Opinion

John Bird: Stepping back in time made me see modern Britain’s not so bad

I could not put out of my mind the violent energy it took to make the past happen. Thank God we do not live in a Victorian world anymore...

A few days before Theresa May announced her snap election to give herself a mandate I was in a theme park called Victorian Town. Not the usual series of exhibits and rides but where you start at Lloyds Bank; there we turned our £10 into two shilling and tuppence in old money. You pay a few pennies for a ride on a horse, a ploughman’s lunch, or a printed newspaper etc. The small money goes a long way and is in itself a brilliant way of educating children into the change that has hit the world of money in just over 100 years.

So in these few days before May’s announcement I could forget contemporary Britain down at the enormously meaningful working museum world around Ironbridge and Telford, with us staying in an old mill in Coalport, converted to a YHA youth hostel.

The tour starts with going into a vast room that sets the scene of the working conditions of the days of the Industrial Revolution. It was deafening. The sound of the flattening machine that pounded the red hot rods of iron was rhythmic but overbearing. And a film recreating the life in a furnace and factory was overwhelming.

This was the life of our forefathers when you worked until exhausted, for six days a week

Men rushed with the long hot rods forward to the pressing machine and it took such energy; mixed with the heat and the noise it almost caused me to cry out. This was the life of our forefathers when you worked until exhausted, and then slept deathly and carried on the next day; possibly for six days a week.

I could have cried, so painfully had they caught the suffering through labour. I had worked in factories with foundries and remembered the earth-shattering sound of the steel guillotine and the presser. But this image was even more painful.

We walked out to go to the bank to begin the trip. I could not put out of my mind the violent energy it took to make the past happen. And how out of that grew our now rusted, broken, industrial past, replaced by different kinds of work.

My children bought contemporary sweets from the times, and postcards from the printing shop. I bought them flat caps which they wore proudly until one was lost in leaving our hotel a few days later. And we wandered round to the old school with the desks in one long row, and the slate boards, looking like iPads.

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A carver entertained us with his life in carving, now at 74 retiring to make what he wanted to carve for himself. His work was so careful that it was amazing that he could find work in the 20th and 21st-century. But he could and did, replacing worn-out bits of 18th and 19th-century works in wood in country houses.

We spent many hours with my children caught by the whole mixture of trades and dead industries, mixed in with cafes, pubs, haberdashers or drapers – where we got the flat caps – and the giant dray horses to carry us about in a cart. Yet I could not put out the fire and brimstone life of the working man and the drama of their work, and how out of all this comes our current state of affairs.

But back we came to normalcy and to the announcement that Theresa May is calling for a snap election, announced on the morning of our return.

I am sure I was not the only one not surprised. So many people talked about May not having a ‘mandate’ because she was not voted into office that it was bound to affect the arguments.

How she was not voted into office is beyond me. We do not run a presidential system over here. We vote for the party, or used to, and the winning party, having decided their leader, decides who leads them and therefore the government.

So many big events in British history were decided by PMs who did not lead the party at the time of an election win. In terms of significant history for instance Churchill’s rise to PM in 1940 was not decided by a general election but chosen by his fellow MPs in a coalition government.

Americans have always had elected royalty and we seem determined to move that way

But we seem to get more about personalities, shifting our system towards the US, with probably Thatcher and Blair being the most important modernisers of the now-Americanised form of government leader. Yet earlier one of the biggest swings in electoral history saw Clement Attlee, dull and boring but kindly, sweep even Churchill into the margins of history.

How times have changed. The Prime Minister is no longer the first among ministers but the first in the country. The CEO of government and all of us.

Americans have always had elected royalty and we seem determined to move that way. Which is a pity, as if we elect ourselves into believing that one person rather than a team of experts – hopefully – can protect and enhance our democracy.

Thank God we do not actually live though in a Victorian world. We would have to be worked into the ground, be worn out by 40, have no holidays and no clean underwear. No social security and MPs and Lords riding roughshod over us all! As for falling ill in the street: I much prefer a ride to an overcrowded hospital in a clean ambulance than on the back of a milkcart, gardener’s wheelbarrow or any other
available appliance.

Perhaps a visit to Blists Hill by Telford to the Victorian Town should be compulsory for all people who want to complain about our inadequate world. It was a frightening time; The Good Old Days existed not.

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet: @johnbirdswords

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