Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ou Sont Les Neds D'Antan?

In comments to this post at the Sharpener, militant culture warrior Laban Tall shows up to lament the depravity of the modern era by waving anecdotal evidence on the crime rate in the 1840s...

"From the time of Engels’ “Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844″ until its lowest point in 1911 the trend in the recorded rate of violent crime– violent crimes per 100,000 of the population–was fairly steadily down. This was the case even though there was far deeper poverty than anyone experiences today."

Now, my first response was that comparing Britain in 1844 with Britain in 2007 is a little like comparing October to an octopus, but I've since realised that this is unfair.

What has changed since those oh-so-genteel days of chivalry and honour?

Well, I've got an MA in modern history, so I should be able to shed a little light...

1) Saucy, repressed aristocracy making the beast with two backs with the proletariat

From Lady Chatterly to Queen Victoria, it appears that no lady of high birth was content without a bit of grubby bumping with the servants.

It must've given those gardeners and gamekeepers a reason to keep their noses clean, lest a stray speck of dirt offend M'Lady when she required their personal attention.

Personally, I think it's a travesty that this tradition died out - from Helena Bonham Carter to Kiera Knightley in Atonement, we plebs are now denied our rightful chance to bounce upon the flower of aristocratic Britain.

I'm about as mild-mannered as they come, but thinking about this injustice makes me bloody furious. I can imagine how it affect the less placid among the great unwashed...

2) Empire

Name a random country, and there's a pretty good chance that we've sent an army there to kick fuck out of the locals and make off with their valuables. This meant that a lot of young lads who might otherwise have misspent their youth thieving on the streets of the Gorbals were instead sent out to beat some healthy respect into Johnny Foreigner.

The list of nations with whom the UK has picked fights is truly sensational, encompassing most of the globe, and even the most misty-eyed Imperialist would have to admit that most of these weren't exactly defensive actions.

I, for one, can't remember reading about young Winston dodging assegai during a Zulu assault on London, or deprivations caused by a Chinese blockade of Portsmouth.

This speaks to a seriously high level of aggression in the British character, as our former enemies can attest. Reading about Britain in the 19th century is a little like reading a version of The Lord of the Rings in which Tolkien dresses his orcs in starched uniforms and has them witter about the benefits of civilisation before they burn the Westfold.

Aggression on this scale can only be born of rage - we should be glad that our children aren't out mowing each other down with Gatling guns and claiming a monopoly on the production of tea and opium.

Of course, there are other trifling matters that cleave the 19th century from the 21st - consumer society, industrialisation and urbanisation on a huge scale with the attendant mass migration from country to city, mass transit, communications, the welfare state, the availability of cheap drugs, alcohol and weaponry, enfranchisement, education beyond the age of 10, a massive leap in life expectancy, the deliberate destruction of traditional industries leading to concentrations of mass unemployment, monetarism, the fall of the old aristocracy and our involvement in the two most devastating wars in human history, but it's worth considering.

Perhaps I'm being a little hasty in laughing off Laban's theory - after all, a hundred and fifty years is but a blink of an eye to a nation, and the age of steam doesn't seem so far removed from the age of information.

I must learn to think before I start reflexively taking the piss out of his rose-tinted binoculars.

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