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.

Winter Work 1883

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.

Portrait of a Peasant Woman 1882

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.



Martin H. said...

Yes, these would have been my ancestors, too. Although they would have been toiling in Dorset. Those on my father's side were shivering on or close to exposed stretches of the Solent. They were mariners and sail-makers. Check out my great great grandfather. See any similarities?

Gavin McL said...

I don't have many ag labs in my family tree. They were either sailors, middle class or coal miners. I keep a small piece of coal on my desk to remind myself that however bad work gets it's not as bad as spending most of the daylight hours several hundred feet down a hole.
The pictures are great.

Mike C. said...


Well, I don't see many similarities, if you mean "Cap'n Jack Hodges"! He looks rather prosperous, though perhaps that's an illusion. He must surely already have broken free of true poverty. To be able to afford a photo -- to be able to imagine a need for a photo -- rather puts him into a different league, I'd say, even if still a modest one.

When I say "peasants", I mean it -- my Herts great grandparents were very poor indeed, living in rural squalor, scraping a living as field labourers, straw plaiters, servants and charwomen; Hitchin was, in the days of coaches on the Great North Road, a byword for godless rural depravity, and was attracting the attentions of missionaries from London.


You're not alone in keeping that piece of coal -- I've known several people who are "one generation and a free state education" away from the pit who do the same, or keep a Davey lamp.

I think we do well to remember, at this time of year, how far we have exceeded the expectations of our forebears, even those within living memory. The acceleration in human history since 1800 is truly awesome.


Kent Wiley said...

Very interesting set of pictures. The paintings especially are wonderful.

What the hell, I'll bite. I've often wondered about "progress." Seems as if things have changed a lot, but I question whether they're actually "better." I will grant you that basic necessities are more readily available to more of the population, but there seems to be a concomitant degradation of the natural world to the detriment of all species. Perhaps our bestial nature has become more refined, but there is more psychological terror coming from all directions. It is undoubtedly true that we "moderns" expend far less time and energy on physical labor in order to maintain our existence. Instead we have our own baggage and demons to haul around in our attempts to find a way through this minefield we call Capitalism. Materially we are more endowed. Who can rightly say this is "better?" Our Ag Lab ancestors probably would. But neither they nor we will know the turmoils of both to be able to compare.

(Not trying to be argumentative - only hoping to join the conversation.)

Mike C. said...

Well, to a certain extent I agree with you, Kent, in that there's a lot of scope to screw everything up between now and the extinction of the sun. Civilisations rise and fall, etc., and one large comet slamming into us could really take the shine off.

But I reject the idea that progress is an illusion. Unless I had the good fortune to be born wealthy, I can think of no previous time in history when I would rather be living. You and live better than kings (apart from the slave girls) and, unless you believe the Ancients had superpowers we have somehow foolishly mislaid (doh!), I see very little evidence of things ever seriously having gone into reverse.

There is no sense in which being hungry, cold, scared, tired, living in filth and dying young of vile diseases is "better" than the opposite. 150 years ago, that was the norm in Europe.

I doubt very much that Britain and Germany will ever go to war again, for example. I doubt that Japan is still nurturing dreams of conquest in the Far East, and I doubt that China really wants to dominate the world through military power, either.

The discovery and mass distribution of domestic electricity, alone,is progress of a staggering order! Sure, the oil will run out, but does anyone doubt that human ingenuity can and will find a solution to that? It's what we do.

Most apocalyptic scenarios are based on "what ifs" that turn out to be baseless projections. My favourite example, which I used to use to calm my anxious son, is that 19th century prediction that within 50 years -- given the inevitable increase in horse numbers to service the transport and supply needs of an increasing population -- we would be drowning in mountains of horse dung.

I don't mean to come over as Dr. Pangloss (and I hope my good friend Science Man doesn't see this), but I do prefer to focus on reasons to be cheerful...


Kent Wiley said...

Your optimism is appreciated, and I can't really refute any of your points. But perhaps my pessimism is misconstrued.

Because I'm uncertain about the validity of the "better" label for our times does not mean that I feel we live in "worse" times either. Nor do I see the world descending into some post-apocalyptic cesspool. The times in which we live are immensely different, from even 50 years ago, and I guess I'm trying to see history as a lateral movement through time instead of a rising progression.

The world changes materially as we exploit different resources. But human cruelty - and compassion and intelligence - doesn't seem to decrease. Does this make me a pessimist, or perhaps more of a Taoist - or just an Idiot?

Mike C. said...


Be assured all idiots are always welcome here!

I think, from an academic / philosophic p-o-v you're probably right. The present moment is all there is, and all there ever will be, and our experience of it is not so different from that of an Ice Age hunter contemplating a broken spearpoint and thinking, "Fucking great! Where do I get another one at the weekend?"

I simply don't accept that being able to buy ready cut, frozen mammoth steaks at the corner shop at 10:00 in the evening is not an advance ...

(Actually, this all ties in rather neatly with Roy Harper's "Lord's Prayer" on the Life Mask album, mentioned a few posts back -- worth a listen).


Kent Wiley said...

Ah, I feel at ease then.

You're right, when you look at individuals, there probably are "advances." As we like to say around here: "I love humanity! It's people that SUCK!" (Well, it seemed appropriate for the moment. The mind is a scary thing...)

I guess I've got to check out Roy Harper, since you and Dave have both gone on about him recently, and his playing w/ people who I like a lot. Not "dinosaur" music is it, by any chance? (The term a young co-worker used for "classic rock" many a year ago.) Guess it wouldn't matter, 'cause I've never heard him.

Mike C. said...


I'm never comfortable making musical recommendations, and Roy Harper is not a "mainstream" artist or even person (how many people can you think of who acquired a debilitating disease by giving mouth to mouth resuscitation to a sheep?). He would have been filed under "folk" in the record store, but under protest.

Those 70s albums are his claim to fame ("Flat Baroque & Berserk" through to "Bullinamingvase") and "Stormcock" is widely reckoned his classic album. Not having listened to them all, I'm no in a position to judge.

If you're a fan of that Brit Blend of pop & rock & folk, he's definitely worth a listen. As is John Martyn -- an even stronger recommendation, though in his case one classic album (Solid Air) is enough to satisfy most people.


Dave Leeke said...

Sigh . . . I grew up listening to these people.

I'm not sure if Mike was at the free Hyde Park gig where the Floyd first played "Atom Heart Mother" - a lot of his contemporaries were. They took me under their collective wing (I was about 14!). I was a young whippersnapper allowed out for a few hours to go to London on my own.

Roy Harper was virtually the star of the show.

I never understood cricket as a game but listening to "An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease" by Harper still brings a tear to my eye. And don't get me started on John Martyn.

Kent - I take it that you seem to be a gentleman of good taste - you are in for an absolute treat of a weekend if you download some of these albums.

Personally, "Bless The Weather" is my JM album of choice and a track by Harper called "Hallucinating Light" gets me every time . . .

. . . and, and, and . . . I could go on forever.

Have a good weekend.

Kent Wiley said...

Thanks gents. Sounds like something I should hear. Not sure about downloading albums, as in I'm too cheap, but I'll try to find the music one way or another.

Dave - it's only Tuesday! But thanks for the well wishing. Hope you and yours have a pleasant time off from school.

Gavin McL said...

Talking of Roy Harper. He was on TV on Friday night appearing in festival brittanica. The program was a rather speedy dash through post war music festival culture. If you didn't see it you might enjoy it, I imagine it's available on BBC iplayer


Martyn Cornell said...

Yup - my Cornell GG grandfather was an ag lab in Cherry Hinton, Cambridgeshire. It was HIS son that went up in the world - became a bricklayer and moved to Willesden, North London. A couple of centuries before that, however, the family (then called Cornewell) appear to have been Cambridgeshire yeomen, so there seems to have been a bit of downward mobility first …

Mike C. said...

I'm all for a bit of downward mobility, Martyn -- we can't all be bricklayers!

Interesting that you have Cambs agricultural roots - did you come across any connections with the coprolite digging boom of the mid 1800s? I'm very interested in that at the moment.