The real ’60s
Allegedly a new Beeb series called White Heat is getting everybody excited about the swingin’ sixties. Danish TV will probably run it in five years or so, so I’ll let you know what I think. But meanwhile the Grauniad has asked some pundits how they have reacted to the show and one in particular has written this:
Roger McGough, poet, b.1937
“We never wore kaftans or put flowers in our hair Never made the hippy trail to San Francisco Our love-ins were a blushing tame affair Friday evenings at the local church hall disco
These lines from a poem of mine, “Decade”, came into my head as I watched White Heat. Ask any young person now about the 60s and they always tell you it was all about flower power and free love and revolution. But as anyone who lived through it knows, that is a myth. For me, the 60s were something that happened elsewhere, at parties I wasn’t invited to.
Most young people I knew in Liverpool in the early 60s after graduating from university were getting jobs and renting flats. They weren’t plotting to overthrow the establishment, they were aiming to be doctors or lawyers or teachers, or just to get an office job, and they were grateful if they found one. Like today, there were very few jobs. National Service had only just ended. And if you had had a strict upbringing like mine, working in the arts or the media did not seem like a possibility.
So the swinging 60s seemed to be happening somewhere else. Nevertheless, there was this sense in the air that things were about to change, which is something the series captures very well, this feeling of being on the cusp between postwar gloom and something newer and more exciting where a lot more was going to be possible.
In 1965, when the first episode is set, I had just hung up my corduroy jacket and quit teaching. I had been to the Edinburgh festival and had started writing political, satirical sketches that I was performing with an embryonic Scaffold in the basement of the Everyman Theatre. I was starting to feel like I could do what I wanted to do with my life and not what my parents expected. But it was small steps.
It is interesting how the character in White Heat who is going to overturn the ruling classes, Jack, the politician’s son, is the one who was born into privilege. He can afford to be anti-establishment because he comes from the establishment. He can be against social injustice because he has never known any himself. That rings very true for me. A lot of the 60s rebels were public school- and university-educated. Less realistic, though, is the dinner-table conversation. We all know that when students sit around talking they talk about fashion or toast or the weather, not usually social revolution.”
That’s pretty much how I remember those years too – aged 17 – 27. As I recall, my contemporaries and I got an education, got a job, got a wife and family and generally got on with life. Yes, we had fun, broke a few rules, fell in love and got drunk but revolutions obviously happened elsewhere.