Swinging Sixties, new-look Nineties

The second half of our decade resembles the 1960s in some ways, with a little optimism in the air

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Suddenly the 1960s are being re-evaluated. This newspaper recently asked whether Marshall McLuhan, one of the most influential pundits of the decade, was in fashion again, 17 years after his death. Certainly the insight for which he is most celebrated - "The medium is the message" - has never gone out of circulation.

Likewise, in the past year alone, two biographies of R D Laing, the Scottish psychotherapist, who died in 1989, have been published. The first of his international best-sellers, The Divided Self: a study of sanity and madness, came out initially with a small print-run in 1960. His enduring appeal is illustrated by passages such as the following: "No one has schizophrenia, like having a cold. The patient has not got schizophrenia. He is a schizophrenic. The schizophrenic has to be known without being destroyed." How? By understanding. And for understanding "one might say love". Next Sunday a one-day conference exploring Laing's legacy is to be held in London (Mahatma Gandhi Hall, Fitzroy Square, W1).

There is more. The Festival Hall in London has been running a series of talks and lectures on the 1960s; Pinter's golden decade was the title of one session. And at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, there has just opened an exhibition, entitled Les Sixties: Great Britain and France, 1962-1973. This show, which has come from Paris and runs until 29 June, examines the explosion of art and popular culture during the decade.

One reason for this burgeoning interest is that the 1960s have always remained a fabulous period in people's minds, like the 1920s. Now sufficient time has elapsed to allow a sorting-out of the wheat from the chaff. The 30-year anniversary dates are beginning to clock up. In July it will be 30 years since Laing organised a Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation (such a 1960s title!) at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, London. Among the participants were Herbert Marcuse, Stokely Carmichael and Allen Ginsberg, and the proceedings were later written up as a Penguin paperback. In October a similar period of time will have elapsed since Che Guevara, the Argentinian revolutionary, was killed by Bolivian troops. Biographies and documentaries of this martyr of the left are marking the event.

There is also a feeling that the second half of the 1990s resembles the 1960s in some ways. Once again London is being extolled around the world as "cool". It has become the most popular place in the world for designer stores. British fashion designers are taking the top jobs in Paris. Our pop music excels. British films are in vogue. In matters of style we are self-confident and successful, precisely as we were 30 years ago.

Arguably the most important development of the Sixties took place at the very beginning. On 15 May, 1960, the first contraceptive pill was given a licence in the United States. British trials took place a year later, and although at first the pill could only be advertised to doctors and issued on prescription to married women, a great social revolution had begun. Fears about harmful side-effects were soon generated, and alarm was expressed about the encouragement of promiscuity; but women had gained control over their own fertility.

Restraints on pre-marital sex became almost impossible to justify. The first of a series of dramatic changes in the relationships between men and women had begun. It led to feminism, which was a feature of subsequent decades; Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch in 1970. And it led on to changes in family structure through which we are still working.

Alongside this profound change in social relationships, there began a second revolution in economic affairs. The opening up of stockmarkets during the 1960s to middle-income savers, via the development of mutual funds in the US and unit trusts in the United Kingdom, was again a first step with enormous consequences. Private companies came to the market in great numbers, takeover battles became commonplace (the first in London took place in 1959 and made Warburg's name). The Lords Weinstock and Hanson began their careers in the 1960s with a series of dazzling stockmarket moves.

The pattern was the same in the US. The development of a new form of international capitalism, the Anglo-Saxon liberal version, was underway. Thirty years later it is becoming a global system.

What was most striking about the 1960s, however, was a revolution in attitude. Events were driven by the young. The post-war baby boom came of age in the 1960s. Young people comprised an above-average proportion of the population and, significantly, young people had money because they were all in work, or in higher education supported by adequate state or local authority funding. Their sheer number and spending power imparted a wonderful self-confidence - they could change things.

At hand, too, was a universal means of expression, pop music, particularly rock 'n' roll, sold cheaply on 45-rpm records. This American phenomenon of the mid-1950s, exemplified by the incredible success of Elvis Presley, aided by the rise of a new breed of local radio stations in the US and later in the UK, swept the world. Indeed some people date the true beginning of the 1960s from 5 October 1962, when the Beatle's first 45-rpm record, Love Me Do, was released.

This sense of being in the driving seat also took the more violent form of street protests, culminating in 1968, a year of massive demonstrations in the US against the Vietnam War and elsewhere, particularly in Paris, against so-called Western imperialism. Street protests on such a scale were not to be seen again until 1989 in East Europe.

This 1960s notion that anything was possible has never been repeated. Young people are still experimental, rebellious and so on. But they are fundamentally more cautious than their parents were at the same age. Now the struggle is to survive; then the struggle was to change things. Except that on the morrow of New Labour's overwhelming success in the election, I detect a little bit of 1960s optimism on the air once more. It is a good feeling.

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