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Craig Brown reviews a book on women during the Sixties

How Was It For You? Women, Sex, Love And Power In The 1960s

Virginia Nicholson

Viking £20

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It’s bracing to realise that many of the youngsters we most commonly associate with the Sixties – David Bailey, Mary Quant, Michael Caine, Diana Rigg – are now in their 80s.

The renowned social historian Virginia Nicholson interviewed 40 veterans of the Swinging Sixties for her latest book, How Was It For You? One of them now walks with the aid of a Zimmer frame. Another, a former dancer at the racy Raymond’s Revuebar in Soho, is ‘now 75 and the owner of a picturesque flint-cobbled pub in a north Norfolk fishing village’.

Virginia Nicholson writes an entertaining account of the advent of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Park Lane in 1966 contains eye-stretching details

Virginia Nicholson writes an entertaining account of the advent of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Park Lane in 1966 contains eye-stretching details

Strange to say, we are now as distant in time from 1960 as 1960 was from 1901, the year when Queen Victoria died and Elgar’s Pomp And Circumstance was performed for the very first time. For Nicholson, the Sixties is a decade that has become wrapped in legend.

‘The cliche of the Sixties is that it was a decade whose radiant light show sprinkled everything it touched with stardust,’ she writes. ‘A time of space travel and utopian dreams, but above all sexual abandonment.’ She then seeks to overturn this idea.

The trouble is that it is a cliche that has been overturned countless times before.

For example, Dominic Sandbrook began his history of the Swinging Sixties, White Heat, published in 2006, by remarking that he had ‘lost count of the number of magazine features and newspaper editorials devoted to the supposed decadence or utopianism of the period’. He went on to point out that most people in Britain carried on living ordinary lives, bound by drudgery and wages, far removed from the free-for-all glamour of Carnaby Street.

Similarly, Francis Wheen started his book The Sixties (1982) by arguing that ‘a corrective is needed to the rose-coloured memories that distance can easily create’. And in 1992, in a new preface for his pioneering book The Neophiliacs, Christopher Booker argued that the Sixties ‘have been idealised into a kind of lost golden age. The “dream” aspect of the Sixties has been preserved, while their darker side has slipped from view’.

So there has been no shortage of works claiming that the Sixties were not all they have been cracked up to be. Nevertheless, Virginia Nicholson makes a good job of it, concentrating on the way in which women were, more often than not, the victims of the hippy ‘free love’ ethos, and the unwitting slaves of sexual liberation.

In the heart of Swinging London, women were forced to grin and bear it. Joan Bakewell recalls being groped under her desk by the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler while she was interviewing him live on television. For Virginia Ironside, the permissive society was ‘absolutely grisly’ for women. ‘I remember the Sixties as an endless round of miserable promiscuity. It often seemed easier, and, believe it or not, more polite, to sleep with a man than to chuck him out of your flat.’

In her own book about the Sixties, Jenny Diski complained: ‘The idea that rape was having sex with someone who didn’t want to do it didn’t apply very much in the late Sixties. On the basis that no means no, I was raped several times by men who arrived in my bed and wouldn’t take no for an answer.’

Art schools are often seen as the cradles of Sixties emancipation, but Nicholson’s interviewees suggest otherwise. In 1967, when the pop artist Jann Haworth applied to the Slade, she wondered whether she should submit her work, only to be told: ‘We don’t really need to see portfolios of the women students. We just need to see their photographs because they’re here to keep the boys happy.’

Accordingly, Virginia Nicholson describes 1967 as ‘a year of extremes’, but, then again, which year isn’t? It’s as meaningless a phrase as that perennial travel writer’s cliche that Tokyo, Taunton or Timbuktu is a ‘city of contrasts’.

Sometimes, she overstates. ‘Can there have been another period in British history when men felt permitted to treat women with such crass contempt?’ she asks, adding: ‘In 1966, many of the protective fences of gallantry, honour, virtue and chastity had been torn down, leaving a landscape denuded of moral signposting.’

IT’S A FACT

Famous ex-Bunny Girls include Debbie Harry, model Lauren Hutton, Python actress Carol Cleveland and US federal judge Kimba Wood.

Yet, a hundred years before, there were 80,000 prostitutes in London alone, which suggests that honour and gallantry have long been in short supply. Might not Nicholson’s outrage on behalf of women be just as easily applied to those lesser-known Sixties – the 1860s?

Or how about the Thirties? In her preface to The Thirties: An Intimate History, Juliet Gardiner described the Thirties as ‘a decade that haunts us today with the magnitude of its problems, the paucity of its solutions, the dreadfulness of its ending, while snaring us with the boldness of its political and social experiments, the earnestness of its blueprints, the yearnings of its young and the sheer glamour of its design’. This is eerily similar to Nicholson’s verdict on the Sixties.

Who knows? Perhaps it is impossible to write a book about something as vague and all-embracing as a decade. Contradictions will abound, unless the writer is so crafty as to lack all integrity. Nicholson finds plenty of women who remember the Sixties with a shudder, but is honest enough to include quite a few who recall them with a loving sigh.

For instance, her entertaining account of the advent of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Park Lane in 1966 contains eye-stretching details, almost unbelievable from today’s more puritanical vantage point.

Playboy invited England’s ‘most beautiful and charming young ladies’ to send their photographs to a ‘Bunny Mother’. The six winners were then required to wait at table wearing ears, a cotton-wool tail and a tight pink corset. ‘We had a wire brush for our tails – and you brushed it till it got bigger and bigger,’ recalls, a former Bunny Girl, Pat Quinn, who now, we are told, runs ‘a quaint bed-and-breakfast in the south of England’.

All the Bunny Girls were flown to Chicago to be instructed in the art of the ‘bunny dip’, which involved curtseying sexily without spilling a drop of the customer’s Martini. ‘It was a way of serving the drinks so that the bourbon hit the table before the boobie did!’ recalls another Bunny Girl. To modern ears, this may all sound very creepy, but Nicholson’s interviewees are having none of it. ‘I loved being a rabbit,’ says Pat, while her colleague Patsy says: ‘I know feminists would be appalled – but we didn’t feel that way… It was a job, it was good pay – and all I can tell you is that it was FUN. It really was. Fun, fun, fun.’

As the book progresses, all the usual suspects – Mandy Rice-Davies, Twiggy, Mary Whitehouse, Sindy ‘the doll you love to dress’ – are rounded up, but Nicholson concentrates her benevolent focus on those women – the majority – who were never described as chicks or birds, because they were out of the swing. A nanny from the Highlands who came to work for a rich family on the King’s Road in Chelsea remembers Scottish dancing at a local church being the highlight of her week. The working-class Edinburgh mother of a Thalidomide baby provides eloquent and moving testimony to a life of great fortitude and real, unswinging, love.

One or two small areas in the book are a little wonky. To demonstrate the male domination of television, Nicholson mentions Dad’s Army, but fails to mention The Liver Birds. And dealing with Till Death Us Do Part, she describes Alf Garnett’s wife Else as ‘unfathomably stupid’, but that is not how I remember her at all: Alf Garnett would rant in his ignorance about this, that, and the other. Else would then sigh, and retort with a wonderfully crushing put-down before getting back to her ironing.

 

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