A talk I gave at the 2017 Hay Literature Festival that was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
[A short essay I wrote for the The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World (2008)]
Historians have not always treated recreation very seriously as a topic of inquiry but it has always mattered to individuals in the modern world. Work may structure their day but play makes it worthwhile. Whether a song, a film, a game, a drink or even sex, recreation mattered and matters to people. These were not trivial asides; they were integral parts of people’s daily experience and influenced their outlooks on and understandings of the world they lived in. Yet, both the form and meaning of recreation was structured by the wider social and economic contours of life.
Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, modern recreation was shaped by the experience of industrialization. Efficient production demanded that time be organised and segmented. This meant that recreation too became regimented and bound by time, both hindering and enabling play. Long festivals and festivities went into decline with the coming of industry but new opportunities opened up in the time that was designated for recreation, especially on Saturdays, a day which offered escape from work before the more subdued hiatus of the Sabbath. Furthermore, modern industrial conditions brought rising incomes for the working and middle classes, enabling people to purchase pleasure in their spare time. By the late nineteenth century, people in industrial countries were spending money on tobacco, alcohol, gambling, sport, confectionary, and even holidays.
Of course, the boundaries between work and recreation were never impermeable. People talked, joked and even played while at work, and outside work domestic, family and religious chores and duties could lack the fun that should characterize play. Furthermore, as leisure itself was commercialized to take advantage of the rising demand, one person’s recreation became another’s employment. Similarly, developments like bicycling, which gained huge popularity at the very end of nineteenth century, served as both a means of travel for work and pleasure.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, industrialization may have changed the patterns of play in those communities that underwent it, but there was much continuity in its forms. The pleasures of drink and the escapism of drunkenness were as popular after the industrial revolution as they were before it. Music, dancing and sports were also integral parts of popular culture in both the premodern and the modern worlds. But modernization was bringing rationalization and organization, and it increasingly became the norm for such older collective but informal recreational traditions to be organized into clubs and societies. Competitions and rules became more formalized and the pursuit of pleasure justified by arguments for its moral and physical worth. Nowhere was this is clearer than in the world of sport, where, led by the British and to a lesser extent the French, new rules, competitions, and traditions were established from the late nineteenth century. Sports became part of the building of the character and physique of young men, a tool to ensure national survival in the midst of international tensions and ideas of social Darwinism. The economic and political patterns of a world of empires also took sports across the globe, introducing them to non-industrial territories likeIndia, where they quickly gained a local following, although not always in the spirit or form that their imperial masters had intended.
The rationalization of play was important as recreation increasingly became a contested political and moral space in the industrializing world. Drink had long since attracted religious oppositions but as religion itself was undermined by the spread of education, science and recreation, churches turned their attention to other pastimes that were thought to distract hearts and minds from God. In Catholic countries in particular the influence of the church was strong and this hindered the development of some modern forms of recreation such as formalized gambling. Recreation was also under attack from the growth of rational and scientific thinking that thought time and effort should only be employed on matters that were beneficial to the mind, body and community. Thus while the arts were widely deemed rational recreation, more populist pleasures were not, particularly when there were undertones of violence or debauchery. This was evident in the gradual growth in distaste for pastimes that involved cruelty to animals. However, precise attitudes towards what was socially acceptable obviously varied across cultures, as can be seen in the survival of the bullfight as a popular form of entertainment in Spain nearly two centuries after similar pastimes were outlawed in Britain.
The twentieth century
By the twentieth century technological developments were broadening the range and possibilities of recreation. The most significant invention in the field of recreation was the cinema, an international medium that literally changed the way people saw the world. In the early twentieth century, it opened up horizons and imaginations and had a profound effect on people individually and collectively; lives became less drab, wars and threats overseas seemed more real. It also began the trend of the Americanization of global popular culture and created global stars like Charlie Chaplin. The best films was not all American as, say, the great silent pictures of Weimar Germany or the sound films of 1930s France showed, but, as technologies got bigger and more expensive, it was increasingly difficult for other nations to produce films of the scale, spectacle and sheer impact of Hollywood.
Sport was another global phenomenon. Soccer, in particular, became an obsession that transcended national boundaries, although it was often utilized as a symbol of national and political pride, not least by the totalitarian regimes of left and right. The Olympic Games too became associated with deliberate and incidental exhibitions of national status, despite its initial conception as a celebration of international togetherness. Nonetheless, events like the World Cup and the Olympics did become genuine shared experiences that stretched across the globe.
Of course, not all recreation was communal. The home remained an important site of recreation, especially for women. Reading, embroidery, pets and even sex were things that could be enjoyed in the home of the growing literate masses. The development of the radio after the First World War was especially important in encouraging domestic recreation, although the relative expense of a set meant that it was not until the Second World War, fed by a hunger for news, that it achieved a truly mass audience inEurope. After the 1939-45 conflict, aided by the new rising prosperity, television became the dominant and ubiquitous source of both recreation and information. By the late 1960s it was the norm for homes in Europe, North America andAustralasiato have a set. It was simultaneously a private and shared experience: millions of people watched the same programmes but they did so from the comfort of their own homes. The development of satellite broadcasting in the 1960s enabled the live audiences for significant sporting and news events to extend around the globe, while the content of other programming, both educational and trivial, was a mix of the local and the imported.
For all its far-reaching significance in the west, television remained beyond the reach of those in poverty in the developing world. The reach of the globalized popular culture that was at the heart of recreation in the second half of the twentieth century was still limited by the realities of inequalities of wealth. Indeed, even within the west, a lack of access to popular recreation compounded the more fundamental miseries of poverty: poor diet and housing. It is the poorest’s lack of access to modern forms of recreation that undermines Marxist views of leisure as an opiate of the masses, something to distract them from wider political and economic struggles. This is not to suggest that that movies, drugs, alcohol or sport could not have this function but limited access certainly limits recreation’s political influence.
Nor was it just money that constrained modern recreation. Leisure was often highly gendered, reinforcing and reproducing wider female subordinate roles, from simply seeing recreation as the prerogative of only the male wage earner to employing women in brothels as entertainment for men. Racial prejudices too could, officially and unofficially, prevent people from partaking in everything from public dances to world title boxing bouts. Such restrictions eased as the west gradually became more racially tolerant after the Second World War and leisure even became an arena that encouraged such developments. Popular music was key here. Although black musical forms like jazz and the blues were initially widely distrusted because of their racial base, they gradually crossed over into mainstream popular culture, entertaining and influencing white people across the western world. Rock’n’roll in the 1950s and pop in the 1960s were dominated by both white artists and audiences but their roots lay in black musical forms.
Popular music in this era started as part of a new youth culture but, as generations aged, it became part of mainstream recreation. Like much modern recreation, it became a huge global industry in its own right and, even when associated with social and political rebellion, popular music was intensely commercialized. It also encapsulated the nature of global popular culture: strong common threads, structures and forms that absorbed local influences and then transmitted them across national boundaries, a process engendered and driven by the globalized economy and mass media. Recreation was thus not only an integral part of people’s lives across the globe, it was also an arena that made a global culture something more real than simply the abstract flows of economic and political ties.
Briggs, Asa and Burke, Peter, A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet, Cambrige: Polity, 2005. Seminal introduction to a key form of recreation.
Clarke, John and Critcher, Chas, The Devil Makes Work: Leisure in Capitalist Britain,London: Macmillan, 1985. A loosely-Marxist interpretation of leisure history, with implications beyond itsUK casestudy.
Critcher, Chas, Bramham, Peter and Tomlinson, Alan, eds., Sociology of Leisure: a Reader.London: E & F N Spon, 1995. Useful introduction to sociological interpretation of contemporary recreation.
Guttmann, Allen, From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports,ColumbiaUniversity Press, 2004. A seminal, wide-reaching although US-centred study of the development of modern sport, employing modernization theory.
Pierre Lanfranchi, Christine Eisenberg, Tony Mason & Alfred Wahl, 100 Years of Football: The FIFA Centennial Book (London, 2004). A global account of the global game.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema.OxfordUniversity Press, 1999. A hefty and wide ranging study of film.
John Davies, a leading Welsh historian who was born in 1938, remembers being told at university that everything since 1911 was ‘mere journalism’. Such views were already then becoming outdated due to the momentous horrors of two world wars, events which plainly needed studying and understanding.
Yet studying the recent past remained less popular than events a safer distance away and even in 1997 Arthur Marwick could note a prejudice towards contemporary history. If there is a prejudice or hesitancy towards studying the recent past it is rooted in its difficulties rather than any sense that contemporary history is not an important or valid topic for study. Contemporary history throws up significant challenges because of the volume of sources, the difficulty of negotiating the historian’s own position, outlook and memories and the problem of not knowing what happened next.
Even those who practice it can struggle with how contemporary history differs from studying other periods. Mazower, a historian of twentieth-century Europe, wrote that he found it difficult to see the recent past ‘as a period of history rather than as a series of contemporary social, political and economic issues’. Elsewhere he noted that because it was social scientists who mostly wrote about post-1945 Europe, ‘the feel and approach of the scholarly literature … is quite different from that of earlier periods, and this poses special problems for the would-be synthesizer. Lines of historical debate and terms of enquiry are ill-defined, non-existent or simply unrecognisable’.
Any reluctance to study the recent past is masked somewhat by the changing boundaries of when that past is. No longer, for example, do most historians consider the Second World War as contemporary history. Although 1945 remains a common boundary used to define the topic, even the 1950s and 60s are far beyond the living memory of many adults today and are thus often not regarded as contemporary history.
In the UK, it is probably the last three decades that really marks the contemporary past, not least because of the thirty-year rule in public records. Thus the recent growth of work on the 1970s gives a more vibrant impression of contemporary history than would be garnered if work on the 1980s was looked for.
A search of the Bibliography of British and Irish History clearly illustrates how the volume of work on more recent decade tails off to such an extent that it cannot simply be because earlier decades have had more time to be written about.
Number of bibliographic entries on Bibliography of British and Irish History related to different decades
It is not just the period that contemporary history refers to that is shifting. Freedom of information legislation, new archival policies, the internet and the general shift to electronic communication and storage are all changing the nature of researching the recent past. Indeed, practitioners of contemporary history often express confusion about what research resources are now available online. The practice of the topic is changing and changing quickly.
Nonetheless, there has been a recent upsurge in writing about the recent past. The work of Dominic Sandbrook, in particular, has shown there is both a market for contemporary history and significant potential in its telling. Others have begun explicit attempts to use history, especially recent history, to offer policy lessons for the present. But it is still surprising that there is not more contemporary history written or even taught. After all, students’ view of what is contemporary is rather different to their older lecturers.
Neither students nor history have always been quite as well served by universities as they might have been. In looking at what professionalization and the growth of higher education had done to British history, David Cannadine argued that it became introspective, pedantic, narrow in focus and preoccupied with fine detail rather general interpretations. Too much of it was ‘little more than an intellectual pastime for consenting academics in private’.
Perhaps more than any other kind of history, contemporary history can meet this challenge. When done well, it can be lively, entertaining, engaging, unsettling and provocative. When it achieves that, not only is the public expenditure on its production justified but so too is the thinking, agonizing and slog that went into its writing.
Martin Johnes is the author of Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Pres, 2012).
 John Davies, ‘Whose memory do we keep?’, in John Osmond (ed), Myths, Memories and Futures: The National Library and National Museum in the Story of Wales (Cardiff, 2007), 58-67, quote from 59.
 Arthur Marwick, ‘A new look, a new departure: a personal comment on our changed appearance’, Journal of Contemporary History, 32, 1 (1997), 5-8.
 For a full discussion of these challenges and how they can be negotiated see Martin Johnes, ‘On writing contemporary history’, North American Journal of Welsh Studies, 6, 1 (2011). Online at http://welshstudiesjournal.org/article/view/11/7
 Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (London, 1998), 478.
 Mark Mazower, Response to Review no. 67, http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/67/response
 For discussion on when contemporary history is see Jane Caplan, ‘Contemporary history: reflections from Britain and Germany’, History Workshop Journal, 63 (2007), 230-38.
 Data assembled using the ‘close search’ facility. An item which covers long period is counted in each decade’s total.
 For discussions see E. Hampshire and V. Johnson, ‘The Digital World and the Future of Historical Research’, Twentieth Century British History, 20, 3 (2009), 396-414, and A. Flinn and H. Jones (eds), Freedom of Information: Open Access, Empty Archives? (London, 2009).
 Vanessa Ann Chambers, ‘`Informed by, but not guided by, the concerns of the present’: contemporary history in UK Higher Education – its teaching and assessment’, Journal of Contemporary History, 44, 1 (2009), 89-105, 99.
 Dominic Sanbrook, Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (London, 2005), White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (London, 2006), State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974 (London, 2010).
 David Cannadine, ‘British history: past, present – and future?’, Past and Present, 116 (1987), 169-191. Quote from 178.