Magazine article The Spectator

Waking Up with a Hangover

Magazine article The Spectator

Waking Up with a Hangover

Article excerpt

PROMISE OF A DREAM: A MEMOIR OF THE SIXTIES

by Sheila Rowbotham

Allen Lane/Penguin, 18.99, pp. 320

It is now fashionable and therefore (since we are all fashion victims one way or another) more or less mandatory to repudiate the 1960s: by mockery, by denunciation or most commonly by simple denial. I think this is becoming dangerous, after all the establishment, broadly understood, political, cultural and moral, and especially the present government (one of the charms of this book is the number of members of the present Cabinet who pop up in unlikely radical places) are by-and-large products of the Sixties; of its political engagements and its cultural energies. If we won't look with at least some seriousness at what formed us, we can neither understand ourselves and our society, nor profit from what was without question an extraordinary decade.

Rowbotham is ideally placed to write the Sixties back into political history. She is the right age - 16 in 1960; the right background - the provincial middle class; the right education - a social and intellectual historian with a solid publishing and teaching record. And the right political trajectory - above all she was very much there, a centrally active participant in the militantly engaged Left and the emerging women's movement.

For these reasons, and despite the curious blur of those times, Promise of a Dream carries authority. Rowbotham's careful research - of both personal memory and factual events - is valuable. There will be other analyses (I hope) but in terms of simply establishing an accessible chronology Promise of a Dream serves a crucial purpose. Rowbotham applies to her own life that quality of disinterested attention that makes her such an excellent researcher and her writing on women's history so important.

I am the natural reader for this book: a few years younger than Rowbotham, my adult life really began in 1970, fairly precisely with the first Women's Liberation Conference that she is organising in the closing pages of this memoir. This book is the background to my own personal history. I know by reputation or acquaintance a large number of the people she talks about, and so of course it is fascinating to me. …

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