Post by Roy Wilke
One of the easiest things to do is to damn millions of people with the
broadest of generalisations, as you've just done there. We would like
to believe ourselves to be perfect and flawless individuals, whilst
everyone else are absolute bastards. Although, if truth be known,
we're all just partial bastards trying to make the best of what we've
Please, no more 1960s
Has any generation in history ever banged on about itself more and with
less merit than the baby boomers?
Wednesday June 9, 2004
Oh good, another 1960s retrospective. And another. And another. You can't
move for celebrations of "the decade that changed the world forever".
Tate Britain is honouring the art of the swinging decade in an exhibition
starting at the end of the month. BBC Four is a week into its Summer in
the Sixties season, while the Sunday Times magazine is devoting acres to
the 10 years that shook the planet.
Why this surge of interest? Has a milestone passed? Or is there no better
excuse than the fact that 2004 marks the 40th anniversary of 1964?
Not that the 60s generation need a reason to celebrate themselves and all
their works. They rarely stop. Open a magazine or click on the TV any
time and before long you'll see the raddled face of, say, David Bailey,
cackling as he recalls how many beautiful women he slept with in those
golden years. Next Alan Parker, Terence Stamp or Ken Russell will pop up
to pay homage to David, each other and the decade that made them all.
To put the question simply: has any other generation ever banged on about
itself more and with less merit?
I spent the weekend in Normandy with veterans of D-day, a group who can
list saving the world among their collective achievements. They were
studies in stoic modesty, depicting themselves as frightened lads who had
only been doing their duty. Yet their children, the baby boomers, born at
war's end, have no such reserve. They claim for themselves much greater
accomplishments, constructing nothing less than a new society.
Note how everything they did was a first, a "revolution". Most have
quoted Philip Larkin so often - "sexual intercourse began in 1963" -
they've come to believe it, imagining their bedhopping was a genuine
innovation. They seem unaware of the hedonistic 1920s, the naughty 1890s,
the bawdy 18th century, to say nothing of the Roman and Greek empires.
No, in their eyes, promiscuity was unheard of till they invented it.
They were "the first teenagers" too, as if before 1960 children
mysteriously skipped from age 12 to 20 overnight. I know, I know -
they're referring to the youth rebellion that gave the 60s its fire.
Except that wasn't new either. In 1911, 30 kids walked out of Bigyn
school in Llanelli, to protest over the caning of one of their peers,
sparking a pupils' strike across Britain. Young people were at the
forefront of the conscientious objection movement in the first world war
a few years later. Whenever there has been a call for change, youth has
usually been its voice.
Perhaps historical accuracy is not really the point. When the 60s crowd
insist they were the first young people to walk the Earth, they mean it
was the first time they had walked the Earth - and that's what counts.
For what underpins all this 60s mania is solipsism on a massive scale:
because it happened to me, it must have happened to everyone and must
matter enormously. Thus David Frost sighs at "the joy, the exhilaration
of being in your 20s - to be young was very heaven". I could say the same
about my experience of the 1990s, but Tate Britain wouldn't do an
exhibition about that.
All of us enjoy or enjoyed being young, but that hardly makes it a social
phenomenon. "It was nirvana," recalls Eric Stewart of 10cc. "We were
being paid huge sums of money for enjoying ourselves." No doubt Wayne
Rooney or the boys from Busted would say the same today, but that doesn't
make it a revolution. It takes the arrogance of the 60s generation to
confuse their own agreeable personal experience with a historical shift.
The flipside of this thinking is that, just as the world was good when
they were young, it must be bad now that they're old. So today's music,
television, films and politics are all dismissed as pale successors of
their 1960s forebears. We'll get to the substance of this charge in due
course, but does it not strike the Mick Jaggers and Harold Pinters how
much they now resemble the William Rees-Moggs and Mary Whitehouses they
once lampooned, both generations sharing in the same dim view of
This conservative cast of mind should not be such a surprise. For all the
grand talk of revolution, epitomised by the 1968 crowd who still regard
sitting down in a few university offices as the height of political
action, the 60s achieved strikingly little. The hedonism and search for
self-realisation of that decade took just 20 years to calcify into the
selfish individualism and materialism of the 1980s, with the old
political content rapidly dropped. Sure, they still wore the laidback
patina of 60s peace and love - businessmen in Richard Branson-style beard
and jeans - but they were and are as hard-nosed as the capitalists they
had once pretended to detest.
Even at the time, they were always more chic than radical. The sexism of
the period was rank: women were "chicks" to be used as decorations or
sexual playthings. The pill was hailed as a tool of liberation but, as
writer Mike Phillips shrewdly tells BBC Four, it made women "not free,
just more available". Nor did many of the great partygoers of the age
seem too troubled by the racism in evidence all around them. Sarah Miles
may remember "love bursting out all over", but there was not much love on
the streets of Notting Hill or Smethwick. Enoch Powell made his "rivers
of blood" speech in 1968, but it was not till the 70s - so easily mocked
as the decade of naff - that the next generation of musicians did what
Eric Clapton and the rest had palpably failed to do, forming Rock against
Racism and taking political action that actually meant something.
There is a rightwing critique of those times, and BBC Four will air it on
Saturday with I Hate the Sixties. The programme argues that this was the
period in which Britain lost its moorings, destroying the grammar
schools, undermining the church and ushering in the permissive society.
That is not my critique. I am grateful for the reforms that saw
censorship lifted, homosexuality legalised and some of the pain of bitter
divorce and back-street abortion alleviated. (Although left and right can
surely unite on the folly of 60s planning policy: old Victorian housing
demolished to make way for high-rise monstrosities, centuries-old town
centres smashed for soulless concrete.)
No, my objection to the 60s generation is their own endless self-regard,
their brimming confidence that everything they touch betters all that has
come before or since. To puncture their arrogance, it might be worth
taking the fight on to their strongest territory. Yes, the 60s produced
some first-rate music and the Beatles remain the greatest band ever. But
scan the charts and you soon see that the soundtrack of the 60s was not
made up of Lennon and McCartney alone, but the Barron Knights and the
Bachelors. Next time you see the smug face of a 60s veteran, utter these
two words: Englebert Humperdinck.