatterly Trial/And before the Beatle’s first LP. Look at C19th British population figures… They were clearly at it like knives.
We are fed a diet of complete bunk about the Victorians. No social mobility. Not true. I grew up three miles away from George Stephenson’s cottage and his dad was an illiterate collier but George ended-up on the five pound note. Quite a few generals by the end of WWI had started out as privates. The working class enslaved in slums? True up to a point but that fails to see the wider picture which is one of enormous material gains over the entire C19th. Look at how life expectancy, literacy rates and stuff like that ramped whilst Victoria was on the throne. Look at the literature and the science and engineering. Or the libraries or medicine or sanitation or anything… The Victorian era was epically brilliant. It started with folks complaining that trains travelling at 20mph would be fatal to passengers and ended (not exactly but near enough) on Kill Devil Hills South Carolina* because it was not just in Britain. It was also the age (roughly) of Edison and Tesla and Benz and Orv and Wilbur. In those five names we have almost everything we think of as modern. I had a ‘tricity cut recently and for over an hour it was almost like being dead. You ever flown on
a plane? You have a couple of bicyle tinkerers from Ohio to thank for that. Been in a car – thank you Mr Benz, used electricity – thank you Nikola Tesla. It just goes on and on…
And moreover it was an age when these things were seen as good things and progress and a carbon-footprint was something a miner was beaten with a clothes-prop by the missus for leaving on the clippy-mat and not a cash-cow for the former senator from Tennessee.
We have so lost the plot yet we are almost so close to it I think we can get it back.
Do they not get that we only got here from there (and there was bloody awful) by building those dark Satanic mills…
I’m gonna be outrageous here. I think by studying physics and astrophysics I got a sounder grasp of history than if I’d studied history. Seriously. As Perry** would put it that’s because the meta-context is right. It’s partly about a belief in progress but it’s also about an understanding of how that actually happens.
And trust me. It ain’t broad-brush “movements” – it’s individuals. Our practical deification of Sir Isaac keeps our feet on the ground. I have met a great many physicists (it kinda helps to be one) and most of them claim Feynman as a hero. Nobody claims Newton. They wouldn’t dare. He is beyond that and that is what makes us humble. Because we appreciate that great individuals can turn the universe upside-down.
Amongst his many achievements (i.e. the entire modern world) he also invented the cat flap.
Very slightly edited that’s almost verbatim. Like the Victorians we live in an age of epic change. I am 35 and I have had computer (of sorts) for 25 years. I now have several. But when I was at primary school a computer was something governments and Bond baddies had. They weren’t in the back bedroom running Manic Miner. They were in extinct volcanoes and tended by leggy brunettes with ponytails who were toting clipboards and looking very severe. They wore specs that you just knew if they shed (and let their tresses down) they would go in two seconds from librarian to ultra foxy. And yes they usually did just that for Commander Bond.
Unlike my co-blogger Cats I doubt the coming singularity. I would love it but I doubt it will happen. Not convinced on that mind you. I don’t think there is any technical reason for it not to happen (though the lamentable level of science education in the UK doesn’t fill me with confidence). Instead I think “moral” and “social” reasons will nix it. The largest economy on the planet*** – the EU – has permanently banned GM foods and has done so despite scientific advice (the EU’s pet farmers can can keep on projing on via subsidies of course – for a while anyway).
What we lack and what the Victorians and Edwardians had in spades is hope. Way too many people now see “progress” in negative terms, or what’s worse “progressive” terms – to the extent that the word “progressive” has been utterly scrobbled. In the early eighties my dad (a teacher – now retired) worked with a chap, with a beard, with leather patches on his tweed jacket who claimed that Africans had healthier diets than us. He claimed this because we consumed more calories and ate more red meat so we were more likely to die of a heart attack or colon cancer. I don’t plan on doing either but I’d much rather die of either in my 80s than do it next week due to malnutrition or because the water was lousy. What he clearly didn’t get was that those Africans were carking it because they were poor. A good diet (and this is highly debatable) matters nowt if you are dead from malaria or some (quite literally shitty) waterborn disease by twelve. D’oh!
Greater wealth has arguably lead to greater social inequality but equality is not the issue is it? A hundred years ago a rich man might have had myriad servents but they never had wifi or the capacity to get to the USA in 7 hours. I have both. I am objectively richer than Edward the VII. Yeah, he had his palaces and all but I have a television and Youtube and a laptop. I would not trade apart frrom one thing. I just wish my generation saw technology as the solution and not as the problem.
*Do SC numberplates still have the state motto “First in Flight” on them.
**Editor of Samizdata.
***It might be The Obamanation.