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The Sixties: Big Ideas, Small Books by Jenny…
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The Sixties: Big Ideas, Small Books

by Jenny Diski

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The bulk of this admittedly short book doesn't say much that's different from other 1960s counterculture history-memoirs: the protests, the drugs, films, books and lifestyle - but not much about the music here.

However there are still some really good chapters. The book opens when Diski is in her early teens - if she'd been from a more sheltered background she might have missed quite a lot of The Sixties, but she ran away from home and dropped out before she'd been in anything apart from school. In a way she achieved the teenage dream of being independent at a young age whilst living in the epicentre of her era's pop culture, but it wasn't always easy.

She was part of a Laingian therapy group for a while and as she had also used the era's rather unsympathetic NHS mental health system, is well placed to comment about the differences, plus she has plenty of anecdotes about the anarchic environment and its characters.

A lot of counterculture memoirs are by men, and in one chapter here, Diski gives her view of living in a commune / large shared house during the sexual revolution, as a straight woman. Her account of the men's assumptions and sense of sexual entitlement gives some background reasoning to the more puritanical side of 1970s feminism. It also reminded me of how I treated men in my first year or two at university, (thirty years later) before starting to learn - partly thanks to LGB flatmates - that it wasn't okay whoever it was and no matter what the media implied about twentysomething men always being up for it.

By the early 70s Diski had found her feet, did teacher training and worked in a free school, hoping to help other troubled, potentially delinquent kids like the one she'd been ten years earlier. This chapter had several interesting references to deschooling, unschooling, Ivan Illich and similar theorists. (I then realised I've known one or two people who were into these theories, but as they, perhaps appropriately, hadn't used formal terms and references, I hadn't twigged the framework before. There's a lot of interesting stuff to think about, though at least it's not a pressing matter, as I don't have kids. In brief, I generally agree with the left-wing libertarian ethos, but pragmatically I think kids need to be given the skills to manage well in society as it is or is likely to be; that, even if it does inevitably bestow some conformism, at least gives them the choice about whether to fit in later.)

I'd always been a bit puzzled by Jenny Diski's status in the media: she's been on Radio 4 and in all the broadsheets and highbrow magazines for almost as long as I can remember, but I'd never found her to have much of interest to say compared with many similar commentators. As will annoy many, I get Mary Kay Wilmers' point about reviewers who are jargony or breathless, (doesn't mean I'm not myself sometimes, and CBA making the effort not to be, but those I keep reading and liking certainly aren't). Particularly in the light of that remark, I didn't understand why Diski got so many gigs in the LRB and similar publications; I've seen several bits of lazy research from her and there's no doubt there are female writers who take a more intellectually rigorous and original approach, who have probably missed out in favour of her. After reading her account of the Sixties, I'd assume she gets all that work because she must be interesting to know personally; she had a hard and varied early life and it gave her lots to talk and think about.

These less-talked about experiences are certainly worth reading if you're interested in the history of the day before yesterday, as a friend described it, but overall, the best first-person account of Britain in the 60s I read - at a time when I looked at several - was High Sixties by Roger Hutchinson. (And not only because I agreed with a lot of the author's opinions on how culture and society had developed since then.)

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Have been looking at Jenny Diski's blog after writing this post. This http://jennydiski.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/the-present-breath/ was an excellent article that's more political than other pieces of hers I recall. It's exactly the sort of "yes it's quite good but..." commentary on contemporary uses of psychology that we don't see enough of. And she is one of the few other people I've seen defend (with reservations) Liz Jones. I like her more than I used to. ( )
  antonomasia | Oct 19, 2013 |
Not bad, somewhat interesting memoir of a teen of the 60s. Interesting insights, but overall just a little too precious for my tastes... ( )
  ScoutJ | Mar 31, 2013 |
As a teen of the 1970s, I lie forever in the shadow of the sixties generation, the baby boomers who are now in their 60s. Did I really want to review that lauded decade – the one that made the seventies seem like a second run through the ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ caper, but with a kind of jaded tired and frankly much uglier persona/edge to it? Well, I am glad to have read this book, and it really does reinforce the fact the being young is a helluva lot more fun than being middle aged. (Truthfully, I feel I bypassed the 1970s in New Zealand – I don’t think I ever encountered a drug at a party in my teens.)

This is not an exhaustive account of the sixties, but rather a long essay incorporating personal memoir about the author’s experiences, cultural ideas, as well as a retrospective reevaluation. She is funny, ascerbic, insightful, witty and darned clever. Diski doesn’t hold back on her opinions, and can be quite self-deprecatory about her younger self. She touches on the topics of free love, drug use, teen rebellion, mental illness and the protest movement. She does manage to capture the mood of the era wonderfully well. There is less on politics, and nothing on such things as environmentalism.

Her main idea is that there is a fundamental difference between liberation and libertarianism. She wonders if “perhaps our own careless thinking” gave a “rhetorical foothold” to the “new world of rabid individualism and the sanctity of profit” of the 1980s. Where did all the hippies go – well they became yuppies and consumers and joined in “unfettered capitalism’ in the eras that followed. Indeed, Diski transmits a sense of deep disappointment at the outcome of the 1960s, and despite avowing no political allegiance, decries the following trend of radial right wing economics and politics that followed.

Her recollections of youth rebellion are spot on. She deftly describes the clash between the security conscious, conservative post-war generation and her younger generation, who seek excitement and new experiences. Her descriptions of willful rebellion and anti-establishment posturing is wonderfully conjured up – and quickly dismissed as reactionary rather than revolutionary. With the great benefit of hindsight she sees it for what it was – a youthful obstinacy that believed their own distorted perceptions of the counter-culture viewpoint as being more valid than the ‘straight’ world. Indeed, in retrospect, that dismissal of the older generation simply resulted in an equally or more restrictive set of rules for the young generation. The length of your skirt, for example. An inch too long or short and it was definitely not de rigueur. I remember how I agnonized about skirt length – and what confusion when there was a sudden shift to the Maxi length.

Diski repeats often that “the music, however, was undeniably as great as we thought it was”. Yet there is little else she can congratulate the decade for achieving – except perhaps gay rights. She concludes that, “wherever you look, over the past 40 years, nationalism and capitalism have triumphed,” and that “most of us who had the good fortune to be part of the ’60s are plain discouraged.”

An engaging, entertaining and very insightful read, I would recommend this to all. If you were a child of the 60s, it will take you on a ride back in time, and maybe give you a fresh take on your experiences.

Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote kiwidoc | Sep 22, 2009 |
Showing 4 of 4
Very little of what she says is new, but she says it with intelligence, wit, an eye for detail and an extraordinary ability to laugh at her young self while respecting that self’s hopes and efforts. She is completely unsentimental; no stardust for her. She allows herself only the briefest paean to a perfect dress from Biba in Kensington Church Street and “a silver and black striped, Regency-cut trouser suit for £7.”
 
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The Sixties looks at the radical beliefs to which the author's generation subscribed, little realising they were often old ideas dressed up in new forms, sometimes patterned by BIBA. This book considers whether she and her peers were as serious as they thought about changing the world, if the radical sixties were funded by the baby-boomers' parents, and if the big idea shaping the Sixties was that it really felt as if it meant something to be young.… (more)

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