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Onward and upward

December 18, 2009

Historical novelists are sometimes asked whether they’d rather live in the times they write about than in the twenty-first century. In my case the short answer is, ‘No.’  The long answer involves words like anaesthetics, slavery, contact lenses and  gas heating - not to mention the fact that I’d probably be dead by the age I am now.

In fact I’ve never heard anyone answer ‘yes’ to this question about any era, and suspect a lot of it has to do with advances in health care.

Readers who subscribe to the version of Victorian England in which the streets  were full of jolly coachmen, prancing horses and rosy-cheeked choirboys standing under gas lamps in the snow (very prevalent at this time of year) should leave now. To those  made of sterner stuff, I can thoroughly recommend a visit* to Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret that used to be part of St Thomas’ Hospital in London. No longer in use, of course,  but apparently the oldest operating theatre in Britain. Obviously the nineteenth century is a long way removed from the Romans, but it’s said that surgery made very few advances between Classical times and the Victorian era. The Garret is a fascinating place to wander round, and a salutary reminder that whatever we may find wrong with the modern world, there’s a lot that we really, really wouldn’t want to go back to…

*a virtual visit is the only kind that can be made at the moment – it reopens on 6 January 2010 when, for reasons not entirely clear, it is celebrating The Odyssey of Chocolate. (I always knew chocolate was medicinal.)

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4 comments

  1. At the risk of wearing out my welcome, I would like to comment on your latest little essay not too long after my last visit to your nice blog.

    I find myself nostalgic from time to time, but never for the medicine or old dentistry of former days. We live in a most remarkable age of miracles regarding those things. Life has never been better if one needs medical attention of any kind. That said, some might argue that not everything is the best ever and that a certain selective nostalgia might not be out of order. A list of things which are debatable that today’s version are the best ever might include music, literature, and art.

    Even if a coarseness of life has been a part of every age, I believe that there have been times past when coarse and crude actions were not seen as so broadly acceptable as today. Every age falls short of its own ideals however, there have been ages, our own day not excepted, when high ideals were held for naught.

    Finally, our current day is perhaps not the best at big thinking. I have always found examples of big thinking to be so breathtaking perhaps because they are more often than not, not to be found. The ancients certainly displayed big thinking from time to time. How could anyone so many thousands of years ago have dreamed or thought possible the pyramids when nothing close to that magnitude had ever been done on earth. How could anyone those thousands of years ago dreamed or thought possible of transporting water over and through high mountains and deep valleys for so many miles. Astounding. Soaring and breathtakingly beautiful cathederals when almost all other building of that day amounted to mud huts. I have read that medieval cathederals may have represented one-fourth of the gross national product, perhaps ten times what modern countries spend on national defense. A call to land on the moon in ten years at a time when there were only sattelites weighing a few pounds in low earth orbit. Big thinking followed by big actions.

    I, like you, would not trade places with someone from former ages. I am far too comfortable but, you know, there are a number of things that I would readily trade today’s version for certain versions from the past.

    Curmundgeonly yours,
    Phil Hall


  2. Yes, it’s depressingly hard to imagine anyone dreaming up something the size of Stonehenge while watching ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here!’ isn’t it?

    On the other hand, I remember sitting in a pub about twenty years ago listening to a friend explaining how, one day, computers would all be able to talk to each other… and here I am wishing you Merry Christmas across the Atlantic. Here’s to more big ideas in 2010!


  3. After watching the latest US oddity, MEET THE NATIVES, on the television, I can say that there are some things about modern times that I’m sure could use changing (natives from the South Pacific island of Tanna come to the US to visit various parts and bring a message of Peace and Goodwill). Their innocent observations of our modern conveniences and our culture are quite humbling (if not quite hilarious). I’m just happy that I am able to afford my flat, decent healthcare and am able to take care of my family properly.

    Merry Christmas to all and have a Happy, Safe New Year.

    T.


  4. The gift of seeing ourselves as others see us? I have a feeling we’ve had something similar here – wish I’d seen it. Santa’s just brought me a book called ‘Watching the English’ – fascinating insights into the unwritten rules by which English people operate, and all frighteningly true.

    Belatedly, Toni, Happy Christmas – and best wishes for 2010.

    Ruth



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