The Sixties – In Memoriam 1963-1970

London Portrait Magazine – 1984

It was London which gave birth to that exciting, promising and ultimately tragic phenomenon we now call The Sixties. For seven brief years a magical but impossible dream spread round the world and touched a whole generation. Christopher Long was at the centre of it but wonders whether he and his contemporaries paid a high price for a poignant period of deception.

This item was commissioned by London Portrait Magazine but not published.

By Christopher Long

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I can tell you when it ended: quite suddenly after Christmas in 1970. I had just returned from a year in South Africa, hoping to pick up life in England just as I had left it a year or more before. I was going to introduce my fiancée to a life in London that she had only heard about at home in Australia.

We went to the midnight carol service at Westerham parish church at 11.30 on Christmas Eve and when we came out she burst into tears of happiness as we saw that two inches of snow had covered the churchyard – the first she'd ever seen.

Of course it had snowed, right on cue. We were young and for seven years the world had ensured that we got what we wanted. The snow should fall to greet us in the first few minutes of Christmas Day, 1970.

Just weeks later the nation was plunged into darkness as the power-workers went on strike – along with everyone else, it seemed. A grey and gloomy atmosphere chilled the country. Mr Heath was going to find that the Seventies would be as chilly and despondent as organised labour could make it.

While Coca-Cola traded on the euphoria of the whole world's youth singing its slogan in unison, the dream of a united Europe was already doomed as we all battened down the hatches and realised the party was over. Only the hippies – never truly representative of what the Sixties were all about – followed the sun which had abandoned Britain and took the trail that led to Kathmandu.

But when did it start? The popular myth is that it was the Beatles and Merseyside and the Cavern. That pop culture, the arts and a reaction against the boring earnestness of the Fifties spawned a post-War 'bulge' determined to rebuild the world. Apparently it was to be an egalitarian, meritocratic world, imbued with youthful, joyous celebration. It would be fun not 'bor-ring'. We would enjoy pricking the pompous establishment (Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies had shown us how to do that) and we would experience everything around us just because it was there, for us.

Perhaps some did consciously feel this at the time. I didn't. For me it all happened just as suddenly as it ended. It was on Tuesday, 22 December, 1964 that I saw that things were different. I still have the stiff, formal invitation to a dance at the Dorchester Hotel given by the Hon. Mrs Robert Evans and Mrs Enid Paget for their children – my childhood friends.

The author, Christopher Long, aged about 16 in 1964 – just as the brief six-year phenomenon of the Sixties appeared to take off...

The author's sister, Rosemary Long, aged about 15.

That invitation joined hundreds of others that took us nightly from 30 Pavilion Road to the Hyde Park Hotel and from cocktails in Eaton Square to dances in London and house-parties all over the country. There was nothing strange about that. Privileged youth was doing what its parents and grand-parents had done – just as they intended that we should. The Park Suite at the Dorchester was in fact where my parents' wedding reception had been held eighteen years before. The same banqueting manager told me that night that he remembered it well.

While I failed to make any great impression on any of the females twisting away to one of the first live pop groups to be heard in a London hotel, I sensed an unease, a suppressed frustration, among some of them. Melissa Cunliffe, Lady Jackie Rufus-Isaacs and Lady Oriel Skeffington were among several, who'd clearly done their duty, appeased parents and the establishment and were, I gathered, now slipping quietly away into Chelsea, to a very different world that I sensed but didn't know.

It was on a night such as that that the word 'bor-ring' was born and we learnt not to ask people what they did, where they lived – only perhaps what they planned to do. In such a rarefied circle the answers would, inevitably, have been boring. The past would be kept going by the small group of girls too terrified to venture onto the floor and who were settled instead into a game of poker in the ladies loo, sitting in their petticoats with their dresses on hangers, watched over by a sympathetic cloak-room lady.

As I left that night and crossed Hyde Park, I saw two girls with two men smoking cigarettes in the dark, their partners' dinner jackets draped round their shoulders, sitting on the band-stand while a third couple was making love behind them. Long, slim legs in the moonlight – toes reaching ecstatically for the stars.

It takes a massive leap from our attitudes today to realise what a defiant gesture this was: out in the open, just yards from where benign parents watched their apparently virginal offspring being prepared for a continuation of the ordered world of the Twenties and Thirties, so rudely interrupted by Mr Hitler.

That night I ended up in a flat in Kensington. I found myself sitting on the floor with a group of people I didn't know and which included a second-hand car salesman, the daughter of a merchant banker and a photographer who wanted to put her on a centre-fold – which I believe he did.

I was meeting people with plans and ideas – to whom anything was possible. It was exhilarating to find that there were no barriers, no guilt about who you were or where you came from and that you would sink or swim according to your merits.

A meritocracy was the natural dream of liberal England. All the great creative talent of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries had depended on a social mobility that both the Conservative and Labour Parties feared for differing reasons in the 20th century. A meritocracy meant social disruption and aspirations among the working classes which would have been anathema to booming Britain under Macmillan's otherwise liberal 'you've never had it so good' government.

The Labour Party feared it even more because it would be hard to claim that it was the champion of the down-trodden working classes if the working classes were actually grazing on the lush upland pastures of a socially mobile and prosperous Britain.

It's not surprising then that from 1964 onwards the scene was set for a revolution that really did change everything. The abolition of National Service, coupled with the huge post-War bulge of high-earning, free-spending British youth, meant that industry and commerce turned their eyes to a new young market with everything from cosmetics and records to films, travel, fashion, cars and things to entertain and please us endlessly. So much so that we could laugh at it all and throw it away and be tempted by the next gimmick or fashion that passed by.

Sentiment had gone. The days of My Venus in Blue Jeans and the mawkish words of Laura, Elvis Presley ballads and cute, popsy Fifties slush were replaced by the raw, vibrant sounds and words that broadcast to the world that something very important was happening in London. I can clearly remember thinking how lucky, oh how lucky, I was to be young and English and living now!

Month after month the news was good – and if it wasn't good it was somehow appropriate. Kennedy's assassination in 1962 had been an inspiration in some way, as was Martin Luther King's. Vietnam was 'bad news' – but 'good news' too because it proved that the establishment was as bent on folly as we had always thought, uniting a generation that was opposed to it.

Such paradoxes were easily rationalised when everything else proved we were right. It seemed only fair that England should win the World Cup in 1966 and I even remember feeling sorry for the down-hearted Germans who lined the Kiel Canal as news of the victory was broadcast on the ship's tannoy to me and my friends as we cruised, carefree, through the Baltic on our way to doom-laden Leningrad and Moscow.

England was on the crest of a wave that would never break, I thought. The ship [the Nevasa] was covered in Union flags, as was everything at home. The familiar, faded, red, white and blue – home from service at the outposts of an Empire we no longer needed – was draped over the stalls in Portobello Road where we thronged on Saturdays.

It fluttered from the fledgling boutiques like Bus Stop and Biba – boutiques that were following the lead of Mary Quant and Alexander Plunkett-Green in King's Road. It appeared on stickers attached to the simple, brightly-coloured furniture we bought from Terence Conran and sometimes succeeded in covering the bottoms of girls who had it made up into mini-skirts. What more confirmation did we need that (pace P. G. Wodehouse) the sun was in his heaven and shining down on Britain – all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

The night after that quite unremarkable yet curiously significant dance on 22 December 1964, my parents gave a similar party for me and my sister. The list of people who attended makes extraordinary reading. Some of them, inevitably, have gone on to do the great things they were destined for. Some have merely remained names which crop up in gossip columns – as they too were destined for. Most, it seems, have vanished. They, like me, spent seven of the most impressionable and formative years of their lives in the Sixties – living a dream from which we were bound to wake one day.

As I did, they launched themselves into careers during that great high-season of the Sixties – 1967 – the year of Sergeant Pepper. They too fluttered like butterflies sipping at the Chelsea Drugstore with 'a girl with kaleidoscope eyes'; supping in the Garrison Room at Les Ambassadeurs, convinced that 'things are getting better all the time'.

They too believed that the golden age would last for ever. They must have looked at Rudi Deutchker, Tarik Ali, the university riots and the 1968 French Revolution and smiled. You would expect the French and over-eager politicos to do the right thing in the wrong way and make an over-serious principle out of something that should be, as we found, effortless. And they too must have wondered why their parents were so worried about their finances and how their children would cope in the rainy days to come.

At the Inner Temple in 1967, I lived without difficulty on 15 pounds a week and a grant of 60 pounds a year. Admittedly we were all spending more than we earned and had overdrafts, but money was never a problem. You could lose a job at lunchtime and find another the same afternoon.

It was little wonder that youngsters from Glasgow and Liverpool poured into London. Television and films like Blow Up gave the impression that anyone could succeed at anything if they had talent (and who hadn't?) and had learnt the cardinal rules of the age: enjoy it, take risks and have fun.

To this day the Glaswegians and Liverpudlians continue to drift into King's Cross and Euston stations because their forebears were too proud, too disillusioned or too dead to tell the folks at home that the Sixties was either a myth or that it died in the Seventies of drugs, devaluation, disappointment and pavements full of unemployed, spaced-out flotsam.

So, who won and who lost?

The pop stars, photographers, restaurateurs and models did well – even if they paid a high personal price for it all. The media and the arts are still littered with the men and women who got their break thanks to the meritocracy – Cambridge men and women in particular.

Inevitably the bankers did well, the caterers did well and Tin Pan Alley linked arms with the rag-trade and laughed all the way to the bank. The establishment shifted its position, put its fatherly arm around the pushy young whiz-kids and successful property developers and patted itself on the back for having won through.

And for those who lost: search the eyes and souls of a whole generation of disenchanted divorcees, parents who lost children to heroin and Timothy Leary's LSD – people who learnt to expect too much from the world.

If merit and being beautiful is everything then only a few will be successful for long. Today I watch them on buses and the underground – the hands and the throats and the eyes betray their age. They are like me. In silence I look at them with affection: mothers and grandmothers who were once gilded, carefree sprites and today are quietly coping.

The flower of the flower-power generation which was cheated by the Sixties dream now looks back with nostalgia or contempt – yearning for what was and might have been or else dismissing the whole era as something that never happened except in the misled minds of the media.

But it did happen and 'happenings' was a word we invented then. Caught off guard I still find myself lurching inwardly as I pass a particular house, cafe, restaurant – even a telephone box in Notting Hill Gate – places where I can remember clearly having felt exuberantly alive. The houseboats are still there on Chelsea Embankment. There are still a few Mini Mokes to remind me of the delight we got from a car that was at once a toy, a joke, a status symbol – so wonderfully impractical that we could laugh at such boring things as Fords and Humbers.

Like all eras, it was the creation and the reflection of its people and this particular age was created by a small group of anarchic adventurers who caught, shared and reflected the aspirations of millions of young Elizabethans. From convents and East End slums came Marianne Faithful and Johnny Speight. from France came Catherine Deneuve and from Eton, Robert Fraser.

The burgeoning of talent was so prolific that a generation that was in its nappies then, or was born a decade later, is quite familiar with the names it produced: Ustinov and Twiggy, Nureyev and Redgrave, Frost and Finney, Caine and Miller – and hundreds more.

We didn't produce as much or as many in the next twenty-five years as emerged in those brief seven.

It was a closed, tight inner circle which revolved around Chelsea but which, for the country at large, was popularised into a uniform fashion of skinny girls with cropped hair, wide-brimmed hats, long coats over micro-skirts and hermetically sealed tights that made the Pill seem obsolete almost as soon as it was born.

I too had an Indian Army pith helmet on top of a wardrobe full of white jeans and black or lilac pullovers in a room where each wall was painted in a different shade of John Oliver's paints. Like so many others I paraded in a colourful mix of scarlet, regimental dress jackets, black policemen's capes and Edwardian waist-coats – symbols of affectionate nostalgia for the age of Empire to which we were bidding farewell – all combined with Levi jeans and Chelsea boots.

My girl-friends lived, perhaps, in an L-shaped room at the top of a sturdy Victorian house in Notting Hill, its brickwork painted bright sky-blue, while the strains of the Swingle Singers, The Seekers or Otis Reading wafted through a balcony jungle of pot-plants among which they would emerge to greet me – a dozen Julie Christies in white Courrèges boots, pale lipstick, centre-parted hair, and chequer-board skirts – skirts which later sank into bean-bags to reveal candy-striped, cotton-covered genitalia – a lure, a challenge – alluring but no threat.

I too found sex and heady sensations, vibrations and temptations were laid out like a hundred small spiced dishes accompanied by the ravishing discords of Ravi Shankar through a perfumed mist of joss-sticks. Then the sexes actually liked each other, trusted each other, had little to fear and everything to gain from lust and laughter and love.

The Sixties weren't more promiscuous – just more open and less hypocritical than before. We 'lived together' then instead of 'living in sin' as our parents might have done. Furthermore we weren't 'shacked-up' with each other as we described it so soullessly in the Seventies. For a brief few years the power of antibiotics and 'the pill' relieved us of all fear and the few who discovered heavy drugs – in reality, very few – did so to enhance their perceptions and not to dull and ward off reality.

But the greatest gift of the age to a whole generation was enthusiasm.

We broke the moulds, pulled down the temples, and used music, cannabis, colour, sex, style, celluloid and anything we could lay our hands on to experience everything and feel alive and celebrate our freedom. People do all that today, of course, but now it's all rather like reading yesterday's news, wearing yesterday's sunhat, while today it's blowing a gale.

But were we freer then than any other generation had been? We were as frightened and insecure as that much new-found freedom deserves. Furthermore, we shot our bolts, lived too much and left too little for the future.

Time has passed and too many of that beautiful generation 'didn't notice that the lights had changed'. If you seek a memorial to the Sixties now, look around you. It's not as beautiful as it was then. It doesn't snow on Christmas Eve.

This is dedicated with great affection to my old friend Timur D'Vatz, who I first knew in Moscow in 1992 as Timur Iskhakov, and who has always painted the way I would love to be able to write.

This piece was slightly revised on 30-07-1993.

© (1984) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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