Please, please give me a break, I'm so sick of the '60s
The 1960s have barely started and I am already sick to death of the bloody things. At some point in the past year, writing in this place, I advised readers to beware impending golden jubilees for various supposedly swinging events. We would get stamps celebrating 50 years of the Velvet Underground. Banners would be erected to acknowledge half a century of Steptoe and Son. Fireworks were due in late 2013 when the greatest of all 1960s phenomena – me, obviously – reached his sixth decade with relatively few scratches on the smug carapace.
But we never imagined fatigue would set in so quickly. Barely a week has gone by without some telly documentary on a supposed landmark in the Beatles’ career.
Various weary talking heads gathered to discuss Lennon meeting McCartney at a garden fete.
They were back again a few weeks later for the film on George Harrison buying a new guitar pick. Last month, BBC4 convened a group of mostly useless middle-of-the-road singers – it’s nice to know Stereophonics are still alive, mind you – to rerecord the Beatles’ first LP.
Hang on a moment. We’ve only got as far as Please Please Me? At that stage, folk still wore cloth caps to football matches and stood up for the national anthem in cinemas. Sex had only just begun for Philip Larkin. By some reckonings, the 1960s themselves had not really kicked off. And we have to suffer another six years of this twaddle.
The 1960s are just so blasted pleased with themselves. Oh, look at us with our sexual liberation and our great pop music and our epoch-defining embrace of modernist aesthetics. If there were a club for decades, that 10-year span would be squatting smugly behind the most exclusive velvet rope, while the wartorn 1940s, hide-bound 1950s and inflation-scarred 1970s fight to order at the plebs’ bar.
Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris hangs around an effective musing on the myth of the golden era. Owen Wilson plays a writer who, much to his delight, finds himself transported back to Paris in the years of the lost generation. The film consciously re-creates the myth rather than the reality. The likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F Scott Fitzgerald sit around chatting pompously about the next great leap forward in literature. Wilson is, however, surprised to learn that at least one character finds the (current) present unsatisfactory. Marion Cotillard, playing Pablo Picasso’s then muse, yearns for the purity and elegance of La Belle Époque. Sod Dalí and Man Ray. She wants Degas and Gauguin.
Allen’s point was that every era longs for some bohemian idyll still obscurely visible in the rear-view mirror. Come to think of it, many of the artists who defined the 1960s saw themselves as riffing on themes conceived by the verbose fraudsters of the beat generation.
This is fair enough. We all need some sort of escape from the ghastly tedium of contemporary life. Who wouldn’t want to place themselves in an epoch that knew not The X-Factor, One Generation (is that what they’re called?) or internet memes concerning kittens in buckets?
My complaint is that, 50 years on, no decade has come close to displacing the 1960s’ position as the hip cultural touchstone. Never mind that most of the era’s myths are depressingly unreliable. (Too many women in communes were, for instance, still expected to make the tea and minister to the sexual demands of hairy, but still largely unreconstructed, hippy patriarchs.)
Those contemporary hipsters in Brooklyn lofts – the ones with the asymmetric hair and mistuned thumb pianos – continue to ape the look and style of 1960s folk revivalists. Bands will, from time to time, declare themselves devotees of post-punk, hair metal or 1980s rave culture. But each of those movements was, in its way, a comment on or a reaction against the defining pop of the 1960s. Do not forget that the (in more ways than one) high months of acid house are still referred to as the second summer of love.
Is there no escape? It should, of course, be acknowledged that – while the horrors of Vietnam, Biafra and the Six-Day War were playing themselves out – worthwhile political and social advances did take place. The United States finally engaged with civil rights for African Americans. The misused Catholic populations of Derry and Belfast began their journeys towards equality. But the era has been distinctly oversold as an orgy of liberation. Feminists and gay rights activists made many more advances in the despised decade that followed.
Note, also, that in cultural terms the 1960s didn’t hit Ireland until around 1978. Indeed, it wasn’t until the vulgar boom of the 1990s that we properly began shaking ourselves free of church and convention.
Here’s an idea. Let’s delay all domestic celebrations for another 30 years. I can dig that.