Roll on the bed revolution

<i>Promise of a Dream: remembering the Sixties</i> by Sheila Rowbotham (Allen Lane, &pound;18.99, 262pp)
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The Independent Culture

For much of the decade, there was no adequate birth control, no abortion, single women could not get mortgages, and the prevailing hair fashion resembled Myra Hindley's police mug-shot. While it's not exactly the sexy media image of the Sixties, the truth about that supposedly revolutionary decade is that it took an unconscionably long time to slough off the Fifties. Especially if you were a woman.

For much of the decade, there was no adequate birth control, no abortion, single women could not get mortgages, and the prevailing hair fashion resembled Myra Hindley's police mug-shot. While it's not exactly the sexy media image of the Sixties, the truth about that supposedly revolutionary decade is that it took an unconscionably long time to slough off the Fifties. Especially if you were a woman.

Sheila Rowbotham knows this only too well. Not only was she there and able to remember it (let's face it, the drugs weren't that strong). As a historian and a founding member of the women's movement, she has got a photograph album and a set of newly dusted-down memories with which to revisit the decade "variously dismissed as ridiculous, sinister, impossibly utopian, earnest or immature".

As a radical, feminist historian, part of her longs to rescue the Sixties from the historical mauling it has received, but she's also sharp and honest enough to know that a personal memoir is just that: a sophisticated form of oral history, subjective, colourful, messy, sometimes downright unreliable in what it chooses to remember, and in what it forgets.

If that is the weakness of Promise of a Dream, it is also the book's strength. Rowbotham's version of the Sixties is dangerously honest, her younger self often painfully gauche and naive. The decade forged her. She was a teenager when it began. Check the photo and it tells you everything: a lumpy, frumpy school girl, 16 going on 60. She could only look younger as she grew older.

Hidden behind the gym slip was a rag bag of predictably rebellious ideas, all of them Fifties influences - jazz, the Beats, French intellectuals. They sent her spinning off to Paris before university, where she learnt to wear black and drink coffee, blissfully oblivious of the political fallout from the French-Algerian war.

The Oxford University she entered in the early Sixties was still a place where a woman could be expelled for having a man in her bed. The man, of course, got off with a reprimand. (The women protested but it did no good - student revolution was yet to be invented). She arrived a romantic, but left a historian, largely due to the power of an emerging Marxist history nibbling at the edges of the establishment. Her intellectual life takes off when someone suggests she reads Eric Hobsbawm and, later, when she meets and starts to work with E P Thompson.

As for many of her generation, the second half of the decade proved so colourful (when does it turn from black and white? Surely, somewhere between Revolver and Sergeant Pepper) that it is hard to separate the good times from the productive ones. She and her mates fetch up in Hackney (where?, say those living in Notting Hill); she starts teaching in the East End, and gets sucked into radical politics, on the streets against everything from Enoch Powell to Vietnam.

This is part of a larger agenda of bringing politics to the people. Revolutionary festivals, street theatre - it's all exhausting, and exhilarating. The tension, even then, was between play and politics.

At its best, they gave dour old socialism a run for its money. At its worst, it all smacked of an elite playing at crossing the barricades. For example, she recalls that "Early in October [1968] Graham took his new inflatable to Hampstead Heath where David Medalla and his artistic commune, Exploding Galaxy, planned to do their Buddha ballet, a kind of prototype of performance art... I retained sufficient scepticism to suspect part of our popul-arity came from the startling beauty of Graham's partner, Myrdel."

There are times when she tells us too much rather than too little. The endless factional strife of left-wing politics of the time leaves one drowning in a sea of acronyms. Somewhere along the line, the energy wasted on internecine battles lost them sight of any larger goal. Rowbotham knows that but feels she has to chronicle it all anyway.

Occasionally, style gets the better of content. There's a touching tendency to remember events by the outfits she wore, but that is as much much a disease of age as of the historical moment. All youth movements are narcissistic; the Sixties was just more gauche about it. I suspect that much of what enrages people about the decade now was its very lack of sophistication, its guilelessness compared with Eighties and Nineties cynicism. But at least it had a vision larger that credit cards, however short-lived and misguided it may have been.

Much of the book is about sex and gender: from the ignorance of the Fifties, through her lost virginity (notable as the first night she went to bed without rollers on, rather than for any sexual fulfillment) through a litany of relationships, personal and political, which reveal an undercurrent of sexism and hypocrisy.

It takes a while for the women to recognise it, but once they do (in Rowbotham's case, in a blistering article commissioned by Tariq Ali in Black Dwarf magazine), the cultural lava released is unstoppable.

The book ends as the Seventies and the women's movement begins. It was the perfect example of the Sixties adage - the personal is political - but, in the case of women, it was indeed revolutionary. We may all agree to disagree on how far feminism really succeeded, but the economic, social and cultural landscape of Britain has been more altered by it than any other single "ism" of the decade. Sheila Rowbotham was one of its first voices. That's worth the book in itself.

Sarah Dunant's latest novel is 'Mapping the Edge' (Virago)

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