Universal suffrage, the trade union movement, and modern conceptions of human rights among other things have brought us – at least on paper – into a world where each of our voices has equal value, and where each of us are free to forge our own destinies. All of this freedom and potentiality and still we hanker after the fantasy of a past classical utopia like a dog returning to its vomit. In recent years, years of economic uncertainty incidentally, our popular culture has turned its gaze backwards to a time it imagines was somehow better than the present. Unemployment is as high now as it was in the 1980s when our televisions fetishised the wealth of Texan oil barons, the inequality gap is now as wide as it was in the 1920s, and child and food poverty have returned to the levels of the 1930s and 40s. In every part of Ireland families are finding it increasing difficult to make ends meet, and our culture is bowing down before the altar of a romanticised image of the 1920s and la bonne vie. Every Sunday evening I find myself in front of the box bemoaning this paradox.


From Downton Abbey, where the last vestiges of the Georgian country manor are played out against an inter war backdrop where the virtues of privilege are extoled and social change presented as a sin, to Mr. Selfridge, where the great and the good are the owners and the workers are petty, quarrelsome, and dangerous, our entertainment is awash with a longing for something that never truly was. The landed and the privileged of the early twentieth century were responsible – collectively – for a social caste system that engineered poverty as yet unknown in the world, and for the manufacture of two global wars to further their ambitions for ever greater wealth and privilege. Now working people in council houses, the rental market, and in mortgage arrears gaze upon them on the small screen in wondrous awe and aspire to shop, like them, in Brown Thomas. What is this? Is it simple escapism and the welcome relief of the fantastical or is it amnesia unto death? Can we so admire Harry Selfridge and yet loath the very mention of Denis O’Brien’s name? On paper we have all but returned to that world of inequality and gross injustice, and still, with television licence fees paid, adore how the Earl of Grantham overcomes the fiendish plots of his servants.

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