Ah, the good old days. The trouble and strife making matchsticks for four shillings a week, the kids up a chimney, Auntie Irene transported to Tasmania, Gawd bless 'er, for nicking a hankie, Uncle Ern selling wombats down the boozer. Things ain't what they used to be.
Or are they? In this amiable, if essentially pointless book, Gilda O'Neill takes to task the one or two Tories who still hold that the 19th century was "a golden age" rather than an open sewer. "What could be more delightful," so they say, "than a return to the Victorian times, when Britain was at the heart of an unbelievably rich empire that was the most powerful the world had ever seen?" We have only to "dig beneath the surface" of all this glittering wealth, reveals O'Neill, to find street crime, "low" entertainment, drugs, murder, conmen and dissent: a 19th-century murkiness with "startling paral- lels with life today". So while the Victorian media were fixated on the problem of the "dangerous classes", we debate the Asbo classes; crack cocaine and Special Brew have replaced opium and gin; and irrational fears once directed towards street stranglers have turned into our current Islamophobia.
The problem with The Good Old Days is that, for most readers - or at least those who have read Dickens - Victoria's reign was not prim and proper in the first place. We pilloried the Tories enough in the 1980s when they tried to peddle that particular line. In addition, the underworld O'Neill describes is never quite murky enough: from the predictable chapter on Jack the Ripper to the ghastly death of Sweet Fanny Adams, there is little here that has not already entered East End mythology. The murkiness resides in her argument: on the one hand, O'Neill says, things now are not so different from the way they were then. We still find unemployment, cheap prostitution and violent crime in the East End, and the lingo - dodgy geezers, oysters, eels and beigels - remains much the same as it was a hundred years ago. On the other hand, social conditions have improved: we have a national health service, children tend to survive childhood and go to school, and most adults live beyond the age of 42.
It is in the "authenticity" of the author rather than in anything she has to say that Penguin has its scoop: O'Neill is as cockney as Pauline Fow-ler. Her grandmother ran a pie-and-mash shop, her great-aunt Mog was in the workhouse and her great-uncle was minder for Daddy Lee, the owner of a notorious East End gambling den. She even drapes a beaded cloth - the type A N Wilson claimed in The Victorians no longer exists - over her cream jug. While she is not a particularly original cultural historian - she draws heavily on the work of social reformers such as Henry Mayhew, William Acton and Charles Booth - O'Neill is great company, with a fund of anecdotes and a keen eye for a killing epigram. My favourite is Socrates's complaint that children in 400BC had "bad manners, contempt for authority" and showed "disrespect for elders".
O'Neill is at her best when she leaves aside social commentary and focuses on her family. Her great-uncle earned a reputation for fighting dogs, "not pitting one dog against another, but dropping to his knees and literally fighting the dog with his fists". At a time when you could purchase your own elephant through a man in the local pub, her grandmother had a spider monkey living in her front room. When she saw the size of the terraced house in which her father and his extended family were raised, O'Neill expressed disbelief that they all could have fitted into that space, especially when Aunt Mog came home from the workhouse at weekends. "Course we didn't, daft," her father replied. "We had the Harrises living upstairs."
Frances Wilson is the author of "The Courtesan's Revenge: the life of Harriette Wilson, the woman who blackmailed the king" (Faber & Faber)