A year in the life

A connoisseur’s guide to the anniversaries of 2017


Two major historical milestones will hog the limelight in 2017: the centenary of Russia’s October revolution, and the quincentenary (500 years, to laymen) of Martin Luther’s dissemination of his 95 theses, which sparked the Reformation in earnest. Both were instrumental in forging the modern world (exegesis on both events and their meaning today is to be found elsewhere in these pages). But digging a little deeper throws up not only some other intriguing anniversaries—1,000 years since the founding of the Druze faith, 600 years since the first recorded use of street lighting in London, 60 years since the first Frisbee was thrown—but also questions about what the world remembers, and why.

Much of 2017’s retrospective rumination might take on a political character. Marking 600 years since Henry V’s decision to restore English as the language of government, Anglophones worldwide may rejoice that they never had to speak French. As with the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in October 2016, some Brexiteers will contrast England’s native tongue and ancient liberties with continental despotism; Remainers will be in frank disagreement with such tendentious angles. Events tend to be remembered or forgotten according to their point-scoring value. The patriots and Whigs who trumpeted the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta of 1215 will probably overlook 800 years since the Treaty of Lambeth of 1217 (which ended a war started when the same proto-democratic barons begged the king of France to invade).

Several anniversaries will present tempting parallels for foreign-policy wonks and columnists. The passing of 500 years since the first diplomatic mission from western Europe to Ming China—that of Portugal’s Fernão Pires de Andrade—may prompt lofty reflections on the rise of China and the pendulum of geopolitics; China’s One Belt, One Road initiative is soon supposed to connect economies from Beijing to Lisbon. Those fearful of Vladimir Putin’s tsarist revanchism might invoke the Silent Sejm (parliament) of 1717, when Peter the Great’s soldiers intimidated the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth into hobbling its army and becoming a de facto Russian protectorate.

Perhaps Barack Obama had an eye on history in October 2016 when he scrapped limits on tourists bringing Cuban cigars back home, just in time for 2017’s bicentenary of the legalisation of the Cuban cigar trade (or perhaps the outgoing POTUS simply fancied a well-earned Cohiba). Also in 1817, a ragged band of soldiers under José de San Martín crossed the Andes from Argentina to liberate Chile—200 years too early for a new tunnel between the two countries likely to be started in 2017.

The anniversaries of more obscure figures will pass largely unremarked. Germany will issue a special coin to commemorate 200 years since Karl Drais took the first bicycle for a spin, but he died unappreciated and penniless after his pedal-less Laufmaschine was taken up only by the trendiest urbanites. Maybe modern-day Hamburg hipsters will be inspired to give his “Dandy horse” another go. Knaresborough, in north Yorkshire, celebrates in 2017 the tercentenary of John “Blind Jack” Metcalf’s birth. He overcame poverty and disability, becoming a fiddle-player, outdoorsman, soldier, stagecoach-owner and the builder of 300km of turnpike roads across northern England: a veritable Jack-of-all-trades. Speaking of idioms, the actor and playwright David Garrick was also born 300 years ago. He was allegedly so engrossed in his own pioneering, naturalistic performance as Richard III that he failed to notice he’d fractured his femur—hence (one fanciful theory goes) the thespian “break a leg” to wish performers good luck. Many of history’s heroines are nameless: Russia’s February revolution, the centenary of which also falls in 2017, saw women take to the streets in their thousands to demand bread, peace and equal political rights, playing a crucial role in toppling the tsar (Lenin, meanwhile, was still skulking in Switzerland).

It was 50 years ago today

Some in 2017 will (hazily) recall the Summer of Love 50 years previously, and the release of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, the album that provided the soundtrack for many. But perhaps they should focus instead on the 60th anniversary of the chance meeting of Paul McCartney and John Lennon at a church fête in Woolton, Liverpool, where Lennon’s skiffle band, the Quarrymen, was playing. Happenstance and chance encounters may make for less satisfying anniversaries than big events, but are often just as pivotal.

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