I am a “Baby Boomer,” and my parents belong to the “Duck and Cover” generation. Baby Boomers were the product of increased copulative opportunities afforded by the end of the Second World War, and the Duck and Covers, having unleashed the power of the atom bomb, lived in guilty fear that another power—namely the Russians—might return the compliment. I remember dragging my Baby Boomer body up to my bedroom and blubbing after hearing a somewhat flippant Duck and Cover conversation between my parents at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Apparently we were all going to die because there was about to be an atomic war.
Baby Boomers were the youth of the 1960s, and a large section of The Sixties Unplugged deals with the youth “happenings” and movements that started in reaction to the Cold War caution of our parents’ generation. For us, this book has particular resonance, made stronger by DeGroot’s attitude to history. In an article entitled “When Nothing Happened” in The Journal of Mundane Behaviour, he argued that the writing of history is too influenced by what is interesting and newsworthy to be a true reflection of the past, which is made up of the boring and humdrum events of survival. By concentrating on extraordinary events, historians, he complained, were pandering to myth, though to tell the true tale of the past would be boring.
DeGroot’s historical method could be summed up as “describe and debunk,” an entertaining approach that involves telling the myth with all its excitement, producing some good jokes by way of debunking it, and adding a few mundane details made fascinating by their setting.
Enjoyable irrelevancies are sprinkled through this book, like seasoning on a delicious dish. In an essay on the genesis of the transistor radio, DeGroot reveals that, when the Japanese electronics firm Totsuko—forerunner of Sony—discovered that true marketability lay in being pocketsize, it had shirts made for its salesmen with pockets large enough to fit Totsuko radios. These nuggets provide good gossip material for ageing Baby Boomers, if only we can retain the information long enough to reach the dinner table.
DeGroot points out that very few of us ever went near the great sixties happenings. A miniscule percentage made it to Woodstock or Haight-Ashbury. Those who attended the Grosvenor Square riots in England, the Chicago convention riots, or the Berkeley sit-in would be statistically nonexistent as representatives of our generation. What we all share, however, is the myth of what happened, propagated for us by the newspapers and journalists. We have been content with that myth, convincing ourselves in the retelling that we were witnesses.
My 1960s were spent largely in a monastic boarding school in the west of England. There, like the Lady of Shallot, my school chums and I could but glimpse the events of the outside world as in a mirror. By 1968, however, two of the events dealt with by this book had impinged enough to affect our small community: the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and the Second Vatican Council. One enterprising boy, apparently inspired by protests against the war, collected up all our military uniforms on the eve of a general inspection by some military bigwig and flung them into the school swimming pool. The shock waves were palpable. The astonishment was even greater, though, when a young monk, nicknamed Kev the Rev, irrupted on a religious instruction class to tell us that the pope’s Humanae Vitae pronouncement was a load of bunkum. At the time we were appalled that a monk could so disrespect a pope. We had no clue that the revolutionary Dom Kevin was heretically defying the Holy Father’s pronouncement on contraception—a subject that was not on the curriculum. The penny finally dropped while reading DeGroot’s excellent essay debunking the mythology of the Second Vatican Council.
The last gasp of the 1960s passed me by because I went from the monastery to teach in a Catholic mission school in Tanzania, from which the trials and tribulations of the youth of Europe and America were even more remote. So I really am one of the great majority that DeGroot describes whose view of the past is not informed by the historical events recorded in his book but whose image of the world has been formed by the standard reportage of those events.
An essay on the sexual mores of the sixties relieved a long-held anxiety: had I somehow missed out on all that free love? “Sixties sexual rebels seldom made love,” DeGroot notes, “They f—-d.” I had done neither. Those like myself who were too “uptight” to partake will be gratified by the horrified descriptions of orgies and recantations by former free-love advocates contained in this book. One of many well-chosen and pithy quotes comes from Beryl Bainbridge on the subject of the pill: “In spite of all the scientific advances there wasn’t a pill invented, and we women knew it, that could stop your heart from being broken.” What balm to the monogamous soul.
DeGroot tells the story of the sixties with great pace and verve, organizing his material, in the way of soap operas, to hold the interest of as wide an audience as possible. The story of the United States’ growing involvement in Vietnam is interspersed with and interrupted by chapters on the civil-rights movement. Light relief is provided by chapters on Europe: one on the brawl between the foppish Mods and the dirty Rockers in Margate, England introduces the more socially challenging Watts riots in Los Angeles during that long hot summer.
At each end of the book are two entertaining essays on the juridical treatment of obscenity: the trial of Penguin for publishing an unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover started the sixties, and the Oz magazine’s “school kid’s issue” trial ended them. In his essay on the Lady Chatterley case, DeGroot quotes the prosecutor’s description of his modus operandi: “I put my feet up on the desk and start reading. If I get an erection we prosecute” and notes wryly, “On that standard, Chatterley seemed a filthy book worthy of a ban.”
DeGroot, an American, is much more charitable about the youth movements of Europe than those of America, toward whom he is amusingly and uniformly censorious. I suspect that it is a case of familiarity breeding contempt. Discussing the Port Huron declaration by the Students for a Democratic Society at the start of the sixties, he writes, “The decade produced few documents more boring, but S.D.S. activists, being dull, loved it.” When dealing with the Yippees, Weathermen, and Black Panthers, his prose becomes incandescent with disgust. Mods, on the other hand, merely amuse him, and he is polite about Marxist European revolutionaries such as Rudi Dutschke and Danny Cohn-Bendit. He positively approves, moreover, of the police-baiting antics of the Dutch Provos. The Provos were peaceful anarchists who carried out a series of “white campaigns,” the first of which entailed placing white bicycles around Amsterdam for the use of whoever wished to ride them. The police foolishly confiscated the bicycles because they offended their sense of order, whereupon the Provos unleashed a series of “white rumor” campaigns threatening enormous demonstrations against the police. The gullible Dutch law enforcers fell for them, put Amsterdam under a state of emergency, and annoyed the Dutch populace considerably with an absurd show of force, especially after no demonstrations materialized. The Provos’ campaigns were peculiarly effective. The Amsterdam city council took to providing free bicycles for the use of its citizenry, and the Dutch police learned the error of their ways and became the most liberal and relaxed police force in the world.
There is a darker side to this book, intent as it is on showing us that our rose-tinted view of the sixties is an illusion. DeGroot points out the massacres that we never knew about. Tlatelolco in Mexico, for example, was the scene of the slaughter of 200 or so protesters by the Mexican army on the eve of the 1968 Olympics. In comparison, the notorious Sharpeville massacre in South Africa pales into insignificance. The Mexicans effectively hid the incident from world view, while in another part of the world, Indonesia, the CIA and the British Foreign Service managed to cover up the extent of the killings that happened as Suharto ousted Sukarno.
I left Tanzania in 1969, wearing a Mao suit with a translation of the Little Red Book in the pocket, firm in the illusion that China would lead the world to a better future. DeGroot’s portrait of the Orient in the sixties has finally hammered home the horror of the Cultural Revolution, though I am not entirely convinced of the veracity of his assertion, harvested from the Internet, that the cafeteria of Wuxuan Revolutionary Committee had human flesh on its menu. Is DeGroot merely replacing one myth with another? But even if some of his stories have to be taken with a pinch of salt, this book is a wonderful fusion feast for anyone who picks it up.
Septimus Waugh is a carpenter and woodcarver living in Devon, England. His website is www.septimuswaugh.co.uk.
If you enjoyed this article, make a tax-deductible contribution to keep The American Conservative going strong.
The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: firstname.lastname@example.org