When I was kid, we got visitors in the village every spring and summer. These were usually relatives who’d moved away long ago, but there were also friends and friends of friends. I have a vague memory that, before I was six, my grandfather’s boss from his time in South Africa spent a summer with us. I know other people – from the bigger cities or from abroad would come and spend summers in the village, living the simple life.
The verdict was always the same, and best summed up by the friend of a friend my mom had house-sit for her some years ago “It’s like going back to a simpler time. It’s like a little slice of paradise?”
Was it a slice of paradise?
I confess that in my mind the time I go back to those long summer days. In the nostalgic mind it’s always ninety degrees out, and the air is full of the scent of roses and ripening grapes. There is no sound save from, very far away, a song – so distant that you can’t tell anything beyond its being music. And I’m lying in bed, on crisp sun-dried sheets, reading.
But if I stop squinting quite so much, I’ll hear the mosquitos buzzing, and your choice is between turning out the light and not being able to read, or keeping the window closed and sweltering. And the summer nights is when the garbage disposal plant near us – well over capacity – chose to burn the garbage outside (instead of inside the plant with filters.) Since that plant processed all the waste from the city of Porto, you’d wake in the morning to the village blanketed in impenetrable smoke that stung your eyes and made it impossible to breathe.
If you go back before that, to the early seventies or late sixties, the village was even more… picturesque. For instance, there was often an animated soccer game in the street in front of grandma’s house. This is because there was maybe a car every three hours, and you could hear it coming a mile away. This was before the garbage disposal plant got placed about a mile from the village, and when things were still so safe my brother used to take his books and transistor radio and go study in the middle of the woods and even I and my little friends could go on long unsupervised hikes.
There were village festivals. On summer nights – it seemed like every night to me, but hey – there were often celebrations and parades up the street. People gathered on their stoops to talk.
A slice of paradise!
Except that we were one of the very few families in the village which had a bathroom with running water. But even there, given the difficulties of installing such things in a 100 year old house with rock-slab walls, the bathroom was outside the kitchen door. This meant in winter (or even fall) at night, we used the guzunder which is what my friend Kate calls those useful porcelain (usually) containers that go under the bed for an emergency. Not your more pleasant setup, even if part of human life for many centuries.
And because the only way to wash clothes was by hand, in the wash tank (in grandma’s house a square stone thing big enough to drown several grown men, at mom’s house only big enough to drown a small child. Weirdly, my brother did almost drown in grandma’s, only they caught him in time and revived him. Dying by drowning in the wash tank was fairly normal for kids my generation and older. Every few years it would happen.) and could only dry them on the line, most people only washed/changed clothes once a week. (We changed at least underclothes every day because mom is like that. She dried the clothes in the kitchen, too, if it was too cold outside. I remember lines strung back and forth everywhere except over the stove and the kitchen table. Since that house, back when I was very little, was a shotgun apartment – kitchen, hall (where my brother slept) bedroom (where my parents slept. I slept next door at my grandma’s, with my cousin Natalia) and front room/mom’s workshop, this meant that the kitchen was 1/3 our living space and the gathering place. Right under the dripping clothes.
Grandma’s kitchen next door had a Franklyn stove, but that was the only heating around. Sometimes, in winter, if you left a glass of water on the bedside table, there would be a thin crust of ice on it in the morning.
Even in my mom’s house – bathrooms inside, electricity in every room, and more than just the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling or, in other words, the height of luxury for the village – there was no heat. (Part of this is that despite being a climate not un-akin to London, the North of Portugal thinks of itself as temperate or warmish, so they don’t think anyone needs heating. This is a recent illusion. My friend across the street lived in a Victorian that had radiant water heat – must have been the only heated house in the village. I used to go over to sit on the radiator in her room.) I spent a great part of my adolescence reading in bed, not because I was tired, but because I’m very cold-intolerant.
None of this is to complain understand. If you squint at the village a certain way, it was a paradise. It was certainly much better than most of humanity has had for most of human existence.
Squinted at another way… well… when the community organization started running the neighborhood (yea, exactly what you’re thinking) one of the few things they did that I could find no fault with was arrange to have showers installed in the nearby school, and to have them open to the public every Sunday with hours for men and hours for women. This alone must have improved the health and longevity in the village exponentially (I moved here shortly after, so I haven’t tracked.) Before that, there were people who simply didn’t have the facilities to bathe (not even the hip bath in front of the fire we had at Grandma’s. There was a shower too, but it wasn’t heated and the only one who used it in Winter was dad who believed in the old Roman method of forestalling colds. In my parents’ “new house’ built 1971, we had running hot water. And inside, too. The height of luxury.) Most of the village didn’t use to bathe in winter at all, and the smell in any enclosed public gathering had to be smelled to be believed, particularly when you consider most people heated their houses with wood or coal.
We had cholera every summer and some sort of flu bug that killed all the elderly people in winter.
But the landscape was beautiful, the area pristine, and generally (except largely for me) the people who survived all this were fine specimens, because they had to be or they’d be dead.
Why am I going into all this?
Years ago, in the bar, I got in an argument with a fellow writer who said longevity hasn’t improved at all. Humans have always lived about this long, if they survived infancy.
This is, pardon me, horse pokey. Which of course doesn’t prevent its being the currently prevailing archeological theory.
She “knew” this because she had studied an affluent village in Bavaria in the eighteenth century. Head>hits>desk. Guys, even then and there, there were differences. You can say longevity was sort of the same if you eliminate all deaths by misadventure. Because if you don’t eliminate those, there’s a hundred ways you can die, from a hangnail or an infected tooth. (Which is why you shouldn’t eliminate those. Antibiotics dramatically changed human life. Yours truly would not have survived childhood had she been born 20 years earlier.) And even then, it’s close to our life now, only if you think that most people die in their sixties. (No, they don’t.)
I can’t even begin to imagine how people can believe this, unless people my age in the States lived at a much, much, much higher level. I met exactly one person over eighty when I was a kid, and let me tell you, he was not like my parents who are still largely active and self-sustaining, nor even like my grandmother who lived independently and self-sufficient until 87. Go back just twenty years from that – when I was little, and sixty was “very old.”
Maybe people in the little village were unusually sturdy. Maybe – and my mom and dad maintain this happened in their childhood – childhood conditions were so horrific that only the strong survived, and so those lived maybe to their seventies.
Maybe. Or maybe there was the usual slapdash way of recording births and deaths, and people were assumed to be a lot older than they were. (It was said that Shakespeare was “very old” when he died, but worked out, he was about 58, that is seven more years than I am now. For that matter we’re not sure EXACTLY how old my dad is. The only thing we know is that he couldn’t have been born on his official date of birth. And this in a fairly bureaucratic society.)
My son volunteers at the hospital. The only people coming in dying of old age, and in conditions when they usually can’t cope are in their hundreds.
When I was a kid there was doubt people could live till their hundreds. The few cases, usually featured on TV, “Auntie Isolda lived to be 100 by eating a pound of dried carp a week” my dad would scoff at and say that they’d got her birth registration wrong. Now, it’s not even unusual.
Now, does everyone live to that age? Well, no. The picking off starts at round my age, and continues at a merry pace, but there is enough of a percentage hitting 100 that it’s not that big a deal. (The hard and fast unbreakable line seems to be 114 right now.) It is, to my “feel” of it, the equivalent of hitting 74 in the village in the old days.
I was talking to Charlie Martin about this the other day and he said that we seem to have roughly doubled the expected human lifespan but no one has noticed.
No one has noticed because the theory, of course, is that “people lived about the same time.”
They didn’t. I didn’t grow up in the eighteenth century. I didn’t grow up in a real third world country. But I remember when people died and of what. I also remember, for that matter their finding the skull of the Tsar of Russia and finding he had had a permanent abscess in his mouth. Guys, this was one of the wealthiest persons in the world.
Abcesses, uncured infections that left weak points, people who did die of little trifling colds…
No matter how much you tell me life expectancy past childhood was about the same I’m going to say you’re full of it.
It’s like telling me the village was a slice of paradise. Oh, sure. It was pretty. And we loved some parts of living there – but it was not comfortable, hygienic or very healthy.
You see, there are different ways of looking at data. For instance, I was reading about the thirties in England (yes, THAT backburnered project.) It was a scholarly booklet put out by Oxford (I think) and there it was how after WWI people came back, and they were displaced from their traditional occupations in the countryside, and they were living in urban slums and oh, the horror. But in the chapter on appliances they forgot this and talked about people – even lower middle class people – buying domestic electrical appliances. Oh, also, rural estates were overrun with suburban houses built for the working class.
At which point I wondered if they read themselves and how they squared the contradiction.
But they weren’t interested in that. They were interested in running down modernity and capitalism. Hence, older times were better.
This is partly noble-savagism (totally a word) partly eco-savagism (totally a concept. It’s the desire to believe that if we all went to a “sustainable” society where the most advanced concept is the grass skirt there wouldn’t be massive deaths or famines) and partly Marxist-savagism (which is the belief you need wise top-down leaders to prevent you from being rooked out of paradise as your ancestors were.)
It’s also a strong dose of “I want to believe.” I don’t know what the heck it is in the human mind that makes us wish to believe in a lost paradise. But something there is, and you can’t beat it down with a stick. (Give me a stick large enough and I shall move the world. Ahem.)
This is the same thing that has led people to SERIOUSLY claim that hunter-gatherers were healthier. They base this on a few skeletons found. Brother! Of course they were healthy. Given how hard the life of modern primitives is, you had to be healthy to survive to be of advanced enough age to merit a burial. (Let alone the fact that most of the tombs we found are, of necessity, royalty. That corrupts every such study up to the very recent time because (if what I read in that book about burials in London was true) paupers were often buried in ways that either left no trace or would be er… interesting to excavate.)
Me? I accord my ancestors the same respect I accord members of other races. I don’t think they were idiots. No, they weren’t always in control of their own fates. (Dad’s ancestors have a fatal – or often near fatal – attraction to lost causes.) They lacked that control the same way we lack it. I might believe I know exactly what’s wrong with the economy (too much regulation, too much money printing, too much wrong-headed fiscal theory) but the truth is that I can’t just tell the idiots in charge to move over and let me drive for a while.
But to the extent they could make choices – agriculture over hunting gathering, indoor plumbing over lack thereof, motors over oxcarts – I trust them to have made choices rational beings would make.
And I don’t believe they needed wise leaders, any more than I need a wise leader. I believe most of them could match wits with most leaders throughout history (most of whom, after all could figure out which end of a queen to set the crown on one try out of three.)
You can tell me it’s been a long slow way down for humanity from some imagined paradise. And I can tell you that unless you believe in noble savages, you can rinse your assumptions and start again.
In some regions, for some brief time, you might have had near-paradise. But compared to us? We are healthier and wealthier than Pharaoh in all his glory. Caesar’s legions couldn’t secure for him the comforts of someone who lives on welfare in most regions in the US. And I believe PJ O’Rourke about the ad in Pravda in the final days of the Soviet Union, “Will trade state assigned apartment in Moscow for sleeping bag over grate on the streets of New York City.”
And it would be a poor trade for the person getting the apartment in Moscow. Even if you throw in all the comforts Charlemagne enjoyed.
I’ll take antibiotics, running water and the lack of need for a guzunder, thank you so much. And I’ll take the possibility of living to 100 or near there.
You can keep your splendid primitives. Me and mine will do what we can to stop you subverting civilization.
Like the village when I was a child, the past is very scenic. Provided you don’t have to live there.