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Preserving the Sixties

Britain and the 'Decade of Protest'


Edited by Trevor Harris & Monia Carla O'Brien Castro


Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

Hardcover. xvi, 197 pages. ISBN 978-1137374097. £50.00


Reviewed by Matthias Reiss

University of Exeter



What are the Sixties? According to this book edited by Trevor Harris and Monia O’Brien Castro, they were the ‘Decade of Protest’. For Dominic Sandbrook, who wrote the foreword to this volume, the Sixties are above all contested historiographical ground. Sandbrook contrasts the ‘image of the Sixties as a period of unprecedented excitement – and in particular, as an age of reckless, liberating change’ which has ‘become embedded in our national historical consciousness’ [xii] with the somewhat less dramatic experience of most people who lived through this decade. What gave this era its distinct character, according to Sandbrook, was not the experience of radical change but ‘the experience of affluence and the expectation that it would continue indefinitely’ [xiv]. It was only in hindsight that the period was constructed as a watershed era in British history and became ‘one of modern history’s great litmus tests. Tell me what you think of the Sixties, and I will tell you who you are’ [xiii].

The authors, who subsequently take Sandbrook’s litmus test and give their view about the Sixties in this volume, belong to different academic disciplines and largely work in France – a country for which the characterisation as a ‘Decade of Protest’ would be far less contentious than for Britain. Only Mark Donnelly and R.J. Morris are associated with academic institutions in Britain, while Judith Roof is Professor of English at Rice University in Texas. The remaining contributors are all working at French universities, especially the University of Tours, which is also the home institution of the two editors.

In their introduction, Harris and Castro also address the contradiction between the still widespread perception of the decade as a watershed period in British History and a time of radical change, and the experience of the vast majority of people who lived through it. The editors rightly differentiate between the ‘1960s’ as a consecutive number of years and the ‘Sixties’ as a cultural phenomenon with contested start- and endpoints. Like Sandbrook, they argue that ‘the Sixties which are remembered today are something which the majority of people alive at the time did not actually know’ [2]. It is this contradiction which the editors want to ‘neutralize’ [8] with their book by attempting to achieve a synthesis of the radical vs. conservative framework in the essays. The Sixties, they argue rather unsurprisingly, are ‘worth preserving’ [8], even though most contemporaries did not participate in the counter-culture activities which have given this era its image and the rest should not be able to remember what they did during that period, according to a famous quip. The editors’ introduction is complemented by Mark Donnelly’s excellent historiographical chapter which discusses the recent scholarship on Great Britain in the Sixties. The rest of the book is, somewhat unconvincingly, divided into two parts: ‘Politics’ and ‘Culture’, followed by the editors’ conclusion and an index.

R.J. Morris opens Part I with an essay on ‘The 1960s: Days of Innocence’. For Morris, the ‘1960s was more than a decade’ [48] and they ‘were to mark the high noon of the modern, of the morality of self-fulfilment, and a faith in science and technology’ as well as the problem-solving power of ‘experts’ [37]. It was an era when the past was ignored or consciously rejected, and traditional notions of class were questioned and revised. Many of these developments began well before 1960 – for example, Morris lists the end of rationing for sweets on 5 February 1953 as one symbolic landmark – and ended before 1970. Rather than offering a synthesis, Morris uses significant events and trends to explore ‘the contradictions of freedom and oppression present in the modernity of that decade and its many strands of cultural and material change’ [33]. As a result the reader is left with the impression of a decade marked by fundamental change.

The same impression is created by Sylvie Pomiès-Maréchal and Matthew Legget’s essay ‘The Abortion Act 1967’. The authors argue that contemporary ‘British attitudes to abortion were ambivalent’ in the 1960s and that ‘there existed quite a sharp contrast between social attitudes of condemnation and evidence of a widespread resort to abortion’ [68]. The manner in which the Abortion Act was introduced and debated in Parliament reflected the contradictory progressive and conservative impulses within British society and resulted in ‘a middle-of-the-road framework’ for abortions being introduced. However, it also represented ‘a real ideological breakthrough’ and became, together with the 1967 National Health Service (Family Planning) Act, ‘a springboard for British feminism’. By doing so, the Abortion Act ‘foreshadowed the struggles of the 1970s’ [68].

In his essay, ‘Industrial relations in the 1960s: the end of Voluntarism?’, Alexis Chommeloux argues that the 1960s also became ‘a decade crucial to the shaping of future industrial relations in the UK’ [74]. Fostered by economic worries and external circumstances, the long-standing consensus that a system of voluntary collective bargaining with limited state intervention was in the best interest of Britain began to erode during that decade and was replaced by ‘a broad agreement on the need for industrial relations to change’ [85]. However, attempts by the Conservatives and the Labour Party to reform the established system of ‘collective laissez-faire’ led to electoral set-backs and eventually resulted in ‘the destruction of the consensus, not just in industrial relations’ [87] under Thatcher and its replacement with a policy of statute-based economic laissez-faire.

Jeremy Tranmer’s essay on ‘The Radical Left and Popular Music in the 1960s’ concludes the first part of the book on Politics. Tranmer highlights the importance of popular music in British society during the 1960s by tracing the attempt of political parties and the Radical Left to associate themselves with well-known musicians in order to benefit from their popularity with young people. Attempts by the Conservatives and especially the Labour Party to harness the popularity of the Beatles in the early years of the decade quickly reached their limits when the latter shed their image of respectability. This opened the way for more radical political groups, such as the Young Communist League and especially the New Left. The latter successfully courted stars like Mick Jagger or John Lennon for a brief period of time, but the cooperation was short-lived. Using the Rock against Racism (RAR) movement of the 1970s as a comparison, Tranmer convincingly analyses why activists and musicians failed to establish a more successful work-relationship in the preceding decade and shows how the RAR was influenced by events in the late 1960s.

Tranmer’s essay elegantly links the first part of the book to the second, which is dedicated to ‘Culture’. In ‘Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Friel’s The Freedom of the City’, Martine Pelletier uses Brian Friel to examine the rise of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. Pelletier argues that Friel’s play, which dealt with the events of Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972, can help ‘us chart our way through the complex issues opened up by the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, its brutal repression and the explosion of violence it led to, even before the 1960s ended’ [125].

Like R.J. Morris, Peter Vernon also stresses the co-existence of freedom and oppression in 1960s Britain in his essay ‘Pulp Diction: Stereotypes in 1960s British literature’. London offered ‘freedom for the few, but for many in Britain there was only drab, economic oppression’, [131] even though Vernon concedes that a similar constellation could probably be found in every decade one cares to examine. The problems in British society led to the reinforcement of stereotypes of class and character in literature and other media in the 1960s which were ‘much older than the decade and are often still with us today’ [128]. According to Vernon, this had long-term consequences, as the ‘longevity of the stereotypes, inscribed in clichéd images, removes our freedom of interpretation and reinforces the socio-political status quo’ [141].

Judith Roof’s essay on ‘Sketchy counter-culture’ examines the interaction between politics and new forms of comedy in Britain in the 1960s. Based on her analysis of Beyond the Fringe, That Was the Week That Was and Monty Python, Roof argues that the ‘Sixties revolution in comic forms in British popular culture enacted a comic countering that both paralleled and pushed reconsiderations of the state of affairs as an effect of comic practice, not so much in terms of content, but in the very form of comedy itself.’ [145].

The final two essays of the book deal with music. In ‘Psychic liberation in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, Ben Winsworth focuses on the Beatles’ journey from ‘Love Me Do’ in October 1962 to the Sgt. Pepper album in June 1967. Winsworth concludes that the latter was in various ways revolutionary. Apart from reflecting the Beatles’ artistic and personal development, the album ‘elevated pop into a place where it transgressed the high culture / low culture boundary’ [169]. The band encouraged ‘the listener to join the psychic revolution, allowing him or her to become an active participant in the deconstruction of all the forces that limit existential freedom and clarity’ [170].

Raphael Costambeys-Kempczynski’s essay, ‘Preservation Society’, focuses on the British band The Kinks and their concept album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, which was released in November 1968. Although this period was supposedly the ‘climax of the decade of protest’ [174], the author stresses that the album does not fit into the received stereotype of youth culture and rebellion in the Sixties. ‘A combination [...] of both pathological and anticipatory nostalgia’, the album instead positioned itself ‘against the mind-altering drug-induced progressiveness of contemporary Beatles releases and the confrontational antagonism of The Rolling Stones’ [182].

Costambeys-Kempczynski’s essay nicely highlights once again the unifying theme of this book: that the Sixties were neither a period of radical change nor of conservativism but both. This theme effectively links the rather diverse contributions in this book and provides it with a pleasing degree of coherence one cannot automatically expect in such a slim volume on such a complex time period. There is no need to debate here whether ‘the Sixties’ ever existed, and many of the contributors show a certain discomfort with the concept. Raphael Costambeys-Kempczynski, for example, describes the idea of ‘a decade of protest’ rightly as a ‘heuristic fiction’ [174]. Yet this volume shows once again that this period, which was not identical with the chronological decade, did indeed mark an era of transition and change. In their conclusion the editors even suggest that the United Kingdom dealt in a uniquely British way with this transition by inventing ‘a new way of seeing the present as part of England’s [sic] intricate evolution and improvement; a new way, as it were, of being old-fashioned’ [194]. Such notion of a British Sonderweg from the post-World War II era to the 1970s is not very convincing and would require a comparative study with a far wider scope. Nevertheless, it underlines that this is a stimulating book which is well worth reading. All contributions are relatively brief and well written, so the volume could also be useful to introduce students to the manifold contradictions encapsulated in the popular concept of the Sixties.


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