My favourite year and other problems: when did the sixties actually happen?

Melanie Williams (@BritFilmMelanie)

As countless historians have acknowledged, periodization is a fraught endeavour. This applies to our own project which focusses on a particular decade – a chronologically-determined entity – but also aims to get to grips with a feeling or a mood which is diffuse and not so easily grasped. ‘The sixties’ famously refers not only to a specific number of days, months and years but to a broader and more elusive process of cultural change and transformation, the ‘something in the air’ that Thunderclap Newman sang about.

Historian Arthur Marwick negotiated this dilemma around what we actually mean by ‘the 1960s’ with his designation of a ‘long 1960s’ which encompassed the first stirrings of ‘sixties-ness’ from the late 1950s onwards, then the High Sixties of 1964-1968/9, and a final phase of consolidation from 1969 to 1974 (the year of my own birth, which means I can now legitimately describe myself as a child of the sixties). For Marwick, the meanings connoted by a decade are busting at its temporal seams and demand a more expansive sense of time to give it full justice. More recently, popular historian Dominic Sandbrook has taken a similar route of conjoining the early sixties to its forerunning years, with Never Had It So Good covering British society 1956-1963, then moving onto his own ‘high sixties’ running 1964-1970 in his follow-up book White Heat.


This, of course, brings in the question of picking pivotal or watershed years in attempting to divvy up periods and sub-periods. If there’s change happening, when exactly does it happen? When does the tipping point come? Philip Larkin famously stated in his poem Annus Mirabilis that ‘Sexual Intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three … Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP’, elegantly pre-empting both Marwick and Sandbrook in his pinpointing of 1963 as the year in which British society first became permissive. Ariel Leve and Robin Morgan picked the same year as the moment of change in their social history, 1963: The Year of the Revolution, explaining their reasons in their subtitle: How Youth Changed the World with Music, Art, and Fashion. However, there consensus breaks down. If one isolates the US context, 1964 might have even more reason to be seen as the most epoch-making. That’s the case made by the 2014 PBS documentary 1964 which sees the year of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, American Beatlemania, and Cassius Clay becoming Muhammed Ali as the moment of “the propulsion from the past into the future”. But back in the British context, Christopher Bray’s book picks the following year as the most pivotal one of all, entitling his book 1965: The Year Modern Britain Was Born and citing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, R. D. Laing’s radical anti-psychiatry, and Edward Bond’s Saved among his evidence. But as reviewers of Bray’s book suggested, it is more common to see 1967, and more specifically its ‘Summer of Love’, as the sixties watershed year par excellence. Or one might follow Mark Kurlansky in nudging watershed status on a year into the year of revoultions and evenements, 1968. This provides the focal point for Kurlansky’s globally-ranging study 1968: The Year That Rocked the World with its cover imagery amalgamating Mick Jagger, black power, space travel and Vietnam. And no doubt the books making the case for 1962, 1966 and 1969 as, in fact, the truly pivotal years of the 1960s will appear in due course.


So where does all this temporal grandstanding leave the poor bewildered cultural historian trying to make sense of transformation and tradition in the 1960s? In some respects, it’s confusing but in another way it’s only testament to the richness and complexity of the decade in question; in which every year can be constructed as a watershed replete with incident, in which politics and popular culture appear to be a state of quite remarkable revolution and renewal. To adopt the credo of another fantastically perceptive sixties song: ‘There’s something happening here. What it is, ain’t exactly clear.’

One comment

  1. In similar vein I reckon the ’80s (yuppies, Basildon man, powershoulders, main stream New Romanticism) didn’t begin either till 1982 (The Lexicon of Love) or 1983.


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