A Long Forgotten War

Jenny Diski

  • Promise of a Dream: A Memoir of the 1960s by Sheila Rowbotham
    Allen Lane, 262 pp, £18.99, July 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9446 0

A year or two ago Germaine Greer, discussing the shortlisted artists for the Turner Prize, ended huffily by saying that if this is the way the world is now, she was delighted that she wouldn’t have to be part of it for very much longer. Time was she would have leapt on the barricades and given the world a piece of her mind, explaining exactly what it had to do to shape up. Of course, the fact that she has to complain now about the world gone to wrack and ruin means that back then, at her most gladiatorial, the world took not a blind bit of notice and went on its way, impervious. It’s a generational thing, disappointment; part of a cycle of anger, action and failure that is as inevitable as hormone fluctuation, but which seems to have taken the postwar baby boomers quite by surprise. It was there to be read about in classical and modern literature, in histories, in drama, poetry and the defeated mutterings of our own grandparents and parents. But our time was different, we thought, and we seem still to think, because even now we can’t work out what happened.

I recently heard a radio interview with a sixth-former who had been invited by the United Nations to take part in a young people’s conference on the state of the planet. She announced that her concern was to right the mess (war, Third World poverty, ecological catastrophe, global capitalism) that her parents had made of the world. It was a moment before, astonished, I realised that she meant me. No dear, I thought, that’s not right. It wasn’t me, it wasn’t us. It was them. It was our parents who made the mess that we set to sorting out in the 1960s. I remember it distinctly. ‘We’re just trying to sort out the mistakes you made,’ I announced to any baffled elder who asked. ‘It’s not as simple as that,’ they would mutter, as our lips curled in contempt and we went off to demonstrate, take drugs, right wrongs, foment revolution, do it all differently. We had a dream, and according to Sheila Rowbotham, it was to be more than the promise of a dream. The old meanwhile turned towards each other, panicked and took us at our word. But that’s part of the deal. Becoming the older generation is, it turns out, difficult enough; there isn’t time to be philosophical about youth. In any case, we would have called it patronising and taken not a blind bit of notice. And so on, round and round.

The 1960s generation may have had a dream, but it would seem from the contemporary sixth-former’s point of view that they didn’t achieve it. It would also seem that they have become dream-bound in relation to their past. Sheila Rowbotham’s memoir of the 1960s is an attempt to redeem the dream from a scornful world that has, according to her, lost its dreaming capacity, though I confess that her title whirls me back to a Disney world of Snow Whites and Sleeping Beauties. Surely, Promise of a Dream was warbled by one of those over-articulating sopranos while Cinders waltzed in the arms of her prince-to-be? Oh no, it was ‘A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes’, which is in much the same sentimental ball-park. In keeping with the drippy title, Rowbotham’s text is fuelled by a complaint of misunderstanding and, familiar enough from our own youth, accusations of simplification:

as the hopeful radical promise of the 1960s became stranded, it was variously dismissed as ridiculous, sinister, impossibly utopian, earnest or immature. The punks despised the Sixties as soppy, the Thatcherite Right maintained they were rotten, the 1990s consensus was to dismiss them as ingenuous. Dreams have gone out of fashion … A sanitised ‘Sixties’ were to re-emerge, glossily packaged as the snap, crackle and pop fun times, to be opened up periodically for selective nostalgic peeps on cue: the pill, the miniskirt, the Beatles, Swinging London, Revolution in the Streets. As if anything were ever so simple!

Yet there is something special about the 1960s generation: we have managed not to change the system, but to keep the 1960s, our 1960s, all aglow or at least aglimmer in the world out there. The young, in addition to despising us, envy us, as well they might, since whatever our form of Sixties activity, it was done in the sure and certain knowledge that when we had finished there would be jobs to go to. We had a great time, listened to good music, wore a uniform of our own invention, played like children among the drugs and light-shows, fucked copiously, took to the streets, and seriously frightened the horses in Grosvenor Square, and all the while felt righteous, that we were blowing away the dust of the world. The overt promise was that very shortly we would be the governing generation, and look at us, hippies, radicals, scorning tradition and hypocrisy, how could we not run the world as it was meant to be, as we meant it to be? The underlying promise was that after we had dropped out, we would be able to drop back in, get the work, education and stability that we had thrown up in the name of putting things to right. Certainly, for most, the latter promise came true. As to the rest of it, our generation is now reaching retirement age; this is the world we were going to make. One of our number is President of the United States, another Prime Minister of the UK, many are academics, teachers, publishers, writers and broadcasters, others must be policemen, industrialists, engineers, city planners, civil servants. If we want to take the credit for an improvement in the lot of women and gays, who do we blame for Thatcher, privatisation, the power of the multinationals, the failure of education, the grinding poverty of large parts of the world, the arms industry? According to Sheila Rowbotham, the hopeful radical promise of the 1960s became stranded. She doesn’t tell us why. Her book is, in fact, no more than a rather pedestrian memoir of youthful engagement, a reminiscence, the very nostalgia she accuses those who came later of committing. It actually ends before the first Women’s Liberation conference, before her own serious historical research into women’s history began.

Rowbotham moved from a middle-class Tory Methodist upbringing in the West Riding to a London whose streets were paved with Marxism-Leninism in the approved manner of the times. A restrictive girls’ boarding school where she read extra-curricular Sartre and Kerouac and practised being Juliette Gréco in her time off, the Sorbonne and a first boyfriend who took her provincial style in hand and then left her, to Oxford, to Aldermaston, and via Edward and Dorothy Thompson, to the watering hole of the New Left at the Partisan in Carlisle Street in Soho. It’s a fair geography of the early 1960s. People had begun wandering about, and unless you stayed put, you were bound to meet them. They were delighted to discover that you had read the same books, and even suggested new ones, you were amazed they enjoyed your company, that they let you into their groups. Being introduced to radical London was like starting at nursery school, scary, but with the assurance of finding your way to your peers. It was odd that parents like the Rowbothams who were considered hopelessly hidebound let their daughters go off to Paris accompanied only by a girlfriend. The times were changing even before we changed them.

Rowbotham stolidly records her sexual progress and problems as she goes: the uncertainty about whether she could be said to have lost her virginity when she hadn’t had an orgasm, whether she would ever have one, and when she does, if orange is the right colour for the lights that lit up in her head. Answers to this question and others (birth control, the importance of the clitoris, an introduction to a circle of socialists – Robin Blackburn, Gareth Stedman Jones, Perry Anderson – who challenged her acceptance of Edward Thompson’s non-sectarian New Left, the frivolity of mascara) came from Bob Rowthorn, who became Rowbotham’s adviser and long-term – oh I don’t know – boyfriend. The seeds of 1970s feminism were a long way from flowering. Political revolution was a boy’s game. Women were lovers, secretaries, tea-makers, but co-revolutionaries only when they behaved like the boys. Feeling powerless at the lack of cultural change, Rowbotham resorted to what she calls ‘guerrilla outrages’ and while in a restaurant with Bob and his mob, being left out of the hard-edged political conversation, she noticed a man in a window opposite changing his clothes. She began a monologue on his state of undress. ‘It took a while for the table to notice, they were so preoccupied with their intellectual debate. Perry regarded me with distaste, referring to me henceforth as “that girl”.’ Class credentials were an allied problem:

On reflection I decided that a lot of my problems with the working class came from my being an outsider. ‘You’re a rough-looking twot,’ said a Leeds voice as I marched through Briggate in my beatnik outfit. I decided I would try and modify my clothes a bit. I couldn’t just be an impersonal socialist.

In the late 1960s, Rowbotham was tempted by druggy hippie culture, which prompts recollections of acid trips and the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream at Alexandra Palace, but it was a short-lived flirtation. Edward Thompson wagged an avuncular finger at her:

I think it is neither better nor worse than other forms of psychic self-mutilation – but worse at the moment because it belongs to a culture so excessively self-absorbed, self-inflating and self-dramatising. Very like Methodist revivalism, self-examining hence v. unhappy and not v. good at mutuality … the involuted culture you paddle in – that isn’t ‘you’ … do try to talk a bit about other worlds.

Luckily she was drawn back into the Young Socialists (not self-absorbed, self-inflating and self-dramatising?) by the forthcoming anti-Vietnam demonstration in Grosvenor Square, and a plan to drop the slogan ‘Oxbridge paddles while Vietnam burns’ over a bridge during the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, ‘thus catching the TV cameras and millions of viewers’.

And so it goes on. The boyfriend problems (the relationship with Rowthorn became ‘open’), the political struggles (the battles within the Black Dwarf collective), the dogged leafleting and marching (Spies for Peace, Grosvenor Square), the attitudes to women (should she walk naked down a flight of stairs for Jean-Luc Godard? ‘Don’t you think I am able to make a cunt boring?’ exclaimed the auteur). Sexuality became political when the International Socialists decided to expel her. ‘“You’ve been fucking with a Stalinist,” hissed a man in Hornsey, pinning me against the wall at a party.’ Was this the beginning of the Women’s Movement? Rowbotham began to get involved in a Women’s Liberation consciousness-raising group. ‘I was convinced that women could make a unique contribution to radical thinking about behaviours, responses, everyday existence and consciousness.’ The problem of the personal versus the political would not go away. She recorded the dilemma in her diary. Was

the prevailing culture of masculinity … only a consequence of capitalism or was there some underlying structure which we were to call ‘patriarchy’? Second, I wanted to know whether we should concentrate on changing the attitudes and behaviour of the revolutionary Left or try ‘to reach women in general’?

The rest is history, though it looks as though we shall have to wait for volume two for her account of it. But if the loss of a capacity to dream is the issue she wishes to address here, Rowbotham’s angst-ridden earnestness is not likely to set a new generation dreaming. The young (and some of the old) will probably find her sketch of 1960s radicalism and the first stirrings of the Women’s Movement as embarrassing as hearing their parents speak of their own engendering. What, for example, are they (or any of us) to make of her resignation from the editorial board of Black Dwarf? After pro-vanguardist Fred Halliday had dismissed her discussion paper ‘One Law for the Lion and the Ox is Oppression’ with ‘I disagree with you 100 per cent,’ she couldn’t face the next discussion on her paper ‘Cinderella Organises Buttons’. She cowered in the pub lavatory to escape Anthony Barnett, who had been detailed by the board to fetch her, while he stood outside demanding that she come out and discuss her article ‘rationally and politically’. A week later the board received her letter of resignation, which suggested that ‘they sit round imagining they had cunts for two minutes in silence so that they could understand why it was hard for me to discuss what I had written on women’. After Tariq Ali read it aloud to the assembled group, there was a silence, finally broken by Anthony Barnett exploding: ‘This is outrageous.’

In her introduction, Rowbotham claims that ‘many obvious questions about the Left in the 1960s have simply never been asked and many areas of political and social experience have been curiously ignored.’ You may doubt this, but in any case her personal account adds little to the debate that hasn’t been heard already. It is most likely to be read avidly by the names she drops, to confirm or outrage their own recollections. The stranding of the dreamy Left is never dealt with. Someone less attached to the myth of their youth will have to see to that.

In our declining years, it seems that we are going to do what generations before us have done and huddle together with our memories to offer each other comfort or keep the old adventures alive. Rowbotham’s suggestions for further reading include no end of trips down memory lane: Sara Maitland’s Very Heaven: Looking Back at the 1960s, Richard Neville’s Hippie Hippie Shake, Michelene Wandor’s Once a Feminist: Stories of a Generation, Tariq Ali’s Street Fighting Years, Nigel Fountain’s Underground: The London Alternative Press 1966-74. Can you doubt that even now more manuscripts are being produced by those in their fifties recounting the glory days of their late teens and twenties? They are essentially for each other, for why should the young bother with self-regarding recollection? It is as if when we were nearing twenty in 1965, we were offered a deluge of memoirs set in the late 1920s. If we discover that the young regard the 1960s as a flare-up of style and little else, we are finding only what each generation finds, which is that being young is to be opposed to the old who have had their chance. It does seem to be that everything has to be done again, much the same but in a different style relearned more or less from scratch. The tiresome thing about getting older is that you hear and read the same things over again. Stuff you know already is given out as news. The young discover global capitalism, sexual freedom, social restraints, and the old discover that they are bored, opening newspapers to read articles they read thirty years ago, listening to revelations that were new to them decades past. And on and on. So we turn in on ourselves, like our parents’ generation did and mutter about the banality of movies, TV programmes, magazines. We begin to decide that these things aren’t made for us, and instead of trying to find a way to engage with and exchange ideas outside our own generation, we start to write memoirs like retired generals from some long forgotten war, or decide that it’s just as well we’re old because the world has failed to understand what we have done for it and it is no longer good enough for us.