The 20th century has crumbled. That was my first impression upon returning to Britain after five years living in America. The world of my childhood has gone and it isn’t coming back. Sometimes in life change creeps up on you slowly, and sometimes it rushes at you all at once. Coming home this spring somehow felt like both. I left Britain in the summer of 2016. I missed Brexit. I missed the pandemic. So much has been washed away. And no one seems sure what comes next.
I arrived back in Britain at the end of April to find my notoriously technophobic parents huddling around Zoom happy hours and sharing YouTube memes. Mum has acquired an Alexa that she instructs to play flamenco guitar as she potters around the kitchen. Dad has become a Microsoft Teams aficionado. Even the reluctant baby boomers act like digital natives now, riding the algorithmic tsunami along with the rest of us.
I wandered along my zombified local high street in north London, where fallen letters are no longer replaced on shop signs and the petrol station has become a block of flats. I think I may have spotted some actual tumbleweed. The bakery where I used to buy custard doughnuts as a child was hollow and unmanned. The co-op shelves looked neglected. High streets aren’t coming back either, are they? These jugulars of the mass consumer age don’t stand a chance in one-click Britain.
Economists often talk about a “long 20th century”, usually measuring it from about 1870 to around 2012. The American economist Brad DeLong argues that the emergence of the oceangoing steamship, the submarine telegraph cable and the industrial research lab around 1870 all marked the beginning of an age that will still be studied in centuries to come; when the material wealth of human beings exploded, economies ballooned and technology metastasized, often bringing social dislocation and tyranny along with it. “The long 20th century was the axis on which the wheel of history turned,” says DeLong.
He argues that this long century came to an end between 2008 and 2015, when the financial crisis caused the collapse of the global business cycle. Others suggest that 9/11 was the first turning point, the beginning of the end of American hegemony. The revolutionary year of 2016 is also a strong candidate, when post-crisis politics really took hold, Trump and Brexit shocked a decadent elite and a new political reality was born. Clearly March 2020 will be another contender for the date when the long 20th century ended: the moment when a global pandemic of quite astonishing power severed the world’s anchor and set us adrift on the rapid currents of a new age.
Wherever you choose to draw this line, it’s undoubtedly been crossed. Seeing Britain through fresh eyes made this abundantly clear to me. Seeing them through ancient eyes reinforced the point. I saw my beloved 95-year-old grandma last week for the first time in almost two years, which felt like a great privilege. We bumped elbows.
To escape the dreariness of our locked down present, she told me wonderful tales of the 1940s: being evacuated from London to Cambridge during the war; how she sliced her knee open on gravel while dancing with her girlfriends on VE Day, how she met my recently demobbed grandfather at lunch in one of Bournemouth’s long forgotten kosher hotels, before foreign travel decimated the British seaside. I’m a part of history now, she said, older than the Queen. For grandma, the long 20th century is a collection of memories.
During my first six days at home, I quarantined at my parents’. The government tracked my phone and called me daily. On day four, a rather diffident chap with a clipboard knocked on our door to check I was being a good Covid citizen. Trapped in my teenage bedroom, I spent some time sorting through my entire life archive, products of a lifetime of hoarding that I was finally ready to toss.
The detritus of a noughties adolescence. Just so much stuff: Oasis and Eminem CDs, Playstation Two games and decades-old condoms bought more in hope than expectation. Dad rock cassette tapes stolen from my father: Dire Straits, The Eagles, the Moody Blues. Endless essays from GCSE to A Level to undergraduate, many written in illegible longhand: sexual desire in A View from the Bridge, the role of the midwest in The Great Gatsby, the Protestant Reformation again and again. In the age of Marie Kondo’s decluttering and digital minimalism, all this endless stuff felt so wasteful, clunky, old-fashioned. The essays were disappointingly bad. I threw most of them away.
One essay did catch my eye though: on working class suffrage and the rise of the Labour Party. Familiar touchstones to any student of 20th century British politics: Ross McKibbin on how the Labour Party went from being a protest movement to a party of government, George Dangerfield’s Strange Death of Liberal England and how a great 19th century institution faded into obsolescence; it all suddenly felt rather poignant.
Are we witnessing the same thing happening to Labour now? As a child of the millennium, reared on Blair and Brown and what seemed for a moment like a natural Labour majority, it’s surreal for me to even think this. But the class-based industrial society that Labour was built to represent has crumbled like the much-vaunted Red Wall. The individualism of the 21st century has replaced the group identities of the 20th.
Once I was finally allowed out the house, I tried to watch Manchester United vs Liverpool with some friends. But the game was disrupted and eventually called off because of protesters fuming against the European Super League and the Glazer family’s ownership of the club. Although it failed, somehow the entire ESL gambit seemed like a turning point too. The moment when the game’s most powerful clubs finally made explicit what has been implicit for decades: that the demands of global capital rule our beautiful game. The 21st century wants something different from football and eventually it will probably get it.
After a while we muted Gary Neville’s righteous fury and the conversation turned to China and how much Chinese money is in Britain now, buying up property, infrastructure, companies. After all, if the Glazers do sell United, we might not like what comes next. We noted how sino-suspicious the British media has become. This conversation about China – turbocharged by Donald Trump’s election – really went mainstream in Washington around 2016, when I first spent time there. But the great geo-political battle of the 21st century has well and truly arrived in London now too, as Britain drifts away from the EU and is buffeted by the tides of history.
In 2018, when asked about Trump, Henry Kissinger speculated that he may be “one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences”. When we look back on the already-fading Trump era, after the absurdities are forgotten and the outrage has faded, I suspect this is how we will remember it, as the tempestuous turning of a page. When I look back on my own time, I expect I’ll remember coming home to Britain amid the embers of a pandemic and finally chucking away all my hi-fis and lava lamps and Macbeth essays. How my life changed course just as the old was dying, and the new was being born right in front of us.