Sunday, 19 December 2010
In The Bleak Midwinter
Is there anything bleaker than a ploughed field under snow in December? Yes, there is; the prospect of having to go out and work in one in inadequate clothing for little material reward. When people tell me there has really been very little objective improvement in social conditions in Britain, I have to beg to differ. I think of my ancestors and imagine I can hear them cheering the warmth, comfort, full plates and leisure their genes are currently enjoying.
This painting and the one below are quite remarkable. They were painted in 1882/83 by Sir George Clausen. You may notice that the same woman, with her antique headgear, features in both. This is because Clausen based these paintings on sketches and photographs he made on visits to the Hertfordshire countryside in the early 1880s. Not deepest Brittany, or picturesque Provence, but Hertfordshire. And note the word "peasant" in the title of the portrait; North Herts was less than an hour away by train in Clausen's day, but a century or two distant in historical time. These people are my ancestors. Yours, too, if the words "Ag Lab" feature heavily in the census records of your family.
Look, here are those women again in their quaint clothes -- Hertfordshire straw-plaiters snapped furtively from behind a window in the 1890s, probably in Hitchin. Two of my great grandmothers could easily be among them. If they look a bit troublesome, that's because they are: I recently found a court record indicting one of my female ancestors for attacking another woman with a spade. I expect she deserved it, though.
In comparison, even the prospect of driving nose-to-tail on black ice seems OK. We really have come a long way in the last 100 years. There's still quite a way to go, but don't let the pessimists tell you nothing has really changed. Yes, we're importing fresh supplies of peasants from Poland, and yes, we need to change our wasteful ways to stop things going backward, and yes, we need to spread this well-being more evenly around the world. But these things can be done.