1963, London: The Myth of the
Artist and the Woman Writer
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) –
(Philip Larkin, ‘Annus Mirabilis’)
1963: the worst of years and the best of years. As the impact of the revelations about the concentration camps was felt, following the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, George Steiner would write that ‘the house of classic humanism, the dream of reason which animated western society, have largely broken down … We come after’ (Steiner 1969: 15). Yet Martin Luther King would announce, in his ‘I have a Dream’ speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC in August, that ‘nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning. The whirlwind of revolt will come to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges’ (King 1985: 95).
In London, despite the popular myths of the sixties, the city would not be ‘swinging’ for another two or three years, at least until Time magazine officially announced the birth of ‘Swinging London’ in April 1966. ‘Top of the Pops’ made its first appearance (on BBC television) in 1963, but so had Mary Whitehouse’s ‘clean-up TV’ campaign. Britain was recovering from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, with its unignorable demonstration of Britain’s loss of world power to the US, just as its relations with Europe were also taking a downward turn with refusal of entry into the Common Market. However, in the popular imagination, at least, 1963 will probably always be commemorated as ‘nineteen sixtythree’, the ‘Annus Mirabilis’ of youth culture, new sexual freedoms, and of Philip Larkin’s middle-aged sense of having just missed the boat. Identified with the very myths of the moment it sought to explode, Larkin’s poem became a receptacle for the projected desires and mythologies of posterity: 1963 now stands as the year when ‘sexual intercourse began’, with the Larkinesque ambivalence and the vocally intricate play of poetic irony most often wilfully ignored.
By 1964, the Beatles’ first LP had grossed £6 million: in the US and in Britain, censorship had eased – particularly, in the latter, since Penguin Books celebrated legal defence of their edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) in 1960. David Storey’s novel Radcliffe treated openly the theme of homosexual desire, and Margaret Drabble an