Boyd Tonkin: Dishonest decades in a dustbin of history

The Week In Books

Next week, Penguin launches its "Decades" series of reprints. Quintets of novels from the group's Aladdin's cave of a backlist will come packaged with new designs and blurbs. They endeavour to locate these works in the ten-year spans of their first publication, from the 1950s to the 1980s. These days, I suspect that decade-thinking functions as a junk food of the mind: an evidence-free travesty of history that should have no place in culture beyond the level of a Dad-rock compilation album of the sort that the lamented Woolworth's used to sell (Duran Duran! Spandau Ballet! Wham! Now that's what I call the Eighties.)

I was planning to express the hope that no political party would stoop so low as to enlist this bankrupt apology for understanding the past as a weapon in its election war. Sadly, I reckoned without New Labour, and its 24-year-old activist Jacob Quagliozzi. For it was this youthful genius who apparently came up with idea of invoking the retro cop show Ashes to Ashes on posters in a bid to dissuade voters from letting DCI Dave "Gene Hunt" Cameron "take Britain back to the 1980s". Words fail me. Incidentally, given the Tories' riposte, I would happily make a case for the British 1970s as the post-war high point of social emancipation and economic equality. But many working people did well then, which is why our rulers have damned the era ever since.

In truth, none of these mythical categories actually exist. Since victors write history, the experience of vocal elites comes to stand for periods that, in any event, never had clear bookends. Back to those comically naïve Penguin blurbs. Here the Sixties count (surprise) as "the decade of social revolution" when "London swung". For a very few. In so far as most people in Britain experienced the Sixties at all, they had to wait until the Seventies for it.

Under this tawdry costume, the series' selections stand up well. The 1950s batch ranges from Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim to John Wyndham's The Chrysalids; the 1960s, from Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange to Margaret Drabble's The Millstone; the 1970s, Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman to William Trevor's The Children of Dynmouth; and the 1980s, Anita Brookner's Latecomers to Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor.

Some of these novels capture what you might call the spirit of the age. Several of them don't – or else they pursue the climate of quite different times. Indeed, the whole notion of the zeitgeist – which drives decade-thinking – stems from a watered-down version of German idealist philsophy and comes to us from Hegel via Marx. Fiction, like other creative activities, may reflect its immediate context. Or it may not.

Unless you really are a metaphysical idealist (or adhere to Marx's historicist revision of that creed), then you have no business asking art to obey a non-existent law. Art goes its own sweet way, in its own good time. Writers will often exist in several epochs at once: that of their childhood and youth; that of their current circumstances; that of the era, past, present or future, which they seek to summon in their books.

Authors who feel to posterity most rooted in their moment often turn out to be living in the past. Charles Dickens, the quintessence of Victoria's heyday, forever looked backwards. "Thirty years ago", Little Dorrit begins, "Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day". True, the subtler Marxist critics argue that great writing may possess a "historical unconscious" which inadvertently sheds light on the landscape of its age. "Unconscious" is the key word here. Real history, in any case, seldom divides into neat ten-year chunks from zero to zero. A very rare exception lies in the distance between the Great Crash (October 1929) and the outbreak of world war (September 1939): Auden's "low dishonest decade". That we may allow. But show me a novelist who overtly sets out to fix the meaning of a later decade, and I will show you a hack.

P.S.With its smart aim of partnering "the great writers you know and the great writers you don't", International PEN's Free the Word! festival will be scattering a rich mix of global authors around the Southbank Centre and other London venues from 14-18 April. Highlights will include appearances by Derek Walcott, Richard Ford, James Kelman and Nawal al Saadawi. A session with Colombia's rising star Juan Gabriel Vásquez (left) will mark ten years of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in its current form. I'm thrilled to see Cuba's Leonardo Padura, a crime-fiction great by any yardstick, slated to talk with Afrikaans crime writer Deon Meyer from South Africa and Moldovan investigator and flash-mob queen Natalia Morari, once arrested "for staging mass disturbances". That's the spirit. More details from: