The World Through a Looking Glass

Ever felt worn down by the modern world? Find yourself fantasising about other lives you could have lived -- as a courtier at Versailles, a geisha, perhaps a pipe-smoking Edwardian gentleman? A vision of the world as a simple place, without bio-terrorism, frankenstein foods, melting ice-caps. Life in serene freedom from latter-day horrors.

Except that some people still speak of the bad old days. My father, who grew up in Iran, used to say the second world war had been the most difficult time of his life, despite the fact that the country didn't see any fighting. "We spent hours queueing for bread, and when we got it, it was the worst kind, and all burnt," he recalled. My grandfather could have talked to you about the Depression, his own father about the shock of the Great War.

Every generation has its earth-shattering moments. So why do we tend to believe we've never had it so bad? It's easy to see a "meant to be" quality in the past that makes it seem less frightening although, at the time, it might have felt like the old certainties were unravelling. And of course, it's hardly in the news media's interests to reveal that there's nothing new under the sun.

So indulge me for a moment in a detour into my personal life. A few weeks ago I broke a full length mirror. Not only had it been my sole means of judging how well my top half matched my bottom half (faux pas have since been witnessed), like most outwardly rational people, I secretly retain one or two superstitions, among them a belief that smashing mirrors is serious bad luck. I began to worry that I had just brought seven years of misery on myself. Perhaps I should have found comfort in the fact that this would surely mean I could expect to live another seven years, and might as well stop worrying about plane crashes and terminal diseases for that period of time. Already a bad omen, it then became a source of guilt as my housemates rightly decided it was up to me to dispose of it. I wasn't sure how. In the end, I went at it with a hacksaw and a hammer, breaking it into manageable pieces and no doubt compounding the bad luck in the process.

Between the mirror and the hardboard backing were the brittle yellowed pages of a newspaper. Checking the date, I was surprised to find that it was a British Daily Mail from July 11, 1925. Back then, John Logie Baird was tinkering with the first TV set and F. Scott Fitzgerald had just published The Great Gatsby. "Ah," I thought wistfully, falling into the trap, "another world." Not quite.

Among the adverts for liver salts, nerve tonics and baby carriages was an article titled "Tragi-comedy of Monkeyville." Monkeyville, it emerged, was Dayton, Tennessee, where John T. Scopes, a high school teacher, had been arraigned on charges of teaching evolution. Very odd. Less than a week before, I'd been listening to a woman on the news. "The last time this happened, it was in the old world and people got burnt at the stake" she protested, from the epicentre of another crisis over whether to allow the teaching of creationism in American schools. I was ready to believe her line about this being something new and alien. Countless reports give the impression the Christian lobby in the US has never been stronger. But as my paper showed, the debate about the role of biblical teaching is far from new, even on her side of the Atlantic.

Perhaps stranger was that British shock at the anachronism of the debate was as tangible in 1925 as it is in 2005. John Blunt writes "one suddenly perceives that Tennessee is a much more incredible place than New Guinea, and that America contains mysteries of outlook that make China appear simple." He articulates an uneasiness, not alien to modern-day U.K. citizens, at being closely identified with the United States but uncomfortable with some of its mores. Blunt warms to his theme: "the strange prejudices of, let us say, a Kalmuk do not astonish one, because everything about him is completely different from oneself; but the stranger prejudices of a Tennessee farmer do astonish one, just because he appears, in so many ways, to be very much like oneself."

Equally disconcerting is the American love of spectacle, the desire to turn the proceedings of a courtroom into a piece of entertainment (O.J. Simpson springs to mind). The paper's special correspondent notes sniffily that on arrival the presiding judge stopped to allow photographs to be taken. Clearly enjoying his few moments of fame he posed again, his gavel raised, before calling the case. Blunt wonders that "the most modern business instincts appear to be mixed up with a mentality that flourished hundreds of years ago, and the dark intolerance of the Middle Ages to be mingled with a strong desire to "boost the occasion." That desire to "boost" the occasion is now so much in evidence that it passes without comment. This is one aspect of the article, at least, that would seem quaint to the modern reader.

Monkeyville wasn't the only story with eerie parallels to the present. I found British hooligans making nuisances of themselves on the continent, and the enormous cost to the taxpayer of the mass-slaughter of diseased cattle (tuberculosis, not foot and mouth or bird flu, was the animal affliction of the moment). Some unlucky hack had been sent across London to see how long it would take to get from Marble Arch to Liverpool Street at 11.30 in the morning. He spent 52 minutes behind the wheel, including the 12 minutes it took to cross Tottenham Court Road -- a time that would raise few eyebrows today. Though there was the occasional grocery barrow to contend with on his nightmare drive, at least he didn't have to risk encountering one of Mayor Ken Livingstone's unlovable new "bendy buses."

In the parliamentary section I read that Conservative M.P. Sir Robert Gower intends to ask a question about the British Broadcasting Company. At the time solely a radio broadcaster, then as now it was funded by a licence fee. Gower wanted to ask the minister responsible whether, in view of the profits made by the BBC over the past year, a reduction in the fee would be in order. The BBC's funding is still hotly debated today -- so when was the golden age of consensus on our public service broadcaster? It never existed.

Among the letters, a Major Bagley holds forth on the lamentable record of Great Britain's sporting representatives before attempting to explain "why foreigners win". The reason, he claims, is the lack of "organised games" in all but the best schools and universities in the UK. To anyone who follows the British press today, hand-wringing about our international sporting performance and the 'crisis' of physical education in schools is familiar background noise, though the Ashes victory and successful Olympic bid may have produced a brief lull.

On the back pages, America reappears, but this time the mind of the tourist, not the Tennessee farmer, is dissected. To understand the annual influx of visitors from the U.S., Europeans need look no further than the tedious uniformity of American culture: it doesn't matter where you are in the States, "buildings, furniture and clothes are everywhere identical, and language is too". It is the variety of the old world that attracts them, though with prohibition in full swing, the chance to sink a few can't have been far from their minds. But something odd is afoot; parts of London, Paris and Rome are beginning to look the same as well, the same as everywhere else, that is. "The imposing new Regent Street, for example, that has arisen in the last few years might just as well be a piece of Winnipeg or Sydney as of London." Anxiety about globalisation, a favourite 21st-century preoccupation, was already in full swing in 1925. Many now see the classical canyon of Regent's Street as the epitome of Grand Old England and instead deride the proliferation of Norman Foster's glass blobs. The objects are different, but the sentiment is the same.

Browsing my old newspaper I wonder at the egotism in assuming we are the first to experience anything. It seems bizarre that the surprise is fresh every time we are reminded that people in the past were just like us. Here is reason not to take the media's frequent predictions of doom, disaster and cultural decline too seriously. There are some things, you could argue, that genuinely are new: modern weapons, AIDS or global warming. But on examination, how similar even these problems are to the challenges faced by earlier generations: no small comfort -- they survived them, after all. The man on the street in 1925 was as beset by uncertainties as we are. The prospect of another, much more frightening war loomed large, and everyday tribulations, the traffic, the economy, the loss of old ways of life, were stories beloved of editors then as now.

My advice, the next time you're anxious about the rise of creationism, cloned coffee shops or the state of the world in general, is to go to the library and ask to see a copy of a daily paper from 1930, 1910 or even 1860. The longer view may be the more realistic.


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