The 20th century in poems: Decade by Decade

04 September 2023
Dr David McKinstry takes us on a decade-by-decade tour of the 20th century, through the medium of verse.


As Victoria lay in state

Britain looked back upon Empire

And took financial stock,

Whilst America leapt forward

As Wrights took flight

On the Kitty Hawk.

The Kaiser demanded

A place in the sun,

Xenophobia gained cultural currency

Coining insult “The Hun”.

For franchise women protested

No longer confined to house,

Whilst government subjected them

To a game of cat and mouse.[i]

In Eire the storms

Again began to gather,

Dublin demanding home rule,

But Ulster was for Union

Branding nationalists as Rome rule.

Labour Party was founded

Workers Clause Four defined,

Within twenty-years in Government

Whilst Liberals fortunes declined.

The Edwardian Era

A decade of flight and radio innovation,

Whilst Britain’s brutality was still administered

On Boers in camps of concentration.



From dreaming spires

And county shires

They came to fight at Passchendaele.

From every village hall

They answered Albion’s call

For on that field

They dare not fail.

One yard the more

One thousand the less,

Whilst mothers wept

As they received the news

By postal address.

In dining rooms

Fathers quietly cry,

For telling their sons

Tales of courage

Based upon a Kipling lie.


Women gained the franchise

And Flappers were all the rage,

Whilst Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise

Exposed the dark side of Jazz Age.

Skyscrapers arose

To define cityscape anew,

Whilst Gershwin’s sound soared

In Rhapsody in Blue.

Versailles was greeted

With German derision,

Whilst Jolson gave movies sound

And Logie Baird’s box gave vision.

Back in Blighty post-war depression

Witnessed wage cuts

And unemployment hike,

Whilst workers seeing

No homes fit for heroes

Organised a General Strike.

Volstead’s short-sighted folly

Gave rise to Capone’s corporation

Profiting from booze ban,

Whilst Eliot penned desolate

Vision of The Waste Land.

The Roaring Twenties

Flapper, Prohibition, Gangster,

And an American economy

That war-ruined Europe

Could not compete,

But U.S. hubris had a price

Which was paid beyond Wall Street.


The ill winds of Wall Street

Blew eastwards across Europe,

And gave sail to Swastika flag

As it was hoisted above Reichstag.

As dole queues stretched

The masses could barely

Eat week too weak,

Whilst the silver screen

Supplied escapist relief

As Fred and Ginger

Danced cheek to cheek.

FDR entered the White House

Proclaiming the only thing to fear

Was fear itself,

Putting white folks back to work

Whilst leaving civil rights on the shelf.

Picasso moved from Surrealism

To brutal realism,

As Guernica became artistic legend

Which bore bloody witness

To Nazi Condor legion.

By thirties close

The high priest of butchery

Washed his hands in blood,

Whilst donning a brown shirt robe,

Marching misery across Europe

And spreading race hate around the globe.



As winter turned to spring

And Churchill’s bombast stilled,

The nation turned to quiet Clem

Voting for a rebuild.

Up went the homes

Finally for heroes to fit,

Down went the miners

Into nationalised pit.

Nye valued good health

Stuffed doctors’ mouths with gold,

As a price worth paying

For an NHS to behold.

Castle insisted family allowance

To women be paid,

Then came the pension

Taking care of all

From cradle to grave.

Proletarian petals began to flower

In schools that planted sixties swinging,

The light of knowledge shining

To the echoes of Jerusalem singing.

Through blitz storm they stood firm

When Nazi was at the gate,

Then with worn out tools

Turned to build a welfare state.

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Supermac declared

You’ve “never had it so good”,

For sure,

But was content

To don his tweeds

And escape to his

Private grouse moor.

The Carry On Team’s

Slap and tickle humour

To some, seemed banal,

But at least it was funnier

Than invading the Suez Canal.

Elvis thrilled the new teenagers

With his rock and roll passions,

Whilst middle-aged mothers’

Still queued for their rations.

The Goons rioted on the wireless

With their crazed humour,

Whilst news of Churchill’s stroke

Was not a broadcastable rumour.

The fifties, a decade

Before we truly danced

Whilst the Fab Four were singing,

But were still content

To see Ruth Ellis swinging.


The swinging sixties,

Where to start?

On one side the Summer of Love

The other “Till Death Us Do Part”.

The winter of sixty-three

Covered the country in a white sheet,

The autumn of sixty-four ushered in Labour

Promising “White Heat”.

Jagger swaggered

And sang the Blues,

Whilst Enoch ranted

Racist Views.

In the space race

America shot ahead,

Whilst killing King

And shooting Kennedys’ dead.

The Fab Four started with twee

“Love me Do”

And ended with rocking

“Polythene Pam”,

Whilst Baby-boomers

Tuned in and dropped out

Burning incense and a hint of Napalm.


A more naïve and innocent time

Where no one scratched their head,

Whilst Eric and Ernie

Were sharing a double bed.

The miners were still underground

Whilst the Wombles were overground

And Wombling free,

Virginia won Wimbledon

In the silver jubilee.

The only platforms

Were of oil and of shoes,

Whilst “Love Thy Neighbour”

Broadcast racist views.

Woolies and Pick n’ Mix

Were our weekly treat,

Whilst thirteen lay dead

On Derry Street.

The seventies, a decade

Of riotous bad taste,

Whilst workers had rights

Before Thatcher’s industrial waste.


Keegan Perm gave way to Mullet

And CD replaced LP,

Whilst Essex boys whistled

Maggie’s the girl for me.

Unemployment was rising

Whist Belgrano was sinking,

We were told to consume

Without conscience or thinking.

The nation watched

Royal wedding at St. Pauls’,

Whilst we prayed in our new

Cathedrals of shopping malls.

We were told to “Tell Sid”

To buy his gas shares,

But something was smelling

more than the industry

They were selling.

We rocked at Live Aid

Whilst gravestones told us,

“Don’t die of Ignorance”

Of our own Aids.

The eighties, a decade

decadence and dole,

Hoodwinked by market forces

As we sold our national soul.


Tarantino blazed the silver screen

Travolta and Jackson’s dialogues

Became common diction,

Whilst Major’s government

“Back to Basics”

Acted out its’ own Pulp Fiction.

Top clubs capitalised

As football became the national creed,

Forming the premiership

To cash-in on their brand greed.

Joey and Chandler

Played out their bromance,

Whilst frenemies Tony and Gordon

Tangoed in their own power dance.

Black American youth

Were innovating with Hip-Hop,

Whilst British lads rehashed the 60s

And launched it as Brit-pop

The Spice Girls took over the world

Heard on the radio every hour,

Whilst watching Diana’s funeral cortege

We fell silent

Out of respect for her girl power.

The nineties, a decade

Of nostalgia and innovation,

When Britannia no longer

Ruled the waves,

But Cool Britannia

Ruled the cultural waves.

By David Michael McKinstry

About the author

Dr David McKinstry teaches History at Holyrood Secondary School in Glasgow. He is a specialist in the American Civil Rights Movement and is the author of “We Shall Overcome”. As well as writing history books and articles David writes poetry and his verse is extensively published in Scotland and internationally as well as being broadcast on radio where he is a regular contributor to Radio Scotland. His poem, “To Our Children”, was recently recited on the Afternoon Show to critical acclaim. David’s poems on our website “Decade by Decade”, are ten poems that chart the decades of the 20th century. They focus on Britain, yet also address wider historical events including the Wall Street crash and the rise of Fascism. David is currently working on a collected works, “Viral Verse”. He lives in Glasgow with his son and can be contacted at [email protected]

[i]  The Cat and Mouse Act was introduced in 1913. However, I have employed poetic licence as the Edwardian Era was seen by historians to last until 1914 which was four years after Edward VII had died.

(Image copyright Tuck DB Postcards)