Books: Turn on, tune in, cash up

Laurie Taylor, Charlton Heston lookalike and king of Happenings, admits: `Yes, it was a rip-off'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Sixties: cultural revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States

by Arthur Marwick

Oxford University Press, pounds 25, 903pp

Thank goodness for my old copy of the Bradford Evening Post. Without the help of the lengthy report it published on 3 March 1970, I would have considerable difficulty persuading anyone that I was, for one night at least, right at the centre of the type of counter-cultural activities so relentlessly documented in this encyclopaedic work.

Under the heading "It's All Happening", reporter John Osmond describes a seven-hour all-night event on "Pop Culture and Sexual Deviance", part of the Bradford Arts Festival. "This awe-inspiring theme," he wrote, "was kicked off by sociology lecturer, Laurie Taylor, a Charlton Heston figure who rather spoilt the image by hugging everyone who went near him". But the inadequacies of my compering were soon forgotten in the mayhem which our intrepid reporter proceeds to chronicle.

"High-pitched crackling microphones provided volume but nothing else and the arena was lit only by vivid darts of coloured light, completed by a background of electronic music and bubbles gently floating down from the rafters. Films of hippie demos at the Chicago Convention 1968, and Bob Dylan's film Don't Look Back, were shown once without sound, once without vision. I asked the organiser if he thought it had been a success. He replied `Art is what goes on around you'."

I have kept that report because, apart from the Charlton Heston name- check, it provides an effective antidote to some of the more preposterous claims about the revolutionary nature of cultural activities in the Sixties and early Seventies. Our Bradford all-nighter, with its combination of strippers, Jeff Nuttall's People's Theatre and soundless Bob Dylan films, may have seemed to some onlookers like a quintessential "happening", but I remember with an awful clarity that the impetus behind it was little more than an old-fashioned desire to get drunk and stoned, show off in public, and make a substantial sum of money. The only way in which the Sixties ethos influenced the event was through the unprecedented licence it provided to charge five pounds a head for seven hours of such unadulterated crap.

I like to keep Bradford in mind whenever I'm confronted by texts which treat events of the Sixties as though they were spontaneous emanations from a new system of values. Whatever was happening in those years may have been exciting and relatively unpredictable, but it was also often informed by a degree of self- consciousness which renders some of the more elaborate retrospective renderings downright hilarious. Such is the weight of analysis that it is difficult not to feel sympathy with the commentator who characterised the entire Sixties industry as "interpretations in search of an event".

How refreshing, then, to find Arthur Marwick insisting on the first page of his superbly researched volume that "what happened between the late Fifties and the early Seventies has been subject to political polemic, nostalgic mythologising, and downright misrepresentation". But although this view makes him properly critical of those who bang on about the radical potential of the period ("There was never any possibility of a revolution"), it does not extend to denying the significance of the time or the effect it continues to have on contemporary life.

"My starting point," Marwick argues, "is that the prima facie evidence is strong enough to warrant exploring the proposition that there was a self-contained period, commonly known as `the Sixties', of outstanding historical significance in that what happened during the period transformed social and cultural developments for the rest of the century."

Before reading Marwick, I might have found even this modest proposition too strong to swallow. But I would have reckoned without the comprehensiveness of his research. Although other commentators may have confined themselves to the more spectacular events - demonstrations, happenings, popular music, fashion - Marwick as a conscientious historian insists that any transformation was not due solely to protest and activity, but also to "a conjunction of developments, including economic, demographic, and technological ones". Critically, it depended on enlightened people "in positions of authority" who "responded flexibly and tolerantly to counter-cultural demands".

This would be a formidable idea to pursue were it confined to Britain, but Marwick is even more ambitious. His research into such variables as population change, living standards, racial conflict, attitudes to censorship and access to television and popular culture is extended to the US, France and Italy. It's a dazzling performance. No sooner have we learned about the origins of gay liberation in Italy than we are off in search of the implications of the 1974 voting reforms in France. No sooner have we mastered the complexities of the relationships between the civil rights groups in the States than we're caught up by the details of the five acts of parliament which provided the bases for Roy Jenkins's notion of Britain as a "Civilised Society".

There are faults: some of the analyses of films and novels are too extended (eight pages on Room at the Top!). The author's profound hostility to Marx and all things Marxist is not only tiresome but also leads him, in a chapter entitled "Pushing Paradigms to their Utmost Limits", into some grandiloquent pieces of nonsense: "What an appalling confession it is that Foucault... could never see beyond the horizon determined by Marx."

But I suspect that by the final chapter only committed ideologues of right and left will still feel inclined to resist Marwick's original proposition about the significance of the era. Even those who feel that they could happily live the rest of their life without even encountering another analysis of the Sixties can derive some comfort from the knowledge that this volume is sufficiently compendious to make most intending authors raise their hands in surrender.

It's a bit of luck, therefore, that Jonathon Green has just managed to sneak under the wire with All Dressed Up (Cape, pounds 17.99, 482pp): an expansion of his excellent oral history of the Sixties "underground", Days in the Life. If by any chance you have forgotten about swinging London, anti-psychiatry, flower power, the Angry Brigade, and the legal battles over the suitability of Lady Chatterley's Lover for your servants or Oz for your children, then this is the perfect place to get back up to strength. There's even a page on my own favourite counter-cultural group of the era, King Mob, whose programme for infuriating the bourgeoisie included dynamiting a picturesque waterfall in the Lake District, and hanging the much-loved peacocks in Holland Park. According to Green, there was more. "In what some see as their finest hour a team appeared in Selfridge's over Christmas 1968. Led by their own `Santa Claus' they proceeded to hand out free gifts to the queuing children. The store called the police and the children were forced to return their presents."

Green has style, humour, and appropriate notes of scepticism, but above all an enduring affection for most of the events and people of the period. The Sixties might be over and we might have no idea what happens next, but while it went on it was a great party. Even if, as at Bradford, the microphones did have a habit of failing.