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The sixties by Jenny Diski

The sixties (edition 2009)

by Jenny Diski

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654183,505 (3.64)6
Title:The sixties
Authors:Jenny Diski
Info:London : Profile, 2009.
Collections:Your library

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The Sixties: Big Ideas, Small Books by Jenny Diski




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[3.5] In 2012 I bought a glut of non-fiction books on the 60s; this is the first of the batch I've finished. (Many of my non-fiction purchases of the last three years look like escapism, and the inspiration of people I knew, as their themes: the greatest number have been about the Nordic countries, the sixties or – until a year ago – music.)

This is a very short blink-and-you've read-it kind of book. The early bits have a few lazy generalisations. (The sort that make you think “why this author? I've probably met several people who could write this better.”) And there are some chapters which don't have much new to say - on political protest especially. It gets a lot more interesting when Diski talks about her (sceney, London-centric, but not wholly typical) experiences.
Drugs that few people take or talk about any more; one woman's side of the sexual revolution; being a member of a full-time long-term Laingian therapy group; and in the early 70s, training as a teacher and running a free school for delinquent kids not unlike the teenager she'd been a decade earlier. As she points out we still hear a lot about most of the various rights movements of the 60s and 70s, less so children's rights, though the effects were equally significant.

One of Diski's theories is that her parents' generation (though not her own parents specifically) supported and financed the “longest gap year in history” of her contemporaries. The permission is personified rather than seen as a confluence of historical forces, trends and political policies. I have always been fond of the “things and people as products of their time” approach to history – but Diski anthropomorphises it too much, and perhaps forgets in these paragraphs how small a minority the cool kids and rebels were. (cf Dominic Sandbrook's thesis that life was quite boring and unchanged for most people in Britain during the 60s.) The generous benefits system was accepted by most people predominantly because work wasn't scarce, also medical advances hadn't led to higher numbers of pensioners and disabled adults unable to work long term (people who would not have survived for nearly so long in the past as they do now) and they were quite happy for the few, usually unremarkable people they knew to have enough to live on if they lost their jobs or were ill or injured.
She is more enthusiastic about her older generation than her contemporary Roger Hutchinson in High Sixties (1992) which I'm reading at the moment. Hutchinson mentions a great deal more disapproval from those in authority, and doesn't make Roy Jenkins – whose Obscene Publications Act after all retained a snobbish distinction between 'literature' and 'pornography' -
sound quite so much like the godfather of the flower children. Still, I've always thought of the post-war consensus as the high watermark of British political life. (I was disappointed with Blair well before the '97 general election, though I had to admit he was better than no change.)

It's intriguing how recently drugs weren't a part of violent organised crime (Hutchinson qualifies this with mention of mafia heroin dealing – counterculture's favoured drugs were usually supplied socially for a low profit). Diski also mentions that drugs were revered rather than recreational (even the Mods who just took speed to dance all night?) and that this attitude has, she implies sadly, died out. Probably depends who you meet. I've not spent much time with people who are particularly into drugs, but the one group who were had a meticulous scientific and slightly spiritual outlook on them.

I was taken aback at how close the attitudes Diski mentions from the sexual revolution were to my own in my first couple of years at university. She describes how counterculture men tended to turn up at a party etc and assume by default that any woman they were vaguely interested in would sleep with them. (In a way that would these days be bad manners even among most sex-positive, low offence-taking people.) This was pretty much how I treated men for a while; drunk single 19-20 year old boys were mostly just as enthusiastic, but after one wasn't a flatmate (member of the LGBT society and better versed in different perspectives on modern sexual politics and communication) gave me a talking to and that was the beginning of the end of that behaviour. Similarly, Diski remembers that people slept with people they didn't fancy that much; still probably common in some student circles, and to get pickier as you get older. For the 60s counterculture crowd it sounds like a conscious cultural choice to break down barriers of prudery and physicality, rather than boredom, attention, enjoyment (and for some of us from stricter homes, deliberately making up for lost time). The third thing the author raised which struck a surprising chord was the way they despised the expression of jealousy as a restriction on others, tried for as long as they could manage to pretend possessiveness didn't exist, until one day something (perhaps trifling) would suddenly get too much. I admit I never quite solved that one.

It wasn't only the sex but the politics of the sixties that somehow, seem to have defined my idea of how to be a student. (A degree of scruffy hedonism that seemed to start dying out with my own cohort and the arrival of the poor grant-free sods who had to pay higher and higher fees.) In late October or early November of my first year, I awoke blearily, and though feeling distinctly unwell, went to some efforts to rouse (but not arouse) the severely hungover one-night stand from my halls bed and get him out of the door so I could get ready to go on a demonstration. It was that morning, not the enrolment, which made me feel that I was now incontrovertibly A Student.

Some of Jenny Diski's analysis gives a strong impression she didn't study politics (or know as much about them as I'd expect from an LRB reviewer). She revisits some of the writers popular in the sixties and concludes that they were libertarian - with a shudder - not liberal as her generation assumed. There's an automatic assumption that libertarian means of the right, no knowledge of the several dimensions of political spectrums. As a left wing libertarian I didn't agree with her distaste for them; some of the ideas cited, such as Ivan Illich on education, I essentially agreed with whilst thinking they were also quite impractical and a little too idealistic .

Not everything went smoothly, but this book does make the British 60s look like a bit of a party, especially in comparison with the American version that I've read a few novels about this year, with the draft, Vietnam and shootings at protests hanging over the decade. More straightforward nostalgia over here. ( )
  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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