The Good Old Days by Gilda O'Neill

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The Good Old Days by Gilda O'Neill

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Category: History
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: An evocative and authentic analysis of the lives of London's poor in Victorian times, The Good Old Days is an enjoyable and edifying read that comes with a lot of down to earth common sense attached. Perhaps a little light for the serious student of history and a little confused in its argument, it's still very much worth reading.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: September 2006
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 0670915459

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Gilda O'Neill's My East End was a big hit, part of a popular wave of memoirs from those outside of the great and the good. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I rather like these books. The everyday lives of working people in times gone by seem so much more vivid and immediate than endless tales of courts and courtiers. William Woodruff's Road to Nab End is a particular favourite of mine. In her latest book, The Good Old Days, O'Neill turns her attention to an analysis of Victorian London and in particular, the rather gruesome lives lived by its poorest people. For these people, the days weren't good at all.

O'Neill, with her East End background, is perfectly placed to write the book. She was born in Bethnal Green. Her grandmother ran a pie and mash shop and kept a spider monkey in the house. Her uncle was involved in the shady worlds of illegal gambling dens. She writes about this world with a familiar ease that is both affectionate and rueful. It's easy to relax into reading her, easy to imagine the lives she is describing. There is also a lot of contemporary source material in the book, mostly from court records, social reformers and some of the more sensational journalism. It's to O'Neill's credit that she can use so much of the terribly strangled Victorian writing, full of awkward sentence contruction and peculiar euphemism, and still render a book so easy to read.

And people's lives were awful. The poor were piled into filthy tenements, often with no permanent home. Disease had a stranglehold on life. Women prostituted themselves simply to earn enough coppers for a bed - or even a floor - for the night. Men, women and children worked at backbreaking, soul-destroying jobs and didn't earn enough even to feed themselves. For swathes of people, sifting raw sewage for trinkets was the only source of income. The average life expectancy was just 42. In one appallingly sad commentary, O'Neill lists the worldly possessions of one of Jack the Ripper's victims: "a comb, a handkerchief and a scrap of looking glass", all concealed in a flannel bag worn under the unfortunate woman's skirts. She didn't have anywhere else to keep it, you see. Is it any wonder these people were reduced to alcoholism and drug addiction? Or that incest was rife? Or that some turned to crime?

However, it's not all agonising reading. There are some marvellous vignettes, all told with O'Neill's very quiet, but very rich, vein of humour. There are the women who fought topless in the streets. Most women owned only one blouse, so they tended to take them off before getting down to a fight, in case of damage. There is the phony clairvoyant, hilariously exposed by Edwin Lankester, a colleague of Charles Darwin. And there are anecdotes from O'Neill's own family, who were all there at the time. There's some wonderful stuff, flowing over with authenticity.

I was at first a little confused by O'Neill's argument. Most of the book is spent illustrating parallels between Victorian England and today's society. While the socially excluded Victorians drank gin and smoked opium, today's alienated binge drink and inhale crack cocaine. While Victorian newspapers printed scaremongering stories of the dangerous classes, so today's rags enjoy whipping up frenzies about ASBOs and "chavs". The Sweet Fanny Adams case was echoed by the recent Soham murders. Women are still traded for sex. It's a lot of book simply to say plus ca change. Yet in conclusion, O'Neill is - quite rightly - adamant that a return to these good old days would be a tremendous backward step, and reminds us of today's free health service, contraception on demand, and longevity. There's a contradiction there at first sight. I think what O'Neill is trying to point out is that we have made enormous strides in the last century. Those on the bottom rungs of today's society live longer, have access to healthcare and contraception. Many fewer live the lives of utter degradation so common in Victorian times. Rather than looking back to a mythical golden age, O'Neill wants us to look forward. She wants us to applaud the advances we've made but without ever forgetting that there's still an awful lot more to do. Looking back with this kind of nostalgia means going back, and it's the wrong direction. It's an honourable argument, and a reasonable one. It just could have been made more clearly.

Nevertheless, The Good Old Days is a friendly, homely, interesting read. The comparisons drawn between Victorian and today's inner city lives, between the media-induced public panics of then and now, are all valid and all worth the time spent drawing them. There are some irresistible scenes, some funny, some sad, some edifying. O'Neill comes across above all as a very sensible woman. The Good Old Days is probably not a book you'd want to keep and return to, but it's more than worth reading. Buy it if you are the kind of person to pass books along, but don't ignore it at the library if you are not.

A weightier read for those interested in times gone by is Having It So Good by Peter Hennessy, the story of the 1950s.

This book was kindly sent to Bookbag for review by the publisher, Viking Books.

Booklists.jpg The Good Old Days by Gilda O'Neill is in the Top Ten Books About London.

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Magda said:

I am reading a Victorian-placed book at the moment - but it's a crime mystery. This one actually looks quite good.

I think I have been put off by abuse 'porn', though I did read one or two, and was disappointed (as in Angela's Ashes for example).s