Byline: A.N. WILSON
THE Victorian Age has always fascinated me. Born in 1950, I belong to the last generation who can still remember gas-lit railway stations and steam trains that actually ran on time. Older relations could actually remember the reign of Queen Victoria herself. Members of my family told me what it was like to hear actor-manager Johnston Forbes-Robertson's Hamlet or to see Marie Lloyd in her unforgettable music hall turns.
By the time my own half-century had passed, I found myself halfway through writing a big history of the Victorians in which I have tried to gather together a lifetime's reading on the subject: on the Royal Family; on colonial history; on industry and town planning; on engineering; on literature, religion and architecture.
There are thousands of books on this wide variety of subjects. Iwanted to see if I could write one that would bring all these topics together.
As I laboured away at my enjoyable task - the most enjoyable literary task I have ever set myself - inevitable comparisons between then and now dawned upon me.
Sometimes, when I had finished reading my newspaper in the morning and returned to the British Library to do my research, it was with a hearty sense of relief.
For a few hours I could leave Blair's Britain - where nothing worked, where there were threats to charge me extra for wanting to receive letters before 9am, where trains were always delayed, where schoolchildren were illiterate and hospitals could not cope with the numbers of sick - and return to the land of Queen Victoria!
Her Britain was a place where they could build 20,000 miles of railway line in the time it would take Railtrack to get round to mending a few yards.
Instead of a Millennium Dome costing the public millions for every month of its wasteful, pointless existence, they had Crystal Palace, paid for entirely by private money (that of the organising committee).
It was the centre of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and a hugely profitable symbol of Britain's pre-eminence as the most prosperous trading nation ever known.
Victoria's Britain was a place of proud provinces.
Each of the great industrial towns - Bradford, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield - made things which the rest of the world was eager to buy.
These places were proud. The local capitalists (whether mill owners, ironmasters or shipbuilders) were revered locally.
LIKE American philanthropists today, they put back their wealth into local art galleries, museums, libraries, hospitals and schools. The State did not have to pay a penny.
There was a vast popular energy in the atmosphere - symbolised in many ways by the Press.
The newspaper you are holding is a peculiarly Victorian creation.
It was launched on May 4, 1896, by an enterprising young man of Irish extraction named Alfred Harmsworth.
His idea was to encapsulate world news in bulletin form.
The first issue was so popular - it sold 397,215 copies - that it was necessary to hire the machinery from two evening newspapers to cope with the demand.
Lord Salisbury, the Tory Prime Minister, sent a congratulatory telegram to the brilliant editor, Kennedy Jones. But privately, he sneered at the new paper, and all that it stood for. The old aristocrat of Hatfield said that while Thackeray's Pendennis had produced a gentleman for gentlemen, Harmsworth had created 'a newspaper produced by office boys for office boys'.
It was a good indication of what had happened during the long years of Queen Victoria's reign.
The great Prime Minister might entertain snobbish views in private about the Press, but his 'villa conservatism' actually depended upon the support of those who bought and enjoyed the new popular newspapers.