WHEN the church bells rang out in Toronto on New Year’s Eve 1899 I was somewhat puzzled when my uncle Charlie assured the family gathering at our house that the 20th century would belong to Canada. As I was nine years old at the time I did not argue with him but I was very glad that Canada was to have it, whatever it was.
Three years before I had been presented with a bronze medal, not for scholarship or good conduct or even regular attendance, but because it was the Diamond Jubilee of Goad Queen Victoria. She was our gracious Queen who lived in Buckingham Palace and would see that no harm came to her subjects across the seas. I did not imagine then that in 1949 I would find people in London, Ont., arguing against the City Corporation accepting the statue of the Little Queen which had first been uprooted in Dublin and then offered for nothing by the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic. But then in 1899 we had never heard of Displaced Persons.
The 19th century had been a period of immense upheaval and social change. The railway had superseded the stage coach, gas and electricity had forced their way to the front, the harnessing of steam had given birth to the new industrial era, and the innocent bicycle had established itself as the servant of the adventurous and the joy of courting couples.
But as the bells rang out the 19th century and rang in the 20th the people on this planet heaved a sigh of thankfulness that the era of change had come to an end. The pattern of life was quite clear and we could see it stretching unaltered into the decades ahead. It is true that in the very year 1900 itself a couple of crazy American brothers named Wright actually flew in a glider—but what of that/ Anyone watching the children in the park knew a kite could stay in the air, but who wanted to travel in a kite?
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others that 10 years or so back the internal combustion engine had been invented, and what was to prevent the Wright brothers putting such an engine into a glider? As if a kite could carry the weight of an engine plus a human being! But that was exactly what the Wright brothers accomplished in 1903. The silly newspapers played it up but then newspapers will do anything for a sensational headline.
No, we felt that the pattern of our lives was established and would not alter in anything but slight social changes which are inseparable from a world that is growing up.
Admittedly a newfangled device was being patronized by a few faddists who liked to pretend they were being progressive. It was called the telephone and, despite a lot of distortion and accompanying noises, you could hear someone at the end of a wire saying something.
A cantankerous Scot named Alexander Graham Bell was the chief inventor of this scourge upon human privacy. He came to Canada where he brought the device to a workable development and then went to the U. S. where he opened a service in New Haven, Conn., with 21 subscribers who could all listen in to the distortions and noises off and such conversation as they could pick up.
As ail Scots eventually invade London our dauntless Alexander Graham Bell went to the Metropolis and opened a service in 1879. There were exactly eight subscribers, which does not surprise me. To this day an Englishman takes up the telephone as if it might explode in his hand, while his reply to a call is to take off the receiver and say: “Are you theah?”
But in 1900 we had a gracious way of living in which there was no need or desire for the telephone. For example, on New Year’s Day my father took my brothers and sisters and myself to call on friends and relatives. No less than three of my father’s friends asked him if he would like a drop of cough medicine and in each case he said it might do his cold good; all this with much winking and laughing which were almost as puzzling to us as the fact that father had never shown any signs of having a cold.
Once a Living Theatre
In those days a young man would wait outside the church on choir practice night in the hope of seeing his beloved Arabella emerge, much as the aristocracy were waiting at the stage door of the Gaiety in London. A lover did not call up his girl and say: “What about it, baby? Same place, same time tomorrow?” He walked in those sylvan glades where she might be, or passed her house at a time when she might be reading on the veranda. They wrote letters to each other—and a letter is something that one can read a hundred times, whereas a telephone conversation dies as the receiver is replaced.
I can remember the hilarity with which we saw the firs! motor car appear on the streets of Toronto. Horses went crazy and tried to climb lamp posts or hurl themselves through shop windows. Perhaps the horse was wiser than the rest of us and saw in this panting rattling monstrosity the death sentence to its long four-legged reign.
There was no windscreen on the automobile, the speed was about 15
miles an hour, and whenever it stopped, which it did every few miles, the driver had to lie on his back underneath its belly. An amusing novelty which would have its day.
It did not occur to us that by the time the 20th century had covered half its allotted span the motor car would not only have become the greatest mass murderer in all history, but by its numbers would slow up traffic in the great cities to something far slower than during the era of the horse.
In 1900 our amusements were clearly defined and the people of that time did not see any necessity for change no matter how many hundreds or thousands of years the world might go on. We had the living theatre where such stars as Henry Irving, Forbes Robertson, Lewis Waller, Sarah Bernhardt and Richard Mansfield used to bring their companies. We had choral societies that would rehearse for months and then burst forth into “The Messiah” or “Elijah,” sometimes with soloists direct from New York.
Paderewski played in our concert hall, and Caruso sang. There were authors, too, who came from New York and London and read extracts from their books, but we were more for music. In fact we were all musicians of sorts. The girl who couldn’t play the piano was practically out of the marriage market and a young woman had to be a pretty poor bungler not to ensnare her victim as he turned the pages and his face brushed against her golden tresses.
We belonged to amateur operatic societies, choral societies, church choirs and even minstrel shows. Edison had turned out a gramophone but we preferred our own voices to those which came squeaking from the wax cylinder. There was also a good deal of card playing in such games as whist and euchre although the all-powerful Methodist Church frowned heavily upon it and threatened us with hellfire.
A Torrent of Machines
In short, we made our own enjoyment, developing such talents as we possessed, and in our leisure time we read books. Dickens, Thackeray, Scott, Mark Twain, Victor Hugo, Wells, Bennett, Shaw, Wilde, Tolstoy, Balzac, Galsworthy . The standardization of wireless, the talkies and the funnies had not yet arrived.
It is true that just before the 20th century was born there was a newsreel flicker picture of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight which showed the two boxers shaking as if they had palsy, while streaks of light cut crazily across the screen. In 1903 we were mildlyamused by a full-length flicker picture called “Life of an American Fireman,” but our interest grew when it was followed by “The Great Train Robbery.” The moving picture had begun its relentless march.
Politically, there seemed no cause for undue worry. The Kaiser was throwing his weight about in Europe and the Boers were being disagreeable to the British in South Africa, but trade was expanding and there were toasts to 100 years of peace as the new century was
Yet now that we can look back on the first 50 years of the 20th century we can see that never was an era born under such a malignant star. In two world wars, and in the years between them, we saw the development of scientific murder raised to a level that no madman ever dared to dream of. We watched the war against the human body and the human soul being waged with a cruelty even the Dark Ages could not equal. Under the stimulus of war we saw the airplane
annihilate distance and shrivel the world like a walnut.
The machine age was on us like a torrent motor cars, radio sets, talkies, gramophones, television, refrigerators, jet planes. Now, in 1950, we are a race of twiddlers and turners in an age of gadgets. Science had two great victories which will never be forgotten—the discovery of penicillin and the explosion of an atom bomb over Hiroshima.
It would be childish to sneer at the fierce pace of scientific development in these 50 years. We may assume an attitude of lofty superiority toward the jingle-jangle world of today but which of us could honestly say that we would like to be without the motor car, the telephone, the cinema and the radio? The mistake has been to confuse these adjuncts to life with life itself.
Nor can it be argued that the human spirit has declined despite the horrors of the two wars. Youth has not lost ts sense of adventure nor grudged its rich young blood to save humanity from tyranny and a thousand years of darkness. Nor has the human conscience been mechanized or bludgeoned. Fitfully, but earnestly, men in every part of the world are feeling toward a brotherhood of man.
Then what can we see in the crystal? Watchmen, what of the second half
of the 20th century? In the year 2000 what will the then author of the London Letter have to say about the completed century?
It could be the most glorious 50 years in history if only men would realize that this is one world. Science has it in its power, if it could be relieved of devising bigger and better methods of mass slaughter, to create an age of plenty and of moderate leisure. Atomic energy rightly directed might well reduce the working hours by a third and thus give some meaning and some chance to the education which we crowd compulsorily upon our children.
Children Will Be Taller
However, I cannot see the years 1950-2000 as a period of harmony and calm. The struggle of totalitarianism vs. individualism has to be fought although the decision can only be one of compromise; the struggle of Communism vs. Christendom has to be won or lost; and it is hard for Christ’s voice to be heard above the clang of war foundries and the roar of battle planes.
Domestically our successors will have to find a way for management and workers to combine as partners without impairing the rights of either. And somehow the nations must achieve either a common currency or complete
convertibility of currencies. With some confidence I predict that medical science will not discover a cure for the common cold.
There will be new forms of art which will be hailed alternately as the last word in genius or the very climax of vulgarity. Neither will be true, but that will not matter. There will never be another Beethoven, Wagner or Shakespeare because in their spheres they left practically nothing unsaid. So the creative mind will search for new heavens and new hells and will find them.
Children will be healthier than in 1900 and when they grow up they will be taller than their parents or grandparents. Unless they are destroyed by atomic bombs or germ warfare people will live longer, thus creating an economic as well as a pathological problem. The age of retirement will be later than now, which will bring the elderly in conflict with the middle-aged.
The flying motor car is almost a certainty, so that if there are no wars we shall still be able to rely upon a progressive reduction of surplus population.
What of religion? In 1900 the Church was the centre of our activities —today it is a solace to some, a social duty to others. To a greater number it is a building that one passes on the
way to the country. We are too proud of our scientific achievements to make that ancient sacrifice of a humble and contrite heart.
“The glory of a man is his mind,” we cry, forgetting that the mind without the soul reduces mankind to the level of an educated monkey.
Life will go on, more complicated all the time as the relentless inventiveness of scientists confuses the simplicities of existence. Yet it will be in those simplicities that men and women will find their happiness as they have done since the beginning of time.
Young men and women will fall in love, marry, and gaze in joy and awe at the miracle called a baby. They will look upon the moon and the stars and thrill to the ecstasy of beauty. They will sit by their own fireside as the rain beats against the windows and will know content.
Strangely enough they will be glad that they were born in the second half of the 20th century. They will turn up scrapbooks or albums of that quaint old world in 1900 and laugh at us who, did not know that we were so ludicrously out of date. And because they could not know how good life was in 1900 they will think they are fortunate in being so very, very modern.
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