A Message from the Past

Throughout the pandemic, Jon and I have been able to travel the world courtesy of 19th century travel writers. We started with Mary Crawford Fraser, a British diplomat’s wife who travelled the world with her husband and shared her views in a series of books that shed light on countries during a time of rapid modernisation and change.

From there we jumped to Charles Dickens, whose Pictures from Italy marks him as one of the first modern travel writers. He comes across as a bit grumpy, but, in his defence, he was probably touring Italy at one of the worst times during the 19th century—the nation was still recovering from the Napoleonic wars and unification was a few decades off.

We have recently embarked on a journey called Unbeaten Tracks in Japan by Isabella Bird, who deserves to be far better known than she is. Her place in history as the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society was well-earned: during her lifetime (1831 – 1904), she visited dozens of countries, ranging from America’s Wild West (where she became friends with an outlaw named Rocky Mountain Jim) and the Hawaiian Islands, to China and India, Persia and Kurdistan, and many more. A shy and retiring Victorian woman she was not.

And there is a reason that I’m writing about this on the Off the Ground website and not my personal MissElaineous blog. This is a message from nearly 150 years ago that is just as relevant today to any British city or town:

It is so beautifully clean that, as at Nikko, I should feel reluctant to walk upon its well-swept streets in muddy boots. It would afford a good lesson to the Edinburgh authorities, for every vagrant bit of straw, stick, or paper, is at once pounced upon and removed, and no rubbish may stand for an instant in its streets except in a covered box or bucket.

A country’s cleanliness and lack of litter does not happen automatically. It must be deliberately cultivated. It must be planned for. It must become part of the culture. If we don’t start now, then when?

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