Blame the Sixties for Today's Ills - but They Did Give Us the Gift of Tolerance; DECADE OF DRUGS, LEGALISED ABORTION AND FREE LOVE ALSO TAUGHT US VALUE OF INDIVIDUALITY

Article excerpt


'Sexual intercourse began In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me) - Between the end of the Chatterley ban And the Beatles' first LP. . .

' FOR many, Philip Larkin's lines say what there is to be said about the Sixties - it was the decade of free love, and all that. Some of us who were about then don' t remember getting all that much of it, or certainly no more than we had got in the late Fifties.

Nevertheless, in the popular imagination of the Sixties' shackles were cast off and irresponsibility had free rein.

The Permissive Society was born, and the world we now inhabit was, for good or ill, formed by the idea of Sixties-lib.

Tony Blair, despite his own youthful ambitions to be a rock star rather than a politician, now seems to think the Sixties were bad rather than good.

Things did change in the Sixties, but more slowly than many now suppose.

Moreover, the Sixties arrived very late in Scotland and the English provinces.

The decade was long past before middleclass and respectable, working- class parents would contemplate the idea of their daughter having a child outside marriage with anything but shame and horror.

People might respond emotionally to the anarchic libertarianism of the Rolling Stones, but at a time of near full employment, when student numbers were much lower than they are today, most young people had nine-to-five jobs and many still worked Saturday morning, too.

Licensing hours were restricted, clubbing hadn't been invented, most young people didn't take drugs and wouldn't have known where to get them if they had wanted to. A lot of what we call the Sixties was the property of students alone.

MOREOVER, a lot of what we now associate with the Sixties goes well back into the Fifties. Rock 'n' Roll, as we have recently been reminded, is 50 years old. It was in 1954 that Elvis cut his first record and 1954 when teenagers (a Fifties invention) started ripping up cinema seats as they responded to Bill Haley's call to 'rock around the clock'.

If the Sixties saw the repeal of the laws that made homosexual practices illegal, the campaign for that repeal dated from the mid-Fifties. The Wolfendon Report that recommended homosexual relations between consenting adults be legalised was published in 1957.

Likewise, if the slogan Make Love, Not War strikes an authentic Sixties note, and was coined by those protesting against America's war in Vietnam, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was formed in the Fifties - and the first, and best-attended, Aldermaston marches took place in that decade.

None of this should surprise.

The Sixties can't accurately be described as a decade apart, an entity unrelated to what had gone before.

Nevertheless, the world, or our world, did change in the Sixties, in nothing more clearly than in the position and attitudes of women.

For me that change is symbolised in one of the best British films of the decade - Billy Liar, made in 1963 from the Keith Waterhouse novel.

The moment in that film when Julie Christie walks down the street sums it up. Her walk was the expression of a new freedom.

It seemed to say 'this is me, this is my body, my life, and I shall do with both as I please'.

Of course, that walk and the message she gave young Billy could equally well be seen as an expression of selfishness, and irresponsibility. Fair enough - that accounts for the uncertainty with which we may now regard the mood of the decade.

On the one hand it was about a new and stronger sense of freedom - your life is yours to make of it what you will. On the other, this represented a rejection not only of old ideas of propriety, but also of the ideas of duty and responsibility.

Individualism could slip very easily into mere selfishness.

Freedom for young women was symbolised by Mary Quant's invention of the miniskirt, so that suddenly girls seemed to be all legs and liberty. …