The Unsung Sixties: Memoirs of Social Innovation by Helene Curtis and Mimi Sanderson

The Unsung Sixties: Memoirs of Social Innovation by Helene Curtis and Mimi Sanderson

I think that when people wax lyrical about the exciting, innovative 1960s they tend to use it as a kind of shorthand way of talking about a time when there appeared to be a new willingness to question authority or challenge the status quo – a desire, in short to throw off the spectre of post-war austerity and dull uniformity. This is frequently coupled with emerging, experimental changes in music, art or fashion, often associated with the rise of the politically conscious and assertive teenager.

Although there is clear a kernel of truth in this characterisation, in recent years this rather hackneyed stereotype has come under increasing scrutiny. There is a growing recognition that much of the so-called ‘Swinging Sixties’ was a construct of advertisers and marketeers and, in reality, the new freedoms and liberality of this decade was experienced by a relatively small core of the metropolitan elite. In large swathes of the country the Sixties felt very much like the Fifties. The truth of this is brilliantly captured by Philip Larkin in his poem Annus Mirabilis.

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

But if the cultural impact of the Sixties is sometimes overstated, it’s also true that a new spirit was abroad in terms of thinking about how to solve some of the deep-rooted social problems that had their origins in pre-war British social policy. This book, The Unsung Sixties, tries to capture the excitement of a new generation of change-makers emerging out of a newly revitalised ‘voluntary’ or charitable sector. This was the golden age of pressure groups and campaigns, organisations that no longer went in for modest petition but staked out claims for an expanding of human rights, for confronting inequalities and facing up to discrimination. This was a time for non-statutory organisations to emerge that were demanding accountability from the State and private sectors alike.

The compilers of this book, Curtis and Sanderson, have done a marvellous job of combing through the massive agendas of the day, finding people who were there on the ground at the time and getting them to reflect on their aims, objectives and experiences. The book is beautifully structured with dedicated sections looking at the key issues – housing, poverty, legal aid gender, disability and the arts. It could be argued that some areas get better representation than others – the section on disability action is very thin as is that dealing with faith organisations – but I think that, from personal experience, this might actually reflect that in the Sixties these issues were at that time still Cinderella subjects.

Because of my own background, I was particularly drawn to the section dealing with poverty and I found David Bull’s description of the genesis of the Child Poverty Action Group fascinating. Joe Kenyon’s section on the Claimants and Unemployed Workers Union made me smile and wince with recognition and who could resist an article that starts :

I had loads of enemies. You don’t make friends with the kind of work I’ve done, not in official quarters. You make enemies.

The overall experience of dipping in and out of this engaging volume is neatly captured by the above quote because the contributions still burn with commitment. Anyone who is conversant with much of today’s voluntary sector will be struck by the contrast between the in-your-face battle for justice described here and the tepid over-professionalisation of organisations as they’ve evolved.

You can’t help but think that it’s a sector that’s lost its way and that maybe this book should be compulsory reading for them.

Terry Potter

October 2017

This review was originally published on the Letterpress Project  website)

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