Bloody Marvelous

How Swinging Sixties London Changed the World

The 1960s set London on the course that made it a great world city. Now the Brexiters are hoping it’s Goodbye Baby & Amen to all of that.

Manchester Daily Express/Getty

LONDON—Nothing can now reverse the act of self-harm called Brexit. Like the steely headmistress of a Dickensian school, Prime Minister Theresa May is brooking no dissent and pressing on with pulling the country out of Europe.

But the more she applies the stick the more obvious it becomes that London is not with her. This calamity was willed in another place, out there in another England (Scotland wants no part of it, either). Even though there is evidence that a sizeable part of the 52 percent who voted for Brexit is now unnerved by the bleak reality and would—if given the chance—reverse the vote, there is no going back.

This leaves London as the center of resistance, a capital apart from the nation—or, as I am now beginning to appreciate, a city nation in its own right. The laws may require it to surrender to the majority’s will, but London is in no mood to yield. London is everything Little England is not—a marvel of multi-ethnic energy, an irreverent creative force, a great city that virtually reinvents itself every day.

It was not always so. There came a moment when London first shook off the coils of hidebound British society, the sobriety of convention, the obedience of norms that had made it a funless place in its post-war years. As no other city has ever done, London suddenly owned a whole decade and became synonymous with the culture of that decade—the 1960s.

So much of what makes London what it is now is came from that time. There was a cultural and social insurrection that transformed every idea of what was permissible in society and in the arts.

The spirit of that moment was captured in a book that is now so rare that it is a collector’s item. Goodbye Baby & Amen was published in 1969 as a kind of premature history featuring a gallery of portraits by the photographer who himself embodied the zeitgeist of the moment, David Bailey, with text by one of the most astute reporters of the decade, Peter Evans.

The many chronicles of London and the ’60s published since then lack the spontaneity of Bailey’s portraits—like war pictures from a frontline they may not have the understanding and perspective of history but they smack you in the face with the shock of the event. Inevitably, some of the players thought significant then have long passed into obscurity. But others, some fortunately still among us, deliver the ring of the raw, authentic experience.

Here is the wonderful Michael Caine talking to Evans about his own emergence in the early 1960s: “It was rather like being in a dancing school full of Fred Astaires. You knew everybody was going to be a great dancer but nobody was getting the steps together.”

Caine shared a flat with Terence Stamp. Both these wild, amorous lads came from the south side of the Thames, in social terms the nether region of London. In 1965 Caine starred in The Ipcress File, a spy thriller by Len Deighton, purposely designed as antithetical to James Bond. Caine’s character, Harry Palmer, was a working class maverick outwitting his treacherous handlers. The whole thing caught the tension of the era, represented by Bond as a fantasy of Britain’s power in the world versus the rough-hewn realists like Palmer to whom the sixties were a game to be won on merit, not breeding.

The Irish novelist Edna O’Brien provides a sobering view of the bed-hopping that was being celebrated as sexual freedom: “Many of my friends say to me now that sex is a hang-up. Permissiveness may have freed sex but I don’t think it actually improved it. I do believe there are bodies in the world, bodies and minds and, maybe, hearts, that work miraculously with other bodies and minds and hearts. It is not practice that makes a wonderful sexual experience between two people: we all know we can have a good time in bed with one person and it can be a disaster with another.”

O’Brien was the living denial of the mores of the country she came from, the repressive, abortion- and divorce-banning society harshly disciplined by a secretly pederastic priesthood. London was the liberating host for artists like her escaping from excesses of piety and wanting excesses of pleasure. It was a place where, in 1967, abortion came out from the backstreets into legal practice, never again to be a contentious political issue. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the same year.

These social shifts followed and were assisted by an insolent attack on long-lasting cultural prohibitions, beginning in the theater where playwrights like John Osborne, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard fought and brought down the censorship of language imposed by a farcical figure named the Lord Chamberlain. Stoppard summed up the spirit in the London theater: “Age is a very high price to pay for maturity.” He added, “People of unprecedented youthfulness were doing unprecedentedly mature things.”

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At one shaky point in his career Stoppard had been given £100 by Peter O’Toole to keep him afloat. Stoppard’s big break came in 1967 with Rosencrantz and Guildenstein Are Dead. In his early career the young and mesmerizing O’Toole consumed booze almost as hungrily as he consumed scenery. With Richard Harris he was living proof of the dangerous theory that actors of protean power can sometimes successfully enlist inebriation as part of a performance.

This wave of male leads was matched by a new generation of actresses, including Julie Christie, Helen Mirren, and Vanessa Redgrave, who played against the stereotypes of the British stage and screen, the buttoned-up English roses, or the excruciatingly repressed wives like the one played by Celia Johnson in Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter.

But in London it was the street theater that really released a more brazen sexuality in the style of cheeky, leggy young women in boots and hot pants that were dubbed the dolly birds. Until then, fashion models had been chosen for their decorum and snooty elegance. But the street look was egalitarian and made fashion seem suddenly more accessible, opening the way for models from humble roots.

None of these became more celebrated than Lesley Hornby, aka Twiggy. Perversely, Bailey’s portrait of Twiggy is restricted to her face. But it was the 91-pound skeletal frame, almost androgynous but definitely suggesting Nabakov’s nymphet, that made Twiggy an international brand successfully exploited by her mentor Nigel Davis, son of a bricklayer, who gave himself the professional name of Justin de Villeneuve.

Bailey also excludes from his portrait the body of the young woman who had a cataclysmic effect on British politics in the ’60s, Christine Keeler, who is captioned somewhat coyly as a model. Her face is framed as that of a winsome seducer, but her body was not to be lightly ignored. As one aggrieved political commentator of the time said, “The history of a nation does not pass through the loins of a young woman,” but in this case it actually did. Among other lovers she had shared, at the same time, the defense minister John Profumo, and a Soviet agent.

The resulting famous scandal intimated a basic truth that is always salient: A cover-up is usually more damaging than the action being covered up. Profumo denied the affair to his colleagues and in their code that lie was the offense requiring his resignation. (Sound familiar?) In other times the scandal would have had the limited shelf life of a tabloid sensation. But these were not other times. More sinister acts had occurred, including the scapegoating of Keeler’s mentor, Stephen Ward, as a pimp, which he was not, to conceal a web of debauchery extending deeper into Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s cabinet and exposing muddle in the security services.

Journalism came late to the cultural upheaval of the period, but when it did with the Profumo Affair it led to Macmillan’s downfall. Macmillan assumed that the Sunday Times, edited by an old friend and usually an uncritical supporter of Macmillan’s Conservative Party, would let the story die before it damaged him.

However, I was lucky enough to be working for that editor, Dennis Hamilton, as the head of a new investigative reporting team, Insight. When we showed Hamilton our detailed “who knew what and when” line of reporting it was obvious that we had to publish. At best, Macmillan had been negligent in a matter of national security and, at worst, he had demonstrated willful amnesia. Once our story was published as a book it was impossible for Macmillan to continue.

There was a brief and bizarre interregnum under a successor elected not by the country but by the Conservatives (as was Theresa May), Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and then a socialist government followed, led by Harold Wilson. That government, swept along in the cultural fever, respondent with a raft of progressive legislation.

Macmillan’s authority had also been undermined by brilliant lampoons from the cast of an insurgent BBC program, That Was The Week That Was (direct inspiration and forerunner of Saturday Night Live). The BBC, a publicly funded independent broadcaster, was a frequent target for those beyond London who thought it had fallen into the hands of a decadent metropolitan clique. As a result of pressure from Little England, TW3 (its moniker) lasted only two seasons, but its influence on political satire was immeasurable.

The general drift toward a more relaxed acceptance of private behavior was rudely broken when 20 cops swooped on the country house of Keith Richards early in 1967 in a drugs bust. Richards and Mick Jagger were arrested and given severe sentences—Richards a year and Jagger three months. But this provoked outrage from a surprising place, the Conservative press, where the sentences were viewed as a selective attack driven by an aversion to the Rolling Stones rather than their actual behavior. The sentences were dismissed on appeal.

Bailey’s portraits show the calculated distance between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones: The grooming and mod suits of the Beatles make them look like mildly transgressive choirboys; the pelvic gyrations of the Stones are nakedly pagan, boys as bad as they dare to be. The Beatles were always of Liverpool, the Stones always on the London rollercoaster.

Eventually, Bailey’s own glamour as a player in Swinging London brought an homage to him and the city in the movie Blowup directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. The blend of casual sex and beautiful people was shocking to some audiences, particularly when the movie opened in America. But like satire on the BBC, this was the creative shock necessary to break down old codes of what was permissible.

Although Mad Men pictured the Madison Avenue of the early ’60s as a place as louche and susceptible to style as London, American advertising was for a while behind the curve. In London television advertising became an art form in its own right, and produced directors like Ridley Scott and Alan Parker who swiftly moved to Hollywood. By the end of the decade, though, there had been Woodstock and America had caught the London beat.

David Hockney discovered that his work flowed more freely in America. Evans quotes him, alongside his Bailey portrait: “I used to think that London was exciting. It is compared with Bradford [the northern city of his birth]. But compared with New York or San Francisco, it’s nothing.” And it was in Los Angeles that Hockney found his Bigger Splash.

Since then Hockney has returned to his native Yorkshire and has a new show at Tate Britain in London. This is one of the world’s most thriving art markets and the city has a rich range of museums and galleries. London theater is as innovative as ever. There are more than 300 languages in daily currency. The popular mayor, Sadiq Khan, is a Muslim. As of this week, London’s police chief is a woman, a first.

This summer London will have a whole month, June, celebrating world food. The gastronomy has gone from being a wasteland to a place where virtually every cuisine in the world wants to have a showcase. Unlike France, Britain has no national dogma about what goes on a table and the rituals that should accompany it. The French seem to appreciate that. There are 300,000 of them living in London, making it, in effect, the sixth largest French city.

But Brexit is threatening this vigorous cosmopolitanism. Business and particularly the crucial financial services sector face many unresolved issues about how they can function outside the European Union without carrying heavy new costs. Foreigners working here are unsure of their future status.

Sensing London’s vulnerability, other European cities like Berlin, Frankfurt, and Paris are plotting to lure away the best and the brightest, no matter their nationality. Emmanuel Macron, the suddenly hot tip for the French presidential election, stood outside 10 Downing Street and openly said he wanted “banks, talents, researchers, and academics” to move across the Channel to a more progressive future in France.

If that happens, it could really be Goodbye Baby & Amen for this great open and uninhibited world city. If the Brexiters have their way it would become an introverted bastion of revanchism. Somehow, though, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Not to so bloody likely, mate. Not my London.