I grew up in the sixties and I can remember them! Thinking they were doing the best for me, the parents sent me to a Catholic convent full of white middle class girls and I stood out like a sore toenail. I was force fed eleven plus exam questions and answers from specially written books that my Mum purchased, on top of the fees she had to pay, so that I could pass and move up to the bigger version of the school.
At eleven I found myself in a grammar school populated by the same sort of girls only older and a netball of nuns who appeared to be obsessed by Latin, Gilbert and Sullivan and Religious Instruction…and netball. They were strong women, those nuns and no amount of wailing about painful periods would get you off sports. They told me I was the spitting image of the Wild Woman of Borneo – to this day I still don’t know who she was – because my hair was thick and bushy and very un-English. We had underwear inspection once a week to check that we were wearing regulation long blue bloomers.
But it was the sixties and as we reached our dangerous teens, we sneaked into school wearing acres of pink and white net petticoats under our school skirts, making them spray out around our legs like candy floss. We turned our navy cardigans back to front and wore them without our white shirts, exposing spotty backs in the V. We wore black stocking – well, Mary Quant wore them, didn’t she? – and black patent heels. We were trouble.
All this anarchy led to serious talks by Father Mularchy (not his real name, of course – I want to go to heaven!) emphasising purity and modesty and warning us that when we eventually went out into the world, we may be asked to wear nothing but two beads and a leaf… We had to know how to say NO. This did nothing to persuade us and we continued to buck the uniform regulations until our new headmistress, a very savvy nun who had been in the WRAF before receiving her vocation, called our little group out of assembly one morning and threatened to expel us. It worked, but we simply replaced our teenage uniform rebellion with boys.
It was easy. The school was losing its status as a grammar and was about to become a comprehensive, with two grammar streams. That meant a new extension in steel and glass was about to be built, attached incongruously to the lovely old Victorian convent; built by fit young men. You would think we had never seen the species before. We had brothers and fathers, didn’t we? We weren’t in a boarding school. But oh, they looked so delicious in their low slung jeans and bare chests that we couldn’t take our eyes off them. It was all innocent at first. We loved the wolf whistles and shouts as we ran onto the netball pitch in our skirt-shorts and waved at them. The pitch happened to be right next door to the building site. I don’t think we ever thought about the implications of all that flirting. We were just thrilled and teased. We didn’t know very much about sex.
And so came the long years of heartbreak. Between fourteen and sixteen, I think my heart was broken at least twenty times. At fifteen, I was passionately in love with Elvis, so frustrating loving a boy who was just a photo and a voice, but now I had the chance to be close to gorgeous young blokes every day, half dressed and up for it. That long hot summer when I was fifteen, sex was everywhere. It was the sport of the nation. Politicians were doing it, getting caught while their mistresses told the world – in detail. Sixties clothes oozed with it. Our skirts were just long enough to cover our bits, while our long white leather boots made us all feel like Jean Shrimpton. The pill was available to those of us bold enough to confront the family GP and ask for it. Nirvana – King’s Road and Carnaby Street were just a mile or so from suburban North West London, where most of us lived. Every Saturday morning, my friend Margaret and I would dress up in our sixties stuff to hop on the number 52 bus into Kensington to spend the day in Biba. We had very little money to spend, but it didn’t matter. We were where it was at! We felt we were really living. Okay, we had to return to Nunsville on Monday, but on Saturday we could be sixties children. There was music everywhere, too. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Lovin’ Spoonful, all gorgeous. The Beach Boys were my favourite. I would have died for them!
Then it all got a bit serious. On my sixteenth birthday, one of my school friends was caught in the music room, snogging the only male teacher under seventy-five who had ever been employed. The Head had wanted to seem progressive, what with the new build and all. So she broke the unspoken rule and got a man in to teach music. This was far worse than builders. There was no ten foot metal fence between us and poor Mr Turner (Name changed to protect the innocent!). The man was so available. He was near enough to smell and we were sixteen, after all. It all ended in tears. He left under a cloud of disgrace and my mate was expelled and ended up moving half way across the world; her parents decided to emigrate. There was no alternative.
You see, underneath all this freedom, girls were still called unmarried mothers if they got pregnant without a husband and there were places to deal with these fallen young women. Babies were whipped away from their sixteen year old mothers six weeks after birth – just long enough for the girls to feel their hearts being torn out – and handed to adoption agencies. STI’s did not exist in the public consciousness. You could never, and I mean never ask your mother about contraception. The extent of my sex education was given to me on the first day of my first period – which came as a shock, although I had an elder sister. My mother hurriedly thrust a huge sanitary towel into my hand and said in a voice suitable for disclosing secrets to the Russians: Don’t go with boys! I had no idea what she meant. Just that being around boys made me feel a strange happiness that was quite new to me…
So for me, the sixties were full of mixed messages. Women were still under the thumb of domesticity, yet they were emerging as sex objects in the media. Divorce was rare and needed a co-respondent. Domestic violence was acceptable and child abuse was everywhere and nowhere. Satire was coming into its own with shows like ‘That Was The Week That Was’ and how could we survive without the radio and those wonderful Sunday lunch shows like ‘Round The Horne’ and ‘Hancock’s Half Hour‘?
Now, I am glad that things have changed for women. Until the other day, when I woke up and turned on the TV news. The clever young presenter, all shiny blonde hair and sharp questions, was asking a politician about a new set of laws about to be passed in Afghanistan. I listened while she read them out and my jaw hit the floor. Could I really be hearing that in the 21st century, a nation war torn for decades, now desperately trying to become a Democracy, wanted to implement a law that said women needed the permission of their husbands before they could leave the house? That they must agree to sex in marriage once every four days? There was more, but I turned the TV off at that point to deal with my anger and disappointment. So much has changed in the past forty years – and so little.