Friday, March 11, 2011

Bad Old Days

There is an inherent nostalgia to inhabitants of the British Isles. It's as if the weight of all that history, and of all those dead, hangs so heavy it forces us to contemplate the past. With that contemplation comes the false glow that memory affords. The past seems a kinder, less harsh place than the one we live in now. 'The good old days' are often harked back to, and the idea that there was a gentler, more innocent time in comparison to the brash and brute world we now populate.

Of course, there was no gentler time. There were different times, that's all, each with its benefits and disadvantages. Much of the research for my books has been done in the recent past, and it is clear we have never been healthier, safer, more tolerant or wealthier than we are now. Though admittedly this does not mean we are any happier. Yet these facts don't halt the nostalgia industry and the columnists and commentators who make their money by claiming we're going to hell in a handcart, and the scaremongering newspapers who see only demons, and create a sense of a mythic Golden Age. In turn, people do actually end up believing there was some halcyon time when life was better.

Florence at 17
Thankfully, stories do emerge every now and then that puncture both the public consciousness and the idea of a glorious past. This week it was the mesmerising story of Florence McClellan. She was 17 and living near Manchester when she fell pregnant. Much now is made of feckless young single mothers claiming benefits - they're one of the biggest hate figures for the aforementioned newspapers and their splenetic commentariat, a walking example of all that is wrong with the modern world.

Of course, young women have always fallen pregnant out of wedlock. Often they were forced to marry the father of their child. Millions of unhappy marriages began thus (and many happy ones too. My grandmother gave birth to my father four months before he was born and not, we later found out, four years like she told everyone). If the father did a 'runner', some were blessed with families who rallied round and supported them. Others, like Florence McClellan, were viewed as having brought shame and were banished from the home. She was put in an asylum. Not because she was mad. Simply because her family were ashamed of her. You see, in the 'good old days' women were often locked up in institutions for no good medical reason. People just wanted them swept out of the way. No reminders, no shame, no problem. Many of these women were merely suffering from what we would now call depression (I can hear the nostalgists shrieking now: 'Depression? Depression? In my day, you didn't get depressed, you just got on with it...') Post-natal depression was actually seen as a form of mania, and many young women found themselves imprisoned in gloomy gothic buildings, alone and afraid, their baby snatched from them. Many never made it back out.

Florence did. Her child had been given up for adoption and after six months in an asylum she escaped. She couldn't go back home to the people who had cast her out, so she ran to London, scared, bewildered yet free. She set up home in the Angel, Islington - something about the name appealed and she was due some 'help from above' - took a few jobs, met a man, had children and started a new life under a  different name.

Fifty years on and the past, as is its wont, would not be denied. On a building site near her old home in Manchester, workmen found a skeleton which belonged to a woman estimated to be be between 16 and 30 years old when she died half a century ago. The police issued a public appeal for any missing persons. Florence's surviving family, who had often wondered what had become of her, came forward and expressed their fears that it might be her. The detectives investigated, took some DNA samples, and eventually traced Florence to her home in Islington.

Florence, today, and one of her sons
Now aged 74, with grandchildren, she was understandably shocked. And scared. She told the press she had always lived in dread of her escape being discovered and being taken back to the dreaded asylum,  even now, 50 years on. Anyone who has ever dreamed they were back in school, or some old job they hated, should look at Florence and be thankful they never experienced her nightmares. But she has been reunited with cousins and other family, and is happy to have done so. Now she says she want to try and track down the son her parents forced her to give up.

Here's hoping she does. I would like to think the fools who start spouting about the 'shamelessness' of young women who become pregnant and expect to be supported by the state, think of this tragic story before they engage their mouths. For a start, the idea that young women get in the 'family way' in order to extract money is a myth of its own. Secondly, it is much better to live in a world where women aren't banished to mental institutions for youthful indiscretions.

Not that I'm against the concept of shame. There are a few bankers and politicians and newspaper columnists who should be introduced to it. And banished too, come to think of it.


Dan - Friday


  1. This certainly puts the "good old days" in their place - especially for women. Unfortunately a lot of stigma remains in southern Africa around sexual behavior and most of it is directed at the woman. The HIV statistics in this part of the world indicate that addressing the issues openly and urgently is the only possible way to go. HIV is the one aspect were they really WERE the good old days...

  2. Of course there were also the "good old days" when England could beat Bangladesh and Ireland at cricket!

  3. When you hear stories such as that, Dan, does it make you wonder whether the developed nations' populations are the ones drinking the koolaid?

    Here's a parable of sorts going around the U.S. in an effort to explain the state of its current political machinations:

    Three men are sitting around a table in a restaurant, a union/public sector representative, a Tea-party activist, and a corporate giant. The waiter places a plate of twelve cookies in front of them. The corporate guy immediately takes eleven, points to the one cookie left on the plate, and says to the Tea-party guy, "You better watch out or that other guy will take your cookie."

  4. When I hear about the shamelessness of these young girls, I always wonder whether the father of the child was non-existent or forced to do his bit.

    I read Doris Lessing´s splendid memoirs a few years ago, and this is a phrase I´ll never forget: People who yearn for the ´good old days´ are usually those who were well off.

  5. What a great story. There are half a dozen books in it, depending on which of many paths the writer decides to take.

  6. Jeffrey - I want to remember that parable.

    Michael, I want to forget that cricket match (and remember the one in which beat South Africa;)).

    Dorte, Doris Lessing had it spot on. As Michael attests, women were given the bum deal so often in the past, while rich, white men had it easy. They don't get it quite so easy now, hence the nostalgic glow for the time that has gone. You rarely see female columnists wax lyrical about the past and its attitudes

    Tim - isn't there just? Dark secrets from the past invade the present... I reckon Harlan Coben would give a blurb for all six (only kidding Harlan!)

  7. In every society, when a pregnancy occurs outside marriage, it is the woman who is branded as immoral and a detriment to the community. No one seems to remember that it takes some involvement on the part of a male in order for the process to begin.

    After the baby is born, the father might accept his responsibility but most likely won't. Since he won't likely be contributing the child support that is deemed reasonable by the courts, then the mother has to rely on state funds and those of whatever groups help unwed mothers. The court always assumes the father can pay less than he actually can, even if the checks do keep showing up, they likely won't cove all the child needs. You have children; do you thing that people who do no have any real concept of how much they cost in daily maintenance?

    The mothers are supposed to go to work to support their children so the tax payer isn't stuck with the burden, but if the mother does go to work the child will have to be in some sort of day care facility for the children of working mothers. They are usually expensive so the tax payer has to help out there too. If the mother opts not to work and stays home to cane for her child, then the state gets charged for food, health care, housing, and a limited budget for clothing.

    In the US, mothers who stay home to care for their children are referred to as "welfare queens" who use the money they are getting from the state to buy expensive cars. Perhaps that is why food pantries are inundated with single mothers toward the end of the month as the food money runs out. Kids in these families get meat, fruit, and fresh vegetables at the beginning of the month. At the end, kids are eating macaroni and cheese three times a day.

    It is a rare church group that supports unwed mothers because they are forever with the living proof of their sin. There is nothing so hypercritical as the religiously committed who see the only sins in the world as those connected to sexual activity.

    Michael, you are certainly correct that a society without the concerns of HIV was enjoying good days. I first heard of HIV/AIDS when I was watching a news program in November, 1982. I had just given birth to my daughter and I had to have three units of blood replaced. It was somewhat concerning to hear that the nation's blood supply might be compromised.

    The United States sometimes gets carried away with its protection of freedom of speech. There is a hate-filled group of people from the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas who travel around the US demonstrating at the funerals of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their demonstrations involve screaming epithets at the mourners, declaring that the deaths of US soldiers and HIV are punishment by God for the support of homosexuality by American society.

    An attempt to ban them from the funerals made it all the way to the US Supreme Court which ruled that their activities are protected as freedom of speech. There was a successful counter-demonstration when the Westboro group tried to disturb the funeral of the nine-year old girl who was killed in Arizona when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot.

    This group is not associated with any official branch of the Baptist Church. It is primarily a group of family members of the man who set up his own church in 1991, Fred Phelps.

    Dan, the UK is to be congratulated on effectively preventing members from this organization from carrying out demonstrations in your part of the world.

    At the end of the Wikipedia article, there is a list of the various television reports and documentaries that have been done about the group by British television.

    Michael, you are fortunate that this group doesn't have the money to make it to Africa to harass the poor souls who are dealing with HIV. Oddly, the philosophy of the group does not include racism although the have labeled Barack Obama as the antichrist.