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

Roger McGough

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.

Author: Janus

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26 thoughts on “The real ’60s”

  1. There’s a saying that “If you remember the 60s you weren’t there’.

    I’m not sure, Janus, where you are quoting Roger or speaking for yourself.

    But, Roger McGough was plainly ‘not there’ – he is far too old, being of the pre-WW2 generation. Those of the WW2 generation (you and me) were only on the edge of the 60s.

    I watched it happening and saw some of my contemporaries (most notable spousal unit #1) joining in, but most of us had already joined the ‘marriage, children’ circuit. Nonetheless, we had no problems with jobs, we could pick and choose who would have the ‘privilege ‘ of employing us…

    I remember the 60s well – I was there, but not part of it. 🙂

  2. I was born in ’48 and went to Exeter Uni in the mid sixties which was always a very social Uni.
    The whole thing was seriously WILD.
    We were always being thrown out and gated, had wild three day parties, remember once the police called out the Vice Chancellor to try to quell a near riot in town, but on private land.
    Husbands and children were definitely NOT on the list, more like illegal abortions and serious alcohol consumption.

    On reflection there was no great political scene, except a lot went to the left a bit enthusiastically but there was a revolution in the social mores and how girls especially saw the bourgeois lifestyles of their mothers. Most of us went out to get careers because we wanted to not because we had to due to poverty, yet most of our mothers did not work. I do remember that quite a few girls got married straight from school but those that went on to tertiary education had quite different goals.
    With hindsight not actually sure that what happened was any great improvement! And the whole thing has gone to hell in a handcart ever since.
    No one can actually say society has improved a great deal can they? It has become pretty disgusting really.

  3. I was born in the mid-1980s and obviously missed it. What I haven’t missed is the precipitous decline, collapse, even, in the quality of literature, music, theatre, cinema, education, and culture.
    The pleasure of the written word and the printing press is that one can see what came before and what comes after, one is able to compare the two.

  4. I like this; my parents say the same; that there was a crisp sense of optimism, of a brave new world, but that it was decidedly more conservative. They went to uni and got jobs in the civil service, and then in teaching. They throught that they were far, far luckier than their parents – even their siblings, actually, because they didn’t have to scrub floors, or work all hours making tools in factories, or only visit libraries for the privilege of keeping warm, as my grandfather did in the thirties. They say the grammar school system sort of lifted them out of the mire of post war Liverpool. So although they were not hippies, they were part of a stealthier, quiet revolution, in a way.

  5. Maybe the whole thing is really a difference of perception according to what expectations you had. I can see that the 60s might have been liberating to some, especially those whose family had not previously had the chance of an education or a good job
    If however, you took that for granted anyway the temptation to run riot was pretty strong. I think it had been since the 20s and had filtered down the class structure over the decades.
    WWI has a lot to answer for really, it destroyed so much at the time but has been responsible for so much more slow decay ever since we no longer recognise it as being the defining moment we started on the slippery slope.
    I wonder whether we would have done it in the 60s if we had known the end result?
    Nobody ever conceived that the underclass would breed indiscriminately without benefit of matrimony and expect to be housed and fed by the state, that is for sure!!!!

  6. Oh, I am sure. I suppose my generation do take a lot of those privileges for granted. Going to university has become a right, whereas for my parents, it was a huge privilege. Then there are the riots last summer; some people have blamed that on poverty and social inequalities, and so forth, but having taught in some very affluent/middle class schools and witnessed appalling behaviour, I don’t agree.

  7. I was born in mid-50s Liverpool and grew up there. Loved it. Enjoyed primary school and particularly my secondary education. Went to Uni in Manchester though to my eternal chagrin. Still have “saudades” for my home city and still support two footy teams – Shankly’s Red Army and any team playing The Scum of Old Ttafford.

    We deserved better than Derek Hatton and the Militant Tendency. How the Mancs came to get a grip on Graham Stringer, his contemporary and felllow commie freeloader, is beyond me and my only respect for Neil Kinnock is for when he took them on.

    So there!


  8. Boa, “I’m not sure, Janus, where you are quoting Roger or speaking for yourself.”

    The last para is me. I do agree with RMCGough about most events happening to other people. If that’s what you mean by being ‘only on the edge of the 60s’, I agree.

    CO, I take wild behaviour as part of student life – hardly the stuff of revolution though.

  9. Thanks for the clarification Janus. And you did understand my point.

    I think that those born just pre-war, in the war, and just post war were a ‘lucky generation’ – far luckier than those that had gone before or came later.

    We had the benefit of winning places to grammar and Public schools and an environment when ‘equality’ meant equality of opportunity not (as now) equality of bringing everyone (without the money to remove themselves and their children from the system) down to the same low level. We were also from a generation that believed in taking responsibility for oneself – and that ‘rights’ and ‘privilege’ carried responsibility.

    It was, as someone has said, a time of optimism and a time when such optimism was justified.

    Somewhere along the line those with privileges lost their sense of responsibility to those less fortunate than themselves, and those who had gained ‘rights’ forgot that they had to take responsibility for themselves and their actions.

    Standing on the ‘edge’ of the 60s and looking in – I can understand why such freedom went to some people’s head. As Christina said, the temptation to run riot was pretty strong. I cannot honestly say that I wasn’t tempted.

  10. Boadicea, just a minor niggle with your comment. I would be much happier if you changed the wording in the second last para, to ‘some of those….”, in both instances.

    Bear in mind that the world changed hugely with the war and its aftermath. For many people the status quo had altered beyond all recognition. Those standards and values that people had taken for granted before the war, no longer applied or were respected. I am not saying it was necessarily wrong, but it did mean that for many, life in the UK was no longer tolerable, hence many emigrated.

    Again, I am not saying it should not have happened, but the fact is that death duties and other extortionate taxes resulted in a massive transfer of wealth which inevitably left many feeling totally betrayed. Without wishing to bore on too much, as I have said before, my grandparents turned their home into a hospital during the war but, following my grandfather’s death shortly thereafter, his heir, my uncle had to pull it down. Yet he continued to serve his country with honour and dignity.

    Of course many people at both ends behaved badly, but the system they had been brought up to believe in had gone and many of them were left rudderless.

    My parents were more privileged than many, but I like to think that they maintained their standards. It was just that much harder to do so in Britain in the years following the war.

  11. Sipu, I believe that the standards and values of the privileged few had often relied on feudal practices to the detriment of their ‘inferiors’.

    Surely nobody should mourn the loss of such privilege?

  12. CO, “Nobody ever conceived that the underclass would breed indiscriminately….”.

    Without conception? That is surprising.

  13. Janus, privilege, like the poor, will always be with us. It just comes in different shapes. The goods and services that you enjoy are often delivered at the expense of those working in vastly more uncomfortable circumstances than those you are accustomed to. They may not be living next to you, or even in the same country, but in some God forsaken hellhole somewhere in the world are thousands of half-starving wretches, working, stitching your life together. The clothes you wear, the car you drive, the food you eat etc are produced by people who cannot never afford them.

    Wealth brings privilege and those who possess it endeavour to pass it on to their descendants. The feudal system you despise is better than what happens now; it is worse. The children of merchant bankers, pop-stars, and film directors and so forth buy their £100 Nike trainers and iPads while their parents lavish money on ostentatious cars, exotic houses, expensive clothes, fine dining and employ au-pairs, gardeners and other domestic staff whom they pay a tiny fraction of what they themselves earn.

    Your children and grandchildren will inherit whatever wealth you are able to leave them and that, no matter how small it is, even a few hundred pounds, will buy them more privilege than most people on this earth can dream of obtaining. The thing is, that they will never get to meet those people.

    The difference between old money and new, is that there used to be something called ‘noblesse oblige’. It is a concept with which I know you will be totally unfamiliar, but it meant that those born into privilege recognised the fact and understood and honoured their obligations to society. That is whey people such as my ancestors served as Lord Lieutenants, in the House of Lords, in ministries, as magistrates, on planning councils, on the boards of charities, advisory committees, school and hospital governors, in any role in fact that made society operate and function successfully, all in honorary capacities.(That means unpaid, which is a concept people of your ilk probably do not understand.)

    Noblesse oblige meant that those privilege protected those who were less fortunate than themselves. They sought to employ them, build hospitals for them, educate them, provide for them. Of course there were huge social barriers separating them, but it was a system that worked for generations. Britain suffered no revolution like France or Russia.

    It has gone now. The wealthy guard their money and hang onto it as the sneer at those who have less than they. They are no better than the poor whom they so despise. Like the poor who claim their state benefits, the rich trumpet their entitlement to their wealth. It is theirs and they will do with it as they choose.

    I wonder, in your brave new world, whether you honestly believe that the vast majority of people are really that much better off. They all still want that which they have no chance of ever achieving, i.e. to be in the top 1%. They are fed a diet of lies and promises by cynical politicians who promise the world and deliver a wet Sunday afternoon. They have nothing to believe in and no concept of right and wrong. They live in a moral vacuum. Their freedoms have been eroded by a society that takes away all responsibility from them and places it in the hands of the state. There is no longer any community. Most people live in crowded isolation, surrounded by uncaring strangers. When they have problems, they do not deal with people who know or care about them. No, they deal with faceless, soulless bureaucrats.

    When, before the war, your grandfather would tug his forelock in the direction of mine, he was being sincere. He was expressing his gratitude for the benevolence that the gentry bestowed on the peasantry. My grandfather would have acknowledged him with a gentle wave and a smile thus honouring the lesser but still worthy man. The world was a better place then and you and I should both mourn its passing.

  14. Oops, ‘The feudal system you despise is better than what happens now; it is worse.’

    Not sure what that meant.

    How about, ‘I am not sure that the feudal system you so despise is really that different to what we have today. If anything, I suggest that the current system is actually worse.’

  15. Janus, “I believe that the standards and values of the privileged few had often relied on feudal practices to the detriment of their ‘inferiors’.”

    Sounds just like Communism, really. “Animal Farm” all over again, even if it isn’t called feudalism. Just think of the feudal Japanese samurai who insisted the common herd clear off out of their way when they rode through a town or village. Just like the Zil lanes in Moscow. Plus ça change, …

  16. Sipu, “It is a concept with which I know you will be totally unfamiliar.” You really are a patronising person. Is that part of your ‘noblesse oblige’?

    My grandfather did not tug his forelock at all, though I’m sure your grandfather demanded it. “The world was a better place then and you and I should both mourn its passing.” I couldn’t disagree more.

    As a product of privilege, you have some work to do to achieve the standards you claim as yours.

  17. Probably my only comment tonight!

    Sipu your # 12. I was aware when I wrote that I was over-generalising. My family was from the other end of the economic end of society to yours. They, too, had standards which they maintained and passed on to their descendants. My point? There have always been irresponsible b*ds at the top – and at the bottom of society.

    I can’t talk about inheritance taxes. They, like death, have always been with us – whether it be the lords of the manor taking from the peasantry – or kings charging ‘fines’ for heirs to enter their inheritance. If those at the top can find a way of ‘making a buck or two’ they do and always have. For what it’s worth, there is no inheritance tax here.

    I think that the whole notion of people ‘tugging’ their forelocks has been overstated. There was a sense of the fact that privilege entailed responsibility. But, from talking to people who lived with it – it was not patronising – nor did they feel patronised.

    As an example: My mother has often told me that in the late 20s the London hospitals were staffed by the daughters of the gentry. She says that she knew that these women were of a socially different class who gave their time to work with the poor. But, she always emphasises that those women treated her and her sisters with the greatest of respect. The pennies that they took to maintain their dignity were accepted in the same way as the contributions of those who could pay more.

    I do think that the ‘old’ system worked pretty well – for those in the system. It plainly did not work for the many who did not.

    As your #15 says – the world has changed. Those with money see it as their ‘right’ to have it and hang onto it and those without see it as their ‘right’ to live in the same style and manner as those who are working to pay their way.

    How we change the attitudes of such people is beyond me!

  18. Well as someone who comes from neither social extremity I certainly prefer sipu’s world to that of Janus.
    What we have today is utterly repulsive.

  19. CO, I’d be fascinated to know which world you imagine I represent. “I certainly prefer sipu’s world to that of Janus.”

    I know yours of course – and it ain’t apretty sight! 😉

    Both you and Sipu choose to live where you are comfortable with the ‘mores’ – that is, the WASP ghetto.

  20. Janus #23
    “Both you and Sipu choose to live where you are comfortable with the ‘mores’ – that is, the WASP ghetto.”

    Janus, you are sweet. Denmark, where you have made your nest, is of course known as a multicultural melting pot, is it not?

    I at least am surrounded by the equivalent of Jimmy Stewart’s ‘Arapaho’ or perhaps Michael Caine’s circling hoards. But, we endeavour to bring civilization to the great unwashed. So, I say to one ‘come’ and he cometh, and to another ‘go’ and he goeth. Though sometimes he cometh with out being called and goeth with all my possessions leaving a knife or bullet in my back. But that is the risk we have to take.

    The more you and I exchange thoughts, the more fascinated I become by you. Tell you what, if If I make it to Europe this year I may very well travel to Denmark where I have some friends who have extended an open invitation. He is a major landowner and titled to boot, who is into the whole wind farm thing. Maybe I could drop by for a glass or two of ‘probably the best lager in the world’? I imagine that we could all get together for a fascinating discussion on a whole range of topics. What do you say?

  21. Sipu, “He is a major landowner and titled to boot, who is into the whole wind farm thing.” I would expect nothing less from your circle of friends! 😉

    I may have mentioned that I can name-drop too. Minor European royalty, no less, and not just ‘friends’, but you wouldn’t get on.

  22. Janus :

    … but you wouldn’t get on.

    So I take it that is a no! That is sad. I was hoping to debate the merits of green energy and the effect of windmills on the environment and the people who live there. Ah well, maybe we will pass each other in the street without realising each other’s identity.

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