The Times (the British one) has opened its archive from 1785 to 1985! Although it’s free for a limited period only, this is something I’d be willing to pay money for. The Onion’s Our Dumb Century, a collection of faux newspaper front pages from 1900 to 2000 occupies a favourite and much-reread spot on my bookshelf. This is its real-life analogue… if only they’d release it on a DVD or something easier to browse.
One of the earliest articles in The Times reports on the execution of Marie Antoinette, the copy a perfect imitation of the style of the day, complete with broken type and s’s which look like f (Hmm… sorry, it was the style of the day. The Onion and Pierre Menard have really addled my brains :)) Continues on through the the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the heydays of the British empire – my favourite historical fiction period – Flashman, Jack Aubrey and Dr. Maturin… now I can see it as it happened, through the eyes of ye olde Times. Of course it won’t be a neutral point-of-view, but you know it – this is actually an improvement over the supposed NPOV of objective historical accounts. So refreshingly different, so current, so free of the sanctimonious hindsight bias and inevitability which plague so many post-facto accounts. Napoleon has just escaped from Elba. What will happen next? A disturbing dispatch has just come in from Rorke’s Drift about the massacre at Isandlana. Can it be true, Zulu savages getting the better of modern British troops? In other news, an exciting report of Boat Race night. No doubt someone got pinched for failing, as is so often the case, to apply the forward shove before the upward lift, and was sentenced to 15 days without the option at Bosher street police court.
Some day I’d like to teach the kids history by pointing to the newspapers of the day. Google Earth for geography. Education 2.0, here we come.
It’s not limited to news articles, but the whole deal – complete with ads, letters to the editor and other such tidbits which let your taste buds swirl over the whole zeitgeist. I particularly love the little nuggets which one stumbles upon, while chasing down some “historic” event. Here are a couple of letters to the editor from October 1942, at the height of the second world war.
[transcribed for your convenience]
Sir, – To the thousands of Government servants shivering in unheated rooms in the stone buildings of Whitehall your headline “Waste in Government Departments” is a grim pleasantry. Yours faithfully,
Sir, – I have a bumper crop of pears in my London garden. Having heard Lady Cripps’s broadcast appeal, I thought I would sell the pears and give the proceeds to the Aid to China Fund.
To make sure this was allowed I rang up the local Food Office, and was told that I should be acting illegally, as I have no retailer’s licence. I was advised to give the pears away on the principle that “charity begins at home.” Still with Lady Cripps in mind, I applied for help to the Ministry of Food. They at once passed me on to the Divisional Office. The Divisional Office immediately suggested that I try the Ministry of Food. I said I had been there, too. The Divisional Office thereupon volunteered to tackle the local Food Office themselves. As a result the local Food Office informed me that if I would put in my application in writing and deliver it by a stated time the next day it would immediately be put before the committee, who would consider granting me a temporary retailer’s licence. I asked if it would save trouble to dispose of the pears through my fruiterer. I was told that if I did so I should be acting as a wholesaler, and the matter would have to go before the Ministry of Food, who alone granted wholesaler’s licences. So I gave up that idea and applied for a retailer’s licence, and delivered my application before the stipulated hour. That was a week ago, and nothing has happened, except to the pears, which are slowly rotting.
I do not question the necessity of these restrictions. But why in such a trivial matter cannot the responsible officer give an immediate decision? Why must the buck always be passed?
Hampstead, Oct. 19.
Now I know where Monty Python and Yes Minister got their stuff