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Thursday, 30 December 2010

Review: The Sixties, Jenny Diski (2009)

This articulate and thoughtful little primer on the historical period reaching from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s contains more dress label names and album covers than dates and the names of important people. But it's easy to read. It's not comprehensive (it doesn't pretend to be). It's more of a sketch than a compendium, but it's no less satisfying for that.

Diski, a writer born in 1947, muses on the reason for the rise of alternative lifestylers in the 60s. The war had ended but the world was in more trouble than ever with a frightening Cold War in train, unrelenting economic hardship in many countries, and then the debacle of Vietnam. The state, in the UK, had decided to provide the means of support in the form of generous social security payments so that young people didn't have to work if they didn't want to. There was money and there was the occasion; it was practically inevitable after the optimistic 1950s and amid the post-war economic boom.

Relying on the method of memoir more than history, Diski attempts to describe what it was like being part of the new generation who dropped out, tuned in and turned on. Her personal journey included involvement in protest rallies, stints in mental institutions to treat depression, and then a reaching out into the field of teaching in an attempt to find a way to really change the way people thought about their lives and so change the very structure of society. By addressing the problems of youth, Diski thought, a real change was possible for the future. So in a sense this is a fairly personal account of the period, but I see no reason why that makes it any less cogent for a contemporary reader.

Diski also spends quite a lot of time reflecting on "what went wrong". Specifically, why did the Thatcher era of rampant materialism and individualism result from the 60s. Here, she asks many questions but does not come up with a solid answer. The reason might be that the impetus to reform became entrenched and made its way into the modus operandi of those on the conservative side of politics, thus leading to neoliberalism. But Diski leaves the question unanswered, for now.

This book is refreshing, modest, anecdotal and thought-provoking, and so comes highly recommended.

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