Posted by: billpurdue | September 14, 2014

Learning how to be Victorian

Ruth Goodman is a name familiar to fans of history documentaries on BBC TV. She has been a prominent figure in several documentary series about life during various periods in British history, particularly “Victorian Farm”, “Edwardian Farm” and “Wartime Farm”. Her knowledge of the social history of the periods of British history must be encyclopedic if her book “How to be a Victorian” is anything to go by. In the book she describes in detail about what the daily routine was like for Victorians rich and poor by describing their day from getting up to bedtime . For every Victorian, she writes that the day “began with a shiver”, because even in the wealthiest of households, fires in bedrooms were rarely lit.

 How to be Victorian

Ruth Goodman really knows what she is talking about, because in many cases, she has not only researched the subject thoroughly, she’s actually tried it herself. Take brushing your teeth for example. For toothpaste (or dentrifice as it was called) the Victorians used concoctions made up from substances you could buy at the chemist. They included powdered chalk, powdered cuttlefish bone, powdered charcoal and soot. Ruth Goodman recommends soot (it’s her personal favourite) since despite its colour, “it’s the softest of all abrasives, helping to shift plaque and tartar without irritating or damaging either teeth or gums”. (She does point out that she is wary of trying Victorian medical recipes unless she knows what all the ingredients are.) She has even tried squeezing herself into the extremely tight corsets that were fashionable amongst Victorian women in the mid 1800s.

“How to be a Victorian” is a very detailed account of the typical Victorian day, though if you’re looking for recipes, try Mrs Beeton. It’s not an especially well illustrated book, but there is a section of colour plates and line drawings in the centre and there are other small illustrations. It is however a fascinating read which I can thoroughly recommend.

Now, quite a while ago I was complaining about the introduction of self service machines in public libraries. These enable to public to return their books and take them out without actually speaking to or looking at a member of the library staff and of course they save the county councils money by doing away with some staff. At the time I remember that I was castigated for complaining about this, but I was pleased to see an article in the i paper (which calls itself “Britain’s first and only concise quality newspaper”) which is entitled “If we’re customers, why are we doing all the work”. The article is by Jane Merrick, who writes “the service industry…. Is turning itself into a non-service industry and I don’t like it”, referring to self service checkouts in supermarkets and even a London restaurant where you actually cook your own meal. She points out that her local library has turned itself into a self service branch. She says that if cutting staff costs means that the library will remain open when it otherwise would have closed, then that’s OK, but staff have still lost their jobs. She ends the article by saying “When so much of our lives is conducted in the digital world, face-to-face interaction with another human being is precious – and increasingly rare”

Well, I thoroughly agree with Ms Merrick and if anyone says that self service is progress, I will point out that ‘progress’ does not necessarily mean improvement.

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