Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Edwardians

The longer we live in Canada, the more I appreciate the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which runs, at least on radio, some really interesting programmes. I don’t know about the TV because I can never get to watch it, what with younger members of the family claiming precedence. Last Sunday, the science show, Quarks, featured a discussion about information and how it flows. Teleportation came up, and one scientist mentioned that there had been a successful teleportation of a beryllium atom. Can a person be next? Quite possibly.

If we can be teleported across a spatial dimension, could we also be moved across time? If so, would you like to travel backwards or forwards, or remain firmly rooted in the present? I guess it depends on being sure that you could come back to the present. Perhaps before your Mum knew you’d been off somewhere without telling her. If she only knew!

I’d like to go back to the era of the Edwardians, that gilded time, in Britain at least, between the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the First World War in 1914. I suppose a reaction to the severe propriety of the Victorian times, ruled over by the ‘widow of Windsor’, was only to be expected---but, boy, did they go for it! Led by the new King, Edward, who had been waiting for the throne for sixty years, there was a sort of louche vulgarity which I find appealing in its honesty. Those people just had a good time without worrying about what other people thought. It reminds me a bit of Hong Kong: sometimes flashy and tasteless (to some people at least) but with no inhibitions at all. There is something fresh and vital about the approach to life. Go for it!

There’s an excellent book by Roy Hattersley (The Edwardians) which is full of amusing details about this short era. For example, the ‘Thunderer’, or the London Times, discussed the well-known moral failings of the new king, saying that he had been ‘importuned by temptation in its most seductive forms’ and had no doubt prayed ‘Lead us not into temptation with a feeling akin to hopelessness’.

This must have been an intoxicatingly confident time to be alive, with still the Benthamite thought in the air that a better world was possible. No world wars, still the belief in the essential goodness of man. And then came the Kaiser, and the lights really did go out all over Europe, as Sir Edward Grey had so presciently predicted. And then came Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and their ‘willing executioners’. It’s hardly surprising that Existentialism started life in the Europe immediately after the Second World War, and hasn’t spread much beyond that continent. In comparison, much of North America seems stuck in time, still believing in Providence, with what appears as an almost child-like naiveté. Good books on this: Tony Judt’s Postwar; AC Grayling’s Being Good; and Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower. Tuchman in particular writes with a clarity and such deft touches that history really does seem to come alive. I think she must have almost abandoned herself to living in the times she describes so well. In her introduction, she mentions her regret at having to discard so much good material. She feels the figures from the age ‘crowding around me now as I write’. Me too.

1 comment:

Peplows said...

I feel particularly moved by this entry as we live in a wonderful Edwardian house. It would be most interesting to find out more about the age. It makes you wonder about the first people who lived in our house and whether or not they cared about what other people thought! Thank you for the recommendation of the book 'The Edwardians'.