The Sixties, By Jenny Diski

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"In truth, the only thing that is absolutely certain is that the music then was better". Yes. In the early Seventies, I remember asking people a year or two younger which of the bands coming up were going to take over from The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground and The Incredible String Band. It took me years to realise that this was not going to happen.

Music apart, Jenny Diski's eloquent and probing The Sixties is full of doubts and queries. This is not one of those books which celebrates the decade as one long party for the likes of David Bailey, Richard Neville, Jean Shrimpton, Germaine Greer, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful, and you really had to be there to know how good it was.

Though the music was terrific, Diski suggests that the Sixties in Britain (her book is only about Britain) produced no great books. More generally, she sees the decade as one that mostly had the right ideas, but which failed. Therefore her book, like Tariq Ali's Street Fighting Years, Sara Maitland's Very Heaven, Sheila Rowbotham's Promise of a Dream and Henrietta Moraes's Henrietta, reads somewhat like a memoir produced by a hippyish veteran of a belated and defeated International Brigade.

As befits a book in Profile's Big Ideas series, Diski has plenty of serious points. One leading theme is that both the youth culture and the slow spread of more liberal attitudes and legislation owed an enormous amount to an enlightened older generation. Young people then were indulged with university grants, parental subsidies, easy access to the dole, the pill and even heroin on prescription. It was easy to find jobs and easy to drop out of them. People like Roy Jenkins, Hugh Carleton Greene and the Bishop of Woolwich were much better placed to influence change in social attitudes than were a bunch of inexperienced and impecunious young people addled on drugs.

Also, rebels were "certainly not in the majority... There were far more 'straight' young people". The Sixties happened in an environment mostly shaped by the drab and respectable Fifties. Better Books on Charing Cross Road, with its stock of books about Beats, drugs and Zen Buddhism, was a few doors up from a shop displaying surgical trusses. I recently went through The Times from the summer of 1967. Apart from the trial of the Rolling Stones for drugs, "the Sixties" was invisible in its pages, which detailed the launch of battleships, royal garden parties, councils of bishops and boardroom appointments.

Diski also draws attention to the solemnity of drug taking. Recreational use hardly existed and one took drugs to discover an inner self or reveal a hidden mystical truth. She is entertaining and accurate about encounter groups, and the immense pressure placed on participants to crack and have - or simulate - public breakdowns.

Like most other accounts of the decade, there is an autobiographical element. Diski, who was in and out of mental hospitals and spent time setting up and teaching in a Free School, emphasises mental health and educational issues. She rather underplays the mystical and exotic aspects and there is no reference to the hippy trail. She also skips the retro cults of Beardsley, Mucha and Victorian military uniforms.

She is less interested in style than social responsibility. Were Sixties people and their attitudes responsible for the late Seventies and the rise of Margaret Thatcher? Diski has gone back to certain key texts, such as RD Laing's The Divided Self and Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society, and finds in their extreme libertarian positions potential forerunners of right-wing laissez faire attitudes and Thatcher's denial of society.

In the end, Diski decides that "I'd resist the claim that the Sixties generation were responsible for the Thatcher years, as I would resist the notion that the Jewish community in Germany were responsible for the advent of the Nazis, but sometimes I can't help but see how unwittingly we might have been sweeping the path in readiness for the radical Right, preparing, with the best of good intentions, the road to hell for paving". There is, she thinks, a distinction between interest in the self (very Sixties and adolescent) and self interest (more obvious in the Seventies and unattractively adult). Those of us who were young in the Sixties are now old. There is no point now in denouncing ourselves for having once been young.

Robert Irwin's Sixties novel, 'Satan Wants Me', is published by Dedalus