Invincible Summer |||

The democracy of narcissism

Narcissus and Echo
by David Revoy

Narcissus and Echo: digital painting by David Revoy

It was a time when class structures were dissolving, education was opening to the children of the lower classes, politics becoming more progressive, and music and poetry, Zen and Gestalt Therapy offered to enlarge our lives.

A History of Modern Britain, by Andrew Marr

Or not. Andrew Marr begs to differ:

Why do the Sixties seem to matter so much? Why is it that on television, in magazine articles, net debates, in books and in conversation, so much time is spent on a few events, involving a tiny number of people in a few places? Thare is an almost autistic repetitiveness to our scratching of the images, from Minis to minis, Beatlemania to Biba, as if there are secrets still hidden there for us to uncover, some hidden pattern that gives order to history. The truth is that we have never really left the sixties. We have simply repeated them, and that goes for those who were only born later. Sixties music, shopping and celebrity culture have been spread so far beyond their first makers and participants, to almost everybody in the land.

Blow Up
The “pretence of classlessness”: Blow Up, 1966, shown in my school film society

The essence of Britush culture in the twenty-first century, from drug abuse to the background soundtracks of our lives, the ‘celeb’–obsessed media to swift changes in fashion, the pretence of classlessness, the car dependency, was all set down first between around 1958 and 1968. We are still living then, or at least in a slightly tired copy of of how the sixties were for the elite. There was a brief political interruption in the mid-seventies when Britain was said to be ungovernable and punk pogo’d past, but it was only a pause. As the eighties’ economy revived, the sixties’ basic preoccupations – escapism, personal fulfilment, and shopping – returned with full force. This was a time when the mass consumer culture first arrived, our democracy of narcissism. First time around, of course, it was fresher. Pioneers have an innocence their imitators lack. Sixties culture was made by people who had no idea they were setting patterns for the future.

Irmgard Schloegl, my sensei at the Zen Centre, London

The pop songs of the early Beatles or the Kinks were not foremost neatly packaged commodities as all pop songs later became. When Mary Quant set up her shop she was a rotten businesswoman. The fun was in the clothes. No business with so little grip on cash could be cynical. When the protest poets first howled, or artists staged happenings, there was just a fragment of a flicker of a hope that it might change something. This innocence extends even to the mistakes – the belief that drugs can make urban life more benign, rather than dirtier and more dangerous; or that tower-blocks would bring a bright, airy future to the urban working classes. And it extends to that desperate search for alternatives, other ways of living. These included anarchist utopias, Eastern religion, radical feminism, all tumbling one after another with the speed of changes in musical fashion. This ‘counter-culture’ was discredited and left behind. It survives as fragmented sub-cultures only. But the push back against the great force of the shopping age was, like so much else in these years, vigorous and gripping. No new ideas have come since.

John Cleese as the Minister for Silly Walks
“authority figures of the wartime era”
The Beatles
authority figures of the postwar era

At the time, of course, the sixties were a minority sport. The King’s Road and the Royal Court were as foreign to most Britons in 1965 as the King and Royal Court had been in 1765. The majority who lived through the decade have personal memories of rather conventional suburban and provincial lives. Though city centres were being torn up and new housing replacing old, from Manchester’s dreadful Hulme estate to the government-award-winning Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, most working-class people were living in old-fashioned housing, brick terraced houses in the English industrial cities, tenements in Glasgow or Dundee. There were brighter coloured new cars on the roads, but much of the traffic was still the boxy black, cream or toffee-coloured traffic of the fifties. People did have money in their pockets but it was still being spent on holidays at Butlin’s and the seaside rather than decadent parties. The great working-class prosperity of the Midlands, based on the last fat years of manufacturing industry, was only just paying dividends in holidays in Spain. Wilson might be promising the white-hot heat of technological revolution, but British factories were the sprawling, dirty, assembly-line centres of class conflict they had been for decades. For children the authority figures of the wartime era, the formally dressed fathers, teachers with short haircuts and shorter tempers, remained all too visible. Schools still used corporal punishment. Mothers tended to cook and clean at home. The Britain which proudly displayed volumes of Churchill’s war memoirs on bookshelves, and stood up in cinemas for the national anthem, did not disappear when Ringo Starr grew his first luxuriant moustache.

Chatsworth Hotel, Boscombe, 1969
Missing the Isle of Wight festival: working as a waiter, Boscombe, summer 1969

So in one way the story of ‘the sixties’, in inverted commas, is elitist. A relatively small number of musicians, entrepreneurs, writers, designers and others created what the rest now study and talk about. If you weren’t listening in the Cavern Club in the early days, or at the Isle of Wight when Dylan went electric, if you never dodged the police horses at Grosvenor Square, or heard Adrian Mitchell and Allen Ginsberg in the Albert Hall, or sashayed out of Bazaar with a bright bag of swirly-patterned clothes … then sorry, babe, you missed it, and you missed it for ever. Most of us did miss it – too young, too old, too lived-in-the-wrong-place. But then most people missed the Wild West and the French Revolution, and the rest of the events that come with capital letters.

Yet apart from its small number of players the new culture was far from elitist: it was shaped by working-class and lower-middle-class people who had never enjoyed this level of cultural power before. The northern cities of England, Liverpool above all but also Newcastle and Manchester, were sending their sons and daughters south to conquer, even if it was only on radio and television shows. It is hard to recall now, but the Beatles’ voices, and the Geordie accents of the Animals, sounded almost shocking to the metropolitan and Home Counties listeners of the mid-sixties. The children of lorry drivers and dock workers, cleaners and shop assistants, found themselves being lionized in expensive new nightclubs and standing in line to be introduced to the Queen.

Peeling the Onion, by Jorge Rosner
“Peeling the Onion” by my Gestalt teacher, Jorge Rosner

This combination of racing consumerism and pop democracy matters as much as the old debate about the sixties – whether this was a time of liberation and hope, or the devil’s decade when respect for authority collapsed. The consumer market as we live it now requires constant surface change, throwing out the almost-new in favour of the newer-still. At a deep level it needs to be shallow. It also requires almost everyone to be a part of it. It both trivializes and democratizes: look around. Compared to that the political significance of pop and the youth rebellion of the sixties was insignificant. The years of insolence destroyed much about traditional Britain but not in order to usher in some kind of anarcho-socialist paradise full of hairy people in boiler suits dropping acid, indulging in free love and cultivating allotments. No, that older Britain with its military traditions, its thousands of slow industrial and village backwaters, its racism, its clear divisions of class and geography, was being pushed aside so that our current democracy of shopping and celebrity could nose its way smoothly in. The people would not liberate themselves with class war but with price war, not hippy communes but Happy Eaters. Even the old fixed patterns of male and femaleness could get in the way of a self-pleasuring economy. Androgynous fashion, long hair, the Pill, a new interest in the inner psychological life – an unabashed soppiness, if you will – really marks the sixties. It was when Britain went girlie. And what do girls do? Girls shop.

[ … ]

The shift was in what it mean to be properly human. The old virtues of stoicism, buttoned lips and obedience were retreating. Traditions of submission and obedience, hierarchies of class inherited from medieval landowning, industrial capital and imperial administration, began to wobble and dissolve into something very different, a society which was dilute, porous and mushily self-forgiving. This took place not because bad people corrupted good people or, if you are ‘pro-sixties’, because noble revolutionaries ushered in an age of personal freedom, but because it suited a new economic system.

— from A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr, pp 262-266

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