This morning I woke up early, just after 7.0 AM. I am what I think is called a light sleeper. This means I wake up several times during the night and start thinking, not about anything special, just about the same old worries again. In wider terms the world, the UK, England seems to be getting in such a mess. The current conundrum is Brexit, is it going to be a good thing, we will be free to go our own way without interference from Brussels? Or is it a catastrophe, we will be alone and friendless in a hostile world? No I don’t know the answer.
The days are getting slightly warmer and the forecasters have promised that Spring will soon be here. I want to believe them. Technology promises so much, then something goes wrong. I’m pressing the same buttons but nothing is happening. Today its the printer, I have put fresh paper in and a new ink cartridge and still the paper comes out blank. I am bewildered, a few days ago everything worked perfectly. The words with some considerable effort I had arranged in the appropriate order were there on the page. My self imposed task is to describe what it was like growing up in the 1950s in the North-east of England, so much has changed. More than half a century ago, of course my kind of history is mentioned only in the margin in history books. We were unimportant, not making decisions, not enacting new laws, totally unknown to the world at large, the historian Danny Dorling has a very descriptive term, the 99%. Of course in my own eyes my life is the entire focus of my thoughts. History in general and in particular has been a passion of mine, some would say an obsession ever since I learnt to read, perhaps I was looking for answers or explanations. I have been extremely lucky, the schooling I had was free and gave me the tools to organise my own life. My health was safeguarded by the free National Health Service, although my mother did not receive family allowance for me as I was the first child in the family.
Very early in life I learnt that my parents had not been as lucky, father started work as a coal miner as a very young man, mother worked as a domestic servant which began part-time at the age of twelve. Conditions of life are always changing, young people today are still living with their parents in their twenties because jobs and houses are in very short supply. Houses have become unbelievably expensive out of reach of those who have a routine regular job. The main factor is that no council houses are being built and scarcity always puts the price up. The economy is changing , as it so frequently does and temporary jobs do not enable long term planning.
The present outlook is not so rosy. Warren Buffet, (the second richest American), said,
“the renewed greed of the top 1% has had worse effects than even the financial crash of 2008—-.” there has been a class war going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won. We’re the ones that have gotten our tax rates reduced.”
Robert Schiller, the 2013 Nobel Prize winning economist said,
“Growing income and wealth inequality is recognised as the greatest social threat of our times.”
Human beings are creative and adaptable so we will find a way, it may take some time.
Sixty years ago when most of my day was spent sitting at a desk in the classroom the technology used to transmit information was printed books. Most pages were covered in printed words, a few contained diagrams or pictures, usually in black and white. There was also the radio from time to time. In 2018 the most amazing television programmes are available, these days I have no contact with classrooms, so I don’t know how much these brilliant and informative learning opportunities are made use of in school lessons.
To see the actual palaces and imposing buildings mentioned in the history books: to have the period explained by a knowledgable historian, recently Dr. Lucy WORSLEY, who in addition to being an historian is extremely skilled at presenting television programmes. Dr. WORSLEY allows her sense of fun and her enjoyment in dressing up in period costume to liven up the historical event she is explaining, not something I have noticed in Simon SCHAMA. My most recent viewing, ” The Age of the Regency: Elegance and Decadence ” began with Lucy suitably dressed attending a ball, elegance illustrated, there were also many portraits of the Prince Regent (very large), an example of decadence?
Dr WORSLEY reminds us that the characters we see in portraits or history books were once living breathing people just as foolish or sensible as we are today, complete with silly shoes and extremely elaborate hairstyles, behaving in the same foolish way as we find ourselves acting today. She does it in a light-hearted vivacious way, which is somewhat unusual in a factual history programme. The pictures remind me that these are the places where events actually happened and some events in England were in fact horrifying. In 1819 at St. Peter’s Fields near Manchester a large crowd of about 60,000 men, women and children gathered, they were unarmed and there was no disorder. They were there to hear the Radical Henry Hunt, that year marked a return to unemployment, magistrates had declared the meeting legal. The magistrates became afraid at the large number of people and ordered the troops to disperse the densely packed crowd. they charged in with drawn swords, the crowd panicked and stampeded, 11 people were killed and 400 injured, many of the injured had sabre wounds. [ Mastering Modern British History–Norman Lowe.] The demand was for universal male suffrage and annual parliaments. Working people wanted a say in how they were governed. The very small ruling elite wanted to keep all the power within their own hands, they did not want an open democracy. This event was later called the Peterloo Massacre. In the United Kingdom people suffered and died to bring about democracy.
Sometimes even the accustomed technology can spring surprises, my admiration for the BBC is beyond measure but last Wednesday, an afternoon of unsurpassed greyness and constantly falling rain, I chanced upon a station previously recorded, the Public Broadcasting System, an American channel. The programme was ” The Gilded Age “, the time scheme began in the late nineteenth century to the first couple of decades in the twentieth century. The narrative is centred on the development of democracy in the years after the American Civil War. The major problem was how to deal with the many thousands of now freed slaves; for many the answer was a move to the northern states where the new coal and steel industries were undergoing a rapid expansion. The southern states including Alabama, Georgia and Virginia, many black families became tenant farmers or share croppers, a very basic living but an improvement on slavery. There was an understanding that change was possible.
Several historians commented on different aspects of capitalism, political and economic changes: Henry Clayford on the wage cuts of 1892 and the resulting strike, armed soldiers were brought in to attack the strikers, which they did with considerable violence. In 1894 with a million people out of work, a march of the unemployed was organised, they were called Coxey’s Great Army. The historians who comment on this are: H W Brands, Rebecca Edwards, Nell Irvin Painter and Steve Fraser. Action was taken against the marchers and the leaders imprisoned.
There was a move to set up a new political party, the People’s Party, called in the press a Populist Party, that is a Party for working people. The rather complex narrative is beautifully illustrated with photographs of the people involved and an understanding of their lives is written on their faces.