Dominic Sandbrook: Why we love history in 10-year chapters

Roundup: Talking About History

Until a few years ago, travellers into our national past spent little time in the territory closest to us. They set the co-ordinates of their time machines for the glamour and danger of the Tudors, or the high drama of Britain Alone in 1940, whizzing past the social and cultural changes of the post-war years without a second thought. But in the last few years, with the success of books like David Kynaston's Austerity Britain 1945-51, a wonderful evocation of everyday life under the Attlee government, the sections of high-street bookshelves devoted to the recent past have grown steadily longer. And this spring sees the latest edition of what is becoming an annual flurry of contemporary histories: Jenny Diski on the 1960s, Andy Beckett and Francis Wheen on the 1970s, Richard Vinen and Jason Cowley on the 1980s.

What all these writers have in common is something that would once have seemed arbitrary and bizarre but now seems so natural and sensible that we take it for granted: the division of the recent past into neat, 10-year chunks, each with a distinctive flavour and personality. What Ferdinand Mount once jokily called "decaditis" has become so common that even someone totally ignorant of recent history will know immediately what you mean by "the 30s" (Depression, dole queues, fascism) or "the 60s" (pop music, mini-skirts, sexual liberation) without knowing anything about Stanley Baldwin or Harold Wilson.

We all do it, of course, usually without thinking, neatly reducing each decade to a succession of quick stereotypes. We tell each other that we hate 70s fashion (flares, platform heels), or love 80s music (New Order, Duran Duran); we reminisce about what we did in the 60s; we argue about whether society needs a dose of 50s morality. And of course we have our own personal decades, too, a kind of parallel chronology. What did you do in your 20s? Why did we get so boring in our 30s?

Breaking up history - and our own lives - into 10-year chunks has obvious attractions. It seems a nice, manageable unit, a round number that you can count on your fingers. And yet there is no historical rule that says that 10 years has to be the limit. Very few of our predecessors, after all, calculated the passing of time in 10-year fragments. In The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the great sources for our national history, the scribes plod dutifully through one year after another but they never acknowledge that, say, the 1960s have given way to the 1970s, and that therefore something must have changed. Similarly, Samuel Pepys never pauses in his diary to muse over the transition from the 1650s to the 1660s - even though 1660 is the classic example of a change from one decade to another coincidentally making a perfect narrative break. Instead, like most people until the very recent past, he mentally divided up time according to the reigns of different kings. "In the time of the late king" must be one of the most common phrases in historical sources until a few centuries ago.

Why did we start using decades as units of time? The obvious explanation is that, with the development of industrialisation, technology and consumerism, smaller units started to make much better sense as measures of social and cultural change. ...

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