The Sixties by Jenny Diski

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The Sixties by Jenny Diski

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A fairly short but lively, thought-provoking commentary on, rather than a history of, the pivotal decade, in which the author asks whether things genuinely changed for the better, or merely provoked the forces of reaction.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846680045

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In the last few years, there have been many books of varying length about the 60s. Most of them are relatively self-contained histories of the decade, often fairly liberal in adopting their signposts as to when the era began and ended. (Blame Philip Larkin's famous poem for the confusion, I hear you say).

Jenny Diski, who was 13 in 1960 and thus entered adolescence at the start of the age, has not written such a history. Instead, she has written in effect a short commentary in which she looks back at some of the strands running through the age, from today's vantage point.

The 50s, she tells us, are generally agreed to have been in black and white, like most of the films it spawned. Whether colour exploded into being with the increasing use of drugs, or whether the stark simplicity of monochrome finally palled is open to debate, but she likens the middle 60s to that moment when Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz stepped through her front door onto the undreamed-of yellowness of the brick road on the way to the Emerald City. Or to put it another way, she argues that 'the sixties' actually began mid-decade with the rise of popular culture, and ended in the disillusion of the mid-70s. Dominic Sandbrook, in White Heat, implies that it came with Harold Wilson's first general election victory in 1964, a theory which Diski comes close to endorsing although without being that specific.

She adopts the signposts of the satirical That Was The Week Was on Saturday night TV in Britain, and the assassination of President Kennedy in America as the start of an age of change. She also talks about mind-expanding drugs, her spells in a psychiatric hospital (no, the two aren't related), her first Aldermaston march in 1963, her version of the debutantes' coming-out ball, and protests against the Vietnam war in Trafalgar and Grosvenor Square five years later. She tells us that in 1963 she really believed that nuclear Armageddon was nigh, and was by no means alone, but by 1968 there was little hope for revolution in a country where students were universally regarded as long-haired layabouts, and workers were marching in favour of Enoch Powell's call for an end to immigration. British dissidence had come close to the mainstream, but the forces of morality as exemplified by the obscenity trial against the Oz 'schoolkids issue' and the Festival of Light, calling for the maintenance of traditional values, in 1971, marked a return to traditional British orthodoxy for some, to sheer boredom for others.

Did the 60s generation change things permanently for the better? Her conclusions, and her outlook for the future, are less than optimistic. Were its movers and shakers responsible for the greed and self-interest of the 80s, or did they inadvertently cause it by being so permissive that they challenged a reaction from those who feared that the West would otherwise sink into a mass of self-indulgent chaos? Did the young radicals from the next generation squander it all? She finds grounds for hope in the new environmental radicalism that is trying to prevent the planet from frying and dying, but ends with the observation that most of us who had the good fortune to be part of the 60s are plain discouraged (I hope that doesn't constitute a spoiler).

Forty years on, it is beyond doubt that the decade was a pivotal one, in which many things changed. Whether it altered them permanently, or whether it flickered like a candle and then went out, will be open to debate for a long time. As a counterpart to strictly factual histories, this short but lively and opinionated read will be good for stimulating thought.

Our thanks to Profile for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this, for a longer, more factual account of the era, may we recommend A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr.

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