Hippie, Hippie Sheikhs; the Sixties. by Arthur Marwick (Oxford: Pounds 25). Reviewed by Simon Evans

By Evans, Simon | The Birmingham Post (England), October 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Hippie, Hippie Sheikhs; the Sixties. by Arthur Marwick (Oxford: Pounds 25). Reviewed by Simon Evans


Evans, Simon, The Birmingham Post (England)


The 1960s have permeated every aspect of our culture, from film, music, design and literature to class, race and even sexual desire.

Much as the authoritarian right would want to put this genie back in its lamp, the period from 1958-74 was a time when the British uncharacteristically let their hair down, both physically and metaphorically. It saw tradition swept aside, authority quest ioned like never before, and a mass indulgence in all manner of sensory delights. It really wasn't terribly English at all.

In his history of the period, surely the most comprehensive and wide-ranging to date, Marwick argues that the "long 60s," a period that stretched from the late 50s to the early 70s, saw nothing less than a cultural revolution, a time when a number of dif ferent technological, political, historical, social and cultural forces converged to produce an outpouring of creativity, innovation and rapid change.

Even some of those at the centre of this revolution in English life (it should be noted Marwick's book also considers the United States and Western Europe in relation to the 60s) have been dismissive of its influence, writing the era off as nothing more than a temporary disturbance of a society that would soon revert to to its old stratified, inhibited ways. "Silly and transient they may have been," wrote George Melly in Revolt Into Style, "but at least they were alive, kicking and, above all, hopeful."

Even John Lennon, who was crowned Man of the Decade in a 1969 television documentary, would dismiss the 60s with typical honesty. "All that happened was that a few middle-class kids grew their hair. It was still the same people running things."

Lennon was perceptive enough to realise that the "counter-culture" he had done so much to promote had, in terms of the distribution of power, achieved very little. Certainly the universal peace, love and understanding at the core of hippie ideology seems as far away as ever.

A loose amalgam of poets, rock stars, student radicals, bohemians and disaffected journalists, it centred, this counter-culture, in "Swinging London", at least, on a network of alternative bookshops, boutiques, clubs and galleries. In San Francisco, the subject of Scott McKenzie's celebrated song, the Haight-Ashbury district became a hippie mecca but within months had been taken over by the rip-off merchants and drug dealers.

Marwick is right to point out then that, rather than being an engine for social change, the 60s counter-culture was actually an exclusive coterie, fed by shrewd entrepreneurs. Whatever their radical intent, the experimental theatres, alternative newspape rs and magazines, head shops, discotheques, underground films and multi-media "happenings" were actually rather good at making money. They became as rich as sheikhs.

Furthermore, rather than confronting what the fashionable Situationists called "the society of the spectacle," whereby everything, including art, is reduced to a consumer item, this new elite did much to perpetuate it. …

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