Back to the Future Part 1

The latest reality TV program will soon appear on BBC2’s autumn schedules. It follows in the (historical) footsteps of similar programs as it catapults a group of people into an environment where their ingenuity will be tested to the limit and their physical endurance pushed to the extremes.

BBC 2 describe this program in the following terms

 …one corner of the East End of London will be taken back to the late Victorian era – a time when East End poverty began to make the headlines. For three weeks, modern-day Britons will make it their home. They’ll experience the tough living and working conditions endured by the millions that made up the urban poor in Victorian Britain. In a world with no safety net they’ll be expected to earn enough to put food on the table, pay their rent and keep the roof over their head.

The working title of the series is “The Slum.”

Digging a deeper hole?

The program interests me on a number of levels. I’ve particularly enjoyed previous series on the Victorian Garden and the Victorian Farm as many of the tools and techniques I can readily identify from my own early working life. There are some old tools in my shed, including my Great Grandfather’s digging spade which must be more than a hundred years old. I bet there aren’t that many people who’ve set field beans with a long handled dibber in each hand but they’re still here if you need them. Poldark makes a lot of fuss over a bit of grass cutting with a dismal (old dialect word for a scythe) but believe me, on the basis of practical experience, dibbing beans is far worse and you don’t get to take your kit off in the process

Many of the gardening techniques have stood the test of time. So, too, have the old varieties of vegetables and fruit – some of the ones I’ve sown on my allotment were old when Victoria came to the throne. The yields aren’t great, the shape isn’t Tesco Grade 1 friendly but they taste good.

You could say that I also have an academic interest, having spent 3 years studying Historical Geography somewhere out in the Fens in the late 1970’s. Much of our work then, on the cusp of the change away from scientific determinism and towards a more people centred approach, looked at the ways we could understand the present by looking at the past, alongside the evolution of place and people. The reports of Charles Booth and Henry Mayhew who wrote contemporary eye witness accounts of Victorian London were complemented by modern works by academics such as E P Thompson and Gareth Steadman–Jones.

Hard to connect

There’s one big problem, though, in trying to recreate the past: with all our modern technology we might be able to recreate the environment of the past but we cannot replicate the mindset of the people. We cannot reprogram 21st century attitudes to “make” them Victorian (if such a thing as one “mind” ever existed). We cannot even remove modern aspirations from the people involved – and it’s a good job we cannot. It is nigh on impossible to think ourselves back into the lives, let alone the minds, of Victorian people living in the slums. We have little concept of deference, a far wider expectation of material comfort and we are not faced by the spectre of life expectancy rarely extending beyond our early 40’s.

There are times when we dig back into the past at our peril, as well as times when we do so with profit. In the former case, the opportunities to explore your family tree will generally throw up a few family skeletons you may think are best left buried: illegitimacy and shotgun marriages are often the least of it. That’s not to say it’s all bad news - the past can teach us what we’d do well to recover (respect, and community), as well as ensuring that those things we’d do best to avoid (exploitation, poverty, want), are brought to mind to teach us to behave differently today.

Going beyond your place

A chance conversation some 40 years ago remains as clear to me today as when it first took place. The wisdom of a much older person passed on kindly -  but with real fire, determination and passion - to a young man beginning to work things out for himself. The speaker had lived through two World Wars, experienced healthcare pre NHS, tramped for work and had spent some time in the Union (aka The Spike, better known as the Workhouse).

The old days he said, were not good days or bad days – they were terrible days, dreadful. You were supposed to know your place and stock there. One step beyond the social norms and others’ expectations would get you isolated, pushed out, “Bassingbourned[1]” by the people you expected to help you. Who you saw as friends weren’t necessarily so – it might serve them better to stand alongside the people you stood up to.

He said that we should not forget those days – the days when District Visitor, Vicar, Policeman and Schoolmaster ruled the village - and we returned to them at our peril. It would be up to me and the people of my generation to build on what others had fought hard for, not just in war but in peacetime too, and never return again to the hopelessness that had afflicted so many in the past. History will be the judge of what has been achieved over the years since that conversation.

There won’t be anyone today who remembers the conditions of Victorian London at first hand. Time brings a rosy tint to some things, a dark exaggeration of others: it all depends on the perspective of the viewer so far away in terms of time and culture. In being distant, it’s easy to sanitise: we may see the dirt and the poverty on the TV but we won’t experience it nor will we be faced by the street smells, assailed by the clamour of the city nor taste the adulterated food common to Victorian London. The people involved won’t be drinking water containing the e coli and cholera bacilli.

Look at it this way – can we learn something about our nation then that will help us in our presumption of a just society today?

There are those who live in deprived communities and those who are marginalised today. Children will still go to school and to bed hungry. Some will mock the poor and dispossessed (chav being a particularly nasty term of abuse, yet socially acceptable). Social mobility is at its worst for over half a century and the gap between rich and poor mirrors the situation of Victorian London. It’s shameful that we  have Food Banks – great work that they do – because they have a trajectory back to, and out of, the unacceptable past of hunger and want that exist on the basis of status and disempowerment..  

For all my reservations, I’d say that the series is needed. Needed to remind us where we have come from, to affirm where we are and what we’ve achieved . It’s needed because, deep down, it will show just how far we still have to go before we can truly say that we have built God’s Kingdom, working towards community and affirming everyone in that community for who they are not for what they might be. It’s needed because in this town, in my street, there are people whose self respect is shot to pieces and whose opportunities and hope won’t grow unless and until I – and you – do something. 

[1] "Bassingbourned" Not in any dictionary: deliberate avoidance, shunning and refusing to help an individual with the aim of them leaving their home, work and the village. Last exercised in the 1970's

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