:: Article

Blaming the Wrong Decade?

By Karl Whitney


Jenny Diski, The Sixties, Profile Books, 2009

Here Diski, an experienced hand at non-fiction narrative, investigates her own experience of the much-vaunted nineteen-sixties, a decade that, if we are to believe many commentators, changed the world. Some writers on the subject believe that although there were dramatic societal changes during the period, they were less driven by countercultural activity than powered by a combination of political progressiveness and post-war economic boom (of which counterculture was a byproduct). And Diski’s book fits into this narrative: central to the book is the possibility that her efforts, and those of others like her, didn’t change things for the better, and, in fact, hastened an individualist outlook that led to Thatcherism. In the sixties, Diski seems to say, history was made, but it soon repeated as tragedy  – as an inversion of everything she had believed in.

In this, Diski is partaking in a fine tradition of upbraiding the sixties for its failures; however – crucially – she doesn’t reject its legacy. While skilfully acknowledging the historical background, Diski focuses on personal experience of not just the decade but its immediate legacy: she brings the reader from the transformative potential that the consumer society seemed to promise in the early years of the decade, through her own drug use, which she delineates from the figure of the bored housewife, addicted to prescription-medication, ‘who colluded with stasis [and] brought about their own doom’. Instead, she asserts ‘we were doing something with drugs, they were just surviving the intolerable world that they had either created or acquiesced in.’ Diski assumes a clear connection between the drug experiments of the sixties and later mass consumption of hard drugs, writing later that ‘we bequeathed heroin and cocaine to the miserable masses, not any kind of psychedelic solution to poverty and injustice.’ This reprimands the decade as responsible for ills it never anticipated, and fits Diski’s view of the sixties as a period that unleashed a strand of libertarianism on which Thatcher later capitalised. While not completely rejecting the sixties as a failure, and in attempting to keep any nostalgia at bay, Diski, at times, views the decade a little too sternly.

But, ultimately, what Diski and her friends were doing remains something of a mystery to even the writer, who periodically attempts to place the sixties as an adolescent rebellion tolerated, and at times encouraged, by older generations. She paints the sixties as a kind of playground, a celebration gone sour, where ‘the party has turned spectacularly nasty and pointless’.

The sexual politics of the sixties are explored in one chapter, where she writes of her time in a commune where there was a continual rotation of sexual partners in the name of ‘free love’. Here Diski indicates how the unceasing quest for liberation had become its own constraint, and she views these rules as ‘a set of orders for disobeying our elders’. The systematic nature of the rules around sex took little account of the complexity of emotional relations or attachments, Diski notes. Ultimately attempts at experimentation were hampered by what the writer sees as ‘our lack of experience in living in any way at all.’ Attempts at a collective project were limited by the fact that ‘however connected we might have felt sitting in the same room, the search we were on was for the singular, individual experience.’

Clearly, a deep seam of pessimism runs deep through Diski’s narrative. In contextualising the sixties in terms of the transition to Thatcherite politics, Diski presents aspirations towards a radically different society based on collective endeavour as an apparently benevolent mask hiding the primal urge towards individual desire. This desire was satisfied in the nineteen-eighties, with catastrophic results for British society. Diski’s pessimism is most clearly expressed in one startling phrase: ‘Acceptance of one’s lot, maintaining a silence about what can’t be said, lowering your expectations for your own life and for others, and understanding that nothing about the way the world works will ever change, is the very marrow of maturity.’ This is countered, Diski says, by the pure bright vision of youth, but nevertheless the obvious implication is, in P.J. O’Rourke’s words, that ‘age and guile beat youth, innocence and a bad haircut.’

So far, so depressing, for those of us who look to the sixties for a mass realisation, while imperfect and transitory, of radical philosophies which had developed in 19th century socialism and were passed on via the 20th century avant-garde – philosophies that found themselves materialising on the streets of European and American cities in the late nineteen-sixties. Lionel Trilling called it ‘Modernism in the Streets’ and that phrase captures the tantalising interplay between culture, society and urban space during that period.

This is not to say that Diski avoids politics: she vividly describes the experience of being present at the Vietnam War protest march on the American embassy in Grosvenor Square in 1968. She notes that the march radicalised others present, a tendency that, in lieu of a Revolution that never came, would later be channelled into theory. She, on the other hand, withdrew from political activity.

And yet, a chapter on her attempts to set up a free school in Camden in the early nineteen-seventies indicates the radical reverberations of the decade in the area of education. Yet this new approach to education, with its real potential for tangible social change soon proved problematic for Diski, and, as far as I can tell, the educational experiment soon fizzled out (Diski is not specific about when or why). Ultimately, the failure of the free school is seen by her as a failure to acknowledge different levels of learning aside from the lowest common denominator. Returning to her central theme, Diski re-reads Deschooling Society, by educational theorist Ivan Illich, which she had previously interpreted, erroneously she now believes, as an argument for liberalising education, when, in fact, it now seems to her an argument for a dramatic libertarianism, one that, somewhat inevitably, prefigures severe Thatcherite public-service reforms. Diski admits that, at the end of the sixties, she felt that ‘there was nothing more important and to get right than the education of children’, although now her ‘belief in the possibility of its achievement is close to zero.’

I would have liked more from Diski about the specific failures of the free school – a project encouraged by the local council via a sizeable grant. So too would I have welcomed a chapter about the decade and its conflicting attitudes towards mental health: when writing about her own treatment for depression in the sixties, she mentions the radical treatments of R.D. Laing (when asked by Diski to refer her to Laing, her doctor threatens instead to have her committed), but also the severe electroshock treatment that patients underwent, often of their own free will.

Diski’s book is a highly readable and informative memoir of a time of intense possibilities, few of which were realised for very long. Severe in her judgement of what she sees as the decade’s failures, she closes off some of these possibilities and, I believe, unfairly holds the decade responsible for problems yet to come. As her efforts to run a free school indicate, the problem was not necessarily the decade itself; it was, instead, how one could implement and prolong its possibilities. The willingness to do this eventually escaped Diski, and escaped many others too.


Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 31st, 2009.