Book review: Sex and drugs and tupperware bowls
In ‘How Was It For You?’, Virginia Nicholson wonders what it was really like being a woman in the 1960s
Good subject; good title; shame about the style. Virginia Nicholson is the daughter of Quentin Bell, who wrote an excellent biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf, so I find it shocking that she can write sentences like: “With what seemed malignant intent, the last world war had extended its claws beyond the confines of the battlefield.” Still, if you skip the purple patches, it’s a useful compendium of what young women got up to in the 1960s, based on memoirs and nearly 40 interviews with survivors, now mainly in their 70s.
The book reminds us that the 1960s was an incredibly fast-moving decade. When my memoir An Education was filmed, the art director asked if I would mind changing the start of the story from 1960 to 1961. Of course I didn’t mind, but what difference did it make? Oh, he explained, the streets looked so much brighter in 1961 – you saw new clothes, new shopfronts, and cars in colours other than black. 1960 was still utterly drab post-war austerity; by 1970 Britons had forgotten what austerity even looked like.
Thus it makes sense that Virginia Nicholson has arranged her chapters year by year, which works well for some themes (fashion, pop music) but less well for others (abortion law reform, the birth of women’s lib) that took time to develop.
Virginia Nicholson was born in 1955 – 10 years too late – and wonders: “Did I miss out on all the fun, from being too young?” I’d say yes, she did. She consoles herself by saying at least she never had to have an abortion, or work as a bunny girl, but still she admits: “Yes, I am envious. Of the joy, of the release, the openness, the love, the colour, candour and courage; the fantasy and guiltless freedom that certainly characterise so much of those years. All that FUN.”
Quite. And all that sex. As Philip Larkin observed, it didn’t get going until l963 but then it took off like a rocket. Before that, there was so much fear about sex – mainly fear of unwanted pregnancy, but also of VD or of getting a reputation – that you had to be exceptionally brave to try it. Sex education was almost non-existent. Nicholson quotes someone called Doreen Massey describing how her domestic science teacher taught the class how babies were born: “We had to knit a uterus. I’ve still got the pattern for it! It was a four-needle exercise, with scraps of wool in different colours. And if you knew how to cast on you were supposed to put a nice ribbed bit at the bottom for the cervix. But even then, some of us didn’t know how to cast off, so it got longer, and longer, with endless dropped stitches. And then we had to get a tennis ball and push it through this uterus. And then Miss Green said: ‘Well now you know how a baby is born.’”
The sexual revolution is the great overarching theme of the 1960s and of course it was the contraceptive pill that made it possible.
Drugs were another great 1960s theme. Even conventional housewives took them – prescription tranquillisers were known as “mother’s little helpers” – and students routinely took Benzedrine to help them through exams. Pot was the favoured recreational drug of the early 1960ss, but LSD appeared in l965 and with it a whole new language as people described their acid trips: “Even these baked beans are speaking to me, man.” This was the beginning of psychedelia, light shows, swirling colours and wanting to go to San Francisco and wear flowers in your hair.
Hair was an important symbol of the counterculture, hence its celebration in the first musical to hit the West End the day after censorship was abolished in l968. Dads and teachers still insisted on short back and sides, but young men knew that girls fancied them more if they had long hair and vaguely androgynous clothes. Girls, on the other hand, aspired to look like Twiggy – tiny and childlike with gazelle thighs and turned-in toes. Nobody thought it odd that pop stars favoured girls who looked about 12. The role of girls anyway was simply to be decorative. Men had serious conversations; girls sat silently in the background rolling joints and offering blow-jobs when required. As Jenny Diski wrote in The Sixties (warmly recommended): “Sex was a way of being polite to those who suggested it or who got into your bed … If sex was no longer going to be a taboo then it was hard to think of a good reason not to have it with anyone who came along. It was uncool to say no.”
Hence, eventually, the need for women’s liberation, but it didn’t arrive till the end of the decade. Nicholson seems to think that Sheila Rowbotham was the prime mover, but I’d say Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was far more influential.
Something that’s always struck me about the 1960s – and that I was glad to see confirmed by Patti Boyd and others – was our incredible insouciance about money. Nobody talked about “planning your career”, nobody thought of saving for a mortgage, still less a pension – if you needed extra “bread” you could always get temporary work in a shop or office. I had the all-important 40 wpm typing certificate that meant I could call a temping agency first thing Monday morning and get a week’s work which would buy me a whole new outfit in Biba on Friday.
Of course, I’m talking about swinging London, and Nicholson is good at reminding us that it wasn’t such fun out in the sticks (except Liverpool, which turned trendy even before London). Most housewives still spent their days hoovering and dusting and waiting for their husbands to come home from work. (An etiquette book by Barbara Cartland said it was absolutely essential for wives to cook their husbands breakfast, and to change for dinner.) They might, if they were socially ambitious, aspire to Tupperware parties with cheese and pineapple on sticks, but that was as wild as it got. A Vesta chow mein represented the height of gastronomic sophistication.
The awkwardness of this book is that by mixing up famous and non-famous sources, Nicholson has to describe the non-famous ones and her tone is often unbearably patronising – “Beryl’s neutral sitting room, in a north London flat, demonstrates how little appearances matter to her.” Also she can never get over her amazement that women who now look so old and ordinary once had exciting and adventurous lives. But the evidence of her own book proves that we did. We had all the fun. – © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)