It was the wood-burning stove in my living room that got me thinking about this. It’s a small black cast iron box with a glass front and you burn logs in it. People ooh and ah when they see it, and think of it as an extravagance on my part. It’s true that it’s not necessary – I’ve got central heating – but it’s really nice on those cold winter nights to see the flames dance, smell the woodsmoke and feel the heat.
Yet, not long ago, everyone had either open fires or stoves – my Granny had a range in her Glasgow council flat in the 1950s. Central heating is better: cleaner, less hassle and warmer. The fire, once essential, has become a luxury for the privileged.
Electric light is great – we can work and play and read into the night and it’s so easy to switch on and off. So why is it that everyone I visit these days has candles lit? Candles don’t replace the light bulbs – they’re only there for atmosphere. Again, a once-essential item has become a luxury.
There are several more examples: riding horses, travelling by ship, even having a bath are less convenient than the modern equivalents – cars, showers and aeroplanes. But people love them, and they’re seen as demonstrations of wealth.
The ultimate in poshness these days is probably sitting in a cast iron bath by candlelight in front of a roaring fire, having just come from a day’s riding and about to pack for your ocean cruise. Yet all of these things are all from the past.
The next thing that may be relegated to the same status of luxury item for the wealthy might be the book. I have lots of books in my house – three big bookcases just in the living room and a few more dotted round the house, and although I’ve read most of them I mainly like them for some more subtle reason. There is something comforting in being surrounded by things that have value and nobility. Individual books might not survive the centuries but the work will; my life seems transient by comparison. It adds to the atmosphere of my old Victorian house – that too will still be here when I’m dust.
But the quickest and easiest way to read a book now is on a Kindle or similar device. My pal might tell me in the pub that the new book by Blah DeBlahblah is brilliant and I can be reading it that night on the way home on the train if it takes my fancy. People like such simplicity and convenience, so I see a future in which the ebook is the norm, and a bookcase is less a repository for knowledge and more a display of social standing.
And I’m ambivalent about the whole idea – who’s to say whether it’s a good thing for books to be cheaper and easier to get in a virtual form? – surely it’s the words that are important and not the medium. Yet my emotional attachment to bound pages remains.