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Terence Blacker: Reasons to be grateful for the Sixties

In the context of 2010, optimism is not such a disgraceful thing

Something horrible has happened to that dapper and dignified theatre critic, Quentin Letts. Attending the first night of the hippie musical Hair, currently being revived at the Gielgud Theatre, he briefly and unpleasantly found himself at the centre of the action. One moment, the lead actor Will Swenson was, as Letts put it, "waving much of his naked undercarriage, front and back, at the audience"; the next, he had clambered into the front rows of the auditorium.

Sitting innocently in Row C, the critic had has hair tousled, his bow-tie tweaked and then – sorry about this direct quote – Swenson "pushed his crotch towards my face." Letts is what the hippies used to call "a straight" and, not surprisingly, was traumatised by this experience and gave the show a stinking review. Hair, he argued, celebrated all that was most disgraceful about the 1960s – free love, drugs, a work-shy, draft-dodging generation that was "spoilt and, in numerous ways, destructive and fake." When Quentin went to university in the 1980s, students had learned that they jolly well had to had to work to get through life.

Perhaps the crotch-in-the-face incident was to blame, but here the critic seems to have become confused. Like many of those who have a moan about the 1960s – a great tradition of middle English moralists which stretches from Lynda Lee-Potter to Tony Blair – Letts is unable to explain how such a shiftless, lazy bunch of hippies were able to change so much.

There was, in the phrase of the time, a "youthquake". A generation brought up to respect one's elders, to do what one was told, to behave responsibly, get a job and raise a family decided that none of that was quite enough. The rebellion against the Quentin Lettses of the time was in fact anything but indolent. It revolutionised business, caused an explosion of creativity in the worlds of music, art and fashion. In the longer term, it changed politics, made society a more tolerant place and broke down barriers of misunderstanding within families. It helped stop a war.

It was not the first youthquake. A similar reaction against middle-aged, backward-looking conformity transformed the 1920s into a moment of colour, rhythm and misbehaviour. Doubtless there were disapproving commentators at that time and for many decades afterwards who blamed society's ills on the Roaring Twenties just as it is now an easy mental cliché to sneer at the Swinging Sixties.

Yet the generational revolutions of those two decades shared one, simple quality: they were about hope. With the muscle, clear eyes and fearlessness of youth, it was believed that things could be changed – that there was future.

That sense of energy and optimism, though it was often misdirected and ill-focussed, is perhaps not such a disgraceful thing, when considered in the context of 2010. Worrying over employment prospects, about the need to get on the housing ladder and setting up adequate pension arrangements may be a product of our uncertain times but it also suggests a lack of generational confidence. Even the weekend binge has a middle-aged feel to it.

Maybe we could use a youthquake right now.