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Books: Time and Ginsberg wait for no man

All Dressed Up: The Sixties and Counterculture by Jonathon Green Pimlico pounds 12.50
Jonathon Green, lexicographer and former contributor to Oz and IT, has already compiled an oral history of the 1960s which drew on the recollections of leading underground figures, or, as some would say, frazzled old pot-heads. With this charmingly idiosyncratic book he completes his investigation of that decade. This time, his purpose is to provide an overview of the cultural and political events that still find us floundering in the aftermath of permissiveness, women's lib and gay consciousness.

His account begins with the birth of the "teenager". First there were the leather-and-denim-clad Teds with their nihilistic non-conformity and ritualised battles for territory. Then the Italianate Mods. But what makes Green's approach so distinctive is his rehabilitation of contemporary slang. We hear from the bored, young shopworkers /apprentices, etc, intent on finding "giggles" and "kicks". We read outraged reports from local newspapers wildly exaggerating their antics. Green's skilful montage of voices establishes the ambience necessary for making the ideas come alive as vividly and threateningly as they did at the time.

Accordingly, anti-psychiatry, flower power and Allen Ginsberg are accorded a respectful treatment, although, when appropriate, Green invites us to dismiss their glorious absurdities. For instance, he relates what should have been an auspicious meeting of minds between the Beatles and Ginsberg in 1965. The Fab Four were due to meet the Crazy One, but in the event only two turned up - George Harrison and John Lennon - with their respective wives. They were late, and Ginsberg was drunk. He greeted them naked with a pair of Y-fronts on his head and a sign reading "No waiting" hanging from his penis. A distinctly unamused Lennon prudishly said: "You don't do that in front of the birds," and ushered his female charges out of the room.

Elsewhere we learn about the man hired by Apple for the sole purpose of interpreting the I Ching, and how to attain a third eye by drilling a hole in your head. But Green also records the economic climate that gave rise to England's different "scenes". Universities expanded, and young people became active consumers with no thoughts of mortgages or careers. Radical social legislation (pioneered by Roy Jenkins) also played a part. But the party ended abruptly, Green contends, in 1971, with the Oz trial, and we are still feeling the moral backlash.