Authors: Jenny Diski
General editor: Lisa Appignanesi
As the twenty-first century moves through its tumultuous first decade, we need to think about our world afresh. It’s time
to revisit not only politics, but our passions and preoccupations, and our ways of seeing the world. The Big Ideas series
challenges people who think about these subjects to think in public, where soundbites and polemics too often provide sound
and fury but little light. These books stir debate and will continue to be important reading for years to come.
Other titles in the series include:
Tyranny of Choice
First published in Great Britain in 2009 by
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Copyright © Jenny Diski, 2009
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the British Library.
For Roger with love
Now that it has gone, the twentieth century has become an idea. The past is always an idea which people have about it after
the event. Those whose job it is to tell the story of the past in their own present call it history. To generations born later,
receiving the recollections of their parents or grandparents, or reading the historians, the past is a story, a myth handily
packaged into an era, bounded by a particular event – a war, a financial crisis, a reign, a decade, a century – anything that
conveniently breaks the ongoing tick of time into a manageable narrative. Those people who were alive during the period in
question, looking back, call it memory – memory being just another instance of the many ways in which we make stories. But
although the past always belongs to the present and future, the later third of the twentieth century we know as the Sixties
was one of those particular periods that was an idea to many even before it became the past. The Sixties were an idea in the
minds, perhaps even more powerful than the experience, of those who were actually living though them.
As a rule, life has a quotidian way about it. Later, we tell ourselves we made decisions, thought this or that, came to a
conclusion, but in each actual present moment we generally just react, and only afterwards name our reaction decision or thought,
and designate it a place in what we like to think of as the continuum of our opinions, or belief or personality. It still
feels to me as if life is an ongoing series of discrete moments, like the breaths we take, however much we want to solidify
time, after the event, into something more consequential. Nevertheless, those of us who lived through the Sixties were as
beguiled by our present then, as we are now that it is our past. It’s not at all clear
idea the Sixties was: but I suspect, as I repeatedly suggest in the following pages, that our parents, the generation whose
youth was cut short by the Second World War and who so complained about their wild children’s doings, had more to do with
dreaming up and even sustaining the Sixties than we think. At any rate, the idea of the Sixties was pretty well in place by
the time I got there in my mid-adolescence, and the concept strengthened as we lived it, moment by moment, and then told it
in increasingly large episodes, played its music, moved through quite other present times, defended it (even while we sometimes
mocked it) and passed the whole securely wrapped parcel on to new generations as the ideal of a time when it was really something
to be young.
Looked at through our eyes – the baby boomers born immediately around and after the end of the war – things certainly have
changed a good deal since the Sixties. Where we took mind-altering drugs to change our consciousness and find other ways of
thinking about how to live, today the young take Es in order to dance longer without tiring, binge-drink until they fall over
in the street, or snort cocaine in order to keep life a party. Where we dropped out of university, fought against any establishment
we could find and travelled the world to encounter different traditions of living, the present generation take a gap year
to pop into the developing world before getting on with training for degrees to boost their income potential. Where we explored
sexual freedom and began to think about the political nature of gender roles, the young clamour to be on
and have sex casually on TV in order to become fatuously famous...Unless, of course, that is as simplistic and establishment
a view of the present world as we believed our parents’ views of us to be. In truth, the only thing that is absolutely certain
is that the music then was better.
The Sixties, of course, were not the decade of the same name. They began in the mid-1960s with the rise of popular culture
(not with the Beatles, as Larkin said, nor with fucking, which had started even before the Stones were young), aided by a
generation of people who did not have an urgent economic fear, nor (in Britain) a war to deal with, and it ended in the mid-1970s
when all the open-ended possibilities we saw began to narrow, as disillusion, right-wing politicians, and the rest of our
lives started to loom unexpectedly large. In his novel
, Rodrigo Fresàn
suggests that the Sixties generation were the first fully to understand and try to live out Peter Pan’s imperative never
to grow up. We kept telling ourselves and each other that we were young, but now I think we had no idea what that meant (either
that or I have no idea now) – because we had no notion, even if we vaguely knew we had to grow old, of ever not being young.
Perhaps it was simply that a fortunate set of political and economic circumstances gave us the longest gap year in history.
Perhaps the alternative ways of thinking and living were little more than an extended rave. And perhaps in the end we wearied
of all that dispiriting casual sex, the trips to the STD clinic and the communal rows about who was going to do the washing-up
and pay the gas bill, and began to like the idea of bourgeois homes, families and jobs. Who filled the planet with noxious
gases and tore a hole in the ozone layer, who presided over a grasping globalisation that our children have taken to the streets
to protest against? The music, however, was undeniably as great as we thought it was.
The Fifties, that long gasp after the end of the war, when so much had been damaged and so little had been mended, did not
expire until the Sixties were well on in years. The generation that had won the war for us owned the world they had fought
for and expected their children to take full advantage of the peace and plenty that was, surely, just around the corner. They
suffered the war, they suffered the post-war austerity while making sure that we had the eggs and most of the meat rations.
We were ready-made to fulfil a dream that seems to afflict parents in all times and places, that their children should be
materially successful and therefore, by definition, happy. So it wasn’t until the tough times had turned the corner and we
were old enough to spit out the food they set aside for us, to scorn the careers they had to interrupt so that we could have
better ones, to refuse to take advantage of the nicely made world they had arranged for us, that you could say the Sixties
really started. We looked at the apparent calm, at the possibility of an untroubled suburban life that trickled properly and
uneventfully to the grave, and didn’t like what we saw at all. The higher education our parents were so proud to have achieved
for some of us gave us time to wonder why we had to recreate the desired world of our parents. And those who did not go to
university wondered why they had to spend their lives in factories replicating the passive acceptance of the status quo. It
wasn’t at all obvious to many of us, of many classes, why we had to go on going on. The Sixties when they finally came to
each of us were a time of striving for individuality and a nagging urge to rebel against the dead middle of the twentieth
century. Two generations before us had been involved in war. You need to go back to the young of the Twenties to find any
similarity to the Sixties generation in the desire to hang on to irresponsibility, or childhood, whatever you want to call
it; and to the young of the Thirties to find a serious attempt to take on an alternative politics. It may be that in the end,
or from a present-day perspective, we were more like the generation of the Twenties.
But there was also the Cold War. The peaceful world our parents kept saying they had bequeathed to us was daily on the verge
of exploding into the worst and final conflict. We expected it to happen. We considered what we would do with the four minutes
that the early warning system promised us when a nuclear weapon was heading our way. The ‘everything is all right now’ our
parents told us about was always being undercut by the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. An ever-darkening mushroom
cloud loomed over the endlessly blue horizon.
The argument we had with our parents was the initial key to the Sixties, but perhaps (because in Britain we had no national
catastrophe to battle against and the Cold War was entirely out of our control) we were the first youth cohort to feel free
enough from guilt and obligation to repudiate the old ways. Of course, we acted in the shadow of the Beats and Existentialists
of the previous decade, and the distinction between them and us in terms of opposition was slighter than we imagined. It may
be that even the distinction between us and our parents was slighter than we imagined. Quite without irony, in walking away
from the domestic and cultural structures of the Fifties and before, we found and formed our own quite rigid self-affirming
groups in order to demand the right to express our individuality. Though all reactionaries were reactionary in much the same
way, there were many ways to be radical in the Sixties. But, unsurprisingly, they were often mutually exclusive. We recreated
the old divisions in what only seemed to be new forms. It was just a matter of time (and our later readings of Foucault) before
it turned out (to our unacknowledged relief, perhaps?) that the over-arching structures had been built to survive our (or
any) assault on them, and the world remained unrocked – except, of course, let us never forget, by the music.
The early years of the twenty-first century are the right time to look at the idea that was the Sixties, and to examine the
intentions and legacy of the generation that lived it, because we are old enough now to see where we went in relation to where
we thought we were going. The Sixties people are in their sixties. It has been more than forty years since the world was ours
for the taking and shaping. We can look back with nostalgia to the simple fact of being young or we can try and tease out
what, actually, we were up to and why; whether the influences on us and our own ideas were as new as they seemed, and whether
we were as serious as we thought we were about changing the world. And to what extent there was any reality to the idea we
once had and to the idea our children have received, of that time when we were young.
What follows is a personal memoir to a very large extent – and after all, weren’t the Sixties accused above all of having
consolidated the sense of the self which created that most monstrous beast: the Me Generation? I’m qualified only to speak
about the Sixties then and now as I lived them then and now. I lived in London during that period, regretting the Beats, buying
clothes, going to movies, dropping out, reading, taking drugs, spending time in mental hospitals, demonstrating, having sex,
teaching. America was very far away. My first visit was in 1974 (where I place the end of the Sixties), and there was a powerful
sense of aftermath by the time I arrived as the Watergate hearings were coming to an end. But what happened there, in the
Sixties, mattered very much, as the news arrived, or the drugs or the songs. I listened very carefully to the messages from
across the ocean. I couldn’t begin to live the reality of the Vietnam war or the civil rights movement, but they rippled though
my daily life and thought. America was a backcloth, a colour wash in my Sixties, its ever-presence was how I enlarged the
small world of London and the slightly larger world of Europe, and how I developed my sense of who I was and where in the
world I belonged. Nevertheless, being in London was very particular.
What the American and British baby boomers, who inhabited the Sixties as if they were building a new planet, have in common
is that we watched the radicalism we thought we understood and embodied turn into a radicalism we (ignorantly and naively)
never dreamed of. Perhaps all the hope and disappointment hung on a simple definition of a word or two. The big idea we had
– though heaven knows it wasn’t new – was freedom, liberty, permission, a great enlarging of human possibilities beyond the
old politenesses and restrictions. But it was an idea we failed to think through. It was a failure of thought essentially,
rather than a failure of imagination. We were completely wrong-footed when the Sixties turned inexorably into the Eighties.
With Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan presiding, our favourite words – freedom, liberty, permission – were bandied about
anew and dressed in clothes that made them unrecognisable to us. But even back then, in the Sixties, while we used the word
‘liberty’ there were others who also used it, sometimes varying it to ‘libertarian’, who meant something quite different from
what we intended, and we nodded and smiled, taking them to our bosom, and completely failing to understand that they meant
a world that was diametrically opposed to the one we intended to inhabit.
We really didn’t see it coming, the new world of rabid individualism and the sanctity of profit. But perhaps that is only
to be expected. It’s possible after all that we were simply young, and now we are simply old and looking back as every generation
does nostalgically to our best of times. Perhaps the Sixties are an idea that has had its day and lingers long after its time.
Except, of course, for the music.