If we were living through the beginnings of a particularly horrible period in history, would we know it, do you think?
The most obvious reason for asking this is the long list of horrible and ominous things that keep happening, and have been doing so, non-stop, for going on half a decade now. There’s been the rolling political crisis, on both sides of the Atlantic of course, and no doubt in other countries, too, if only we paid the slightest attention to them.
Every morning since 2016, we’ve woken up, half exhilarated and half terrified to find out which oddball Tory backbencher the political editor of the Daily Telegraph has decided it’s a lark to anoint as a future prime minister today, or which minor world leader has enraged the nuclear-armed toddler in the White House overnight. All of this was great, so long as you were one of the tiny number of people paid to snark about the news, but life-ruiningly terrible for anyone who actually had to live on this planet which, since it included the first lot of people, was actually everyone.
And then, of course, it got worse. One weird thing about Death to 2020, this year’s answer to BBC’s 201x Wipe series, was the way that, now it’s a Netflix show, creator Charlie Brooker had been replaced as narrator by Laurence Fishburne, and dialogue once reserved for “Barry Shitpeas” was now being spoken by Samuel L. Jackson and Hugh Grant. Far more unnerving was the fact it began with footage of crises that felt positively apocalyptic at the time, but that I’d either forgotten happened this year (the record-breaking Australian bush fires), or forgotten they’d happened at all (the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by a US drone strike which, strange to relate, felt like quite a big deal at the time).
The pandemic has so eclipsed everything else that the things we were worrying about before it began seem almost quaint now, even the ones that prefigure the complete environmental collapse still to come. If you read newspaper editorials or Hansard from the first few months of 1914, you’d be struck by the dramatic irony of politicians debating, say, the gold standard just weeks before the apocalypse was about to begin. So it is with last January’s news footage today.
This leads me to the other reason I’m wondering whether you can truly know if you’re in the foothills of a particularly bleak period in history. Sure, if you read letters, books or poems penned in the 1930s, then it feels like an entire decade spent waiting for the cataclysm to begin. But in 1914, people had no clue what was about to happen. Nor, come to that, did many of us realise in early 2007 that we were just months away from the beginning of a once-in-three-generations crash, or even that we’d just lived through a boom whose like we wouldn’t see again for decades. (Worse, I was a financial journalist at the time. Sources kept telling me things like, “When it comes to real estate debt multiples, seven is the new five, yeah?” and in retrospect I’m pretty sure that people were telling me about the subprime debt crisis and because all I cared about was not being a financial journalist any more I didn’t actually notice.)
Against that, though, there’s an old joke, about how economists have correctly predicted nine of the last five recessions. It’s not just that prolonged periods of good news don’t always end well: prolonged ones of bad news don’t always end badly.
So, maybe, things might just get better. There are vaccines coming through, after all, and despite what he occasionally tweets from his golf course, Donald Trump is about to stop being president of the United States. There was a Brexit deal, too, and okay, trade with and travel in Europe are about to get harder, but they won’t collapse completely. And the deal can be revised, and it’s not crazy to imagine that the actual downsides of actual Brexit will do more to win waverers over to the Remain cause than actual annoying Remainers ever did.
Whether things are about to get a whole lot better or a whole lot worse, though, or whether they’re about to keep trundling along pretty much the same for longer than seems conceivable right now, I am confident of one thing: the date on the calendar has nothing to do with it. “Thank god this terrible year is over,” people said on New Year’s Eve 2019, and 2018, and 2017, and 2016 too, come to that. After a while you start to wonder if, maybe, it isn’t the arbitrary way we mark the passage of time that’s really, actually the problem here.