How we view the world, then and now

I’ve reached the bit in my book where Emilie May has arrived in Nairobi to get married. It took her exactly one month to the day from setting off from Reading Station to arrive in Nairobi. I flew to Nairobi in a day – coincidentally on the same day, 92 years later because she was fog-bound for two days off Tilbury.

This set me thinking. The difference between an Edwardian and a modern woman isn’t just the solar topee and clothing, it isn’t that one of them doesn’t say ‘okay’, it’s that they think differently. Even such basic things as the perception of distance and the size of the world are different. If you wanted to get to Mombasa by sea in 1924, it took three weeks, via the Suez Canal or via the Cape and round the bottom of Africa. Astronauts to the Space Station orbiting the earth take 10 hours to get there (and hours to actually dock)and the Space Station takes 92.69 minutes to orbit the earth. It took only four days to land on the moon from Earth.  

While I was thinking that she and I had a very different view of  the world, a friend sent me an article on John Quincy Adams by James Traubmarch. In the article Traubmarch considers the relevance of Adams today and his different moral stance based on Plato and Aristotle, and a fixed cosmos – compared to our philosophical outlook today underpinned by Darwin and Freud.  After spending five years researching Adams for his book, Traubmarch concludes that Adams wasn’t like us at all. We don’t want to know what Cicero stood for to help us decide what we should stand for. We want to know what Cicero was like and what shaped him.

I want to know what Emilie May was like and what shaped her. With a firm view of Empire and Britain’s superior place in the world, Emilie May knew she was born to rule. Although there were few British, they were the ruling class and maintaining standards was important. These days such things are not material, but they do account for her actions. It was why she dressed for dinner and put the silver on the table even when living in a mud hut;  why she insisted on a British Nanny for her children (no small requirement when she lived 22 miles from a small town on the Kenyan/Ugandan border, with bad roads, no electricity and surrounded by wild animals); and why she kept distance from the nanny by always referring to her as Mrs —. Familiarity with one’s inferiors, even though they lived in very close proximity in the same small house, was not to be borne.

I think Emilie May would agree with most of Karen Blixen’s view of the English (read English aristocrats only), ironically unaware that Blixen would consider Fred and Emilie May socially beneath her and part of the noxious British middle class. ‘I always believed that the traditionalism of the English, that they themselves are always expressing, of their calmness and indifference being a front to hide their real feelings, in fact meant that they didn’t have any feelings at all; but now that I have come to know several of them better, I can see that many of them, even if emotion is not perhaps their strong point, have beneath their imperturbable calm at any rate a great deal of intelligence and a completely individual view of everything in life, much helpfulness and faithfulness in friendship – but not I think in love – and an absolute fearlessness that amounts to a contempt for death, and then a pleasant if not particularly interesting cleanliness of both body and soul, a straightness of thought and action, which I think is seldom found on average in other nations.’ (Letters From Africa 1914 – 1931)

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