Julie Burchill

The Swinging Sixties should be renamed the Seedy Sixties

The Swinging Sixties should be renamed the Seedy Sixties
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You know you’re getting old not when the policemen start looking young, but when a public figure dies and you say ‘O, I thought they were dead already!’ So it was for me when I heard that the Australian writer Richard Neville had died of dementia at the age of seventy four last week. Neville was never any sort of hero of mine - I was too busy promising my soul to Satan for a quick lick of Marc Bolan. But when I was thirteen and at the peak of my shoplifting prowess, I nicked his book Play Power on exactly the same robbing rampage that saw me take proud possession of The Female Eunuch, the half-mad masterpiece of Neville’s contrary contemporary Germaine Greer. There was loads in Neville's book about capitalism and what not that I didn’t understand. However, an unholy trinity of unwholesome features soon made Play Power my favourite posing pouchette; sex, swearing and skiving. These were basically my adolescent ambitions, and I couldn’t believe an actual adult was being paid (though not by me, with my wily light-fingered discount) to proselytize them.

As you can imagine, a political treatise which appeals to teenyboppers must be pretty damn silly. Neville had nothing but contempt for the Left's veneration of work. The traditional Left has always fought for better pay, decent holidays and safety in the workplace, and it basically believes that it is better for an adult human being to work than not to work. But as an idle adolescent, I didn’t fancy the idea of working one bit. All I wanted to be was a writer, but my parents and teachers told me that the daughter of two factory workers had more chance of becoming Pope. Play Power claimed that in the near future no one would have to work, choosing pleasure over profit; life as one big playpen, from cradle to grave. It was made unclear for how much longer developed societies would continue to be appealing places to live in when doctors, teachers and firemen decided that they too quite fancied sitting on bean-bags doing body-painting on willing gimps, but hey, that was the sort of downer that Neville wrote off as buzz-kill. If one needed ‘bread’ in a hurry, he advised ripping off ‘straights’ (people who worked for a living). Spontaneous prostitution was also always available as a career opportunity.

Apart from the striking resemblance to Mrs Thatchers much-reviled ‘There is no such thing as society’ soundbite, Neville’s philosophy had another similarity with what has traditionally been seen as a right-wing trait: sexism.

The attitude these men displayed towards women was vile. The historian Dominic Sandbrook felt moved to call Play Power ‘infantile and grotesquely misogynistic’ largely due to the bit where Neville boasts about a ‘hurricane fuck’ with a ‘moderately attractive’ 14-year-old girl he picks up outside a local comprehensive school. Even more disgracefully, Neville mocked the 1969 rape of a woman by a dozen men in New York’s Central Park as a larky gang-bang.

In 1964 the Black Panther Stokely Carmichael famously said that ‘the only position for women in the revolution is prone'. It was only too tragically predictable that these weedy little white boys would want to make the best of their chance to suck up to those big cool black men. But even when the Panthers were being sexist scum, they were undeniably serious people fighting the savage scourge of racism. The white boys, on the other hand, had something genuinely half-witted about them, being particularly obsessed with obscene comic books. When teenagers were given the chance to edit a Schoolkids Oz, they depicted Rupert Bear with a massive erection.  Compared to the athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power salute on the podium during the 1968 Olympics, this was a truly pathetic attempt to shake the foundations of the Establishment.

Interestingly, the same issue of Oz complained about paedophile teachers, which, considering Neville’s child-molesting, is a prime example of the nonce calling the kiddy-fiddler black. Men who fear/loathe women often have paedophile tendencies, and in this nasty crew we see skin-crawling examples of this, especially in the case of the late John Peel. Like many an ugly Englishman, the public school munter sought his fortune in America after the Beatles made it easy for British men to pick up women. ‘All they wanted me to do was abuse them, sexually, which, of course, I was only too happy to do,’ Peel once told the Guardian. Girls, apparently, ‘used to queue up outside  - oral sex they were particularly keen on. I remember one of my regular customers, as it were, turned out to be thirteen, though she looked older.’ Well into the Seventies, Peel was drooling on about schoolgirls in print and on air, until his Schoolgirl Of The Year competition was quietly laid to rest during punk's tenure. Of course, Peel’s paedo perving might be dismissed by the dim as ‘just the way things were back then’ - but that is the mindset which allowed Jimmy Savile to get away with his crimes for so long.

I’ve long suspected that the alleged Sexual Revolution of the Sixties was not a bid to advance women's rights, but rather to turn back the clock and push the brave new young working woman back to being barefoot and pregnant. Even the appearance approved for hippie women - long skirts, long hair - spoke of an earlier era, before girls raised their skirts and bobbed their hair and went out to earn a living. Equally, I believe that the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970s was as much a reaction to the ‘revolutionary’ sexism of the 1960s as it was to millions of years of reactionary patriarchy.

Very few sub-cultures leave anything of lasting value but the hippies surely take the hashcake in their lack of contribution to the cultural canon. Surely no set of youngsters, including my own wretched punk mob, were ever dafter? And particularly in their constant banging on about sex being something seditionary, they were singularly naive. Any girl having sex on a TV reality show nowadays has a far more sophisticated understanding of sex as a revolutionary act than any number of over-educated, under-washed revolutionaries.

As Big Brother turned out to be nothing like a boot stamping on a human face forever but a fun reality show, so free love has turned out to be not the overthrow of capitalism but similarly a very pleasant opiate of the people. Of all the post-war social movements, surely the Swinging Sixties will go down in history as the silliest, seediest and most profoundly sexually unappetising one ever - which, given how obsessed they were with sex, is more than a little amusing.