Richard Tomkins: Swinging sixties

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I am sure I am not the only one who has noticed that revisionism - you know, making astonishing claims that fly in the face of conventional wisdom - has become quite the fashion in publishing. Recent examples include Malcolm Gladwell's Blink arguing that gut reactions are often more reliable than considered judgments, Peter Axt's The Joy of Laziness declaring that vigorous exercise shortens your life and Clarence Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln suggesting that the revered US president was homosexual.

The reason for the phenomenon, I suppose, is that when books have been written on almost every subject it is possible to imagine, the only books left to write are those that say all the previous books were wrong. That, or provocative books simply sell better.

In any event, I assumed it was only a matter of time before someone wrote a book claiming that the 1960s never happened. Unfortunately, this just goes to show how wrong such assumptions can be; for a young British historian named Dominic Sandbrook has written not just one book purporting to counter the myths about the 1960s, but two - the first of which, Never Had It So Good, runs to more than 800 pages, including the notes.

Thankfully I have been spared the trouble of reading either the first volume of this coffee table epic or its unpublished successor because the author has set out his agenda in a newspaper article as well as in the preface to the first book.

His argument is that the impact and importance of the so-called cultural revolution of the 1960s has been vastly exaggerated. The revolution hardly extended beyond a small, affluent minority of youngsters, he says; for most other people, life went on much the same. The soundtracks for The Sound of Music and South Pacific comfortably outsold any of the Beatles albums of the decade. For all the talk about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, most people frowned on the permissiveness of the day.

"We should consign the 1960s to the history books and stop living in the shadow of a time that never was," he concludes in his newspaper article.

At this point, it is entertaining to imagine the author and his publisher - Little, Brown - discussing the marketing strategy for the new book.

Author: All right, so the market for books about the 1960s is saturated. But I'm daring to say what no one has ever dared say before - that the 1960s never really happened. And the good news is, I've got a deal with The Sunday Times to write an article saying as much.

Publisher: Hang on a minute, Dominic. You mean you're expecting people to buy - and even conceivably read - a colossal history of the 1960s spanning two 800-page volumes in which you tell them that nothing of any consequence ever happened?

Author: Strike me pink - a first at Oxford, a master's at St Andrews and a doctorate at Cambridge and I never even thought of that. Whatever am I going to do?

Publisher: Well, we can't pull the newspaper article - we need all the publicity we can get. But you can't say the 1960s is a time that never was in the book, or we're sunk. You'll have to obfuscate: say something about people's experiences having been more complicated, diverse and contradictory than it has often been given credit for, or some such gibberish.

Author (scribbling furiously): Phew, thanks, Toby. Consider it done.

If it even needs spelling out, which I very much doubt, the glaring weakness in the book's argument is that of course most people's lives were largely unaffected by the 1960s cultural revolution. You could say of almost any big cultural upheaval in history that, at the time, the day-to-day lives of ordinary people went on very much as usual.

As any marketer knows, big shifts in style, fashion and culture occur not because the proletariat wakes up one morning and collectively decides on the spur of the moment to change its whole way of life. Such changes are driven by "alphas" - trendsetters, influentials, opinion-formers - whose ideas may be taken up quickly by early adopters but can take years to permeate the rest of society, if they permeate it at all.

In the case of the 1960s, I do not believe it has ever been claimed that the whole of society was involved in the revolution. On the contrary, it was a revolution of teens and early twenties against everyone older - the people frowning on them while listening to South Pacific.

The trendsetters and early adopters of the day despised the bourgeois values and injustices of the society they grew up in: the deference, discipline and dull conformity, the censorship and censoriousness, the prim manners and repressed sex, the intolerance, the racial prejudice and the oppression of women and homosexuals. Amid all the pop music, psychedelia, hedonism and excitement - not to mention a great deal of absurdity - the revolution they started eventually resulted in the replacement of the old values with the liberal values of equality, opportunity and personal freedom that we know today.

History was made. You may love or hate the result, but to pretend nothing happened is plain silly.

Are you, like me, wondering what Mr Sandbrook's next book will be? He will not be short of subjects; with revisionism, he is mining a rich seam. My bet is it will be a history of the 1400s claiming the importance of the Renaissance is vastly exaggerated because, leaving aside the antics of a few long-haired weirdos, the vast majority of Florentines went on thinking the earth was flat, buying bad art and playing bingo just as if nothing had happened.

richard.tomkins@ft.com

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