Friday, August 28, 2009

Decades

From Ian Jack's LRB review of When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the
Seventies by Andy Beckett:

The fashion is relatively recent for slicing up history into ten-year
periods, each of them crudely flavoured and differently coloured, like
a tube of wine gums. Growing up in Britain in the 1950s I never heard
the past, however recent, specified by decade. There was 'the war' and
'before the war', and sometimes, when my parents were burrowing into
their childhoods, 'before the first war'. The 20th century lay stacked
in broad layers of time: dark moorland where glistened an occasional
white milestone marked with a year and an event. Sometimes the events
were large and public. The General Strike happened in 1926 and Germany
invaded Poland in 1939. But often they were small and private. In my
own family, 1944 wasn't remembered for D-Day but as 'the summer we
went along the Roman Wall on the tandem'.

When did 'decade-ism' – history as wine gums – start? The first
decades that took a retrospective grip on the popular imagination were
the 1890s and the 1920s. It may not be a coincidence that both have
been characterised as fun-loving eras that chucked out staid manners
and stale customs, whose social revolutionaries were libertines (Mae
West) and gangsters (James Cagney). Perhaps more than any other
agency, it was Hollywood that defined those decades for people too
young to know them. The American experience became the way the 1920s
were remembered, even though only a tiny proportion of the world's
population in 1925 drank hard liquor out of teapots in speakeasies; or
danced – danced, danced, danced! – often in a cloche hat and with a
long cigarette-holder pointed riskily at their partner's crotch. It
took thirty years for the 1890s to become established as 'naughty' or
'gay' – Mae West's Belle of the Nineties came out in 1934 – but the
1920s were quicker off the mark. The Roaring Twenties, with James
Cagney as its star, branded the decade only nine years after it ended.
The Wall Street Crash and the ending of Prohibition, by utterly
changing American life, had quickly sealed off the 1920s as history.

Subsequent decades didn't easily offer themselves for styling. In 1970
it would have been hard to look back and stick a persuasive label on
Britain in the 1930s, though adjectives such as 'hungry' and 'anxious'
made excursions in book titles. The 1940s were entirely blotted out by
'the war', while the 1950s had still to become the caricature of
pipe-smoking dads and orderly (or repressed) family life that now
brings the shout, 'Oh, just like the 1950s!' from visitors to such
English seaside resorts as Southwold and Frinton. A few years later,
however, we could look into the rear-view mirror and see the 1960s,
the Swinging Sixties, unquestionably the most famous ten-year stretch
of world history. Yet the 1960s didn't happen everywhere at the same
time or to every generation: I'd never come across a recreational
drug, for example, before I left Glasgow for London in 1970, and I'm
sure my dear parents never came across any at all. But, all in all,
the notion is hard to contest that the 1960s was a transformative
decade for most people in the Western world who lived through it. This
made it majestic in retrospect and set loose a popular, attractive way
of looking at the recent past. If the 1960s had a definable character,
why couldn't the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s? These were paler and
weaker wine gums to be sure, but television producers in early middle
age did their best with shows in which minor celebrities recalled with
well-briefed spontaneity their favourite moments on Top of the Pops or
the first time they ate in an Angus Steak House and enjoyed a slice of
Black Forest Gâteau.

Of these recent decades, the 1970s is the most reviled....

The rest of this review can be read here:

<http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n16/jack03_.html>

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