CybermenIf, like me, you happen to reside in a neighbourhood that retains the majority of its Victorian architectural roots, chances are you may have noticed the high proportion of churches – even if not all of them are still open for business. In an era when working hours were long and wages were low, Christianity served a purpose beyond mere faith, being at the heart of community life in a way it only appears to be today in rural England. But the church’s core business at its most basic was to offer hope – however slim – and a kind of ethereal distraction from the toil that the mass of the country’s workers endured.

Times change, of course; and religion, at least the one that has been that of the nation for centuries, no longer commands the same authority it once had or is turned to by millions as an escapist alternative to the dispiriting norm. Celebrity culture, certainly for what used to be called the working-class, seems to have taken its place. The reasons for an elevation that is to many utterly baffling are myriad, but the fact that it exists in its current form at all suggests there is a need for it as there was a need for the church in the nineteenth century.

Working conditions then were notoriously bad, even though there had been several pieces of legislation (largely prompted by campaigning reformers) that gradually improved the wellbeing of workers; the days of bewildered orphans being bussed from one part of the country to another in order to provide unscrupulous mill-owners with cheap labour were thankfully gone by the end of the nineteenth century. But for all the vast contrast between the lot of the working man and woman of today and their equivalents just over a hundred years ago, there is little cause for celebration; and many might argue the overall picture implies the situation has got worse rather than better over the past couple of decades.

Parents have always mapped out a newborn’s life, whatever their social demographic. Following in father’s footsteps was a familiar scenario both to those at the top and those at the bottom, whether that entailed journeying along the same prep school/public school/University/Foreign Office conveyor belt as Daddy or joining yer old man darn t’pit. So, in some respects, modern mania for catchment areas and ‘the right school’ isn’t necessarily an entirely unprecedented development. But it does reflect a very contemporary, almost obsessive, desire for absorbing people into the system at the earliest possible age, a mantra of propaganda pumped-out by media. Once Junior boards the educational treadmill in twenty-first century Britain, he or she is on the first lap of a marathon operation that surpasses anything his or her nineteenth century predecessor had to suffer. The old, rather quaint, boast that the National Health Service would provide the people with cradle-to-grave care has now been surpassed by a far less benign watchdog spanning the same timescale.

A child at school today is placed under fanatical observation and surveillance more or less from day one. The bureaucratic box-ticking that has permeated all public services settles its all-seeing eye on the school-kid and will never avert its gaze thereafter, ensuring the child slots into the system; and the system preaches that the child is secondary to concern for what the OfSted report will say. The idiosyncratic teacher who fired and inspired the imaginations of the open minds before him – the kind that could be seen in the likes of ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ or ‘The History Boys’ – has no place in today’s academic institutions. There are boundaries and boxes, and stepping or thinking outside of them is simply not allowed. A teacher is there as a trainer of trainee drones, not simply in terms of a workforce, but in every aspect of work, rest and play; and there’ll be little of the latter once Junior is released into the big bad world.

An unpaid internship or a zero-hours contract – what are they really but updated and rebranded nineteenth century working conditions? A Victorian working man or woman low down the food chain was, in many cases, dependent on their employer for a roof over their heads, a scenario not that different from the tied cottages they’d left behind when migrating from country to town. They could never have imagined owning their own home and the prospect of doing likewise for the working man or woman in both the same position and far higher up the food chain of today is just as implausible.

Their working hours are barely shorter than the working hours of their nineteenth century ancestors and they will have to keep working for more years, probably up until their mid-seventies. Money they owe may not land them in debtor’s gaols anymore, but in all likelihood they will never pay off all their debts before they die; their debtor’s gaols are the jobs that drain them and the homes they don’t own. Where do they go for much-needed, albeit temporary escape? They want to watch a family of rich bitches talk bollocks as opposed to a lone, lonely vicar talk bollocks. The Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Kardashian both offer unrealisable dreams because dreams are necessary when reality is a master-plan drawn-up by people with no imagination, no compassion, no heart and no soul, people who don’t have to live the lives they’ve designed – Tory, Labour, Liberal or Whig.

The unacceptable face of capitalism? The unacceptable face of Britain.

© The Editor

8 thoughts on “LIVING IN A BOX

  1. I don’t entirely accept the premise, if only because it is never valid to compare the total lot of the Victorian ‘lower classes’ with their equivalents today.
    The primary motivation of any low-down Victorian worker was survival, nothing more, nothing less: they worked whatever hours were demanded for whatever little pay was on offer, simply to keep a slum-roof over their heads, some barely eatable food in their bellies and to get through to the next pay-day. Their aspirations rarely extended beyond that because, not only did they not see anything beyond that, they knew it would be unobtainable for them anyway, so why even raise false hopes.

    Now we have a nation of freely-educated, free health-cared masses, either in paid employment or receiving benefits, all of whom have everyday standards of housing and well-being way beyond the most fanciful dreams of those predecessors. When Harold Macmillan said in 1957 “Most of our people have never had it so good” he was right then, but it’s even better now on every level. Still not perfect, probably never will be, but definitely materially better. To suggest otherwise is to deny a century or more of ongoing social progress.

    The problem is that the current generations of worker-masses have been cynically exposed to sights of profligate plenty by the voracious marketeers of consumerism, be that via advertising, TV shows, social media etc. – all channels which did not exist 100 years ago. Hence the new masses will now happily spend their marginal groats on the latest mobile-phone, the latest designer clothes, the latest must-have gadgetry, this week’s Kardashian look-alike bling, that tropical foreign holiday, that sexy new car, that £5,000 wedding dress etc., because not to do that would be to miss out on the new ‘reality’ that they have been shown, and they will do all that at the expense of the survival basics, those things on which their Victorian forebears had to spend all their focus and all their cash because they had no choice.
    Then they will claim to be poor – well, they’re certainly not poor on a Victorian scale, it’s just that they have been led into making spending decisions which are out of alignment with their real resources. Resisting that overwhelming tide of product promotion is the problem and, much as I may sympathise with their dilemma, much of the solution actually lies in their own hands and heads.

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    1. I accept your points; but taking relative conditions into consideration, innumerable material benefits appear to have provided a lesser degree of general happiness for today’s generation than their Victorian ancestors derived from the church. On paper, this should have been achieved by now. Most sci-fi fiction in the first half of the twentieth century predicted it, yet it often seems to me things are going backwards. Or maybe I’m just feeling gloomy because my electricity bill went up yesterday.


      1. That sums up the dilemma – materially we’re all much better off, yet many seem more dissatisfied. There’s no doubt that the established church, probably because it was established, performed a valuable support service in offering the oppressed masses a vision of a post-life future which allowed them to put their lifetime troubles into the background – after all, what’s a few more years of suffering when there’s an infinity of profligate comfort on offer.
        Perhaps it’s the growth of widespread education and the facility to question ‘the establishment’, including its religion-based ‘agents’, which has progressively revealed the flaws in this model, hence the current level of dissatisfaction. But I also still blame ‘Dallas’.

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  2. Interesting article. However, the campaigning reformers you refer to were almost to a man/woman Christians. The introduction of classes by Wesley and his followers (which led to them adopting the pejorative “methodist” as the name of their branch of Christianity) dramatically improved the literacy of the working population, without which the Industrial Revolution could not have happened.
    Elizabeth Fry was a Christian, a Quaker who campaigned for prison reform. Lord Shaftesbury, also a Christian, campaigned for the abolition of slavery, and the early schools were all established by Christians (as were hospitals)
    Other campaigners of note worked hard to enable ordinary people to own property (and through that be allowed to vote) The end of Copyhold and the laying out of housing estates in our towns enabled ordinary people to buy a plot and build their own home and own it Freehold. The men who brought this about is my town were in the main Baptists, another branch of Christianity.
    Trade Unions came about through the actions of campaigning Christians, as did the Co-operative movement. The things we take for granted came about because of the actions of reformers, the majority of whom were Christians.
    It wasn’t all “Pie in the sky”. Without the actions and influence of reforming Christians over the last two hundred years the world would be a far different place.

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    1. I hope I didn’t give the impression I was ‘dissing’ the vital part the church played in social reform during the nineteenth century, which (as you rightly point out) it did. I tried to highlight the essential role it had within urban Victorian communities at the beginning of the piece, but I also think the more ‘esoteric’ side of Christianity, emphasising the Afterlife was a better world than the earthbound one, was essentially selling the same kind of dream that celebrity culture appears to be selling to the same audience today.


  3. I agree with the comment about the campaigners. Many of the most important social reforms were driven by “Christian” reformers; and church schools were crucial in bringing education to many, even if it was all too often with the aid of the strap and the cane. I don’t think we can compare things to the dark Victorian days of child labour etc; and yet it is true that there is the overwhelming sense that things are sliding backwards. For example, we seem to impose test after test on our children – and do standards get any better? No, I think, we just have more forms and less vision. We can say that our recent forebears had jobs for life; limiting maybe, dull, maybe, but secure. I don’t think many feel secure these days.

    I will tell you what I think, with an odd illustration. When I was at school I read a play called “The White Devil” by John Webster. Webster was a keen observer of evil and despair and doom. Maybe he was a psychopath, I don’t know. When I read that play, I had the very clear sensation of an undercurrent, a low threatening, unpleasant noise which was humming away, it was a neural recognition that IT WAS ALL GOING TO END VERY BADLY, of everything coming slowly and inexorably off the rails.

    I have the same sense looking at Britain in general. Look at our politicians: who amongst them is of moral stature and intellectual rigour? I’d say Frank Field and then struggle. Posh boys greedy for power and a pay off in the City, or lunatic friends of the IRA and Hezbollah. Look at this week. Look at our BHS – more than a billion pounds withdrawn from the business, the pension fund with a black hole in it, and 11,000 people losing their jobs. How does that work, exactly? The banks go wrong – we bail them out. The man in the street loses his job – we cast them aside as flotsam and jetsam. I could go on. But I will spare you all.

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    1. Amongst other things, you’re right about school tests – as a farmer would tell you, just because you weigh a pig every day doesn’t mean it will get fatter. However, the current school-testing regime is not about testing the kids, it’s about evaluating the teachers, which is why the teachers don’t like it. But the ‘pig analogy’ still works – if you keep measuring the teachers but still don’t do anything about the ‘weight’ of skills the kids pick up, then it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
      In defence of current teachers, over the past few decades they have had a breadth of curriculum imposed upon them which has had more to do with political correctness than with teaching kids how to learn, which is what teaching should be about and probably what most good teachers really want to do. The quality of the current school output, even the ‘outstanding’ ones, tells you all you need to know – they can all recite the horrors of the Holocaust or the sequence of Henry VIII’s wives in fine detail but can’t tell you that six nines make 72 – I think we all know which is most useful everyday skill in the real world.


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