London's swinging but this isn't the Sixties

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Nine Oscars for The English Patient last week released another round of national back-slapping and talk that it's Britain's time again, perhaps as indisputably as in the Sixties.

Then, as now, Tories might have felt they deserved some of the credit for creating the conditions for this new mood of creative energy. But then, as now, the voters are not grateful. Then, as now, the country was sloughing off a tired Tory administration ("13 years of Tory misrule" was the slogan); then, as now, American journalists were sent on transatlantic expedition to give a name to the new creative energy. Newsweek's verdict last November was that London was the "coolest city on the planet". Time did its Swinging London story in 1967, the year Antonioni's Blow-Up came out, showing Sixties people sprawled in heaps on cushions in antique dealer Christopher Gibbs's flat. It was the year of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Are we about to enjoy another Swinging Sixties? Those were during a Labour government, after Harold Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964. But the mood is different, because the elation now seems based on money and competition. London may be the latest worldly whizzing city, after New York, Sydney, Miami South Beach and Barcelona, but this kind of celebrity is short-lived.

Rowley Leigh, chef of Kensington Place, said recently he was expecting a French television crew but if they didn't come no doubt it would be because London was over and now it was Barcelona again.

The mood of the Sixties, from 1967, was naturally and often chemically mind-altering. James Buchan, whose book Frozen Desire: the Psychology of Money will be published next September, says "The Sixties was an original period, the Nineties is a reprise. The country is twice as prosperous as it was 30 years ago. Young people don't have the conflicted attitude to money and commerce of the Sixties generation. They are quite willing to wear clothes with advertising on them.

"In the Sixties the idea you derived part of your personality from a commercial organisation would have been square beyond belief. Originality is no longer a value, nor is individuality. In the Sixties you could be a respected person without being rich. There were abstractions like patriotism and honour. People now feel safer with quantity than quality when describing someone, saying things like 'She wouldn't get out of bed for less than pounds 20,000'. They assess by money and celebrity, both neutral morally."

Sixties people didn't know much about business or publicity. Mary Quant bought her material by the yard from Peter Jones at the retail price. Terence Conran had to be persuaded by his wife Shirley to allow articles about himself. When the miniskirt was invented in 1962-63 it was a metaphor of throwing off the restraints of pre-war assumptions; women had worn gloves and pantygirdles to work. Suddenly people came from abroad to the King's Road to see girls wearing "Le minijupe!".

The openness to change brought in new ideas from the East, from America and from the lower classes. It was a surprise to hear bells jangling on girls walking down St James's (where today gentlemen's clubs are back on top). The "underground" erupted in magazines, clubs, clothes, music, drugs and sexual freedom. There were left-wing politics, and riots in London and Paris, but you could be there without remembering those. American Vietnam draft dodgers brought over "peace and love" and a drug habit; Australian Richard Neville set up Oz; Ossie Clark, Celia Birtwell and David Hockney arrived from Bradford, Mary Quant had come from Wales, David Bailey and Terence Donovan came from the East End, the Beatles from Liverpool, Zandra Rhodes from north Kent and Thea Porter from the Lebanon bringing fine fabrics she made into couture versions of hippies' Eastern cottons. Fashions were not aimed at the rich, who were slow to catch on.

The clubs were the Ad Lib, Revolution; Scotch of St James, UFO - which had "light shows" of amoeba-like oil moving and changing on slides, imitating LSD. Men and women who in the Fifties had worn tapering shoes as in medieval times moved on, (the chicks) to strap shoes with white lace tights (new garment) and then two-inch-sole hooves. Girls walked down the King's Road bra-less in see-through blouses. Men and women "pulled" each other.

A young American respectfully asked a woman what she remembered, twenty years on, of the Sixties, and she said: "Looking into my girlfriend's face and seeing a crab crawl from one eyebrow to the other." A lot of people were bisexual (although gay relationships were illegal until 1967). A danger such as Aids was as yet unimagined.

Jenny Fabian wrote Groupie in 1965 about vying for the favours of the new breed of pop musicians. The Who and the Rolling Stones (early Sixties) were joined by Pink Floyd, Traffic, Led Zeppelin. A journalist who read it recently for the first time - it is being republished in June by Omnibus - said it shocked him. Sexual freedom is more shocking now than financial scandal.

In those tolerant, idealistic and dreamy few years the only thing not tolerated was being a "breadhead" (materialist).

Eventually efficiency and greed overtook the floppiness. In 1961 and 1962 journalists talked about fashion coming from the streets. By 1967 they were saying they might not go to the top couture shows in Paris. Thirty years later they toe the line and all go to Paris-London-Milan- New York.

In the Sixties Penelope Gilliatt wrote an article in the Queen, now part of Harpers & Queen about the triviality of gossip columns. The article destroyed reputations and changed editorial policies. Some "Diaries" were actually dropped. Now every paper has gossip - which a worldly readership needs. People may have felt able to have a swinging country without gossip but you can't have a cool one.

A layer of public relations, advertising research, accountants and other managers has been brought in to run creative businesses, in the belief that such services can ensure success whether or not the central talent exists. Classic clothes, different from each other only in signature details, are the mainstay of all the fashion empires.

But even if we are not seeing a new Sixties there are things to celebrate. Young British fashion is exciting: Alexander McQueen, Antonio Berardi, Bella Freud, Workers for Freedom, Clements Ribeiro and Paul Frith, and the youngest of all, Vivienne Westwood from the Seventies. British art is exciting: Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, Sarah Lucas, the Wilson twins and the rest. Hirst is appreciated more in Switzerland and New York than here.

We have delicious young screen stars: Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet, Colin Firth, Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Ehle.

In other fields, British scientists are responsible for many innovations and inventions even if they have to be developed in other countries. The CBI is looking into how small and medium hi-tech firms can be helped to follow through at home. Tony Blair has pledged pounds 100m from the lottery for a national "trust fund for talent" in science, technology and the arts. In medicine, Britain is a leader in research into cancer, Alzheimer's, and treating foetuses.

And a large alternative population that could help shrug off the fundamentalist materialism of the Eighties does exist. Young artists have congregated around Shoreditch: of an estimated 40,000 artists in the country, 11,000 are thought to live and work in London's East End. They get the drink for their exhibitions by persuading firms like Beck's to sponsor. Beyond London, groups such as the Schumacher Society, the International Centre for Ecological Studies at Dartington, Safer World and Sustrans (bicycle routes) are bringing like-minded people together. Mud Dock Cafe - inside a Bristol bicycle shop - is said to be Bristol's Groucho Club.

So where will Britain go post-election? It could become more alternative, or it could become more money-based and American. Most likely it will combine the two. The popularity of Swampy must prove something. And apparently he is pursued by the tunneller's equivalent of groupies.

Comments