Amongst the cards that arrived this Christmas was one from a family friend I haven’t seen in the past 12 months. Our cards crossed in the post, and both expressed the wish - intention - that this year we would get together for sure. Except while I wrote “looking forward to catching up in the springtime”, hers said: “hoping to meet up in 1924.” 

It stopped me in my tracks. Not because of the slip of the mind - I spend so many hours reading about the 16th century, I’m perfectly capable of writing 1524 instead of 2024. No, it was the thought of meeting in 1924 that was intriguing. How long ago it seems, and yet how recent.

For children, 100 years is the stuff of fairy tales, so unimaginably distant it’s when witches and goblins inhabited the forest. Once you’ve passed the milestone birthday of 50, however, a century suddenly seems a relatively short span away, only twice the time you’ve already lived, or less. It is the era in which our grandparents or great-grandparents came of age or perhaps even when our parents were born.

As this year draws to a close and we look ahead with anticipation but also  given the turbulence of world events - with trepidation to what lies in store, I wondered what it would be like to be on the cusp of 1924 instead of 2024. In the same way that people who keep a diary like to reread its pages at the end of December, casting your mind back can be illuminating and even consoling.

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In some ways, for those who could afford it, 1924 was a giddier, more hedonistic time than ours. The jazz age was coming into its own, sweeping away the stuffiness of Edwardian propriety. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with its stunning opening saxophone riff, which had its premier that February, was like the match that lit the flames of an entirely new and more liberated generation. (One critic described this piece as “the year Jazz crashed Classical Music’s Party”).

The horrors of the First World War were not forgotten; they might even be glimpsed in the live-for-the-moment mood that typified much of the twenties, and not just in nightclubs and dance halls. The Second World War lay some years off, and no-one could as yet have predicted that the conflict that had ceased in 1918 - “the war to end all wars” - would soon be outdone for barbarity and destruction.

Nor was there any hint of the Great Depression that was around the corner. As corks popped, bells pealed and fireworks filled the sky to usher in the new year, 1924 represented the best of times, all things considered.

If my friend and I were meeting back then, say in an Edinburgh tearoom, we’d be dressed in the clothes my grandmother wore: neat cloche hat, shapeless coat with large buttons, and big lacy collars on low-waisted dresses that fell to our calves. We’d be in low-heeled, single-strapped shoes - fastened with a button - and, if it was cold, a fox fur with a glass eye might be draped around our necks.

As we sipped tea, it would be hard to imagine that the coming months would witness world events whose reverberations would last for a century and more. This was the year when Adolf Hitler was imprisoned for his part in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, when the Nazi Party attempted a coup d’état. Sentenced to five years in prison, he only served nine months, and used it to write Mein Kampf. Within a few years, his rise to power would begin to alter the face of Europe irrevocably.

In January 1924, the death of Vladimir Lenin saw the end of a seismic revolutionary era and of a man since recognised as one of the most important political figures of the 20th century. His death paved the way for his successor, Joseph Stalin, who came to rival Hitler for terror.

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Closer to home, Britain’s first Labour Government came to power in January - albeit briefly  under Ramsay MacDonald. Four days before the General Election in November, however, the Daily Mail published the famous Zinoviev letter. This fake, intended to imply the Labour Party was hand in glove with Communists and Soviets, caused a Conservative landslide. Such interference with the election has its modern-day echo in fears of AI influencing our own forthcoming General Election in 2024, not to mention the presidential election next autumn in the USA.

In 1924, babies were born who would one day become names – the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, comedian Rikki Fulton and Nobel Prize-winning medic James Black. But this was also the year when the evangelical Christian and first-class Scottish rugby player Eric Liddell would stun the crowds at the Paris Olympics. After refusing to compete in the 100m heats because they were held on a Sunday, he went on to win Gold in the 400m race. There were many moments to cheer in 1924, but this was surely one of the most uplifting.

The Herald: Eric LiddellEric Liddell (Image: PA)

Even a cursory glance at what happened that year shows reverberations that continue to shape us. Yet what stands out most for me, and what will endure for future generations long after the global political landscape has changed, are the music, books and art that first appeared then. The final two volumes of Proust’s masterpiece, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, were still to be posthumously published. The year’s standout novel, however, was Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which the inmates of a Swiss sanatorium represent the unhealthy, indeed sometimes deranged, state of Europe in the decade before 1914. Few years in any century throw up such a literary landmark. Also published in 1924 was E M Forster’s A Passage to India: still much-loved and an insight into middle-class society of the time.

In art, there were memorable works by Picasso (Still Life with a Mandolin), Edward Hopper (Gloucester Beach, Bass Rocks), Georgia O’Keefe’s Red Canna and Miro’s The Hunter.

Studying them, like reading books, captures the spirit of the period. In certain respects it was an entirely different world, far distant from our own. In others, it could almost be today. The question now to ask is, what will be the lasting legacy of 2024? And what will be said of us in 100 years’ time?