Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Nineties - A Golden Age?

The course of human affairs is constant, chaotic and – initially at least – without structure. Only as events recede into the past do we start to identify patterns, to see stories with beginnings, middles and endings, to impose structure and meaning on the raw mass of events which are continually occurring. And even these structures are continually changing; both as stories continue to develop and be told, and as our particular concerns and preoccupations colour the way we create and recreate the structures of meaning we call history.

There is a general historical convention that around thirty years should have elapsed before historians apply themselves to material to “write” history. As far as I can ascertain, this convention (which I encountered when I was studying history) has much to do with the so-called Thirty Year Rule, which legally stipulates in Great Britain, Ireland and Australia, that cabinet records are generally kept confidential for thirty years before being made available to scholars and the general public. But we live in a world where the rate of change has become ever faster, and the amount of information available ever greater, and so – in many cases – there seems to be an increasing willingness to compress this period.

Recently, I have increasingly come across articles on-line which deal with The 90s. It has long been a convention to try to characterise history according to the completely arbitrary framework of the decimal divisions of our conventional recording of time; and decades which seemed to be particularly noteworthy (as decades) have even picked up special sobriquets, be they the Roaring 20s or the Swinging 60s. Still, I will admit to a certain feeling of unease when I see people dealing with the last decade of the past century as a rounded-off period of history. This feeling is a purely subjective one and has, I think, largely to do with the realisation that I am getting older and that periods which I lived through as an adult and which (to me) still seem very recent are, for those a couple of years (or decades) younger than me, as remote as the 60s of my childhood are for me. No sooner have I been forced to accept that, for the young people of today, the 80s are so incredibly long ago – I remember a comment my daughter (disparagingly) made a few years ago watching some film or other, “My God, that’s so eighties!” – now I am expected to do the same with the 90s.

Yet, as a specific period in history, “the 90s” can actually be pretty accurately defined as a particular historical period with a clear beginning and an even clearer ending, even if these are placed a little outside the chronological decade. They began on November 9, 1989, with the Fall of the Berlin Wall and ended on September 11, 2001, with the Fall of the Twin Towers. It was a decade of optimism, of feel-good, of the peace dividend, and the end of the bi-polar conflict which had had the world quaking under the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction since of the end of WWII.

It was, for my generation, a decade with loads of “the future is now” experiences. I remember Bob Dylan commenting on Bill Clinton’s election with some bemusement that he was now older than the president and, indeed, he went along to play “Chimes of Freedom” at Clinton’s inauguration – along with Fleetwood Mac belting out “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow at the inaugural ball. Come to think of it, Michael Jackson was there too and, hell, Clinton played saxophone for Chrissakes. A few years later, Tony Blair was elected UK prime minister – and he admitted to having played electric guitar in a garage band.

All of these 90s feelings came back to me forcibly  recently when I heard of the death of Whitney Houston. Though her career began in the eighties, it was the film, The Bodyguard, which made her fame undying worldwide, particularly with the song “I Will Always Love You.” And thinking of that film brought me to Kevin Costner, another man who made it big in the nineties. And thinking of Kevin Costner brought me to his version of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). The film is overacted and relies in many places on a strong dose of melodramatics but it also has a lightness, almost naïve whimsicalness about it, a deep optimism that everything will work out in the end (which it does, with Sean Connery turning up as Richard Lionheart to bless Robin’s marriage to Marion), which is quintessentially nineties. The film also features a show-stealing performance by Alan Rickman as the wonderfully evil Sheriff of Nottingham, who gets the best lines of the movie

“Just a minute. Robin Hood steals money from my pocket, forcing me to hurt the public, and they love him for it? That's it, then! Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas!”

The essential optimism of the 90s, I believe, was a consequence of the collapse of Soviet dominated communism at the end of the 80s. Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, it is easy to forget just how unbelievable this was – and how sudden. In October 1986, the agreement in principle between Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik over the reduction of intermediate nuclear weapons in Europe was regarded with amazement by the world; three years later the Berlin Wall fell, a year after that Germany was reunited, and a year later the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The shadow of the bomb – a continuous reminder of the complete precariousness of human existence on the planet for forty years – disappeared. Truly, the horse had learned to sing, and the song was American. Operation Desert Storm continued the theme and showed that the US could be the global policeman, impressively kicking Iraqi ass and taking names. Moves towards greater European union took place, with the European Community renaming itself Union, welcoming Austria, Sweden and Finland as new members, and making the final preparations for the introduction of a common currency.

Windows 3.0
The digital revolution was gathering speed. While PCs (and Macs) had already been spreading throughout the 80s, in the 90s they finally became a fixture in the majority of the households in the developed world. The internet exploded and by the end of the decade, most of us had mobile phones. The DVD arrived and began to kill VHS. Whereas at the beginning of the decade using a PC was a complicated nerdish business, involving knowing your way around the frustrating vagaries of DOS or cursing a frequently crashing Windows 3.0, by the time Bin Laden’s maniacs were crashing the hijacked planes into the World Trade Center Windows XP had just come on the market.

Of course, whether you experienced the 90s as a Golden Age or not is very much determined by who you were and where you lived. While, for much of the world, things seemed much better in 1995 than they had in 1985, there were gruesome exceptions – Yugoslavia, for example, or Rwanda. And there were those who famously didn’t survive the decade, from Kurt Cobain to Princess Diana.

The Golden Age was, at any rate, doomed. Although the transition to the new millennium went smoothly and the Y2K panic proved unwarranted, the party was coming to an end. In 2000 the Dot-Com Bubble burst and with 9/11 everything changed. Openness, optimism and feel-good were suddenly, catastrophically replaced with defensiveness, paranoia and the War on Terror. We are still living with the consequences.

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. ONe thing that was a pleasure was seeing the end of Thatcher in 1990. That certainly brightened the decade for me!

  2. Aye, Jams! It took me almost two years by letting a weekly column end 'I am also of the opinion that Maggie Thatcher ought to step down', to convince her. :)

  3. In retrospect and despite my memory that the best of the 60's actually occurred in the early and mid-70s, I have to agree the 90's was a happier decade overall since the period that's followed. Of course I have personal recollections that made that so but just to be sure of the larger issues I checked on a timeline about a few things you missed. Some were very good and others hinted of worse things to come.

    It was in 1990 that the Hubble Telescope was launched, Lech Walesa became the first President of Poland, and Nelson Mandela was freed.
    In 1991, South Africa repealed Apartheid.
    1992 saw riots in LA after the Rodney King verdict.
    In 1993, the World Trade Center was bombed.
    In 1994, the Channel Tunnel was opened and Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa.
    1995 had a sarin gas attack in Tokyo, Oklahoma City was bombed, and Rabin was assassinated.
    In 1996 Mad Cow Disease was discovered in Britain.
    Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 and the Pathfinder sent pictures back from Mars.
    It was in 1998 that Viagra first came on the market and President Clinton was impeached.
    In 1999, two high school students massacred teachers and classmates, NATO attacked Serbia, and the Panama Canal was returned to Panama.

    None of it seems that long ago to me either.


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