Viva Biba

Janet Watts

  • Very Heaven: Looking back at the 1960s edited by Sara Maitland
    Virago, 227 pp, £4.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 86068 958 1

We now speak of the decades of this century in a recognised code. We see, or try not to see, the Thirties in the Eighties; we settle with relief into sentimentality about the Sixties. This was, after all, the time when the middle-aged men and women who colour British public opinion were young, hopeful and sexually active. Is it the decade that they now mourn and celebrate, or the charm of their lost young selves?

Sara Maitland writes that this book began as a response to the mockery of her daughter’s generation at the decade they had just missed. Her mission, she explains, is to explain. She admits that she herself (like many of her contributors) felt neither a sense of participation nor enjoyment in the Sixties (she was ten at their start). Yet she endorses with gusto the boast of her contributor Angela Carter that towards the end of the decade ‘there was a brief period of public philosophical awareness that occurs only very occasionally in human history ... when all that was holy was in the process of being profaned, and we were attempting to grapple with the real relations between human beings ... furthermore, at a very unpretentious level, we were truly asking ourselves questions about the nature of reality.’

As an example of Sixtiespeak, this will do very well. It also calls to mind a point made about the spirit of this time by its earlier chronicler, Bernard Levin in The Pendulum Years: ‘It was a credulous age, perhaps the most credulous ever, and the more rational, the less gullible, the decade claimed to be, the less rational, the more gullible, it showed itself.’ Angela Carter’s assertions will not, I suspect, stop the giggles of Sara Maitland’s daughter and her cronies. But it soon becomes clear that these girls are not the book’s real target. Sara Maitland soon reveals that the reader she has chiefly sought to inform through this book is herself. Having, as she feels, missed out on the decade, she wants to make good her loss. Of its music, for example (‘central, crucial I believe ... to creating and communicating a mood and meaning among people of my age’): it was too bad that she was tone deaf. The great events of the outside world equally eluded her: ‘I left Washington the day before Martin Luther King was shot, and arrived in Los Angeles a week after Robert Kennedy’s assassination.’

In spite of these omissions, Sara Maitland has found in her own fiction ‘a pride in the Sixties’, a regret for ‘a period that was culturally significant, an explosion of energy’, which she contrasts with the shameful inertia of our own times, when ‘it seems increasingly difficult even to manage decent strategies of resistance, let alone any truly creative political intervention against Thatcherism and the social injustices which are daily escalating.’ All of which adds up to another good reason to try to understand the Sixties better.

The book contains 22 contributions besides her own, written by a wide variety of women. Mostly essays; three interviews; a few poems; one chapter of a novel. Most of the contributors were in their twenties in the Sixties; one is a former Cabinet Minister now in her seventies; the last entry is by two sisters in their teens. The women come from five continents: some are black, one is Irish, one Greek, one Australian. They include a film star, a jazz singer, several writers of different sorts, a missionary’s wife and co-worker. The concern that they most obviously share links their brief biographies at the end of the book; the majority have apparently given conscientious thought to deciding which was their favourite song from the Sixties.

It is harder to divine the essential question each woman is addressing in her contribution: if, indeed, such a question exists. Sara Maitland takes two women’s deaths as the parameters of her study: Marilyn Monroe’s (from barbiturates) in 1962, and Janis Joplin’s (from heroin) in 1970. She sees the differences between these women and their lives (before their rather similar deaths) as epitomising what she calls the ‘transforming times’ of the Sixties, and wonders how we moved ‘from the Fifties’ passive model of femininity ... to the feminism of the Seventies’. That is her question, at least. ‘I am unashamedly and greedily curious, and I think I ought to be.’ Sara Maitland’s contributors do not question her question, but they do not answer it either. They just get on with telling the stories of their lives in the Sixties. So we have Liverpool lasses hanging about outside Paul McCartney’s front door; a skinny Chelsea girl redeemed by the advent of Twiggy and Biba; a black girl fighting simultaneously to sing jazz in Soho and to muzzle her violent father in Finchley.

Several contributors write of themselves in the third person, reporting the roles they played with detachment and sometimes dislike. Sheila MacLeod, wife of the pop star Paul Jones, admits the lethal realities of the fairy story she was forced to enact in a world of image and illusion. When her disgust began to reveal itself in anorexia, she found her thinness made her an even more accepted and acceptable consort. ‘When she saw herself as a mini-skirted dolly-bird she wondered how she could have been deceived into imagining that the fashions of the Sixties spelled liberation for women. It now seemed that their purpose was to imprison women more securely as objects of male attention, male ribaldry, male lust.’ Julie Christie’s voice retains, even as it recalls, the innocence and woolliness that were the decade’s strength and its weakness: ‘Love of everybody – there were rare moments when you actually had the feeling that you were part of the human race ... I think because some people had touched it in their drugged states, we were all trying to get there.’ Many of these contributors tell stories of their struggle. But what most of them were struggling to achieve was a good time.

And so, as Angela Carter (20 in 1960) asks: ‘Where did it all fit in? All the Swinging London stuff, pop music, hemlines? ... the relaxation of manners, the sense of intellectual excitement, even the way, oh God, you didn’t have to shave your armpits.’ The insouciance of her question veils her inability to answer it. She declares that this was the first and perhaps the only time when we had ‘an authentic intelligentsia’ in Britain, pointing out that ‘we suddenly started getting on terribly well with the French and the Italians and the Germans.’ She pays Jean-Luc Godard the compliment that after Breathless (1959), ‘my whole experience of the next decade can be logged in relation to Godard’s movies as if he were some sort of touchstone.’ In another child of the Sixties, this sentiment may strike a chord. For the rest, it will probably epitomise what they don’t understand, cannot share, and must therefore dismiss as rubbish.

The voices in this book would provide some good lines for a fringe theatre show about a bunch of women rapping (as it was drearily called) about what they did, felt, believed and wore in the Sixties. A group dynamic might have made shorter shrift of some of the worst fatuities that Sara Maitland lets through. But at least anyone with a knowledge of kipper ties can join in, as the last contributors prove: two teenagers opining that ‘hippies were filthy’ and ‘the Sixties were a mess.’

All this is perhaps harmless fun, which everybody knows was one of the things that there was a lot of in the Sixties. But it is not much fun hearing people tell you what fun they had. And what happened in the Sixties was not all fun either, as Sara Maitland notes in the part of her introduction that speaks of the ‘moral seriousness’ of the decade. This was so serious that relics of the Sixties may experience shame ‘that they should have cared so much, believed so strongly and engaged so fully’; or guilt ‘that we have, collectively and individually, retreated from such high hopes.’

A brief ‘Chronology of a Decade’ at the beginning of the book lists its important events: between four and 13 are awarded to each year. They include assassinations, wars, national catastrophes, legislative changes, the publication of certain books and songs, and the first Moon landing. As we read each of the book’s contributions, some of these landmarks may flash past, like telegraph poles seen from a train. But the real drama is going on in the compartment. Salvador Allende’s election as president of Chile merits a place on the list, but none of the contributors mentions it, and the editor gets its date wrong. A contributor vividly recalls the thrill of picking up a piece of pavé and throwing it at the French police in Paris in 1968: what is less clear is why she did it, what (if anything) her action achieved, and how she judges it now. The heroines of these stories go on marches, sit-ins and demonstrations as enthusiastically as on trips of other sorts: but they do not record the purposes, effects – or lack of effects – of their efforts. What they do remember, and remind the reader of, is that Germaine Greer went to dinner without her knickers on, and that Marianne Faithful and the Rolling Stones did something ‘supposedly depraved’ with a Mars Bar.

It may be that the major quest of many women in the Sixties, like this book’s contributors, was for a sense of freedom and fulfilment which had more to do with sex than with anything else, and there is nothing wrong with that. What I don’t like is the implicit claim that these accounts of individual progress towards personal liberation have by osmosis absorbed, and will through osmosis transmit, an experience and understanding of national and international liberation movements; of the new laws governing divorce, abortion, homosexuality; of the influence of events in Vietnam, Paris, Chile, Rhodesia or America.

The real mystery of the Sixties, for me, lies not in the orgasm and its indefatigable pursuit, but in the moral seriousness that Sara Maitland assumes, but which she does not prove or define. Certainly it was part of the decade’s kaleidoscope of images, as Che Guevara posters were part of its psychedelic-painted walls. But was it really there? And if so, where did it go? The easy answer, implicit in many contributions, is ‘into feminism’. Barbara Castle, Labour MP for Blackburn from 1945 to 1979, has a different one. In 1960 she was 50, and had decided that she possessed a mind as well as a vagina. Sex was ‘a powerful, creative and potentially disruptive force’, but one whose domination she resisted. ‘There are too many other interesting things in life.’ As a government minister from 1964, she worked to make them happen: abortion-law reform, overseas aid, better public transport, equal pay and equal rights for women, child benefit and other measures to strengthen women’s position both at home and at work. Two decades later, Barbara Castle remorselessly observes, this process has been reversed. Victorian values are back. Child benefit and maternity provision are being eroded. Traditional domestic burdens are being re-imposed on women, and their rights and employment provisions are disappearing fast. But what is most alarming is that they ‘are accepting these reverses almost passively. The protests of the Sixties have fizzled out. Revolt has given way to resignation ... What has gone wrong?’

Barbara Castle’s answer is that sexual politics distracted and confounded the beginnings of political revolt. As a result, the revolt of the Sixties ‘brushed away many conventional cobwebs, but never struck roots in a comprehensive political philosophy’. A vacuum was left in which the counter-revolutionaries have worked ever since to create every detail of the unequal and repressive society we have today: and women are paying the price. ‘For not having armed themselves’, as she puts it. Or for having been so obsessed with their sexual self-discovery that they simply failed to see what was happening beyond it.

At the beginning of the book, Sara Maitland announces her search for ‘signs of hope and self-criticism’ to enlighten the Eighties, and praises the ‘optimism and excitement and aspiration’ of its essays. They are indeed full of remembered hope and energy, and I am sorry to sound so censorious about them. I was young in the Sixties too, and guilty of all the self-absorption, muddle-mindedness and frivolity of which I accuse these women. But for me the naive charm that alleviated these attributes has now vanished like the dew from our cheeks: and what is left is not a pretty sight. The world that served as a backdrop for the stories these women tell has not improved with age. It has changed, and it has failed to change, and in both aspects it casts a lengthening shadow over the youthful dramas that once held the centre of the stage. It was perhaps excusable that as young women we did not see what was happening around us then: but it is necessary that we do so now.