I have often wondered if the people who lived through historic events realised that they were. Of course, they must have known that the world around them was going through a time when the world was changing beyond their experience; but could they have known how it would affect the future? Most of our lives, and the lives of those who came before us, are spent, by and large, in very regular, unspectacular times. We wake up and go to school, or to work, or to do our daily chores. We refer to the “regular grind”, the anonymous daily schedule that repeats itself for months, even years, at a time.
Then, out of the blue, something dramatic happens: a death, a meeting, a graduation, or a new job, and, for a while, everything becomes more exciting, life becomes more colourful and full of potential. But, for most, that soon dies down into a new, but equally sedate day-to-day life. We may wish we could keep that initial excitement, or recover it through repetition or experimentation. But life has a habit of becoming habitual. C’est la vie, as they say.
But, once in a while, something happens in the world that really does create a lasting change, for better or worse. But it comes along unexpectedly, uncalled for, even unwanted. Think of a year like 1968. It came right after 1967: a year that, aside from the Six Day War and ongoing conflict in Vietnam, was mostly one of good news, positive vibes and great music. Sgt. Pepper for the serious Beatles fan, the arrival of the Monkees for everyone else. The Monteray Music Festival which saw the explosion into public consciousness of Jimi Hendrix. Think of the songs of the Summer of Love: A Whiter Shade of Pale; Brown Eyed Girl; Respect; All You Need is Love; San Francisco; Silence is Golden; the list goes on and on. Very positive vibes, man. Expo 67 in Montreal and the centenary of Canadian Confederation.
For all the protests, in spite of Black Day in July and For What It’s Worth, it did seem like all things were possible, peace would come, all you needed really was love. Then came 1968: the year of living dangerously. The Tet offensive, the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, student and workers take to the streets in France, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the election of Richard Nixon. But other events that year would also have long-term consequences: the rise of Women’s Liberation, Black Power at the Olympics and in the streets, Civil Rights marches in Northern Ireland are attacked by police, computer company Intel is formed, and so many more.
These are arbitrary years to choose, and the gradual change in direction of world affairs was not as obvious at the time. No-one really understood that the deaths of King and Kennedy would signal the beginning of a long and dark period in American life, one that continues today. It is only in hindsight that we can see years like 1968 as being pivotal in history, moments in time that change the course of everything that followed. Of course, there was great music in 1968 too, positive events and encouraging initiatives that bore fruit ever after. Nothing is starkly black or white in history. But the trend is clear to us now.
Just as people in 1867-68 were very aware of what was happening around them, so we in 2020 find it impossible to ignore the fact that our lives have changed radically since the year began, and that the change is not over yet. It isn’t just Covid, though, obviously, that is the overriding fact of life in 2020. It is the frame, the context in which everything else is happening, influencing the way we see all that is happening in this strange year.
Hundreds of thousands are dying all over the world. Brexit means revolutionary change in both the United Kingdom and the European Union. It may even result in the end of the United Kingdom itself, as its constituent parts realise that what divides them may be more than that which unites. The United States are likewise deeply divided and some even talk openly of the civil war that may result from the events of the next few months.
Astonishing, but no longer impossible or unthinkable. Those same elements of division exist here in Canada also, though not as sharply destructive or necessarily as deeply felt as in our southern neighbour. But conflict over such apparently minor things like face masks, or serious matters like restrictions on movements and association, are factors which we have never had to deal with before in our lifetimes. One day, in years to come, people will look back on 2020 and make judgments on us and our times. They will have the advantage of knowing what happens next, and how we responded to the challenges of our day. Then, we will be history, we will be in the books and documentaries, and the world will have continued (we hope) to turn and people will continue to wonder what it was like to have lived in such historic times as 2020. “And the seasons, they go round and round…We’re captive on the carousel of Time. We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came…” Joni Mitchell, 1968.