When was the Best Time to be Alive?
Published in The Manila Times, 24th May 2015
[The OpEd editor deliberately did not change the author’s Britticisms in his contributed essay.]
AS an historical novelist, I am often asked when was the best time to be alive. My readers expect me to say 7th century Byzantium or 17th century London, or some other time I write about. My answer, though, without a moment’s hesitation, is now. The present has its ugly side, no doubt. But no one in his right mind, who is not already dying, should ever want to live two weeks before now, let alone two centuries.
Let us take the ancient world. I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about it. I would like to see it. But would I want to live there? Certainly not. My readers who fantasise about living there always imagine they will be in the higher classes. Well, the higher classes were never more than half of one per cent of ancient populations. Those living in the cities were never more than five per cent. The other 95 per cent lived and worked on the land. They were usually slaves or serfs, or otherwise unfree. They hardly ever cooked or bathed. Their work was backbreaking. Even without banditry and famines and plagues to carry them off, their life expectancy at birth was about thirty.
Look now at the cities. Perhaps one in twenty of those living there were in easy circumstances. The rest were effectively beggars. Their life expectancy was lower than in the country. Or look at the higher classes. They had baths and slaves and pretty clothes. But they had no tea or coffee or proper dentistry, nor any effective pain relief. They had no spectacles. When the black rats turned up with their fleas carrying the Pasteurella pestis bacillus, the rich died just as horribly as the poor.
Let me now look at my own experience. I have reached the age of 55 in apparently good health and with most of my teeth. But I had a bicycle accident when I was 18. This was nothing serious at the time, and the bruising soon cleared up. In my middle twenties, though, I noticed I had increasing difficulty with passing water. I ignored this, until the difficulty became alarming. I then went to my doctor, who referred me to the local hospital. There, I was anaesthetised and carried into a clean operating theatre. Ten minutes with a surgical pipe cleaner, and I was carried back to my bed. I was in hospital for three days. I came out with the problem sorted, and it has never re-turned.
Carry me back to a time as recent as the 19th century. What then? Well, the constriction was unlikely to have killed me outright. But it would have led to repeated bladder infections. One of these would have reached my kidneys, and I would probably have died in my early thirties. I would have died in pain, and been put into my coffin already a shrivelled skeleton.
Or I look at my own family. My wife would have died in childbirth, my daughter with her. If she had survived all her other problems, my mother would certainly have died last February. As it is, she is back home and moving about. My mother-in-law would have died five years ago of a blocked intestine. Or my best friend would have died in 1983 of a bad appendix.
Rather than tell ourselves how much better things were in the past, let us recognise how lucky we are to live in the present. The only better time to be alive than the present is surely the future – and many of us have an excellent chance of seeing that.
© 2015 – 2017, richardblake.
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