Mine is a familiar story. Woman in the 2020s has a plethora of demands on her, yet thinks she has it all under control. Turns out she doesn’t have it under control whatsoever, and so lies awake at night in a mild panic. Eventually plays sleep story via a meditation app to quell the impending to-do-list doom. Woman enjoys sleep story set in the 1920s so much that she heads out the next morning, buys a time machine, and waves goodbye to her 2020 cares. Bliss.
The past six months have been a bit hectic. I have gone from comfortably working on increasing my activities bit by bit post-illness, to plunging back into the world screaming, with unwashed hair, as what felt like a million hands pulled me over the edge.
Finding balance as you step from a slow and contained life, to integrating once more with the wider bubble of the world at large is no easy task (as I have just discovered to my great dismay).
Working on a book, launching a column, selling our house (not to mention my husband and I pushing each other to the brink of sanity whilst trying to decide on where we are moving to), alongside managing day to day life, left me staring bleakly into the darkness with my heart pounding and my muscle fibres twitching from my legs up through my back. Thankfully, I have a magic blue button on my phone that I periodically press when I need an SOS. The blue square is an app called Calm.
After scrolling to the sleep section I selected a bedtime story for adults that I hadn’t listened to before, Andrew Martin’s All Aboard the Flying Scotsman read by May Charters. (For those adults who are yet to discover the delights of having a bedtime story read to you by the likes of Stephen Fry, Matthew McConaughey, and Danai Gurira then I can but attest to the fact that it is one of the great delights of adult life you are missing out on).
As I settled back down into my pillow, May Charters began to read,
“steam rises from a cup of hot tea. Through parted curtains in the quiet living room, rain falls on the street and onto the milkman’s white horse standing just outside the window.”
Talking me through a 1920s scene written in the second person, the story asked me to place myself in the laced-up boots of a me who existed a hundred years before. And you know what? I liked the cut of her jib. (N.B. No idea what this idiom means but my husband uses it from time to time and it just felt right).
“As you sip your tea and place it back on the saucer, you decide the rain outside is the right sort of rain.”
‘My God, it is the right sort of rain!’ I thought, as 1920s me ambled through a London of old—selfie stick free, and Boris Johnson nowhere in sight. I climbed aboard a decadent carriage of the Flying Scotsman train and wistfully watched the changing landscape of Britain go by outside the steam train window.
By the time the story was finished I was sleeping not like a child, but like a serene and happy 1920s version of myself—unplagued by the never-ending WhatsApp conversations of the modern age, and free from 24-hour news cycles.
I dreamt that night of a life in which my days were just for myself. My own thoughts fluttered through my mind, not those of a thousand others that I soak-up daily via modern tech.
Yes, my 1920s life looked bright. I felt deeply satisfied, without a care in the world as I walked through my ‘just right’ 1920s dream rain, never questioning if I should jump an Uber because they hadn’t been invented yet. I was completely unencumbered by fears that I should be doing more professional development or being more productive each day. I was allowed to simply be good enough. To simply be.
But alas, some hours later, I woke up.
No sooner had my alarm been silenced than my left hand defeatedly reached over to scoop up the Samsung Galaxy from its place beside my bed (incidentally, I realise as I type that I sleep in closer proximity to my phone than I do to my husband across our king-size mattress).
But then something magical happened. Outside the bedroom window, I heard something… it was the soft, gloomy sound of just the right sort of rain. And so, as my fingertips brushed my phone screen, I found myself asking, ‘what would my 1920s self do?’
“I would read.” Came her ethereal reply.
She would read.
My fingers lightly swept over the black rectangle of doom and landed instead joyously on the front cover of a book. Picked it up. Spent the first twenty minutes of my day reading in bed.
I went through the rest of the day pausing periodically to ask myself that same question again, ‘what would my 1920s self do?’ It turned out she had plenty of simple, somewhat obvious and almost curt responses.
She wouldn’t begin writing letters (or texts) at the breakfast table for a start. She would enjoy her porridge and her morning tea in peace, perhaps cursorily thinking through the errands she would run that day, enjoying the clink of the milk bottle her local milkman had left at her door.
Once I was fed, showered and dressed, she and I agreed only then was it time for me to sit primly at my desk and enter into the day’s correspondences in a considered and efficient way. (She wasn’t overly impressed with my white, MDF Ikea desk offering either; the 1920s was a time for opulence and enjoying fine detail in everyday art).
I sent replies to all who required them, but before the smugness of the century-before-way-of-life settled in, I was faced with a very 2020s problem: they all replied straight back.
Intensely annoyed at having a never clearable to-do-list, I began wailing into the abyss of my Macbook screen, declaring the experiment a loss and all hope for a more enchanting life over. My 1920s self placed her hand decisively on my shoulder and told me we were to be firm but fair about this sort of thing—it was time to download another app. (Notice how so many modern problems begin and end in this way?)
WhatsApp AutoReply. From hence forward everybody who sends me a message, work or friend, will receive an immediate response informing them not to expect a reply from me unless it is urgent. Clients will then be directed to schedule a call with me if they wish to discuss their project further, and friends will be reminded how much sweeter this will make our time together when we meet. I then set up a similar auto-reply on every other messaging platform I use (Facebook thankfully not amongst them, that went a long time ago and I have never looked back).
1920s, Poppins-like self gave me a huge pat on the back, then we packed up our leather bag and headed out into the rain to focus on the tangible tasks of the day.
Have I continued to embrace my new 1920s lifestyle mantra? I mean, it really depends on how much Vampire Diaries you think she would Netflix binge watch. No, unfortunately I inescapably live in the 2020s; but I have tried. It has helped. I’ve signed up to have my milk delivered from a local dairy, ran by a family now in its third generation of the business, who leave it on my doorstep along with the paper as frequently as I like (I used a handy website called findmeamilkman.net to set this up). I think 1920s me would be a fan of shopping local and spending less time each week on a supermarket app. (Seriously, should this column be renamed The App Life?).
I sometimes feel her Mary Poppins like presence peering over at me from behind a teacup and I know she is gently reminding me to do as she would and leave a task to be completed another day. To allow myself to feel satisfied with what has been achieved rather than focusing on what hasn’t and to crucially take more time away from screens.
Of course, buying a woolly dressing gown to head downstairs on cold mornings for porridge (rather than forgetting breakfast and just starting the slog by sending emails from bed), isn’t really embracing the reality of what the 1920s must have been like.
My own great-great grandmother, Eleanor, whose name has been passed through the generations and along to me—P. ‘E.’ Holdsworth—would undoubtedly laugh at how completely I’ve missed the mark with my fantasies of a more measured 1920s life in comparison to the one she lived. She had started her family by the turn of the decade, raising eight children with little money or space, in a country recovering from a great world war.
Though that said, I like to think she too would tell me to stop focusing on what I can get done in a day, and on constantly testing how much information I can consume. I can hear her now telling me to put down my phone and to go “put the kettle on and enjoy a nice Garibaldi biscuit.”
What lifestyle shifts would your 1920s guides recommend for you?