Working from Home – the Old Normal

With working at home becoming more and more popular as a result of Covid-19, we’re now wondering whether WFH will become the New Normal – and whether the question “Good day at the office, dear?” will now be consigned to the footnotes of history.

Contrary to what you might think, WFH is, in fact, the Old Normal. Until very recently – as late as the late-eighteenth century, in fact – most people worked from home. There was no such thing as going out to the office, factory or other external site. Any kind of industry – piecework, manual or professional – was carried out at home, blurring the boundaries between personal and business life.

Take merchant banker Gianfrancesco Amidani who lived in sixteenth-century Lombardy and set up his ‘bank’ in a room in his house. Just 12ft by 9ft, Amidani shared the room with his cashier Cornelio,

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In Splendid Isolation Part Two

So far, we Brits have been in lockdown limbo for over two months and it seems like an eternity. But just imagine self-isolating for three years!

It’s a sober thought.

Unless, of course, your brain is permanently addled by cocktails of psychedelic drugs, liquor and overeating. In which case, sobriety is literally the last thing on your mind. Between 1971 and 1974, Brian Wilson – maverick musician and co-founder of The Beach Boys – retreated to his bedroom, rarely appearing in public. Occasionally, he would be spotted at a nightclub in his dressing-gown and slippers.

As the swinging sixties came to an end, Wilson – misdiagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and full of self-doubt – was paralysed by fear. He had spent much of the decade experimenting with copious amounts of pot, heroin, cocaine and other hallucinogens to help deal with his mental illness.

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In Splendid Isolation

Four weeks into lockdown and you’re finding it difficult to see an upside. Living cheek-to-jowl 24/7 with your partners and family, indulging in orgies of baking, boxsets and boredom, you conclude, is hardly conducive to keeping your spirits up.

But all is not lost. There is a tried-and-tested way to make this work.

History proves that those who have flourished in quarantine – voluntary or otherwise – those who have succeeded in transforming their house-cells into a truly splendid isolation – all had one thing in common.

They were all – by and large – barking mad.

Consider one Xavier de Maistre, a 27-year-old French officer put on six-week house arrest in 1790 for dueling. Admittedly, the room in which he served his sentence was spacious and came with a butler, but what made de Maistre flourish in this situation was that he took a perverse delight in his enforced isolation.

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Francesco – you-can’t-get-much-more-private-than-a-coffin – de’Medici

All hail Francesco de’Medici, the richest, most powerful man in Renaissance Italy. He lived in a stonking great palace and put the fear of God into everyone. You’d think he’d have been able to lay his hands on a bit of peace and quiet, wouldn’t you?

Well, you’d be wrong.

Apart from being the Grand Duke’s princely pad, the Palazzo Vecchio doubled up as the headquarters of the Florentine government. In the Salone dei Cinquecento – at 1,145 square feet, probably the largest room in Europe – the 500-strong membership of the People’s Assembly would gather. What a noisy, raucous place it must have been. Crowds of colourfully-dressed politicians doing deals. Their dogs running around marking their territory. Servants milling around moaning about their paltry pay. Everyone overlooked by the military heroes depicted in Giorgio Vasari’s murals plastered over the 59-foot-high walls. Commissioned to commemorate the city’s martial prowess,

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Sleep: Who Needs Eight Hours?

In Robert Harris’s thrilling new mystery The Second Sleep, the author transports us to a time when humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks. A fact that remains a surprise to many of us, in pre-industrial Europe, households retired to bed after dusk for a ‘first’ sleep. A few hours later, they rose for one or two hours’ nocturnal activity, then returned to bed for a ‘second’ sleep until dawn.

What on earth were they doing in that hiatus between the first and second sleep? A whole range of things is the answer. Moonlit pursuits ranged from sewing, smoking, praying, chopping wood, imbibing ‘a hott drinke’, reading, visiting neighbours and, of course, sex: indeed, a doctor’s manual published in sixteenth-century France recommended indulging in a spot of procreation ‘after the first sleep’ for the simple reason that then people derive more ‘enjoyment’ from it and thus ‘do it better.’

According to the world’s expert on this subject,

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The Unprivate Privy Part Two

Nobody knows exactly when the chamber pot first put in an appearance, but it came into its own in the seventeenth century, diarist Samuel Pepys referring to it as an essential bedroom accessory. Waking early one December morning and not being able to find one, he’s ‘forced to…piss in the chimney.’ Piss-pots – frequently made of silver for richer patrons – were sometimes kept in the social parts of the house, signalling that relieving yourself was hardly a private affair. In the dining room, the sideboard frequently featured an in-built pot cupboard which bladder-bursting revellers could fill, before returning to the table to replenish their glasses.

To the French, this practice provided yet more proof that the English were a race of philistines. During a visit to Suffolk in 1784, François de la Rochefoucauld was appalled at the ‘indecent’ custom of using the ‘sideboard to pee.’ Yet, not everybody was so circumspect,

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