Why The Sixties Didn’t Really Swing
Marianne Faithful has done the maths and reckons that ‘Swinging London’ consisted of no more than 300 people in the know. In the same way that British punk mainly existed around a single shop on the King’s Road and later in a handful of West End streets, London’s swingers were a privileged group of bright young things who had cash to splash in the early sixties. Most of them knew each other, and the times had little impact on the rest of the country.
Michael Caine said; ”In the sixties, everyone you knew became famous. My flatmate was Terence Stamp. My barber was Vidal Sassoon. David Hockney did the menu in a restaurant I went to. I didn’t know anyone unknown who didn’t become famous.’ He has a new film out called ‘My Generation’, in which he travels across London reminiscing about its swinging past.
Mick Jagger said it was about the first generation to question the last generation, but he was only partly right. This is an excerpt from ‘Hall Of Mirrors’, which comes out on Thursday.
‘After the war, austerity had dragged on for another decade. In railway stations it was impossible to buy a cup of tea without queuing. Stores were more shut than open. Shelves remained empty, meals stayed small and fruit came in tins. Coal was rationed. Sweaters and socks were darned. Even hotel sheets were patched. Across the capital, the cheapest option was exercised without consideration. Cracked church steeples were demolished instead of being repaired, bomb sites were boarded up instead of being built upon and prefabricated homes sprouted like mushrooms where proud family houses had once stood. Stone and mahogany was replaced with asbestos and plywood. Stop-gap measures became so permanent that soon no-one could remember how life had been before.
The war’s warriors had died to make way for an army of lovers; nearly half of all Londoners were now under twenty five, and an aura of unwarranted confidence lit up the capital. For kids with credit, contraception and cool, the city was suddenly sexy. And those who had fought were forced to confront the first generation of people who did not need to know the meaning of obligation.’
The problem was that the projected image did not match the reality, and the swinging city already carried the seeds of its collapse. Time magazine’s article helped to define an image for a country desperately seeking to dump its sooty past. But PM Harold Wilson’s ‘White heat of technology’ speech had actually been cobbled together the night before he delivered it, and did nothing to stave off his demise, to be replaced by Edward Heath – and we all know what happened in the disastrous years that followed. The image of corpses being pulled in alleyways because even the morgues were on strike still lives with many of us.
Swinging London looked forward to a bright, wealthy, freewheeling future, but it also looked back; the empire had only just been lost and there was already a huge nostalgia for it, hence shops like ‘I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’. Victoriana was popular too, because the detritus of empire, from busts to chamber pots, could be picked up cheaply and repainted. I can’t recall a London flat in the seventies that didn’t still have some kind of purple or lime green Victorian knick-knack on its shelves.
Despite the dream’s collapse, the idea of swinging London lived on gave its name to an era. While the swingers included stars of screen, design and fashion, it didn’t apply to ordinary working people. It did, however, have a beneficial economic effect, by selling ‘Britishness’ as a product and creating the tourist market. But was it really cool? Yes, if you were among the handful of people within its golden circle.