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The modern world was made in the 1920s

A 1920s flapper girl in The Great Gatsby (1949). Paramount Pictures/Getty

We are used to thinking of the 1960s as the “golden, transformative decade of modern society and culture”, says James Marriott in The Times, with its pop music, television, miniskirts and sexual revolution. But in reality, a “longer and deeper shadow” is cast by the modernist turn of the 1920s. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer makes a version of this argument, showing the protagonist investigating quantum mechanics while also reading TS Eliot, listening to atonal music, examining cubist art and discussing the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. The suggestion is that in the realms of “culture, physics and the mind”, old structures were breaking apart into something “strange, fragmented and new”.

Our democracy, in which all adult men and women can vote, dates to 1928. It was the rise of radio that made the 1920s, not the 1960s, the “first era of mass media”, giving the public general access not just to the words but the voices of their politicians – the start of superficial “personality politics”. The decade saw the first newspaper grumblings about the “Americanisation of British culture” and the start of people regularly smiling in photographs. The first “shockingly short skirts” were worn not by Mary Quant models but by Jazz Age flappers. We miss all this because it is hidden behind the great cataclysm of the Second World War; there’s an “illusory sense” that history began afresh in the conflict’s aftermath. But perhaps as both the war and the 1960s fade from living memory, we’ll get a better perspective. “The modern world is older than we think.”