When I tell people that I am a librarian a common response is “What a nice job – do you read books all day?”. Oh how I laugh! Having said that, working in Special Collections probably does give me more hands on access to physical books than most 21st century librarians, and occasionally I even glance through the texts (full blown reading, of course, is strictly for lunchtimes only). And sometimes, the most seemingly mundane items can contain something of interest, as in the case of this one issue of a reader’s digest type journal that happens to survive in our Bissett Collection. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the July 1946 number of Black and White:
Who could fail to be charmed by such a glorious mix of articles, spanning a breadth of topics from the weighty “Will The Soviet Prove Unbeatable?” to the psychologically testing “Do You Fly Into Tempers?” and the obviously vexed question “Is the Art of Mimicry Dying?”. But – perhaps being jaded by too many meetings talking about web migration, discovery platforms and q codes – the one which most caught my fancy was “If you lived in 1909″ by Raymond Postgate (for the record – left wing author, creator of the Good Food guide and father of Oliver Postgate of Bagpuss fame). Written in 1946, its subheading reads “Thirty-seven years ago the world was as peaceful as a Sunday afternoon”. I made myself a metaphorical cup of tea, and read on.
Postgate remembers what an Edwardian day was like from getting up in the morning (no electric light to switch on), getting dressed (stiff collars for men and whalebone stays for women) to going out into the street – “First of all, so much less noise, and different noises. The ring of cycle bells, the jingle of harness instead of the honks and yowls and bangs and crashes of motor traffic”. He recalls the security, the exciting new discoveries such as wireless and flying, and the political and social reform.
The positive is all nicely balanced by the negative aspects, however – the smell of the over dressed and under washed; dust, flies and dirt in the street from horse traffic; dirty and stale food (no refrigeration) leading to sickness and death; the insurmountable class divide, the poor living “piled in slummy streets, hideously overcrowded, without gardens, unhealthy, dirty and underpaid”.
The poignancy for us and Postgate is the hindsight of knowing that this will all change with the First World War in 1914: “It was going forward steadily to better things; and it was utterly unprepared for the appalling disaster which struck it full in the face … But they did not know, and you would not have known in 1909, what was coming. Then there was peace. I find, in the memoirs of the time, a curious recurrence of recollections of fine afternoons and evenings. The Edwardian age, like others, was no doubt an episode in the history of class struggles. But it was an episode, it seems to me, played out in the tranquil light of a setting sun.”
Anyway. Back to work. Where’s my computer?