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Life in the Sixties

February 13, 2013

‘If you can remember the Sixties you weren’t there,’ didn’t sum up the Sixties as far as I was concerned.  I was there, fourteen in 1960, and no decade can be summed up in any trite phrase, such as that. In the early years the Sixties felt like a carry-over from the 1950s and in the later years would morph into the excesses of the 1970s. Quite a lot of what happened to me in the Sixties I would rather forget, a rich mix of good and bad.

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Nonetheless, there is something definite about the Sixties. Take one look at the photograph above and you know the era it came from. The Telstars were clearly copying the style of the Beatles whose fame and fortune came mainly from the fact the media was able to manipulate public opinion as never before. It’s always good to have a voice from the past reflecting how they saw it and my grandfather wrote in 1963:

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‘Girls in their thousands have gathered hysterically to wait for the “Beatles” shows. I think their performance on TV to be ‘far below proof’ as liquors are graded. I think it was an insult to common intelligence, let be culture. It shows up the mind of the young mass. And the move of sex. For young men are not in the scramble for the performance.’

So there we were in the early Sixties, one minute listening to Music While You Work on the radio, which sounded like a carry-over from the War and the next minute we were shocked into change by the arrival of the Beatles. The Establishment was moving over for this new wave of popular culture. My grandfather saw the Beatles as radical and disruptive. Until the Beatles the largest crowds probably met for some Royal occasion. Did the Beatles empower us youngsters, did they make our lives different? Yes, Looking at the Telstar picture, I think they did change things. The man who I have to thank for the photo took up guitar playing and has played all his life and the Telstars are Beatles look alikes. The Beatles were taken up from the working/middle class to celebrity status and then there was a filtering down throughout society.

Beatlemania was taken into coffee bars, like the Milano in Wolverhampton. With its frothy coffee served in glass cups, the juke boxes and the copper-topped tables which doubled up as drums, The Milano was the place to congregate after school and chat about which party to go to, the best music around etc. There was an excitement about this which was in stark contrast to the climate of the Cold War.

I remember the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and thinking that this could be the end of the world. There was very serious discussion around the dinner table that evening and no hope that one would survive. But the British government did want to suggest that post nuclear war survival was possible. They sent a woman to talk to us in school about the essential provisions one must take into the bunker (in fact, a designated room in the house.) We laughed at the bucket in which we were supposed to do everything but there was a fear lurking in the background of what might happen.

The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 had no impact on me at all. The other cliche often bandied about was that everyone remembers what they were doing when JFK was shot. Well I have no idea what I was doing. We lived in a small world and for me that world was A levels. I would have like to have said that we discussed it as a group but I don’t remember that happening. We would be far too involved with fashion, boys and music.

In 1964 I went to university at Aberystwyth an institution not in the vanguard of cultural change I think it would be fair to say. The Welsh were setting fire to holiday homes and making great efforts to preserve the Welsh heritage and keep the English in check. Equal rights for women was the dynamic at that time  and I remember standing on a full bus and a fellow male student, seated, saying to me ‘you fought for equality and you got it, so you can stand.’

In 1968 I went to Bradford University to study Marketing. I had no vocation to do marketing but on the night before I left Aberystwyth I met a fellow student who was going to study marketing and I thought it sounded like fun. That’s how things were done then. You were young, you believed that it would all turn out alright.

When the Sixties was good it had a freshness and excitement as though you were an explorer in an undiscovered land and popular culture gave us plenty to explore. In the cinema there were films like Alfie, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top, Georgie Girl. They were films that made you think and challenged one’s thinking. I read more than I ever had and several of us talked about what we had read, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bertrand Russell, J.P. Donleavy, James Joyce and R.D. Laing. Politics we talked endlessly about. It was cool to be left wing , which I wasn’t and  from the working classes which I wasn’t. It was a crazy world of constantly challenging convention.

The dark side of casting aside normal behaviour was a raft of  unwanted consequences if it went wrong. Unplanned pregnancies could be the result of promiscuous behaviour, failure to cope with the changes in society could lead to isolation and psychological problems and so on. The other problem was that changes in the young hadn’t yet been translated into the workplace which was stuck in the Music While You Work era and it was hard to adapt. What some employers seemed to believe was that the young women they employed were fair sexual game. There is a terrible shame attached to being treated in this way and one was powerless to do anything about it.

The Sixties were a confusing time. In one’s head you could feel that the world was changing and that you had something worth saying and doing. It was a time of empowerment of the individual but constraints which prevented that power being used to its best advantage.   It was a time before money became society’s God and a time when a sense of community was recognisable – just.

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