There was, I suppose, a universal sigh of relief when New Year 2017 ticked over and the world left the Year from Hell. We do like our arbitrary calendar dates.
Reality, of course, seldom conforms to calendar dates. After all, Lemmy Kilmister kicked off the 2016 celebrity die-off just after Christmas 2015. A friend of mine suggested that this is when the Year from Hell really started. And it didn’t finish, by his reckoning, until January 20, 2017.
This disconnect between trend and calendar is a general truism for all history, of course, which largely flows around human-driven events and trends. They, too, don’t respect the arbitrary ways in which we divide our calendar, despite the way we popularly refer to a turning century as some kind of pivot. Popular histories, often, are divided up by century or decade.
Eric Hobsbawm – one of the best historians of our age – took that to its obvious conclusion with his two works on the ‘long’ nineteenth and ‘short’ twentieth centuries. Keep the terms, he insisted, but let’s adjust the start and finish dates to match the social, political and economic trends that defined them.
For Hobsbawm, the nineteenth century began in 1789 with the French Revolution, to him the sea-change that essentially set what followed over the next century or so on its way. And by his reckoning that cycle didn’t end until 1914, when the First World War erupted and broke the ‘old order’ almost completely. His twentieth century was defined by the outcome, the political divisions into which the world fell after 1918 – western capitalist, totalitarian fascist, and totalitarian communist. Their oppositions, and the wars that followed, did not end until the Soviet Union crumbled and Cold War was officially called off. So For Hobsbawm, the twentieth century was a ‘short’ one that lasted only from 1914 to 1992.
Trend, you see. Thanks to the human habit of slotting everything into categories there are, of course, other ways of also defining those trends. We might equally consider the way industrialisation spread and dislocated western society – a process that began in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, as another trend. It is far harder to assign meaningful start-dates to this phenomenon, because of the way it entwined with society, science and philosophy on so many levels and across so many years. All of these ways of looking at change are valid in their own ways.
Here in New Zealand, Paul Moon, one of our top historians – has taken the same kind of idea and inversed it, exploring our own past specifically by decade. His question was what can we learn if we DO use our arbitrary calendar as an organising principle behind the analysis – the one professional historians always get taught to ignore? Of course he came up with some very sharp answers and an extremely insightful new history of New Zealand. Innovative thinking at its best.
As for 2016 cutting off, mercifully, as 2017 rushed in on January 1? We’re more than half way through 2017 now – but for all these reasons, I don’t think we’re over 2016 yet. Not by a long chalk. And, given what’s happened, I do wonder whether it will be seen as one of the politically pivotal dates of the century. Not a colossal shift-date like 1914, but one of those sorts of years where things got set in motion that had a consequence later. More like 1922 really. Or maybe 1933. We’ll see.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017