Friday, December 14, 2012

Party Like It's 1699

Who knew?  Newgate Prison, party central

The local venues are booked up with holiday parties and the caterers are busy.  Remember the office party scene a while back on the television series "Mad Men?"  I guess we can forgo the shearing off of limbs for excitement, but many around the world will have a middling good time, especially if there's an open bar and a conga line.

It seems that with the so-called Mayan Apocalypse looming on the 21st, one might be justified in partying with abandon.  Not necessarily with the abandonment of all hope, but maybe with anticipation that the ending of an age (the 5000-year plus baktun) and the beginning of another may be a positive reason to celebrate, if you tend to be an optimist.  What has this era been and where has it brought us?  The period that saw the development of  fixed human settlements and developing political entities is generally agreed upon as beginning centuries before 3000 B.C.; now, 5000 years later, we are at the peak of the Industrial Age.  We can take some pride in generally good progress despite cycles of collapse followed by dark ages. 

Cycles indeed:  the first well-known civilized state, that of the Sumerians, seems to have collapsed around 3200 B.C. due to long droughts, resulting in the depopulation of about 3/4 of cities, towns and villages.  The Mayans later built an impressive urbanized group of states, sometimes even united under the bully du jour, but after two hundred years of good rainfall and the resulting population explosion, they succumbed to drought also (400 years' worth!).  As to what the next era holds for us, we can consider facing similar climate disasters coupled, as always, with overpopulation and environmental damage, with something new in the mix: civilization's dependence on oil for the transportation of everything.  Other materials can supply electricity, heat, and even plastics, but there is no good all-around substitute for powering transport, and we are halfway through our supply.    The rest, in greater demand than ever, is increasingly harder and more expensive to retrieve and refine.  That in itself may be more of a change in history's direction that we can wrap our minds around.

So, what to do -- the year's running out and we just may be running on empty too.

Scene:  Newgate prison in the old City of London, five stories of unforgiving stone, steamy and rank in summer, cold and damp in winter, around the year 1700.  On the facade, rebuilt after the 1688 fire, stand four statues portraying Justice, Liberty, Truth and Mercy.  Ironically, none of these virtues were to be found anywhere inside by the hapless inmates.  The sheriffs officially in charge sublet their responsibility to "Keepers" who in turn extracted money from the prisoners, their families and friends.  Upon arrival, the accused criminals (career felons, petty miscreants, the falsely accused, or just debtors) immediately had to pay a bribe or were stripped of their clothes and shoes.  Iron shackles were removed only if that service was paid for. Any clothing, sheets or blankets they may desire could be bought.  A better accommodation or bed was also  available with payment; otherwise it was a group cell and a space on the floor.  Three to six pence a day per regular prisoner was provided by the government for food (stale beer and old bread); those who could bring money in could actually feast well and get what passed for medical treatment at the time.

But, despite a deplorable present and not much of a future -- there was somewhere, not unlike the aliens' cantina  in Star Wars, they could go to if they had "liberty" privileges and were not important political prisoners:   the in-house Newgate Tavern, where at all hours men and women prisoners could carouse and down as much rum, brandy, wine or beer as they could afford or cadge from friends.  The ladies of Newgate might sell their favors for coin or drinks and the possibility of pregnancy, since that could cancel an appointment with the hangman (the children stayed in the prison).

The licentiousness of the place is abominable; there are no Jests so filthy, or Expressions so vile and profane, but what are uttered here with Applause and repeated with Impunity...they are debarred from nothing but going out.  Their conversation is profane and wicked as Hell itself.  (Dr. Mandeville, An Enquiry Into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn, 1725).

It was the Party Hall of the Damned.  (Richard Zacks, The Pirate Hunter, 2002)

On their very last day, the condemned prisoners were taken in a cart from the prison to the places of execution at Wapping or Tyburn, but the party continued on the way after "a substantial breakfast with seas of beer."  The night before in the Condemned Hold anything was available as long as it could be paid for (you're not going to be taking it with you, after all).  The three-mile trip toward the gibbets took two hours because of frequent stops to liquor up again, with tavern keepers and enterprising individuals offering bottles from baskets.  The rowdy crowd along the way was described as "one continued Fair for Whores and Rogues," with many pickpockets among them  -- some of those were trained monkeys!

I do hope your holiday parties are fun without the desperation, and that you arrive home safely avoiding any monkey pickpockets.


1 comment:

  1. How you go from Christmas office parties to prisons I don't know. One may require a toast and a fancy outfit and maybe a raise if you slip a joint in the bosses pocket and the other will require a deep breath and a basic survival function. Then again maybe they both do. Enjoy your office party.