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Old days, lost ways

My grandmother lost four children. Born in the 1870s, she lived the perilous life of a respectable married woman of the working classes in the early part of the 20th century. My mother, her seventh and last child, arrived as a welcome surprise in 1921.

Childbirth was the Janus face of love’s consequences: joy or death lurked nine months after your short ecstasy. No wonder they took sex so seriously. If the beloved survived labour and delivery, the ordeal was often too much for the child. How did they, did she, cope? She talked very occasionally to me, with wet eyes, of little Annie, who died at five of a heart problem. But the babies—it was too hard to talk of them. I was a very little girl, and talk of babies was too close to talking of childbirth. She would not, in her reckoning, have wanted to spoil my innocence with such things. I remember her always as very dignified: tall and very old, white hair plaited and coiled into a neat bun.

Her house was small and very neat. Tasks were done to an unbreakable routine: Monday washing was one thing my Aunty Winnie rebelled against. The daughter-housekeeper for many years, she insisted on using the local laundrette as soon as it opened in the 1950s. But the polished brasses at the fireplace, the hearth-risen fruit bread at Easter, the Dickensian stout-and-brandy-laced Christmas pudding, were all still the way Grandma did things.

I was thinking of all this because of a very good program, The Frontier House, to be screened by the ABC over this month. In The Frontier House, reality TV treads some familiar territory, previously seen on The Forties House and The Edwardian House. These exercises in historical reconstruction are the acceptable face of the reality TV phenomenon. No bedroom/bathroom cams, no puerile competitive tasks, no audience voting. Just interesting reminders of our grandparents’ struggles. Seemingly minor things making you think hard. How clean would we have been without running water, even cold running water? Without toilet paper?

Three families were selected from 5000 applicants to spend five months in Montana, from spring to late autumn, based on an 1880s US government scheme that granted lots of 160 acres of frontier land to people who could stay on them for five years. Many such ‘homesteaders’ abandoned their land—the three modern families were to be assessed at the end on how ready they would have been for the bitter six-month winter that was about to fall. There was a Californian millionaire with his wife, three children and 15-year-old niece. Then there was a churchgoing Tennessee nurse with her teacher husband and her son and daughter from a previous marriage. The third family was an African-American father and son who were going to prepare for the son’s marriage to a white social worker halfway through the series. It got very interesting. The millionaire’s wife, teenage daughter and niece got very upset at the historically authentic no-make-up rule. All the women were scandalised at the menstrual arrangements: no disposables—yuk!

I was settling in, comfortably despising the millionaire’s family, when a few things happened to change my mind. I started to like them and to loathe the Tennessee woman, who would have been a perfect extra in The Crucible—bad-mouthing neighbours and generally behaving in the way you just wish that people wouldn’t when they are so damn upfront about loving the Lord. The African-American family were great: hardworking and peaceable, they built courteous links that made up for the rancour between the millionaires and the Bible-bashers. Then a member of the Native American tribe who had owned the land, until it was stolen from them, was brought in to provide some game and to remind the participants of the evil treatment of the original owners. That, by the way, was the only game the participants ate: hunting was now forbidden under state laws in summer, deeply annoying the millionaire, who
wanted to hunt to provide for the family. In the end he was placed second.

Of course he was robbed. The way that that family managed to bend the rules showed that they would have made shift with anything available, but the historian-assessors were rather inconsistent in what they considered important. The Bible-bashers were hopeless—their marriage in tatters, the woman’s constant carping, jealousy and mean-spiritedness giving a useful window into why some Americans seem to find it hard to just get along with each other. The winners, the newly married couple, would likely have had all the problems of a frontier childbirth. The millionaire would have survived because, as David Attenborough points out in the marvellous series The Life of Mammals (Wednesdays at 8.30pm on ABC), adaptation to your surroundings and food source is the key to survival.

We hyper-adaptable apes have evolved to the point where we have art, poetry and Jerry Springer. We thrive on conflict, or perhaps when I say ‘we’ I mean whoever wins. At that point we start identifying with the winner, and that is the key to our success. And to the peril of our souls when we forget the losers. 

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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