I recently visited Torre Abbey (as a proud member of the 1196 Club); it is place of historical importance in the Torbay area and whilst walking on the grounds the sense of history can be overwhelming. I’ve taken my daughter here a couple of times now, and the exhibits within the museum section are well-designed and presented. Furthermore, it has an incredibly friendly coffee-shop attached to it; on a sunny day sitting outside you can peer across the green fields to the sea. Anyhow, enough of my tourist review… onto the main purpose of the post.
A current exhibit – ‘Torbay Rocks’ – took my fancy. It is held in one room and contains a series of posters outlining the various bands and performers who came to play in the area during the 1960s and 1970s (or, as is the case with a couple of acts, those who booked to come and play but never actually arrived). The names include a treasure-trove of great bands, including David Bowe, The Who, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd (never arrived and were sued for their absence), and many more. The David Bowie ticket was £1.50 – a ridiculous bargain and a slice of cultural history.
All of these posters turned my mind to a well-worn historical debate of 20th Century British history: Arthur Marwick’s Cultural Revolution. Marwick contends that during the period 1958-1974 (the so-called ‘Long Sixties’) Britain experienced sharp cultural change, unlike anything seen before or since. As he states:
‘Within society a unique conjunction of circumstances brought about changes which greatly affected the lives of ordinary people: there was no political revolution, no economic revolution, but there was, in the sense in which I am using the term, a ‘cultural revolution’.
Marwick argues that the ‘long sixties’ built on ideas of the past and moved much faster with them: ‘they expanded and interacted with each other in such a way as to create a condition of rapid change and ever-developing innovation’. He claims that the Sixties was ‘an era of spectacle’, due to the change in media technology (film, television, music), whilst it also witnessed a boom in underground movements and a counter-cultural movement. This thesis engages in eight sections, including consumerism, youth, international success of British pop culture, permissiveness and frankness, protest, women’s liberation / gay liberation, innovation in the arts, and multiculturalism.
Clearly, the Sixties evokes a sense of passion and wonderment for succeeding generations; artists and musicians return again and again to the rich work initiated in that decade. However, Marwick’s thesis has been contested by some, including those who disagree that the decade produced a golden age (although Marwick also dismisses such a notion by stating that ‘there are no golden ages’). The other debate – the one that concerns me and this post – is whether or not the Swinging sixties “swung” for everyone.
For example, clearly there was faster change in central cities such as London than there were in rural communities in Devon. This urban/rural divide has been long established, and has been commented on by the likes of Peter Burke. The 1960s provides us with a great opportunity to compare urban v rural to try to understand the impact of the revolution. The Torre Abbey exhibit ‘Torbay Rocks’ shows that Devon was not a completely marooned island, and that certain groups in the area did engage in the change in music during the period. However, when discussing with older family members it is clear that many villages in the deep south-west did not engage in Marwick’s key points: gay rights was stunted, multiculturalism was never fully tested due to the homogenised white population, openness was not tolerated, and even consumerism did not impact these communities due to the continuation of smaller shops and businesses.
There is a further debate that could be waged: perhaps it was not revolution, but rather evolution. The 1960s is regularly returned to, but other decades also pushed forward societal and cultural change. Regularly cited examples include the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’, or the current change in digital technology since the 1990s. This Revolution v Evolution is a favoured one of mine, although the reality – and the consensus – reveals that change is continuous, but it escalates and declines at different speeds for different groups in society.
Whatever the conclusion, Marwick’s thesis is an interesting one. It helps test assumptions and those with “rose-tinted glasses”, and opens up the Swinging Sixties to other forgotten, rural centres. Hopefully I can utilise the ‘Torbay Rocks’ exhibit in years to come with classes that I teach. And at the very least, the visit to Torre Abbey provided me to dress my daughter up as a flower-child hippy!