Quote of The Week

“If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If both the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell.”

Carl Sandburg

Archives

Winter

Winter has started gently this year. On the East Coast the temperature has sometimes hit the 50s since the winter solstice. But it won’t last. As my other always said: “We’ll pay for this later.”

Despite the promise of global warming we still have to suffer through winter every year. There’s something quite scary about a long spell of cold weather. It’s a harsh reminder that we are living on a slightly warm ball of rock in the middle of an infinite space where the temperature is around minus two hundred and fifty degrees centigrade, just a few clicks of the thermostat above absolute zero.

Some years ago we were living in a small house on Long Island during just such a freezing spell when the heating failed completely. We called the repairman, but so had everyone else. The house just got colder, and colder, and colder. There was no fireplace, and we had no electric heaters. We huddled under blankets with the cat, suddenly as vulnerable as homeless people – except that we had a car outside, and could go somewhere safe if things got really bad. How fragile our comfortable lives can be! One faulty machine, one over-stressed system and nature reclaims her territory, and her temperature.

Human civilization began in warm, welcoming places. What madness brought us to this unpredictable latitude, where just dealing with the weather takes up so much time and money? We spend months in summer trying to stay cool at enormous expense, and waste months in winter dealing with and paying for snow and ice. Even now I can hear the furnace down in the basement, slurping oil like an elephant at a water hole. Hundreds of thousands of other furnaces on Long Island and in Connecticut and all over the northern part of the country are gulping oil just as greedily. Perhaps invading Iraq wasn’t such a bad move after all. We need every drop of oil under the surface of the planet, just to keep warm and keep driving.

The Pilgrim Fathers understood their mistake soon as they landed at Plymouth Rock. Half of them died during their first winter in New England. But they stubbornly refused to make the obvious decision and head back to the temperate climate of Old England. Surely any amount of religious persecution would have been better than this annual meteorological persecution? Just because we can live somewhere doesn’t mean that we should, any more that “All you can eat” equates with “All you should eat.” Somewhere between the possibility and the decision, common sense should intervene. It’s significant that, when people grow old and acquire wisdom, they instantly move to Florida.

Those of us who remain in the northeast are the true inheritors of the stubborn Puritan tradition that allowed these bleak latitudes to be populated in the first place. Humans are fond of inhabiting places unfit for habitation. Las Vegas, for example, is about as sustainable in the long run as a base camp on Mars. It’s one of the strongest arguments I know against human rationality. Would rational creatures live in Maine or Alaska or the Scottish Hebrides? They would not. A truly rational race of creatures would confine its activities between latitudes 30 North and 30 South, and leave the rest of the earth to animals with lots of fur, cross-country skiers, and heating oil salesmen.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Love on the Radio

Music has been around forever, since long before writing, and perhaps even before articulate speech. If you listen to some of the latest songs, you conclude think that articulate speech hasn’t been invented yet.

Plato said that music is the most primitive, passionate expression of the soul, and that’s why most music is about love. It always has been. When the phonograph was invented back in the 1880s, it was an instant popular success because you could buy records of romantic songs like “Silver Threads Among the Gold” or “Shine on Harvest Moon,” or “Ida Sweet as Apple Cider,” and play them over and over again.

Then suddenly, in the 1920s, you could pluck music out of the ether with that magical invention, the radio. The air was filled with invisible music, crackly and full of static, but recognizably music. My grandmother refused to have radio in the house, because she didn’t want those radio waves coming through her walls. If she had taken the risk, she would certainly have disapproved, because it was nothing but love songs. “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “Where’d You Get Those Eyes,” “If you were the Only Girl in the World,” Good Night Sweetheart.”

Right from the start, commercial radio sold itself as a romantic medium. There were even love songs about the radio, with awful lyrics: “If you want to reach your hearts desire/You don’t have to send her word by wire/Use an amplifier.” Ouch! The radio DJ became a romantic figure, because he – it was almost always he – had the seductive power to deliver love’s message. You can’t beat a lover who’s always there, always faithful, always finds the right words and, if he gets boring, can always be switched off.

Three quarters of a century later, you can tune into love songs no matter where you are, or what you’re doing. Drivers drive with love songs; students dream peacfully through lectures with love songs pumping out of their tiny headphones; joggers jog to love songs; housewives (if there are any housewives left) do their housework to the accompaniment of love songs. Above all, lovers love to love songs. Because nothing much has changed on the airwaves: love still seems to be all we need.

Love desired, love lost, love gained, love rejected. It’s as if feminism never happened; heavy metal and death metal and punk and rap never happened. Most of the lyrics are as romantic now as they ever were. There’s a lot of love on the radio, and sometimes I worry, like my grandmother, about all that stuff coming through the walls of our house. What is it doing to our brains? Right now, there are invisible waves going through my head, and yours, silent frequency modulated love messages tickling our neurons and stimulating who knows what fantastic desires.

There’s so much love on the radio, that a cynic might wonder if there’s love anywhere else. The popular songs hint at a yearning for something just out of reach, something that many people want, but that’s too embarrassing to say. The songs speak for us, offering love purified of ambiguity and carnality and transience and doubt: Ideal Love. Plato would have approved.

In love songs, men promise absolute commitment and eternal faithfulness; which is something you don’t hear very often from men who are speaking prose. And when women sing love songs, they put such passion into it, more than you usually find out here in the suburbs.

There should be enough romance on the radio to satisfy anyone. But there are always people ready to be seduced by the latest thing, and I see that a local television station is promoting video Valentines. This is a huge mistake. Television is an unromantic, unforgiving medium. When it comes to love, you don’t want to see too clearly. A word is worth a thousand pictures. And a good song is worth a million words.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Chaos Theory

Messy people drive me crazy. People who are obsessive and paranoid about tidiness
claim that I drive them crazy, which is hard to understand. My system for
dealing with the chaos of life is perfectly balanced. Everything that matters is in
perfect order, and everything that doesn’t matter is left to arrange itself as nature
intended. The disagreements, when they occur, are about what matters.

It seems perfectly straightforward to me. Spaces in which I need to work, such
as an office or a kitchen, must always be perfectly neat or nothing gets done.
Spaces in which I want to relax, such as a living room or a bedroom, are much
more comfortable when they are a bit untidy. If the place looks like something
looted by the Mongol Hordes that’s fine by me, as long as I don’t have to work in
it.

Some people just can’t seem to grasp this simple distinction. They choose to
live in a state of complete chaos or a state of complete order, both of which are
uncomfortable and unnecessary. Logical argument is a waste of time with people
like these. They have no sense of balance.

Psychologists tell us that habits like messiness and tidiness start very early in
life, and may even be hard wired. On the whole, tidy people have the easiest time
because nobody ever tries to change them, and they can spend their whole lives
feeling superior to their less tidy spouses and children.

Messy people, on the other hand, come under a lot of pressure. Somehow, in
our neurotic culture, tidiness has become equated with cleanliness, and therefore
with virtue. Everything conspires against those of us who are sometimes just a little
bit messy.

I have suffered from the virtuous criticism of ultra-tidy people all my life. For
years I attended a high school where neatness was an obsession. Then I was
drafted into the army where neatness rose to the level of a major psychological
disorder. Young men who had never made a bed in their lives were forced to create
impossibly geometric arrangements of sheets and blankets, set out all their
possessions with military precision, and even smarten up themselves. For most of
us it was a kind of torture.

It’s often said that messy people are more creative and, in my experience that’s
true. Creativity happens when the mind is open to the unexpected. Tidy people
want everything arranged and predicted in advance so nothing unexpected can
happen. Chaos is creative. According to Milton, God created the heavens and the
earth out of chaos. You can’t have a better recommendation than that.

It may also be true that messy people have superior brains. How else could
they ever do anything, or find anything? They seem to have a kind of depth perception,
like sonar, that allows them to plunge into heaps of clutter and filth and
emerge with exactly the item they wanted. Who needs a filing system when you
have extra-sensory perception?

Tidy people, on the other hand, claim to be more efficient, which they
undoubtedly are. But efficiency isn’t always a virtue. The past century produced
some stellar examples of highly efficient bureaucracies that got a tremendous
amount done, all of it very bad. There’s no freedom without a certain amount of
chaos.

Messiness versus neatness is one of those irreconcilable personality conflicts,
like early risers versus late sleepers, introverts versus extroverts, optimists versus
pessimists, cat people versus dog people, and so on. The only solution is the one
we have actually evolved through thousands of years of cultural experience. We
call it “the attraction of opposites.” The contrary personalities must always marry
one another, thus becoming one reasonably well-balanced person.

It works for us.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Democratic Weather

Mark Twain complained that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. And indeed we are perpetually fascinated by the weather precisely because we can do absolutely nothing about it. We can’t predict it, and we can’t change it short of moving to a different climate zone, which is a form of cheating. The weather is like illness: we can run, and we can hide, but in the end we have to face it.

The arbitrariness of the weather led our ancestors to assume that it was sent by capricious gods to annoy or punish mere mortals, or perhaps just for celestial entertainment. This theory has persisted for thousands of years, and I’m inclined to believe it. Weather forecasting, in spite of satellites and computers and sophisticated modeling techniques, remains almost as fallible as stock market forecasting. The weather will do what it will do, sending us from sub-zero to springtime warmth in a day or two, and from drought to inundation in a matter of hours.

Winter here in the northeast is full of surprises, mostly nasty ones. It keeps us off balance. The only good thing I can find to say said about our erratic weather is that it protects us against political enthusiasms. If you don’t believe me, watch the television news every night for a week (Public Television of course). You will see a lot of political action all around the world. Most of this action consists of young men rioting, setting fire to things, waving machetes, looting stores firing guns in the air, and generally behaving badly. The scene is so familiar that we tend to glaze over. Where is this particular riot happening? Who can tell? All we can say for sure is that the participants are never wearing overcoats or fur hats or snow boots, never. They are very casually dressed, as if for the beach, and this is because they are warm. They are in the tropic zone, somewhere between latitudes twenty north and twenty south. Riots are no fun in a cold climate unless you can arrange to have them indoors.

Even in more moderate latitudes a period of warm weather can spell trouble. The Paris police, for example, will not go into certain suburban areas on very hot days. But the warmth doesn’t last long, that’s the important thing. Nineteenth century social philosophers took it for granted that climate affected behavior. Because they knew nothing about political correctness they referred to the “Warm blooded races” of the tropics. Now we understand that blood and race have nothing to do with it. It’s warm weather that causes the trouble. Hot weather cultures are different from cold weather cultures, politically speaking, and it seems obvious why. Nobody can sustain political faith, let alone enthusiasm, through a northern winter. These chilly latitudes were settled by dour Germans and Scots and Norwegians who had been miserably uncomfortable at home, and crossed the ocean and the continent to find somewhere even worse. The weather reminded them every day of uncertainty, fate, misery, and death, which is how they liked it. This gives northerners a cranky, negative disposition, a disinclination to believe anything, especially political manifestos, and weather forecasts. The cold, and the anticipation of it, cools our passions all the way down to freezing point. Steady warmth, by contrast, is inflammatory. It promotes outdoor activities like mass protests, and riots, and it releases an enormous amount of energy that we ice people have to waste on scraping windscreens, shoveling snow, and simply avoiding hypothermia.

Even within this nation there is a political thermometer. South of Mason Dixon politics tends to become more extreme, and dirtier (think Florida in 2000 and 2004, not to mention Texas and Louisiana). Between latitudes 30 North and 30 South people don’t seem to have much use for terms like liberal, progressive, tolerant, or broadminded. They are drawn to authoritarianism and rigidity. It is more than unfortunate that the federal capital is in Washington DC and not where it started in Philadelphia. Those long hot summers in DC overheat the blood even of politicians from Maine and North Dakota. They lose perspective. They forget about the uncertainty principle, and they begin to think in terms of absolute truths. Since there is no such thing as an absolute truth this leads to silliness, and finally to madness. We are only saved by the fact that winter eventually descends on Washington and restores politicians to a normal condition of confusion, depression, and helplessness.

If my theory is correct – that moderate temperatures promote moderate politics and vice versa – we have many things to be thankful for – not least that the southern tip of Florida falls just short of the tropic line, although only just.* Goodness knows what they might get up to down there if they had another couple of degrees of southern latitude. We should also consider the possibility, if my theory is correct, that the effort to plant liberal democracy in the blazingly hot Middle East has less chance than a snowball planted in a similar place.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Too Cold

Winter started gently this year. On the East Coast the temperatures were in the high 50s on December 21st, the winter solstice. But it won’t last. As my other always said: “We’ll pay for this later.”

Despite the promise of global warming we still have to suffer through winter every year. There’s something quite scary about a long spell of cold weather. It’s a harsh reminder that we are living on a slightly warm ball of rock in the middle of an infinite space where the temperature is around minus two hundred and fifty degrees centigrade, just a few clicks of the thermostat above absolute zero.

Some years ago we were living in a small house on Long Island during just such a freezing spell when the heating failed completely. We called the repairman, but so had everyone else. The house just got colder, and colder, and colder. There was no fireplace, and we had no electric heaters. We huddled under blankets with the cat, suddenly as vulnerable as homeless people – except that we had a car outside, and could go somewhere safe if things got really bad. How fragile our comfortable lives can be! One faulty machine, one over-stressed system and nature reclaims her territory, and her temperature.

Human civilization began in warm, welcoming places. What madness brought us to this unpredictable latitude, where just dealing with the weather takes up so much time and money? We spend months in summer trying to stay cool at enormous expense, and waste months in winter dealing with and paying for snow and ice. Even now I can hear the furnace down in the basement, slurping oil like an elephant at a water hole. Hundreds of thousands of other furnaces on Long Island and in Connecticut and all over the northern part of the country are gulping oil just as greedily. Perhaps invading Iraq wasn’t such a bad move after all. We need every drop of oil under the surface of the planet, just to keep warm and keep driving.

The Pilgrim Fathers understood their mistake soon as they landed at Plymouth Rock. Half of them died during their first winter in New England. But they stubbornly refused to make the obvious decision and head back to the temperate climate of Old England. Surely any amount of religious persecution would have been better than this annual meteorological persecution? Just because we can live somewhere doesn’t mean that we should, any more that “All you can eat” equates with “All you should eat.” Somewhere between the possibility and the decision, common sense should intervene. It’s significant that, when people grow old and acquire wisdom, they instantly move to Florida.

Those of us who remain in the northeast are the true inheritors of the stubborn Puritan tradition that allowed these bleak latitudes to be populated in the first place. Humans are fond of inhabiting places unfit for habitation. Las Vegas, for example, is about as sustainable in the long run as a base camp on Mars. It’s one of the strongest arguments I know against human rationality. Would rational creatures live in Maine or Alaska or the Scottish Hebrides? They would not. A truly rational race of creatures would confine its activities between latitudes 30 North and 30 South, and leave the rest of the earth to animals with lots of fur, cross-country skiers, and heating oil salesmen.

Copyright: David Bouchier

A Postmodern Christmas

At this time of year many of us travel thousands of miles to be, however briefly, with our families. My mother’s generation did Christmas the old fashioned way – the way Charles Dickens made famous, a kind of all-in wrestling with food. Everyone had to be there. No excuses for absence were tolerated.

En route to one such extravaganza we stayed at The Penta Hotel at Heathrow airport: a comfortable cosmopolitan limbo between one life and the next. The airport hotel is a reminder of how many people in the world care nothing for our parochial little festivities. The hotel is full of Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and atheists, and probably Confucians and practitioners of voodoo and witchcraft into the bargain. They stroll through the lobby and glance at the decorations with mild amazement, and pass on to other airports and other cultures where Santa Claus would not dare to tread.

That’s not surprising, although it does put Christmas hysteria in proper perspective. The hotel brochure was surprising. It announced “The Festive Season at Heathrow,” not for travelling witches but for British people, Londoners, who felt the need to celebrate Christmas in the middle of the world’s busiest airport.

The airport hotel program included festive disco parties, festive lunches and dinners and a grand all-day Christmas celebration with lunch and dinner and entertainments. Just in case you are tempted, like Bob Crachitt, to go back to your miserable home, the hotel has rooms at a special low price for Christmas Eve and Christmas night.

I was curious enough, or rude enough, to ask the hotel marketing manager why on earth any sane person would come deliberately to Heathrow airport of all places to celebrate this religious and family festival. She was naturally puzzled by my question.

“It never struck me until you said it,” she responded, doubtfully. It’s not an obvious place to choose for your Christmas Day, is it? But we’ve got brilliant views of the runways; so if you’re interested in plane watching, this is the place to be.”

Yes, they do have brilliant views of the runways, and perhaps this is our clue. An airport is a symbol of escape. It’s a space on the edge of the world, like a beach. Just being there suggests the possibility of being somewhere else completely different. The planes take off outside the window, one every minute, and you can watch them break contact with the earth and fly free. The airport is the ultimate non-sacred place: religion itself can’t make any claims on you here. You are safe from time and place and connections – everything.

While we’re at the airport we inhabit the ideal version of the postmodern world. Postmodern: it’s a nasty word, but somebody has to say it, especially now when we’re all trying to sink back into the traditional past for a few days. There are hundreds of books with as many definitions of postmodernism: don’t waste your time. I can tell you what postmodernism means: chaos. We are rushing ahead to a new world which is not traditional or modern, where everything is like an airport with people and ideas and values constantly in transit and nobody really belonging anywhere.

But “We’re all connected,” so the telephone company sings. And what a comfort it is to reach out and touch those buttons this festive season. We’re all connected with fiber optic lines and satellites and e-mail and smart phones – we can all communicate. But communication and connection, perhaps, are two different things. Sigmund Freud once lamented that every new invention, such as the steam train and the telephone, gave his family an excuse to live further away: and he should know about families.

So here’s my Christmas thought from the Heathrow airport Hotel. In spite of all our communications technologies and our busy chatter over the FM bands, and the great planes that fly us magically from place to place – in spite of all these and maybe because of them – whatever the telephone company may have told you, in this hyper-mobile postmodern world, we’re all dis-connected.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Contracted Out

I was trying and failing to cross a suburban street when I had an epiphany of sorts. If I’d been in my car I would have missed it. But when you walk around here you see the world in a whole new light.

The junction where I was standing was at a point where streets leading out of two expensive suburban areas came together, funneling traffic towards the main highway. It was the middle of the day, and I couldn’t get across because of the stream of contractors’ vehicles, mostly white vans and black trucks, that came roaring out one behind the other, heading (I presume) for the delis and fast food emporiums a mile or two away. An occasional SUV was sandwiched in the truck convoy, but essentially the road belonged to the contractors at that moment.

After a while it became obvious that nobody was going to slow down for a mere pedestrian, and I amused myself by identifying the various trades and services represented in this high-speed procession. These guys could rebuild Iraq in a week. Electricians, plumbers, builders, and lawn services accounted for about half the traffic. The other half covered the whole range of domestic needs and desires: satellite and cable TV companies, carpet professionals, window and glass repair, heating and air conditioning, landscaping, roofing, pool services, tree services, and nameless trucks to perform nameless services. Perhaps these last belong to those semi-mythical “handymen” who can fix anything, and who therefore need to keep their identities secret. The convoy seemed never-ending. These were well-established suburbs, not new developments, but they obviously need a lot of work.

What a lot of maintenance we suburban dwellers seem to need, and how helpless we have become in practical matters. We’re a long way from colonial self-sufficiency. My father, and probably yours too, could handle most domestic repairs and maintenance while holding a full-time job. Now it seems that we can’t do anything, or perhaps simply that we don’t want to. Wealthy Victorians might employ a dozen servants to maintain a family of four. Modern families are smaller but houses are much bigger, and we need an army of contractors to keep them running.

I’m not claiming the moral high ground here. I’ve learned to be as incompetent as the next househusband. When the electrical system crashes I instantly call Andrew the electrician, which is all too easy because he lives just across the street. Joe the plumber has been with us so long he’s almost one of the family. But this learned helplessness is getting out of hand. When we bought some new curtains – or “window treatments” as they insisted on calling them – the store tried to sell us an incredibly expensive “installation service.” Hanging curtains is job that even I can accomplish with the help of a small drill, a yardstick, and some bad language. We haven’t quite got around to installation services for light bulbs, but it will happen.

Back in the paranoid 1950s Levittown became the first real Long Island suburb and its founder, William Levitt, said: “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist; he has too much to do.” Half a century later, it seems that a lot of men have all but abandoned their domestic maintenance duties. What are they doing instead? The National Security Agency should look into this.

Copyright: David Bouchier

More Things to be Thankful for

We have plenty to be thankful for, more than our ancestors ever did. We should be thankful for our incredibly safe and comfortable lives compared to ninety per cent of the other people on the planet – thankful we’re not in Iraq or Afghanistan, or Somalia, or just about anywhere really. We don’t know who exactly to thank for this good luck. So, at Thanksgiving, we express our appreciation in a general way, rather like sending out a message on on the Internet, in the hope that it reaches the right destination.

It’s a pity that Thanksgiving is such hard work. First there’s the nightmare of travel. At least thirty million Americans will be on the highways this week, and about five million will pack into the airports to fly towards their families. Travel is no fun anymore, if it ever was.

Then there’s the anxiety of spending time with remote and complicated families, who may be almost like strangers. It’s no longer a simple case of “Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother’s House we Go.” The fashion for multiple marriages often means that we have a choice of grandmothers and mothers to visit at this time of year. Sometimes there’s even a choice of fathers, assuming that they left a forwarding address. It’s not Norman Rockwell’s family any more.

But the really challenging thing about Thanksgiving is the food. Not only does the traditional menu contradict every known principle of diet and health, but also there is the inescapable fact that somebody has to cook it, and almost nobody remembers how to cook any more.

The baby boom moms and their daughters are doing most of the Thanksgiving work these days. One thing we know about modern women is that their lives are too busy for cooking. They never got into the habit eating of home-cooked family meals around the table. The fast food industry was created by them and for them. The papers now are full of neat recipes for delightful little Thanksgiving extras like roasted cauliflower, raisins, and anchovy vinaigrette or spiced sweet potato pudding. The New York Times offers a food preparation timetable that runs for five full days. Who has time for this? The harassed modern woman can only spare an hour or two away from her corporate desk to buy a packet or vitamin-enriched turkey-flavored artificial food product and zap it in the microwave, while talking to the Tokyo office on her cellular phone. The prospect of cooking a multi-course meal with six vegetables and dessert for a whole house full of people is her worst nightmare. It’s like trying to pilot a Boeing 777 when your only flying training has been with a kite.

Millions of single people head for Miami or Marrakech to avoid the danger of food poisoning, and the family nostalgia show. More families each year spend the holiday in hotels, or have Thanksgiving catered. Our local deli will deliver the whole gastronomic tsunami to your home for a very modest price. Health insurance is not included.

It’s probably best this way. The old kitchen skills have faded, but also the old kitchen slavery. I remember my mother in law working incredibly hard to cook a huge dinner for fifteen at Thanksgiving, which may be easy for a trained restaurant chef in a professional kitchen, but not for an average domestic cook in a kitchen the size of a closet. Progress and the catering industry have liberated us from all that. We can enjoy the sociable part of the holiday, and not worry about the food. That’s yet another thing to be thankful for.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The World We Have Lost

In 1965 I was newly married and had just moved from London to Cambridge, where I worked in a rather grand bookstore. New books poured in every day, and one morning, the delivery included a dozen copies of The World We Have Lost by Peter Laslett, who was a fellow of one of the Cambridge Colleges. The book looked a bit too serious and academic for my taste, but I was intrigued by the title and took a copy home.

I still have that original copy, scuffed and slightly dirty from many moves from house to house and country to country, and with my original penciled comments in the margins. One of the advantages of working in a bookstore was an unlimited supply of new books to borrow. One of the disadvantages was that, the moment you thoughtlessly made a marginal note, you were obliged to buy it.

This was one of those unlikely literary encounters, the right book at exactly the right time. I was a city boy, born and bred in London, with virtually no sense of country life or any history before 1939. When I was a child we had occasionally visited some elderly aunts who had a real Thatched cottage in an Essex village. I was fascinated and horrified by this glimpse into the past: no running water, electricity or flushing toilets, and chickens wandering into the living room. I couldn’t wait to get back to our conventional suburban house. In 1965, for the first time in my life I was living in a rural setting – a village about eleven miles outside the city, in the great flat expanse of the Fenlands.

The villagers, all three hundred of whom seemed to be related, treated us with great suspicion. Silence fell when we walked into the pub. Cities are not friendly places, but I had never felt quite so much the outsider as I did in this rural community. Nor had I ever seen such a community in action. It was more like a large family than anything else. They had a lively system of barter and mutual aid, as well as feuds and grudges going back for generations. We had no place in it.

The World We Have Lost was just the book I needed at that moment, indeed it was a revelation. Laslett’s theme is the lives of ordinary English working people before and after the industrial revolution. The book begins with a portrait of a bakery in 1619. Thirteen or fourteen people worked there, all of them clothed, housed, fed and educated by the master baker. “The only word used at that time to describe such a group was ‘family’…not an institution, a staff, an office, or a firm.”

England was a nation of “families” in this sense. The largest that Laslett was able to trace consisted of thirty-seven people, but most were much smaller. It was certainly no paradise of freedom, but Laslett argues convincingly that it gave each family member a stable life and an emotionally satisfying role. Everything was on the human scale. There were no factories, no giant corporations, and no Facebook friends. To put it very simply, people knew each other, for better or for worse, and lived close. “The journey to work, the lonely lodger paying his rent out of a factory wage, are the distinguishing marks of our society, not of theirs.”

Peter Laslett was no sentimentalist. He was an exceptionally clear-eyed historian who tested our favorite pastoral myths and nostalgic images of the past with interviews, historical documents, and statistics to He shows that, contrary to popular belief, child marriages and multi-generational ‘extended’ families were rare, and the romantic notion that old people were cared for by the community was simply wrong. They were not. In spite of the shortness of life and scarcity of resources there were institutions that maintained a kind of continuity: the local aristocracy and the church maintained a tenuous authority from generation to generation and the pub or alehouse, then as now, was the center of village life. Urban life was in the pre-industrial world was relatively marginal – the nation’s life was in its villages, which were to a large extent self-sufficient and self-governed. There are revealing chapters on marriage and courtship customs, self-discipline, authority and the class system, and the shattering impact of the industrial revolution on the old ways of life.

I was not given to sentimentalism or nostalgia at the time, although I have suffered from both in later life. But I could feel the truth of in that Cambridgeshire village where nothing much seemed to have changed in two hundred years. Survival meant sticking together and working together, and keeping the outsiders out. It sent me back to equally revealing but less academic books like Laurie Lee’s charming Cider with Rosie, and all the way back to William Cobbet’s Rural Rides (1830). When Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield appeared and became a sensation in the late sixties, it helped to solidify a new and much more complicated vision of the old life and the old ways.

We still have a vivid but false image or rural life in modern England. A decade later I lived in a Suffolk village so relentlessly picturesque that coach tours drove past my cottage, and people peered in at the windows. But not a trace remained of the world that Laslett wrote about. The cottages were full of wealthy retirees or London commuters, while the few remaining farm workers lived in a huddle of council houses on the outskirts. Socially it was just like a suburb, with scarcely a trace of a community life apart from the annual village fete.

In more recent years, traveling and living in rural France, I can still see the faint shadow of Laslett’s world we have lost in some of the smaller villages. The French divide rural villages colloquially into those that are “open” and those that are “closed.” We spend part of each year in a happily open village in Languedoc, which feels and works more like a small town. But some friends made the choice to settle in a closed village because it was exceptionally picturesque, and are beginning to feel that they will never be accepted in a community so defined by its tight boundaries, inwardness, fear of poverty, suspicion of outsiders, and fiercely restrictive family ties. The one book I have found that really brings alive the grim history of rural France is The Discovery of France by Graham Robb (2008). But while Laslett based his findings on statistics and interviews, Robb simply travelled the back roads for months on a bicycle, getting very close to the land and its people. In the end, both portraits of the past are remarkably similar.

It’s not a past that we can or would want to go back to. But knowing it was there, and real, and in some sense made us who we are, was truly enlightening for me. Laslett strongly believed that we could understand ourselves only by understanding our past, and reflecting on the contrasts between our lives and theirs -for example the contrast between the discipline of family and community and the discipline of the factory and the office. Laslett shows all too clearly that we can’t have one without the other: the closeness and stability of community without being suffocated by it, or the freedom of modern society without being lost in it.

Peter Laslett died 2001. He was a great believer in the liberating power of knowledge, and helped to found the Open University (at which I later taught) and the University of the Third Age. But, unlike most academic historians, he wrote beautifully and with feeling.

“The word alienation is part of the cant of the mid-twentieth century and it began as an attempt to describe the separation of the worker from his world of work. We need to accept all that this expression has come to convey in order to recognize that it does point to something vital to us all in relation to our past. Time was when the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces, known and fondled objects, all to human size. That time has gone forever. It makes us very different from our ancestors.”

Copyright: David Bouchier

In Praise of Witches

The best thing about Halloween is that it gives equal opportunity to witches. I have a soft spot for witches, and I’ve known a few. We scarcely even think about witches the rest of the year, and we certainly don’t give them the respect they deserve. But during the last days of October, we can scarcely think about anything else. Even the latest musical mega-celebrity can’t hope to keep our attention, unless she sails into the headlines on a broomstick.

This annual descent into the dark ages has its unfortunate aspects, including the plague of plastic pumpkins, dime store ghosts, and all trick or treaters over the age of five. But at least it reminds us that witches, like angels, are everywhere.

Witchcraft or “Wicca” is a perfectly respectable neo-pagan, woman-oriented religion which goes back all the way to the Stone Age, or to 1939 depending on which authority you believe. It’s unfortunate that our present-day image of witches comes almost entirely from The Wizard of Oz. The two wicked witches in that movie gave the whole profession a bad name with their silly costumes, anti-social attitudes, and outrageous overacting. At Halloween, the fake witches on sale in the stores always have the same black robes, the same pointed hats, and faces that are always yellow or green – suggesting either serious liver problems or motion sickness brought on by the unsteady flight patterns of their broomsticks.

At this particular juncture in American history, we might learn more about real witches by going back to the seventeenth century Massachusetts witch trials. I’ve been re-reading a book called A Delusion of Satan by an old friend of mine, Frances Hill (a lovely woman, possibly a witch). The book shows that Puritans back then were almost as sexually neurotic as Puritans now. Their fears and fantasies focused on women they felt were dangerous, women who were in some way different: unmarried, solitary, argumentative, or eccentric.

The more I read about these persecuted women, the more I realized that they were exactly the kinds of women I have always liked – strong, independent, unorthodox to the point of being weird, active, rebellious, articulate, and smart – all the things a woman was not supposed to be in the dark ages before 1968. In Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, all the women I have ever admired would have gone up in smoke – after due legal process, of course.

Women have always scared men simply because they know so many arcane things that men don’t know. It’s all too tempting to put these strange skills down to witchcraft. Women also upset men by giving them unwanted advice, like the three witches in Macbeth, who (if you read the play without prejudice) seem quite a jolly bunch of ladies, and rather more helpful than sinister.

In spite of all our talk about individualism, we don’t value unconventional or eccentric women any more than they did in the 1600s. Modern young women aspire to be arch-conformists, usually lawyers. But they don’t aspire to be witches, and this may be a mistake. Witchcraft is much safer than it used to be, and it could be the deal career for an independent woman. Casting spells must be a lot more fun, and probably more effective, than serving writs. The pay and benefits are not great, but a witch can always compensate for the lack of medical coverage by brewing up her own prescriptions. And, as a witch, she will attract all the most interesting men, and women.

The world would be a better place with fewer witch hunters, and more witches. If we are determined to go back to the dark ages, let’s do it right and go back all the way.

Copyright: David Bouchier