February 2, 2011

G. M. Young, on motor cars and trains

Talking in 1952, the historian of Victorian Britain, G. M. Young, remembers his life as a young man in Britain in 1902, the year of Edwardian VII's coronation.
“The political changes, the social changes, yes, even the scientific achievements of the Victorian age had left the outer fabric of our life very much what it always had been.  Trains went faster, of course, but not very much faster, and the station fly still clopped-clopped to the country inn with straw on the boards – I suppose to keep your feet warm.  The motor car was a toy … and the aeroplane, well, that, of course, was a fairy tale: something for H. G. Wells to write stories about."
Young sees no earth shattering changes following the appearance of so many new technologies: life went on as before.  He was also old enough at the time (20) to appreciate the realities surrounding these new achievements.  In criticism, one could charge Young with forgetfulness that comes with advancing years, in his account of his past youth.  Was he viewing his past through the lens of nostalgia? - most people after middle age do seem to go on about 'the good old days.'  I like to think this is not the case.  We cannot imagine life without our motor cars, or telephones, or microwave ovens, or whatever.  And when we try to picture such a life, we feel we are reverting to a primitive state.  I think that we transfer this feeling to past generations and wonder at how they could possibly manage in the pre-tech era.  There is a tendency to inscribe past technological achievements with too much 'revolution' where none existed.  

Unknown to us, our predecessors did manage and quite well, too.  For them, horse-speed was quick enough for their needs.  If they needed, say, one hour to get across town, instead of today's ten minutes, then they set off in good time.  As and when new technologies appeared, people gradually assimilated them into their social practices - assuming, of course, they had the inclination, opportunity, and the money to do so.  Otherwise, they carried on as they had done before; old and new ways proceeded in tandem.

Young believes that England then was a good country for gentlemen to live in.
"And it all rested on two things – an income tax so moderate that it was hardly felt; and an unlimited supply of cheap efficient domestic service.  Pull those pillars down and that social hierarchy topples.  That also we could not foresee …" [my emphasis]
But putting it bluntly, this all boils down to money (again).  Low taxes and cheap servants ensuring life is comfortable means, yes, a good life for the privileged.  I am struck by the reference to cheap domestics.  It reminds me of the Postmaster General's explanation of the new telephone's slow dispersal: 'we have so many messenger boys ready to take messages, that's why we don't need a telephone.  The Americans, on the other hand, have no domestic servants, so they do need a telephone service.'

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.