Coming Up For Air by George Orwell:
What? It was simply that they didn’t think of the future as something to be terrified of. It isn’t that life was softer then than now. Actually it was harsher. People on the whole worked harder, lived less comfortably and died more painfully. The farm hands worked frightful hours for fourteen shillings a week and ended up as worn-out cripples with a five-shilling old-age pension and an occasional half-crown from the parish. And what was called “respectable” poverty was even worse. When little Watson, a small draper at the other end of the High Street, “failed” after years of struggling, his personal assets were ₤ 2 9s. 6d., and he died almost immediately of what was called “gastric trouble,” but the doctor let it out that it was starvation. Yet he’d clung to his frock coat to the last. Old Crimp, the watchmaker’s assistant, a skilled workman who’d been at the job, man and boy, for fifty years, got cataract and had to go into the workhouse. His grandchildren were howling in the street when they took him away. His wife went out charing, and by desperate efforts managed to send him a shilling a week for pocket-money. You saw ghastly things happening sometimes. Small business sliding down the hill, solid tradesmen turning gradually into broken-down bankrupts, people dying by inches of cancer and liver disease, drunken husbands signing the pledge every Monday and breaking it every Saturday, girls ruined for life by an illegitimate baby. The houses had no bathrooms, you broke the ice in your basin on winter mornings, the back streets stank like the devil in hot weather, and the churchyard was bang in the middle of the town, so that you never went a day without remembering how you’d got to end. And yet what was it that people had in those days? A feeling of security, even when they weren’t secure. More exactly, it was a feeling of continuity. All of them knew they’d got to die, and I suppose a few of them knew they were going to go bankrupt, but what they didn’t know was that the order of things could change. Whatever might happen to themselves, things would go on as they’d known them. I don’t believe it made very much difference that what’s called religious belief was still prevalent in those days. It’s true that nearly everyone went to church, at any rate in the country—Elsie and I still went to church as a matter of course, even when we were living in what the vicar would have called sin—and if you asked people whether they believe in a life after death they generally answered that they did. But I’ve never met anyone who gave me the impression of really believing in a future life. I think that, at most, people believe in that kind of thing in the same way as kids believe in Father Christmas. But it’s precisely in a settled period, a period when civilisation seems to stand on its four legs like an elephant, that such things as a future life don’t matter. It’s easy enough to die if the things you care about are going to survive. You’ve had your life, you’re getting tired, it’s time to go underground—that’s how people used to see it. Individually they were finished, but their way of life would continue. Their good and evil would remain good and evil. They didn’t feel the ground they stood on shifting under their feet.