A recent opinion poll predictably highlighted the Sixties as Britain’s favourite decade. Stephen McGinty begs to differ and explains why a much under-rated era should be right up there instead
THE 1960s are back, I’m afraid. This week, the decade that loves itself has been go-go dancing in our faces, all furs, velvet trousers and psychedelic concoctions. A poll has concluded that the ten years between 1960 and 1969 are the nation’s favourite – if Doctor Who’s Tardis was available to the average citizen for a one-way trip to the decade of their choice, then the dial would be set for that chunk of time and space wedged between the post-war grime and repression of the 1950s and the collective rubbish tip that was Britain in the 1970s.
In many ways, it’s such a predictable choice and one that hinges on the delight and hope of pop culture and the London of Carnaby Street, of the images of David Bailey, models such as Twiggy and those two indomitable pillars supporting our national sonic cathedral of sound: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Yes, two bands released great songs, if you like that sort of stuff, sex slipped nimbly out of the marital bed to frolic on the chaise longue courtesy of the Pill and greater access to contraception, and in the cinema Sam Peckinpah unleashed The Wild Bunch and a degree of cinematic violence that has never stopped and, arguably, only escalated over the past 40 years.
If there is an argument for the 1960s, it should be predicated on the birth of the women’s rights revolution and the work of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, and the slow dawning on our society that 50 per cent of the population should be considered as an equal to the other 50 per cent.
But for all the hope that sprang up in the Sixties, there was a lot of darkness too. The civil rights movement was a huge force for good and was the booster rocket that, 40 years later, put a black man in the White House, but the decade in which it was formed also saw the assassination of John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. If the Sixties was a decade of hope, it was also a decade of universal fear, especially during the Cuban missile crisis, when the world held its breath for 13 days – some breath – and the Vietnam War led to the death of tens of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians.
It is largely forgotten now, but one of the great moments in the 1960s was Harold Wilson’s persistent refusal to send British, or specifically Scottish, troops to Vietnam in support of the “special relationship” with America.
As he said of Lyndon Johnson, the president who succeeded the murdered JFK: “Lyndon Johnson is begging me even to send a bagpipe band to Vietnam” – a reference to the Black Watch regiment. Anyone who likes to move politicians, like place settings, around the decades can only shudder at the thought of Tony Blair in 10 Downing Street during the 1960s and the number of British body bags that would have returned during that futile eastern campaign.
The Sixties was, of course, the decade when Britain did acquiesce to the Americans and welcomed them to store their nuclear missiles and submarines in the Holy Loch, with the remoteness, at least from London, of the West of Scotland leading in time to the permanent stationing of Britain’s own nuclear deterrent. It was also the decade when England won the World Cup and, well, Scotland then beat them immediately afterwards and so claimed the title by proxy.
Yet, to be honest, I’ve never been particularly fond of the Sixties, principally because I wasn’t born. While it would be egotistical to insist that the prime reason for a decade’s greatness was the inclusion of one’s birth, I do feel, however, that it has to be a contributing factor. As I was born in the Seventies, that vast expanse of brown corduroy flares and refuse sacks, few would expect me to argue for this decade triumphing over the Sixties, but I’d like to make the case.
The Seventies is a hugely under-rated decade but one for which I have warm memories, even if they do consist largely of, in no particular order, discovering the Spider-Man comic strip in the Glasgow Evening Times, getting a transfer Bionic Man T-shirt and the heatwave of 1976, in which my parents brought my brother, sisters and I ice-creams up to our bedrooms.
Granted I have little or no memory of the three-day week – but as a kid it did sound quite good fun – the binmen’s strike or of coffins lying unburied. Yet, looking back, the Seventies saw the Vietnam War end (perhaps cancelled out by Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia and the “Years of Lead” in Italy and Germany).
For lovers of the cinema, the Seventies remains a classic decade when the Hollywood studios produced brilliant, morally complex movies, when The Godfather was followed up two years later by a sequel that surpassed the original; a decade when The Exorcist caused fear and consternation around the globe and Richard Nixon’s moral duplicity and underhand surveillance techniques helped to give birth to a spate of edgy conspiracy movies such as The Parallax View, The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor. Granted, it was also the decade when Hollywood saw its future in the summer “tent pole” blockbuster with the release of Jaws and Star Wars.
In terms of music, I’m also assured by my more sonically astute colleagues that the Seventies was a far richer and diverse decade than the Sixties, with the flowering of David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the paradigm shift that came with the emergence of punk.
Personally, I love the Seventies because in 1974 it gave us AC/DC, and I don’t mind admitting that I came close to shedding a tear at this week’s confirmation that every one of their songs, and so much more, are now lost to Malcolm Young, the founding member who has dementia.
The Seventies saw the birth of Carrie, the first novel by Stephen King, and over the next four decades we’ve seen 50 siblings, but in that first few years he produced The Shining and The Stand as well as Salem’s Lot. John Irving gave us The World According to Garp, John Updike released Rabbit Redux and Saul Bellow redeemed himself with Humboldt’s Gift. In Britain, JG Ballard shocked readers with Crash and the careers of Martin Amis and Ian McEwan got under way with The Rachel Papers and The Cement Garden.
In television, Dennis Potter set the bar and showed future generations of showrunners the levels of complexity and drama of which the medium was capable when he unveiled Pennies From Heaven.
If I had access to the Tardis, with the option to go back to a specific decade, then I wouldn’t restrict it to the 1960s for the chance to dance with Lulu to the Beatles. To be in Jerusalem in the early AD30s would have been interesting, or how about France in the 1780s or Germany in the 1930s, terrifying but grimly fascinating, and if one were to restrict oneself to a decade in Scotland’s history, then the 1310s would be hard to beat, or the 1740s.
Nostalgia is a deeply attractive emotion but one that is entirely false. These decades which we remember so fondly are artificial constructs fused together from pop cultural fragments and promises of what might have been. The fact remains that the decade in which we currently live and breathe will always, regardless of polls, be both the best and worst decade in history for whatever happens to us, good or bad.