Simpler, Quieter Days

We’ve already discussed here that football crowds in Edwardian England were the biggest concentrated peaceful gatherings of human beings permitted by authority since ancient times, that football went around the world faster than rock and roll would later do, and that the game as we know it is a phenomenon of urban industrialization.

But its novelty and originality are hard to illustrate, especially when you have modern football culture as a backdrop laughing at all those funny black and white men in their baggy shorts and moustaches. Simpler days when life was slower and respect for tradition elders leaving their doors unlocked loved their mum etc., and isn’t it nostalgic about all the fan violence of the seventies.

So here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine a boy born into a family of agricultural labourers in north Wales in 1820. If he lives a long life – let’s say 90 years – here is what he’ll have seen:

  • the coming of railways
  • the invention of the telegraph
  • the invention of the iron steamship
  • the invention of the telephone
  • the invention of the typewriter
  • the invention of the motorcar
  • the creation of the modern industrial city
  • the invention of flight, both aeroplane and airship
  • the invention of the machine gun, smokeless rifle, dynamite, gelignite etc
  • the invention of radio
  • the invention of photography, both still and moving picture film
  • the creation of the modern Post Office
  • the creation of the modern civil service
  • the creation of the modern welfare state
  • the invention of modern paper from pulp
  • the invention of the fax machine

I am forty this year, and my life has seen the computerization of industry, the arrival of the internet, and…

..and that’s about it. Offices of 1968 are entirely familiar to modern eyes, as are shop interiors and transport options.

By the time our 90-year old child of the land dies, horse buses have gone from London streets and 70,000 people can get into Old Trafford without Parliament panicking or calling out troops.

He’d have lived through a time of genuine change and tumult, cultural overhaul and population movement, and seen that window of time in which Britain was where the future took place.

Football is part of this – remember that the first floodlit match took place in Sheffield in 1878, and throughout that first growth period of the game, the northern cities were, quite straightforwardly, the cutting edge. How fast it all was, too – league football was an accepted part of national life within 20 years of the FA Cup’s shambolic first season.

And when the northern cities lost that edge with the coming of World War One, so did football. The growth sports of the interwar years were speedway, athletics and sitting about in cinemas. The football flywheel spun on, generating Highbury and other, less famous stadium extensions. But after about 1930, nothing significant would change again until the coming of Sky and the Premiership. (You could, of course, argue that the ending of the maximum wage was “significant” but it didn’t change the look or the balance of the game until television money made that possible, and that had to wait until the 1990s).

One possible way to look at it is to say that the game between 1870 and 1990 was the product of an industrial, urban culture, but that the game since 1990 has different roots, leading to a different feel and look to it altogether.

In other words, it ceased to be Billy Wright’s game, and became John Barnes’s.

The great miracle of the game, of course, is that it illustrates how new cities, of unprecedented size, populated by people wrenched by economics from their centuries-unchanging rural fastnesses, could, within almost no time at all, generate their own culture, ways of doing things, and organize themselves on their own scale peacefully.

All of that was up and running by 1890. And over by 1990. The old days, the working class, the terraced houses and pubs and football and chip shops, lasted barely three generations. Of those three, one arrived, and one left; only the middle generation spent a lifetime in it.

If Lowry had blinked, he’d have missed it.

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10 responses to “Simpler, Quieter Days

  1. Interesting. So all this ‘progress’ is nothing.

  2. Well, not “nothing”, but I would argue that the common impression people have now that life is faster and more complex than in a Victorian city is false.

    Now I think about it, didn’t the narrator of “Three Men In A Boat” complain about the frenetic pace of the nineteenth century?

  3. The modest number of real changes in my lifetime were unsurprising since we were told all about them in advance in our childrens’ comics. (I didn’t watch the moon walk, for instance; I’d read the Eagle.) It’s a pity, mind, that we never did get commuting to work by gyrocopter and moving pavement.

  4. It’s maybe a little unfair to compare 90 years with your 40 – a life that began in 1919 would be the same and that allows quite a lot more, including major medical advances, which are quite life-changing.

    This issue though of technological change compared through the ages used to (might still, not read much for some time) exercise economic historians, in that total factor productivity growth, which is (at least insofar as it is caught by the numbers) a measure of technological change, doesn’t seem that fast in the industrial revolution compared to now (it was more than had gone before). Arguing that there was fast technological change but in a very small sectors. Some of your inventions I’m not sure the 90yr old man in 1910 would have seen, unless he was very wealthy – a fax machine (I looked it up – there was some kind of version apparently in Europe) or even a telephone?

    On the other hand the industrial revolution seems such a step change that its hard to believe the numbers are wonky. David Landes makes a lot of catty comments in his wealth of nations book about believers in this thesis, IIRC.

  5. I agree with much of what you say, particularly wrt misguided nostalgia about a simpler past; but I’m somewhat sceptical of the whole ‘we live in an age of technological stasis’ meme and have blogged about it before.

    I know that a lot of the technological changes of the last few decades have been incremental rather than completely new — you can argue that whether it’s a couple of channels of black and white TV or dozens of channels of widescreen, high-definition, digital TV viewed on a plasma screen, it’s still really the same thing from the POV of the user. And the mobile phone is a less profound change than the telephone. But when you can film something on your mobile phone and upload it to YouTube, surely that represents fairly profound technological change? Whether it’s protests in Tehran or just a kitten doing something cute.

    And if you made the fairer comparison of looking at new technologies of the past 90 years, the list would be rather longer:

    artificial fabrics
    plastics
    aerosol cans
    antibiotics
    talking pictures
    colour film
    television
    programmable computers
    the jet engine
    the helicopter
    motorways
    supermarkets
    nuclear weapons
    quartz clocks
    space travel (admittedly not for most of us yet)
    portable recorded music
    fax machines
    mobile telephones
    video telephones (or at least video chat over the internet)
    computer games
    GPS
    genetic testing/engineering
    MRI, electron microscopy etc

    “Offices of 1968 are entirely familiar to modern eyes” – perhaps the real test is what the modern office would look like to 1968 eyes. I can’t imagine what my reaction would have been if you had shown me an iPhone even 15 years ago.

    However. I do appreciate that you’re mainly making a point about the Victorian city, so perhaps I’ll stop labouring the point now.

  6. I’m not sure about the iphone. I used an Apple Newton in 1992, and it was fairly obvious the way things were headed (albeit it not with Apple for 15 of those)

  7. Gosh! Well, thanks, everyone, especially @Harry and @Matthew for the substantial objections which I’m going to consider at length. This is why I blog.

  8. I might actually agree with you James, although where does one start in making comparisons? It seems to me that the ability to travel more than 10 miles from your home, via the railways, must have been one of the most amazing things, more than being able to speak on the phone to someone in Japan. But I don’t actually know what proportion of the population had used the railways by 1900, sometimes it is lower than you think.

    It seems undeniable that technology is now more quickly adopted across income levels (within and between countries). This means technological change for the rich has probably been slower than for the poor. Richard Vinen, of new and slightly disappointing Thatcher book fame, in ‘History in Fragements’ notes that swinging London was seen as being in the vanguard of change precisely because all of the major issues, such as adequate food, housing and security, had been solved, and people could worry about fashions. But in fact life for a well-off 20yr old in London in 1960 has probably changed less compared to their parents’ in 1930 than any other place in Europe.

  9. “life for a well-off 20yr old in London in 1960 has probably changed less compared to their parents’ in 1930 than any other place in Europe”: unless very well off, the disappearence of servants.

  10. You’re right though- look at the literature of the times. Just compare George Eliot and Charles Dickens- most of Eliot’s work is set in a bucolic Britain, almost unrecognizable to modern eyes. Everybody knows eachother; Eliot delicately wove a web of village society, wherein each individual character’s history is unravelled before the reader’s eyes. Compare this was Dickens- all industrial squalor and grime- teh chaos of the city…a quick sketch of appearance is all that’s needed to make judgement upon his moral woryth/motivations and life etc…