Many would have us believe that ‘way back when’ the world was a much better place. It may not have been as technologically advanced and of course life was physically harder, but we tend to believe that they were better, more innocent times. The environment was cleaner, crime wasn’t such an issue and they were surely untouched by teenage pregnancy, binge drinking or obesity. Obesity couldn’t have existed in previous centuries because we tend to believe that food was perhaps scarce, people naturally exercised more and there was no such thing as convenience or fast food.
A private collection of books has come to light and is about to go to auction in April. There are a number of books from the ‘Self Help’ genre circa the 17th Century! And you thought ‘Self Help’ was a modern phenomenon also! Well since man first learned to communicate through the written word, many have been very keen to share their wisdom.
One of these cautionary essays that has come to light was written by Sir Walter Raleigh. Yes, the man credited with introducing tobacco and, slightly less notoriously, the humble spud. Now we all know that Walt didn’t mind anyone indulging in a fag or two, being at that time unaware of lung cancer and chronic coughing, but he was well aware of the problems with alcohol. In an essay entitled “Instructions to his son and to posterity”, he is quick to warn about the demons of drink. “Take especial care that thou delight not in wine, for there never was any man that came to honour or preferment that loved it. For it transformeth a man into a beast, decayeth health, poisoneth the breath, destroyeth natural heat, brings a man’s stomach to artificial heat, deformeth the face and rotteth the teeth”, warned Sir Walter. He goes on to say that basically with any other vice of his time there was a glimour of hope that you could be redeemed, but, “a drunkard will never shake off the delight of beastliness, for the longer it possesseth a man the more he will delight in it, and the elder he groweth the more he shall be subject to it”. This comment alone tells us that the good old days weren’t that good as obviously Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Step Programme were yet to arrive on the scene. However in a nutshell Sir Walter was saying to his son and posterity, “steer clear of the booze at all costs but happily crack open twenty Silk Cut!” suggesting that even in Tudor times drinking was a social problem.
Another book published in 1665 has this to say about over eating; “Set a knife to thy appetite and make not thy belly thy god. Be not delicate in thy diet; let thy stomach be thy sauce. Mind more what is wholesome that what is toothsome. It is poor pleasure to please the palate.” Even in the 17th Century there was a danger of indulging too often in the sweet stuff, or the ‘toothsome’ foods, as this anonymous writer puts it and he wasn’t the only one writing about the dangers of food. Francis Osbourne published a book of advice for his son in 1659. In a passage where he basically says that eating until you are too full will lead to a very uncomfortable stomach, he goes on to say, “Let no persuasion tempt you to a second repast till by a fierce hunger you find yourself quite discharged of the former excess.” His sound advice obviously didn’t filter to the masses as only very recently I was listening to a specialist on the radio who said that most people in the Western world are at least five meals behind when it comes to elimination. Essentially what you had for breakfast today won’t see the light of day again until, perhaps, tomorrow evening at the earliest.
In that same book Mr. Osbourne also warns his son against marriage, women in general and the monarchy while another volume from 1692 with the writings of Jaques du Bosc advises everyone to steer clear of lewd and debauched women. What is a lewd and debauched woman? Well according to Jaques it is those who do not take into account their aging faces. “They do not consider that the wrinkles make a reckoning of the years upon their faces, as the figures do of the hours upon a dial”. There was no botox around back then to fill in the cracks when you began to fall apart. Other volumes contain observations of litter, filthy streets and horrendous odours in the cities; hardly a clean and good environment for going about your daily business.
And just when you thought that smoking and its ills had escaped the eagle eye of those in the 17th Century you find that King James I wrote a ‘Counterblast to Tobacco’. In it he described the smoking habit as “loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain and dangerous to the lungs”. Three hundred years ago King James I knew that this was bad for us and yet no one listened.
In the 19th Century Charles Dickens wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” We could quite happily use this quote from a Tale of Two Cities and you would be forgiven for thinking it was written in 2008.
It all just proves the theory that there is no point looking back. You are currently living in the ‘good old days’ of tomorrow so get busy enjoying it!