The swinging sixties
Sunday 18th March 2018
Was there a period of time in the history of the British Isles that can justifiably be called ‘The Swinging Sixties‘? Dominic Sandbrook clearly thinks there is; he called his 2006 book White Heat a History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. A search on the Internet has also thrown up quite a lot of material that uses this term to refer to a period of time. In this context, I am concerned only with Britain and, moreover, with London. Unlike Sandbrook’s tome, my novel is a work of fiction. Its central characters are imaginary. They all lived in London from 1967 to 1971. That London no longer exists. Any more than the London of Samuel Pepys still exists. My book anchors its central narrators into one city, at one period of time. They never refer to their world as the ‘swinging sixties.’ Had they done so, it would have been an anachronism. Likewise, I doubt that, during 1967, any of them would have realised that they were living in the ‘summer of love.’ I am writing this article in 2018 – but I have no idea what this year (or its neighbouring years) will be called in the future. It is historians who name eras of the past.
My novel – The Streets of London – is set in the 1960s; that is where it begins and it ends in the 1970s – the era I call The Beginnings of Change. In America that would be called ‘Generation X’ and in some references it was the ‘Information Age.’ In my novel, the early seventies was a period of change. Not just because 1971 was the milestone year for each of the three leading characters but also because they were seeing changes going on in the world around them. Changes that marked the end of the sixties and beginnings of an entirely new age. I say it is set in London – in reality, it is set in West London. Most of the action takes place in an arc that runs along the Bayswater Road, from Marble Arch to Notting Hill and then down into South Kensington and Earls Court. My characters never go to the East End or South London or even the leafier climbs of the North, Enfield or Barnet. They stuck to the postcodes that began with a ‘W’ and rarely ventured outside of them. They were the aficionados of the West End scene. Bear in mind that the three main characters, in my novel, did not arrive in London until 1967. In that regard, what they encountered was, in sense, a fin-de-siècle version of swinging London. They might have found the swingier parts of West London, but they missed out on the mainstream of it all; they were on its fringes and not at its heart. My three young men were too poor to be fashionable.
Inexperienced, lacking qualifications, too young to have got anywhere, they looked on in wonder at the well-heeled icons going past them in their designer clothes and swanky sports cars. They were more likely to buy their shirts at C&A than Lord John. But they do get into some of the smartest and most fashionable restaurants, bars and clubs – simply by being taken there by their older friends and celebrities they have met. London might have been a meritocracy but it awarded its benefits only those who were sponsored by the rich and famous.
How swinging was the sixties?
Swinging. I wonder what that means. I am sure it means different things, to different people. A search for its definition brought up ‘lively, exciting, and fashionable’, ‘sexually liberated or promiscuous’; to some, it was about wife-swapping, to others it was all about music. The era of swing. Of course, all of these things can be thrown into the same soup. Sandbrook has given us a vast cauldron of historic minestrone.
If the mid- to late-sixties could be called ‘The Swinging Sixties’, then what swings were they on? One of my most important research sources is Dominic Sandbrook’s White Heat – a history of Britain in the swinging sixties. More than any other author, Sandbrook has his finger on the pulse of the period. He monitors the beating heart of the era. That book is, for me, about research – the process of verification. What my novel is based on is my own experience; what I wrote about it, at the time. My diaries and my journals articles from 1965 to 1971 still exist. They are the foundation stones of my novel. But, the problem is, they are mine. Some journalists (and diarists) keep detailed notes of the present. They stand and observe everything around them. Just as Pepys did. I was not like that. I was completely entombed in my own little world. During the 1960s my observations of world events – the Cuban missile crisis, the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, the assassination of President Kennedy, the first moon landing – were mere footnotes. Mere mentions. Alongside my daily scribblings, were my essays – treatises on current affairs in the 1960s. They would have gone down well in the 1860s; in terms of their style. They read like they had been written by a mid-Victorian academic. So, whatever I might have said about the late 1960s, I had little or no idea of what life was all about – even in London. After all, I lived only in west London.
Getting into the swing of it
The decade of the sixties was sandwiched between the end of the post-war era and the conception of the computer age. It was ten years of change. Real change. Fundamental change. Omniscient change. Both in its upsides and its downsides. The baby boomers generation grew up in a world that was different from that in which their parents grew up. Not just somewhat dissimilar. Fundamentally not the same. British society and culture were changing like never before. If the sixties did swing, then they did not swing at the same rate all over the British Isles. In fact, many historians and social commentators argue that it was only London that was swinging. The rest of the country carried on as before, by and large, save for a few odd moments when things happened here and there or when the Beatles began playing in Liverpool. Most of what we now think of as the Swinging Sixties happened in London; and pretty much only in London. OK. There might have been a few small-scale scenes going on in some of the larger English cities, for some of the time. They have largely gone unnoticed.
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got swing
Jazz started in the USA; as did the blues. Like a lot of things that took off in America, it crossed the pond and took off in London. And then the rest of the UK. If ‘swinging’ is about music then there is ample evidence that a lot of it went on in London, during the sixties. I don’t know because even when I lived in the capital city, I never got involved in popular music. The only live gigs I went to in those days were orchestral concerts at the Royal Festival Hall or Promenade concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. As for jazz or rock gigs; I hardly knew they existed. But that was something that was a consequence of my way of life. In my novel, I rectify that deficiency by forming my three leading characters into a jazz band. The three young men, around whom the plot revolves, discover they are musicians and singers. So, they form a jazz trio. ‘Just for a laugh.’ As they get into the swing of music-making, people respond to their sound very positively. They suddenly find themselves becoming very successful. Not something any of them had expected or planned for. They just happened to have three very well harmonised voices. They happened to be three talented musicians – a guitarist, a bass player and a drummer. After having some jam sessions in a friend’s flat, they are discovered by a man who works in the music industry. From there, they take off. So, that part of the storyline gives me a fair amount of scope to portray the music of London in the 1960s. Happily, for me, a lot has been preserved of the musical vibe of that age, one in which the mass media had started to get going.
The Dudley Moore trio offers a model for the jazz group in my novel.
Swinging both ways
Many see the middle- to late-sixties as being some kind of sexual revolution. Historians can look back and say ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ – knowing what the 1970s were to unleash on British society. The other sense – of the swinging sixties – was one dominated by sexuality. In England, homosexuality had been decriminalised in 1967. Even before then, London had a thriving gay scene; pubs, bars and clubs that catered for the vast numbers of gay men (and some women) who were living in London at the time. In fact, very many gay people moved to London to get away from the oppressive, small-mindedness of their home towns and villages. London was a cosmopolitan magnet that attracted people who wanted to escape from the tedium and prudery of English life as it was lived in the shire counties. London was also a boomtown at the time: if you wanted a career that could really take off, the chances are you would find it in the capital. Documentaries and magazine articles of the time portrayed London as a kind of sexual utopia. A place where freedom flourished in a way it did not in the urban areas of the rest of the country. The capital offered the promise of an ample supply of jobs, work and sex and its streets were awash with people seeking just that. Not so much a scene, more a state of mind. They wanted it all, and they got it at once.
What you lose on the swings…
Not all of the sixties were good; many of us also saw some pretty bad shit. The 1960s did not swing for me – not in any conventional sense – that I have found. Not even musically. But I have it in mind to make my characters swing – in all directions. Even to the extent of making them musicians and forming themselves into a jazz band, as I said earlier. The three teenagers who are the lead characters in my book, move to London and embark on a voyage of self-discovery. They see the glittering and glamorous side of London. But they also catch glimpses of its dark side. It might be a city where the ‘streets are paved with stars’ – as Adrian puts it – but they also encounter some of the seamy underbellies of the capital and meet low-life figures who suckle on its paps. What stood out for me, during my time in London, was that anyone could meet anyone. It was not a classless society; it was just that class was not a barrier when it came to social life. As a teenager, I met many people who were either famous or rich or intellectuals – artists, playwrights, composers, gifted musicians, writers, philosophers, property magnates, millionaires.. people from all kinds of backgrounds and walks of life, from the upper echelons of society down to the low-life creatures who prowled the bars and clubs I went to. You arrive in London – from nowhere, being nobody – and overnight you could become somebody and you knew that you were definitely somewhere. That is how I saw the sixties. What London provided me was a launchpad – once you got into the life of the metropolis, you could take off. Michael, one of the characters in my novel, got a job as a Fleet Street newspaper reporter but left London to take an undergraduate degree at Bristol. Adrian did so well that he was offered a place in New York’s literary society. Only Tom remained in London – and he got a job with the BBC and started a career in broadcasting. Out of this melange of the ‘moronic fringe, the smart alecs and social climbers’ many sixties Londoners made it into the social, political, pop and financial stratosphere.
Come out swinging
Homosexuals never had it so good. The law changed and they suddenly found they were no longer criminals – just for being gay. What the gay population of London found, was a city full of opportunities. Swanky bars, cool clubs, the beginnings of celebrity DJs, actors who everybody knew were gay and achieved notoriety or infamy in the national media. In those days, nobody ‘came out’ as gay – ‘out’ was a word that did not arrive in this country until the 1970s, when the ideas of the gay liberation movement were imported from the United States, following the Stonewall riots of June 1969. The characters in my novel reflect this pre-liberation era. Even the straight ones. Two of the writers act as ‘ethnographers’ of the gay scene, spending a lot of their evenings in gay haunts simply to observe the natives ‘in their natural habitat.’ Adrian wants to write gay stories into his novels and Michael sees some juicy column inches for his newspaper editor. In my book, I present the sixties as being a period of sexual fluidity (to use modern-day parlance.) Some of the gay men that the boys meet were the dyed-in-the-wool homos who were friends of Dorothy from the cradle to the grave. Others trod a more winding path. One of the three main characters – Tom – changes sides during the early part of the story; having started out as a typical heterosexual teenager, he meets a gay boy of his own age, they fall in love and become an affaire (a word that today would read ‘partner’.) No, not a bromance. What they get into is full-on. Tom goes around telling all his friends that he has become gay. A gay. Newspaperman Michael is ambiguous; you can never really work out which side his bread is buttered on. Adrian remains implacably straight throughout, and wards off several attempted seductions by the gay men he meets. To set a story in the mid- to late-1960s and not mention homosexuals and the gay scene, would be like writing about the Tudors and failing to mention the executions and beheadings that were rife at the time. But then, that’s London for you.
How to make a book go with a swing
I want my novel to be a success; well I would, wouldn’t I? But I want it to be entertaining and informative. That’s what I do. It’s not a historical novel. It is, if anything, a coming of age story. But to make it readable, the story has to present entertaining characters who get into entertaining situations. The way I have written it, the book is mainly dialogue. Almost all of it is people talking. If major events happen, they talk about them. The events enter into the storyline only through what the characters say about them. Michael might have been there during the Grosvenor Square demonstrations, outside the American embassy, but he only talks about it. No part of the story narrates him being there, at the time. The big events of the 1960s are props that support the stage play. Things like the first men landing on the moon are talked about and described by characters who watched it on the television. Finding entertaining moments from the so-called ‘swinging sixties’ of London has not been difficult. Moments of fun, humour, frivolity, drama, revelation, self-discovery, pain, darkness, ambition, vision… all human life is there – in some abundance. Me, I have my person recollections to fall back on but I am also actively soaking up stories of other people who were there, at the time. It’s a soup of human experiences that has many ingredients. Even though I am now less than halfway through the first draft, I have not found it difficult to invent situations and happenings for my cast of characters.