One thing that I constantly confront in reading history is, how did people cope with life in the past? Stop and think about it. Many people say that life back then was cheap, but I think it was the opposite, because it was such a fragile thing, that people had to struggle so hard for it. This quote from Peter Quennell on Boswell sums it up for me:
“The hand holding a calf-bound volume had been twisted and knobbled by gout. The face under the candle light was scarred by small pox. Child after child died before it had left his cradle: women struggled resignedly from one child-birth to the next. The young and hopeful dropped off overnight, a prey to mysterious disorders that the contemporary physician could neither diagnose nor remedy. But these tragedies brought their compensation. Since the accidents of birth and maladies of childhood then accounted for a large proportion of human offspring, few men and women reached maturity who did not possess deep reserves of physical and nervous strength. In the debility of such a man as Horace Walpole there was, he himself admitted, something Herculean.”
I also recall a radio review of a book called “Children of a Harsh Winter” which confirmed the long held belief that children who had tough early lives, especially near fatal early illnesses, tended to become forceful, larger than life characters. By coincidence, the actor Alan Alda was on the programme and said that he had almost died as a toddler, and had never thought about it, but that it probably made him work harder, to strive harder to succeed.
But 18th century England was also a time of surprisingly high levels of suicide. This was made famous by the child fraud/poet Chatterton, who committted suicide and became so famous that the Germans began mimicing him, to the extent that his writings, the discussion of the ‘English disease’ was causing widespread mimicing, so attempts were made, especially by clerics, to have his work banned.
England at the time was the richest country in Europe, so the world. Visitors praised the levels of literacy and cleanliness of its people, the cleanliness of the streets, the plentiful high quality food. so why the suicides?
I thought it was about bankruptcies, in the absence of a welfare state or pensions, fear of being old and infirm was a potent spur to success, but more likely it was about people not coping with the massive social upheavals brought about by the early days of empire. The boom and bust economy, the tidal waves of war and peace, the many people moving from town to town or abroad in search of work, disrupting stable local communities, the high mortality in the cities, where wages were higher, so drew people in from the countryside.
John Updike in one of his Rabbit books talks about how growing up is a time of immense inner turmoil, and that kids need a fixed point to measure themselves against, like marking a wall to show how tall they are. The baby boomer generation are often described as the most self obsessed we have ever seen, and have helped set the tone for the generations that are following them. This self obsession makes them poor at playing this role of a fixed point for their children. The media is constantly talking about adults who refuse to grow up, which is all fine for them, but not for the kids they are raising perhaps.
A lot of people are against religion. that it makes no scientific sense, that it … well, there are lots of things… But dotted across these isles are churches. The church is the biggest, and oldest building in a town or village. It is a landmark to navigate by. and for most people it was the only place to see art: paintings, carvings, stained glass, architecture, tombstones. The rushes strewn on the floor and the incense stimulated the sense of smell, flickering candles gave an air of mystery. and there was the music, the festivals, the sense of communities. We can never see into the hearts and minds of people from the past, but we can imagine how magical, how uplifting these rituals were, the celebration of the seasonal cycle, the drawing together in the depths of midwinter, the cruelest time of the year.
But the British are possibly not, and have never been, particularly religious, or at least not amenable to its control. When St Augustine came here he was told to graft Christianity onto pagan roots. In Bristol, the 13th century high cross was adorned with statues of the monarchs who had given the city various trading rights, not saints who smiled on their endeavours.
The chapel on Bristol Bridge had probably the first stained glass window in the city. It showed the merchants and wives who built the chapel, again, not the patron saints. this was supposedly on a major Pilgrim’s route, but it was also, like the cross, at the centre of a busy commercial city. Money had, by the 13th century, become the main driving force of the city rather than religion, which strikes me as being rather early.
The age that I specialise in, the 18th century, followed a long time of upheaval, the dislocation of the Catholic church, the vandalism and iconoclasm of the churches, constant debates over forms of worship, and the execution of a king, the ultimate symbol of sacred and secular power. The traveller Hon. John Byng wrote of religion in the mid century being for the poor, as the rich had better things to do with their time. Many areas of the country had no religious presence, hence the importance of John Wesley in preaching to the poor.There are some who suggest had it not been for him there would have been a French-style revolution in this country. In the 1790s, this was a very close call.
So, what am I trying to say here? Salman Rushdie famously turned back to Islam saying he had a religion shaped hole within him. I’m not sure i know what that means really, but many of us feel that there is something missing in our lives and many turn to religion to fill it. Others turn to alcohol, or sex,or drugs. Some of us are drawn to art as a means of not only filling that hole, but transcending it.
When the Booker of Booker writing prize was first held, I was a amazed that the average age of the nominated writers was 75. In what other profession do you get people at the top of their game well past the official retirement age? Well, painters, musicians – though they are often limited by their physical stamina. They are all doing something that lifts them up, that makes the daily drudge bearable, and their fans/supporters seem to get a similar ‘lift’from them.
So, what’s the difference between an audience in a cinema/theatre/ concert and a church congregation?
They are all there in part, to be uplifted, to escape from their normal lives, to be inspired, entertained, challenged perhaps. They are participating in communal rituals.
Where am I going with this? I’m really not sure, but I think the English are the world beaters at what is now known as ‘soft power’ because of this early and long standing – what can I call it? Failure to engage in religion? Combined with the fact that this country has always hit above its weight in trade, especially from the 18th century, they have mostly had the money to be entertained, to have travelling shows, to buy luxury goods, these have filled the void in the role of uplifting that the church traditionally played.
As I discovered in my book on ‘The Big World of Mr Bridges’ Microcosm’, this travelling musical/astronomical clock inspired people to be creative. It raised their spirits, showed them what humanity was capable of, and that, as a member of humanity, made it possible for the audience to do the same. As the Good Samaritan said, ‘go thou and do likewise’.
One of the things that I felt was at the heart of the story was why a carpenter would build such a huge beast, why he would travel with it, inspiring people with notions of the world around them. It is a crazy thing to do. I’m still not sure if Henry Bridges was suffering mental health problems, or whether he was just caught up in the crazy times that were the early 18th century when anyone could become a millionaire overnight,but they could also die in so many ways, so risk taking was almost as common as breathing.
But at the heart of religion, of art, literature, music, and science is the notion best expressed in the socialist motto, ‘give me bread, but give me chocolate’. Throughout history, people have survived the most horrific things: physical and mental pain, wars, famines, loneliness, things that our modern world has largely spared us.
How did they do it?
How did they survive?
Maybe they found the mental/spiritual equivalent of chocolate.
They heard birdsong, they heard music that made their hearts stop, saw their children take their first steps, they saw renewal in the spring, echoed in the stories in the bible and folk tales. They could look up at the stars in the clear sky at night and they could wonder, they could dream impossible dreams.
When Richard Dawkins and others criticise the lack of proof of religion, they are absolutely right. But they are also completely missing the point of it.
Love is mumbo jumbo. Sharing a meal with friends is a waste of time, when you can easily get a takeaway. But these are the centre of most religious festivals. It seems the more scientific and rational we have become, the more we have turned to anti-scientific pursuits. It’s all about balance. We have two halves to our brains, and we need to work both sides, the logical and the emotional, irrational side.
When Cromwell closed pubs, people took to home brewing, when students in some American states were banned from dancing, they drove across the border. We crave safety, but the more safe our world becomes, the more people crave dangerous sports. It makes no rational sense, because rational is not a complete view of the world. In fact, it’s a rather barren one, a place that few of us wish to live in.
We live in fortunate times. Most people will be outlived by their children. Few of us suffer severe pain. Few know real hunger. Yet the suicide and depression levels are soaring.
How will we cope?
We can look to the past and we learn from it.
We can find things that make us happy, and whether that is in religion, or art, or something as mundane as taking your dog for a walk, hugging our kids or noticing there is a full moon hovering above us, we need to find them and cling to them and do them as much as possible.
That’s how we survive.
Henry Bridges had his microcosm clock, his story inspired me to write about it, and this blog has sort of become a model of what that Essex carpenter was doing: offering ideas, and entertainment, not easy stuff, but high quality, thought provoking and uplifting. This is what I try to do with this blog.
Maybe this is a machine for thinking.