The Old Smoke

May 23rd, 2011 by Bernadette

I love the olden days. (The olden days for me started with Queen Victoria and ended sometime in the 1950s. The sixties shooed out Victorian sensibilities for once and all, but have a lot to answer for. )

I love collecting olden days stuff, and wearing olden days clothes, and even saying olden days stuff like “lawks”. I love drinking tea out of art deco china cups. On the walls of my flat I hang speckled mirrors decorated with hand painted crinoline ladies. My jewellery box full of mourning rings filled with dead people’s hair; I have been known to wear a top hat.  I visit the sites of old plague pits. You get the idea.

But I am mostly very glad that I don’t actually live in the olden days, and that I live now. For reasons of hygiene, contraception, painkillers, tarmac, microwave popcorn,and the right to vote, amongst others.

I have spent most of this last week in the olden days (specifically around the 1850s) as I’ve been doing research for the new Penny Dreadful show Etherdome. I went to the Old Operating Theatre in London Bridge, and came over a bit peculiar, thinking about people having their legs removed without anaesthetic with what looked like a pair of rusty secateurs caked in someone else’s blood, whilst biting onto a piece of wood with what was left of their brown rotting stumpy teeth, screaming in agony for hours, then bleeding to death, and all this because they had the misfortune to be poor, accident prone, and born then. There were etchings of people having gallstones removed that made my gallbladder shudder in fear. They haunt me still…

Since I have to take nurofen if I blow my nose too hard, it was difficult to imagine the relentless agony of having your appendix out with nothing to help you through it apart from a brandy and a few reassuring words from your moustachioed surgeon. Ugh. Made me feel lucky to alive and healthy and I realised that I don’t want anything to ever hurt me ever.

I also visited the Dennis Severs house, which is bloody brilliant. The upstairs is like climbing inside Charles Dickens head and finding out the floorboards inside his head are squeaky and uneven; there are real cobwebs festooned with dust (impressive), plus every room smelled strongly: cloves, orange, lavender. Gareth said it reminded him of his Nan’s house. I loved how dark the interiors were, they embraced the gothic gloominess, the walls were black and midnight blue, there were stuffed dead animals everywhere, there was a real cat (who had thus far avoided being stuffed, probably too fast for them) and the fire was lit. I was instructed ” to meet this house halfway, with your imagination, ” and did so gladly, you can’t touch stuff, you aren’t given potted historical facts to make it easy for you, you are supposed to be quiet. I loved how strict it was. I’m going back next week.


So, I do love the olden days, but mostly for the aesthetics. It certainly was not a time to be anything other than a rich white man if you knew what’s good for you. Even then, you’d better stay healthy or you’d find yourself strapped to a steel table biting your own tongue off whilst a worried man poked at your innards with a dirty spoon.

I realised that I love now, the 21st century, mostly for the anaesthetics.

I had been thinking about health in a more general way the last few weeks as I have finally totally given up smoking.

I developed from a never-tempted non smoker, to a once-known-to-smoke-whilst-brushing-teeth dedicated smoker to a only-when-I ‘m –doing- a -show –but- then- I chain –smoke smoker. Now I am a non-smoker. Really. Weirdly I just don’t want to. I feel like I’ve got away with it for long enough, and I don’t want to actually get cancer, or have a face like a pickled walnut, or have to lug around an oxygen tank, so I starting running and stopped smoking, and inevitably I now feel awful and tired and have giant spots, that I dreamt were the bubonic plague.

My visit to Victorian times weirdly helped me through the tricky three weeks of not smoking, and I even managed to do the whole of the Pumphouse project without a single drag.

But I miss it. Smoking is cool. I know I’m not supposed to think/say/write that. But it is. I’ll never do it again, but I look back on it fondly. As I said, after what I have seen this week, I don’t want anything to ever hurt me ever.











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