When Mary Berry started trending on Twitter in February, some people panicked. David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Sir Terry Wogan had all died recently in quick succession. Already 2016 was shaping up to be “the worst year ever”. There wasn’t, yet, even any doubt over the future of The Great British Bake Off. Journalists scrambled to discover why Berry was suddenly so topical, and found that she had merely advocated preparing cauliflower in a plastic bag. Phew.
Between February and August this year, 90 per cent of Twitter users experienced symptoms of anxiety after seeing a celebrity’s name trend on the network, according to a recent survey. Those who discern a curse of 2016 (more than a curse of the online echo chamber) have little trouble in citing incidents of global terror, war, famine, the zika virus, even Brexit, as further evidence. In response, historians have sought to provide a sense of perspective by weighing 2016 against other possible contenders for “the worst year in history”.
One could draw up a very long list of dire years. Mine would have to include 1347, when the bubonic plague became a pandemic, spreading from the Black Sea region to Europe on trade ships. As Boccaccio observed in The Decameron, victims of the plague were wont to eat lunch with their friends but dinner with their relatives in paradise, such was the speed with which it took hold. The disease is estimated to have wiped out between 30 and 60 per cent of Europe’s population, killing up to 200 million people across Europe and Asia.
The number of plague-related deaths in 430BC, another entry in my list of horrendous years, was significantly lower, but the context must have made it feel as if the gods were exacting divine vengeance. The Athenians were into the second year of war against the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, when plague struck. Pericles had made his celebrated funeral oration for the war dead, urging each surviving woman “not to become worse than her nature” by grieving too excessively, when he, too, fell prey to the infection. By the end of the war, it is thought that up to a third of the population of Athens had perished.
Attempt to isolate the worst year during the two world wars of the 20th century, and you realise just how fatuous an exercise this is. Was it 1914, the outbreak of the first? Or 1916, when the British Expeditionary Force lost 19,240 men on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme? Or 1943, amidst the Holocaust? It is some historian who can survey the whole course of history and order the years from bad to good.
In his recent book Progress, the Swedish writer Johan Norberg has done an admirable job of collating statistical evidence to illustrate a more general trajectory of improvement down the ages. He provides all the information one could ever need to argue why life is better now than it was in, say, the 19th century. Life expectancy has increased; poverty, malnutrition and the risks of death in war or natural disaster have fallen. The trouble is, as Norberg readily acknowledges, that there is no easy recovery from the human predisposition for catastrophising the present and glorifying the past.
This phenomenon already existed in the 7th century BC, when the Greek poet Hesiod lamented having been born in the Iron Age when he might have lived gloriously in the golden or heroic ages of the mythical past. In the early 1st century BC, Horace coined the term laudator temporis acti (“a praiser of time past”) to describe particularly the miserable old Romans who groaned about the wretchedness of modern life relative to the happy days of their youth. Today, this is a condition that more commonly afflicts the young. We may just as well hanker after a life we never knew in the 1960s as cling to rose-tinted memories of childhood in the 1990s.
We are now our own historians, ever more inclined to examine the world from a personal perspective and assess it in relation to the past – whether real or imagined. Anxiety has spawned a particular appetite for comparative history. Although we are by nature laudatores temporis acti, we are also looking increasingly to the past as a means of coping in the present. If we ask whether 2016 is the worst year ever, it is only because we are desperate to find evidence which assures us that it is not. Our interest in history becomes intensely psychological as we mine the past for disasters that make our own times feel more bearable.
Statistics are less useful in this regard than eyewitness accounts. The death tolls from the Black Death or the Battle of the Somme are impossible to comprehend; a survivor’s diary entry is not. Naturally enough, we tend to privilege the accounts and historical episodes that resonate personally. When the preference for anecdotal microhistories leads to an excessively fractured view of the past, however, it is time for us to take a longer view.
Comparison between past and present provides some comfort and reassurance that 2016 is far from the worst year in history. But it may yet contribute to the view that 2016 is the worst year in history for anxiety – which may or may not be accurate. No sooner do we recognise the impossibility of defining one year as being worse than another than we become alert to the intractable problems involved in quantifying the outlook of any given period.
The 2010s may be remembered as the decade in which we opened up about mental health. With any luck, it will also be seen as the decade in which we became more sensitive to the role psychology plays in the writing and reading of history.
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge