A Passion for the Past

Josephine Roberts examines the human fascination with yesteryear and her own passion for the past

| December 2012

In the details at the end of my articles in Farm Collector I’m described as “having a passion for all things vintage” – and that’s certainly true – but what’s behind such a fascination, I wonder? Why do so many of us have this fondness for old objects? “Vintage” is everywhere: clothes, cars and kitchenware. It seems that “vintage” and her wealthier older brother “antique” are big business these days, with many people prepared to pay a premium to get their hands on their own little slice of the past.

Aside from their monetary value, relics often have a special quality, as though they had absorbed the essence of past owners. A very old pair of opera glasses hangs by my fireplace. I bought them at a sale for the price of a bottle of beer. I’ve no idea who they belonged to back in the day, but when I handle them I’m aware that I’m holding something from another era, a time so different that it seems almost fairy tale-like. These glasses are a little remnant from a past time, never to be again. They may be all that remains of a person who lived, loved and was lost back in that strange place of mystery and romance that we call “the past.”

The good old days were no bed of roses

“The past”: What a place that is! Each individual’s knowledge, experience and beliefs about the past are different. I tend to think that the past was somehow a better place. To counterbalance that, I frequently have to remind myself that the good old days of 150 years ago weren’t all a bed of roses, especially if you happened to be female. I recall telling my father that I wished I’d lived in the era before the motorcar was invented. I envisaged happy horses pulling handsome carts and trotting merrily around some unspoilt rural idyll.

My father tried to put me straight. He told me of his youth on a remote hill farm in the mountains, when he’d see the horse from the village bringing coal up the steep little lane that went on for more than a mile. The little horse was sweating and puffing and lathered in foam, hardly able to stand by the time it reached the farm. “It would have broken your heart,” he told me, knowing that I, as a young horse fanatic, would have hated to see the cruelty that without doubt existed in a time when horses were just transport, and not everyone who kept them did their best by them.

He told a far worse story about a young girl on a hill farm in the snow. She was kicked in the belly by a cow and slowly bled to death by the fire in front of her family, as there was no way to get her down the hillside to a doctor in the blizzard. Grinding poverty, lack of medical expertise, high rates of infant mortality and poor life expectancy made “the past” a hard place for a lot of people.

Rose-colored glasses?

Read any Thomas Hardy novel and you will see that the 1880s were scary times for poor folk. Hunger, cold, death and disease were never far away, and a woman’s best hope was to marry someone who wasn’t too cruel. Yet when I read of pastoral settings in Hardy’s The Woodlanders, it seems as though that is how life should be. Hardy describes a time when people lived simply, making use of the resources around them, and pulled together for the greater good. He describes the scenes factually, but to my eyes the picture painted is one of haunting beauty. Surely there can be no doubt that the past certainly looked better even if it really wasn’t.