Sixties spirit

Promise of a Dream: remembering the Sixties

Sheila Rowbotham <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 26

Having been too old to experience the radical fever of the 1960s, I have always felt a mite deprived - rather as, in my youth, I deeply regretted having been too young to fight in the First World War. So I am grateful for Sheila Rowbotham's vivid memoir of the Sixties, which, whether intentionally or not, demonstrates how little there was to miss. If this account of her life as a 16- to 26-year-old in that decade is anything to go by - and it seems horribly authentic - Rowbotham succeeded in escaping from a somewhat blinkered, northern, lower-middle-class Methodist family background, wherein she was fast developing her idiosyncratic view of life, only to plummet, with a brief pause at Oxford, into an even more blinkered world of Marxist ideology, beatnik counter-culture and hippy sexual promiscuity, in which she remained largely a willing captive for the duration.

Nor, in Rowbotham's case, did youthful travel in France and Spain, with a variety of like-minded lovers, do much to broaden her mind. Instead of allowing her imagination to be enriched by the cultural glories of the past on offer, she preferred, it seems, to spend her time dreaming about being on the road "with Jack Kerouac in San Francisco" or, even more depressingly, about producing "a radical alternative to Stalinism". The impression is one of increasing claustrophobia. The talk may be of liberation - sexual, ethical and political - but one gets the sense of an erstwhile free spirit undergoing an indoctrination much more absurd and stulti-fying than the religious ones from which, as a child, she was so eager to escape.

However, right at the start of the book - before she has been radicalised - there is a revealing and beautiful passage about what might have been. She tells us how, on New Year's Eve 1959, she found herself "roaming around remote churches near the edge of the North Yorkshire moors, searching for Saxon crosses. As the winter dusk closed in, I peered at coiled labyrinthine carvings on the gravestones, trying to reach the hand that had crafted them long ago." Alas, that promising yearning for the transcendental is soon diverted into the dead-end maze of revolutionary dialectics, CND and anti-Vietnam demonstrations in Trafalgar Square, student sit-ins at the London School of Economics and in Paris, squalid squats in Tower Hamlets and, as light relief, sexual experimentation - "steering without a compass between the dreaded Scylla of Frigidity and the Charybdis of Nymphomania".

The rot seems to have set in at Oxford. Her tutor, Richard Cobb, put her in touch, for further tuition back home in Yorkshire, with the charismatic, left-wing historians Edward and Dorothy Thompson, whose particular vision of reality took possession of Rowbotham's soul, excluding every serious alternative. At least my strongly anti-Marxist tutor at Cambridge in the 1940s, Herbert Butterfield, made sure that I read Tom Paine as well as Edmund Burke, de Tocqueville as well as de Maistre. But there is no evidence in Promise of a Dream that Rowbotham was ever made to read anything likely to broaden her political horizons beyond the narrow confines of the New Left Review, Socialist Weekly or Black Dwarf. Not that the consequent intellectual shallowness prevented her from making a career of dedicated left-wing propagandising by a series of grants and teaching jobs from, needless to say, the London Borough of Hackney.

By the end of the Sixties, however, a measure of disillusion was setting in, but the reason given - that her male chauvinist fellow revolutionaries were not paying enough attention to her views - scarcely suggests a change of heart (she abandoned the rancorous class war of the 1960s for the much more rancorous gender war of the 1970s). So was her revolutionary decade a waste of time? Not entirely, she concludes, adding (conceivably in a spirit of irony) that at least she succeeded in getting peace and women's studies on to the university curriculum.

In spite of its theme, Promise of a Dream is not entirely grim. Rowbotham has a redeeming sense of the ridiculous, which is just as well, because, with the benefit of hindsight, the 1960s did indeed have their funny side. As the 21st century opens, the cohorts of American capitalism are beginning to emulate and exploit the style and values of the Sixties. Who would have thought, for example, that, in the year 2000, the new Dodge mini-van would be called the Kerouac, or that the Pentagon would introduce a new vege- tarian restaurant for senior officers, or that high-flying members of the American bourgeoisie would spend fortunes trying to pass themselves off as anti-Establishment bohemians?

Not quite what Rowbotham had in mind, but all the better for that.

The writer is a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 14 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, So, who still wants to be a millionaire?