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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Nostalgia - 5 huge changes in my lifetime

One of the big questions for a writer of historical fiction is how far it is possible to get into the mind of someone who lived x centuries ago. Researching facts is not enough; you have to make that imaginative leap into a different way of thought. I am now well into Chapter 3 of the follow-up to 'Song at Dawn' and I feel like I'm dancing across twenty tightropes, skipping from one thread to another and testing that they will hold while I turn somersaults and land on my feet. One of those tests is 'Would someone living in that time have behaved in that way?' which adds complications to the usual test questions 'Would this individual have behaved that way or said that?'

While I was testing my threads, I thought about how much has changed in my own lifetime, making it difficult if not impossible for my children to understand people of an older generation. If you're over thirty I'm sure you already have a notion of the huge changes to ways of life that we have experienced and at fifty-six, I can add some years to that.

My arbitrary choice of cultural changes in my life-time (and my white British female cultural background) followed by a very general 12th century take on them:-

1) children's loss of freedom.
People my age had more freedom as children. We had no parental supervision in the parks, in the streets, roaming the countryside, walking (or cycling or taking buses) wherever we chose. Nowadays my parents would be reported to the NSPCC but they were considered normal, caring parents in their time. Between the ages of 8 and 11, I met up with friends at dusk and we ran go-carts, chased each other, played gang and spy games, climbed onto roofs, rode each other's bicycles. We went swimming, either as a group of children or as individuals. I often walked down to the shore alone and swam in the sea. I even remember the sign that said 'No swimming today - sharks' (We were an army family and living in Hong Kong at the time). I caught tadpoles in jamjars by remote waterfalls, I caught buses with my friend to go stationery shopping in the city or village markets. My parents had absolutely no idea where I was and apparently didn't worry. I ran wild and am so grateful for the barefoot richness of my childhood.

12th century (in what are now France and Britain) - Childhood ended young and a child followed in his/her parent's footsteps, heavily gender stereotyped. If you were training to be an archer, you had to start at about 8 years old or you'd never be any good. If you were in the landed classes, betrothal at 11 and marriage at 14 were normal. The age of majority was 15.

2) sex before marriage or - worse still - living in sin doomed a woman forever in this world and the next. Any children resulting were evil.

This was changing in 1970s Britain but my generation grew up with our parents believing this to be true. They would have been horrified by couples deliberately living together and having children without marrying but this is normal in modern Britain. To be born out of wedlock was a shame that never lifted from my parents' generation. Their peers were locked up in mental asylums for unmarried pregnancy and it was not only the girls who suffered. I know of one eighteen year old boy who committed suicide from shame at getting his girlfriend pregnant. These values still hold in other cultures but not in mainstream white Britain. When people complain about the breakdown of marriage as an institution, and the impact on children, it's worth remembering some of the costs of believing that marriage is all and a woman's virginity is social currency. No, I don't want to go back to the days when 'living in sin' meant social ostracisation.

Part of the same set of values was the attitude to homosexuality, which was illegal between men and unmentionable regardless of gender. There might be a long way still to go but the very existence of civil partnership shows a huge shift in attitude.

12th century - varied according to class but virginity (for women) and (arranged) marriage were paramount amongst the nobility. Homosexuality was always condemned in Christian society but a more open feature of men's lives in the middle east. Classical literature shows a more open attitude at times in the past.

3) global communication meant writing a letter

Using the telephone cost money so I was allowed to give urgent factual messages that way and nothing else. 'Chatting' on the phone was unthinkable. No computers, no mobiles, no texting. We didn't even have one of the newfangled televisions in our house. Photos were expensive, rare and processed in darkrooms, then placed in one or two albums, covering a lifetime with a hundred images. I still remember the excitement when at fourteen I was given a trannie - a transistor radio. It was about the size of a bag of sugar and I couldn't believe that something that small could work. I used to play Radio Luxemburgh late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping, holding this wonderful invention up to my ear.

12th century - the idea of pigeon post was brought back to Europe after seeing this speedy form of communication widely in use in the Holy Land in the middle of the 12th century

4) Begging on the streets in Britain was rare and confined to a few big cities. We were proud of our social support and our national health care. British people were offended and embarrassed by the dirty foreign habit of begging, that they encountered when travelling.

It is a complete mystery to me as to why there was no-one sleeping rough in the many small towns and villages of Britain that I lived in or passed through when I was growing up. I don't even remember there being people sleeping in doorways and subways in cities, and I was the sort of child who would have noticed. I just don't believe people are poorer today because I remember how poor people were then. Perhaps they just had roofs over their heads, squatting in shed or barns. Perhaps people lived in intolerable situations with each other and had no ideas of  escape or living alone. I would really like someone to tell me why this has changed so much. I get the feeling it has changed in Canada too but I don't know about the USA or other countries.

12th century  - begging was commonplace, a way of life for many, and there was no provision for the handicapped, the sick or the mentally ill. Beggars were taken for granted and rich people gave alms to beggars as part as their charitable duty. There was no stigma in being a beggar - it was a role in society, albeit at the bottom of the hierarchy.

5) no central heating and little privacy - when the weather became cold, one room in the house was kept warm by an electric/gas/coal fire (the living room), the kitchen was warm from cooking and the rest of the house was brass monkeys freezing. Washing and bathing in an unheated bathroom in winter in Scotland was the best deterrent to hygiene I've ever known. The hot water bottle was a lifesaver but your nose still turned blue. You could forget going to your bedroom for adolescent sulks; the choice was the warm living room watching your parents' choice of TV programme, or listening to their Mantovani vinyl LPs, or under-age drinking in the local pub as often as you could manage to escape. Of course if one of your friends had a more teen-friendly house (i.e. their parents were out) you went there. Families were larger and bedrooms were shared so even when the weather was warm, being inside a house meant living too close to your parents, by their rules and preferences.

Nowadays everyone thinks it's his/her right to live alone, which more and more people do. Living with someone else is a huge decision, rather than what used to be considered the natural process whereby you lived with your parents, then you married (and often still lived with your parents)

Central heating allows all the rooms in a house to be used, changing completely family relations. Children and especially teenagers now have a right to privacy, and usually one bedroom per person. Parents and children can avoid seeing each other, even when living in the same house. You can't freeze your kid into being with you any more. And if you don't have shared mealtimes as a routine, which is true of many modern families, you can't starve them into being with you either. Given the choice these days, people spend more time alone - or online with the people they choose to be with, instead of ones in the same house or street.

12th century - Hearth equalled home, whether a cottage with a smoky peat fire and one room to live in or a castle with a fire-place the size of the cottage and a Solar, the chamber catching the sunlight to add one more warm room. The castles and palaces we love to imagine living in, thinking how grand we would have felt, were actually complete communities housing hundreds of people. It was usual to sleep several in a bed (if you had a bed) and dozens would have slept in the Great Hall. Privacy for procreation was dependent on whether you had the luxury of a curtain between you and your children (or your neighbours). If you were very rich, you would have lived in such a community with a separate bedchamber to yourself, and apart from your spouse, but with servants coming and going all day. Privacy was not a medieval concept. Wanting to be alone would have been considered downright weird and as for the need to 'find yourself' - about as likely as in 1960s USSR. 


In a way, every novel is a historical novel. The time period can never be 'now' as so much is changing technologically, politically and culturally over the time it takes to write and publish 100,000 words. Even fantasy novels or sc-fi novels have a period feel, based on our current knowledge and technology. Fantasy novels are usually vaguely medieval, with magic added, and follow past conventions about magic. Sci-fi novels  imagine the future from the possibilities currently envisioned. You only have to look at sci-fi novels written fifty years ago to see how rooted in their own time they were. So how far we can get into the mind of someone who lived x centuries ago seems to me to depend on the usual skills of a writer.

I'd love to hear from other people as to what you think has changed most in your lifetime. If you're under ten, leave it a bit before posting, then get back to me.



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