What does it mean to remember a time period? Which parts are deemed worthy of remembering, empathizing and explicating? Which parts, reversely, are deemed appropriate to leave implicit, gloss over, not quite mention in the official annals? Who gets to make the choices as to which are which?
More specifically, what does it mean to remember a decade? What goes in to a phrase like “the sixties”, and other phrases associated with it? What happens when a whole period of time is suddenly defined as something, and remembered as thus?
The sixties has a certain image to it. Flower power, the hippie trail, swinging London – without going into specifics, these words alone are enough to conjure a specific set of images into your head. You can visualize the fashion, muse the music and ponder the politics, by feat of association alone. The remembrance is at once both instant and distant. You “remember” the sixties, but odds are what you remember is as generic as the presentation in this paragraph. Especially – crucially – if you were not born then.
This image lingers in the public consciousness, and in some ways inform our present. The phrase “sex, drugs and rock & roll” condenses many of the notions and conceptions inherited from the sixties into a snappy shorthand, and it is not hard to see why. Sex was very much a topic of discussion, then as now. Drugs (and the war on them) are ever present. And while disco might have had a good run, rock is still around and rolling. If you wanted to conduct an analysis of the present cultural setting, using these three things as starting points would not be the worst way to go about it.
Jonathon Green uses three related notions as an organizing principle in All Dressed Up. While the words “dope”, “revolution” and “fucking in the streets” are not strictly identical to those in the iconic phrase, they do serve the same general purpose of shorthanding the same tendencies. Each word connotes a different aspect of the decade, and he uses them to present and make comprehensible the somewhat less glamorous intricacies of the actually existing sixties. Intricacies that are easily forgotten when the myth of the sixties is so readily available and – more to the point – commercially viable.
Green does not give a historical account of the sixties in the sense that every part is related to every other part in a synthetic whole. Rather, he presents each part as an entity unto itself. Not because it is not possible to connect the dots, as it were, but because of his more overall aim: to convey that the sixties was not one singular thing (or three), but many things that took place at the same time, and that any proper understanding of the decade needs to take this into account. There is no great chain of historical being – this one thing necessitated another thing which in turn necessitated another and so forth. Rather, there are many things at the same time, sometimes working together, sometimes clashing, most of the time having rather indirect effects on each other.
The sum of such a presentation is greater than the sum of its parts. It presents the sixties as a complex, complicated, many-faceted jumble of actors working more on momentum than a sense of manifesting destiny. History had not yet congealed into what it turned out to be. Things were very much like they are now: we don’t know what is going to happen, but there are cool people doing cool things near us, and we can join them in their doings. Not because we will inevitably contribute to what is to come, but because we are genuinely interested in the present.
Green manages to combine a sense of being present with the power of hindsight. Writing about the sixties in the nineties inevitably means knowing how things turned out. This inevitable knowledge always tempts to transform into a knowledge that the march from then to now was equally inevitable. Green, however, aims to show that nothing followed inevitably from the sixties, and that all changes the decade brought with it – social, political, cultural – were as much due to uncertainty as anything else. There certainly were sex, drugs and rock & roll, but these in no way necessarily correspond to what you think of when the shorthand is invoked.
To say that Green writes in reaction to Thatcher’s catchphrase “there is no alternative” would not be wrong. But he also writes to set the decade straight, as it were – to dispel the notion that the sixties were some mythical age where the normal trends and forces of history were somehow put aside, and that the proper order was only restored with great efforts afterwards (as Thatcher, among others, would have it). Paradoxically, his presentation of each individual entity in its singularity serves to reinforce just how historically situated they were, and how these same trends and forces are acting upon us even now.
All Dressed Up serves both as a primer on the sixties, and as a reminder that history is not just something that happened to other people. History is also something you are a part of making, and something that is used to persuade you that some things are more inevitable than others.
Nothing is inevitable until you make it so. Not even history.