1963 – the great unbuttoning

As 2013 begins, I am reminded that it marks the 50th anniversary of 1963, the year when, in most people’s reckoning, the 1960s really started.

Last night, I had dinner with Liz Heron*, whom I first met when she invited me to contribute to a remarkable award-winning book she edited in the early 1980s called Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the 1950s. We were talking about the ways that their parents’ experiences in World War Two had marked so many of our friends, brought up in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, France, or as refugees elsewhere, as well as our contemporaries in Britain. And it struck us that many people of our generation, perhaps even the majority, were brought up in households where the dominating atmosphere, so taken-for-granted that it was like the weather, was one of deep and chronic – and largely unspoken – depression.

Perhaps these days it would be referred to as survivors’ guilt or post-traumatic stress syndrome. Among people who had seen active service, it sometimes took the form of anxiety, like that of an uncle of mine, who was captured after the fall of Tobruk and subsequently escaped to Switzerland from the prisoner of war camp where he was held in Italy, who had constantly to check the back door was really locked, that there was enough air pressure in the tyres of his car and that you had arrived home safely after a visit. Only forty years later, when he was dying, did he voice his nightmare memories of the last days in the desert before his capture. Though sometimes the urge to get back to some sort of normalcy took the form of refusing to mention the war, sometimes, conversely, it involved repeating the same anecdotes over and over again, perhaps in the unconscious hope that this would empty them of painful associations. Among people who hadn’t directly fought, who knows what kinds of guilt swirled about? Whatever the precise form this behaviour took, it coloured the air their children breathed, profoundly shaping their sense of what is normal.

These patterns must have contributed not a little to shaping that 1950s culture, portrayed (it seems now, caricatured) in so many British war films of the period in which what mattered most was to avoid self-indulgence. Men were supposed to keep calm and carry on, keep a stiff upper lip, protect the women and children in their lives from direct knowledge of violence, death or passionate extra-marital sex. Comradeship and solidarity were expressed through handshakes, clipped understatement (‘rotten luck, old chap’) or an occasional hand on the shoulder signifing much more, we are supposed to think, than could be conveyed by the shallow verbiage of effete intellectuals. Linked with these values were strong prohibitions against ‘showing off’, ‘being greedy’ or ‘not pulling your weight’.  These values were of course continuously being undermined not only by working class resentment of the patronising snobberies of the officer class usually represented in such narratives but also by an intense introspection, expressed in the fashion for Freudian analysis and in many novels of the period (as well as ‘psychological’ films, noir or otherwise, with plots that centred on simplistically portrayed forms of mental illness). Nevertheless, these stiff-upper-lip, take-it-on-the-chin, keep-your-troubles-to-yourself values had a hegemonic hold in schools, the BBC and other institutions that taught us what was normal.

Most children growing up in this period did not, of course, see it that way. The older generation were ‘repressed’, ‘square’ or (a bit later) just ‘a drag’. They could not talk about their feelings, were hypocritical about sex and tried to box children into artificial cages of childhood innocence and adults into crippling gender roles. But these adults were just brilliant at inducing shame. Whether one’s  transgression involved betrayal of class values, contempt for what older people found precious, consumerist wastefulness or simple carnality, guilt seemed to bounce down the generations. Only the most impermeable armour of brashness could deflect it.

I am of course over-generalising disgracefully. I can only speak for those people I know, 0r think I know, and I am sure that many counter-examples will be thrust at me. But I cannot but think of the atmosphere of the period as one of extreme emotional tautness. Even as shades of grey gave way to colour and people learned to enact a kind of larger-than-life technicolour normalcy with increasing conviction, there was always a feeling that some dark, held-down rage might burst through the thin stretched surface skin. It was not accidental, perhaps, that the first post-war generation of British writers were known as Angry Young Men. Or that teenage girls were taught to step warily around male lust – seen as an uncontrollable force the poor boys had terrible trouble reining in. You had only yourself to blame if you engaged in the dangerous sport of prick-teasing. (Though of course, in a classic double bind, it was also unthinkable to define yourself in any other way than in relation to masculine desire).

Another powerful disincentive to expressing any aspiration to equality with boys was the constant reminder that it was men who had done the fighting in the war. And boys continued to be conscripted until 1960. Interestingly 1963 was also the year the last conscripted soldiers were released; the first that boys could let their hair grow long and enter adulthood unshaped by parade-ground drill.

Such was the sense of suffocation that it is hardly surprising that the post-war baby boom generation needed to burst out. 1963 was the moment they did so. And it seems to me now not so much the beginning of something new as a great unbuttoning of the heavy greatcoat of the 1950s, exposing the body within (and its internal tangle of contradictions) to fresh light.

At this distance I am not sure if this is something to celebrate. A lot of adjectives can be used about our generation, not all of them complimentary: foolhardy, selfish, naive, narcissistic, destructive, to name a few. We are often thought to have changed the world irrevocably (though, thinking about it, what generation doesn’t do this?). If I have a complaint it is that we didn’t change it nearly enough.

*whose blog you can find here.

1 thought on “1963 – the great unbuttoning

  1. In response to this post, Judith Rugg sent me this. I am posting it here with her permission.

    Thanks for your blog ‘The Great Unbuttoning’ and your insights of ‘the dominant atmosphere we breathed in as children’ – it had such a resonance to me. As I struggle to come to terms with my mother’s ever increasing elderliness and physical fragility (she was 97 in February), I find my thoughts re-visiting her own history and experience (as told in a series of anecdotes over the course of my childhood) of WW2. As children, we were constantly reminded of her (much edited, I now realize) ‘trauma-narratives’ caused by the war: married on 2 September, 1939 ‘The Day Before War Was Declared’, experiences of the Blitz and many, many other referrals to The War.
    My father was on active service in North Africa and the Middle East and never spoke of it. But over the last 2 years and since my mother has become physically frail, she has made oblique reference to some of the reality of that time – which should have been blindingly obvious, but to which I never gave a thought – such as my parent’s separation for 4 years just after they got married and the entire fragility and uncertainty of life at that time.
    I think the issue of ‘generation’ is a complex one – I have never seen myself in that group of ‘baby boomers’ as, as the youngest in my immediate family, I always felt ‘too young’ (1973 was my ‘unbuttoning’ and greatcoats were ‘in’). But I do agree that visual culture via BBC-sanctioned representation of the 1950s rarely attempts or attempted to explore the significant issues of trauma, violence and repression for those who survived and their experiences in Britain during that time. It seems to me that there is little or no visual vocabulary or context to address issues which were too brutal to resonate. I don’t think my parents, however noticed the denial inherent in representations of The War. Our TV always seemed to be on the blink or displaying ‘Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible’.
    I think it is interesting that the ‘1940s’ seems to be a developing area of cultural fascination. I put it to my mother in a recent letter to her that the time is the new ‘costume drama’ and I await her response. It must be strange indeed to (safely) watch a visual filmic representation of a superficial part of your traumatic past.
    I think some work is being done to attempt to consider some of the issues you address. Films like Sarah’s Key (2011) for example attempt, in my view, to explore the gulfs by which we are separated generationally; how it is impossible to know one’s parents and describes an innate but hopeless need for reparation.
    In the meantime, my mother’s approach to surviving ‘whatever life throws at you’ is exactly that ‘extreme emotional tautness’ that you so evokingly describe– and it is still working now, after almost a century of practice!

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