I hadn’t been in one of those cramped second-hand bookshops on London’s Charing Cross Road for ages. Like most people nowadays, I tend to buy my books online. But one afternoon recently I had time to kill, so I decided to goin for a browse. And I was very glad I did, because I chanced upon a quirky little tome called The Miseries of Human Life. Unable to resist such a title, I bought it at once.
Written by clergyman and author James Beresford, and first published in 1806, it is a catalogue of the ‘petty outrages, minor humiliations and tiny discomforts that make up everyday human existence’. His chapters deal with miseries of ‘the body’, of city life and country life, travel and dining, domestic and social matters. He finds a lot to moan about in early 19th century English life, but casts a droll and witty eye over it all.
Of course, two centuries on, his niggles about drunken stagecoach drivers, raucous crowds returning from public executions and the difficulties of reading in bed by candlelight, might seem a bit far from our own reality. But the essence of human life doesn’t change, and on closer inspection, it’s clear that Beresford’s petty outrages and minor humiliations are not very different to our own. Take his views on the following daily indignities…
- When you are peaceably reading your paper at a coffee house, two friends, perfect strangers to you, squatting themselves down to your right and left hand, and talking across you, for an hour, over their private and utterly trivial concerns. An all-too-familiar scenario to us in the 21st century, when we might be quietly sitting and minding our own business in a café, on a park bench or on a train, only for someone to plonk down next to us and start blabbing inanely to a mate on their mobile phone.
- A bad exhibition. Being obliged to admire a painting that is but a lurid whirl of miscellaneous monstrosities – an obscure and turbid fermentation of floundering abortions. Anyone who has ever attended an exhibition of ‘conceptual art’ will know the feeling. Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, Damien Hirst’s dissected sheep in formaldehyde, and the Tate Gallery’s notorious pile of bricks spring to mind.
- Using nut-crackers, which, in the act of refusing to seize the shell for you with their teeth, contrive nevertheless to bite your finger with their legs. We don’t use nut-crackers much anymore, but will recognise the frustration of trying to get at an item of food or drink encased in a seemingly un-openable packet or carton, without doing some small injury to our dignity.
- Losing the keys to your most private repositories, by which you suffer a double embarrassment – that you cannot, yourself, get at what you want, and that they have probably fallen into the hands of others, who both can and will. For keys to your valuable repositories, read ‘passwords and usernames for your online banking and credit card accounts’. We are always warned to keep changing these particulars, to make them complex, not to share them with anyone or write them down anywhere obvious. No wonder we sometimes lose these ‘keys’ and can’t get in! Unfortunately, the ubiquitous hackers are all too capable of gaining entry, with or without our help.
- In the room of an inn to which you are confined by rain, examining the scrawled window panes, in the hope of curious verses, and finding nothing more piquant than ‘I love pretty Sally Appleby of Chipping Norton’; ‘I am very unhappy – Sam Jennings’; or ‘Wm Wilkins is a fool’ with ‘So are you’ written underneath. This is the equivalent of being bored and going on to Facebook, in the hope of finding something amusing or interesting, only to find that your ‘Friends’ have been posting the usual mundanities about their lives or having a dig at each other.
- In going out of town, being met and blockaded on the road by innumerable gangs of the carrion and offal of the human species swarming home, in savage jollity, from a bull-baiting, a boxing match, an execution or a similar game or sport. Sound familiar? It’s just like coming across mobs of rowdy and foul-mouthed football fans, swarming around after a match, or groups of drunken yobs and yobettes pouring out of clubs late at night, being sick and scuffling on the street.
- On returning to your house very late at night, or rather early in the morning, discovering that, in the act of rapping on the door, you are rocking the cradle of an abandoned child, suspended at your knocker. Not so very different, perhaps, to coming home late at night and finding that some hapless homeless person – possibly of the migrant or asylum- seeking variety – has taken up residence on your doorstep. (Just ask a friend of mine who lives in a block of flats in central London.)
- In your walk to the city, with a morning full of pressing business on your hands—to be blockaded by endless files of Charity children or Volunteers, who either pin you up to the wall, if you keep the pavement , or compel you to escape them by grovelling through the mud. Which of us has not tried to get urgent errands done on a busy high street, only to be continually accosted by ‘chuggers’ – those teams of charity muggers who block your way and rattle tins under your nose, while trying to shame you into parting with your money.
- Just as you are setting off – with only one other person on your side of the coach – seeing the door suddenly opened, and the guard craning, shoving and buttressing up an overgrown, puffing, greasy human hog, the whole machine straining and groaning under its cargo. And when, at length, the whole beast is fairly slung in, plunged down and bedded, you find yourself suddenly viced in, from the shoulder to the hip. He was referring to stagecoach travel, but which air passenger hasn’t had the misfortune of sitting next to a very large and sweaty individual who invades what little personal space you have in an airline seat, and leaves you wondering how the machine will ever take off?
- The interval between breaking a pane of glass and the arrival of the glazier. (The aspect of your apartment being east-northeast, the wind setting in full from that quarter, and the glazier a drunkard, living seven miles off.) Ah, unreliable tradesmen who don’t turn up, or turn up late, and when they finally arrive, carry out a dodgy job. Tell us about it!
Beresford’s book was a huge bestseller in its day. Before long it was re-issued in an expanded edition, translated into French and German, and widely acclaimed as a minor classic. It is easy to see why it was so popular. Not only can we all recognise ourselves and our many little day-today tribulations, but the book allows us to laugh at them. As Beresford himself explained, when asked why he had written the book: ‘I found that to describe these teasing troubles was to disarm them of their sting’. And that is just as true today as it was then.