The speedy lurch from that scenario to the freewheeling, long-haired, Leftist world of free love and protest I discovered at UCL in 1966 is well-documented by Nicholson in a pleasingly sensible structure of a chapter per year — each one containing a range of telling, often touching, interviews with women from many backgrounds.
This method, used with great success in her books on previous decades, brings vividly to life the big events (the Chatterley trial, the Profumo affair, the rise of TV satire with That Was The Week That Was, newspaper shock-horror at Mods and Rockers, and so on). And because she cleverly runs the interviews in strands throughout the book, the more gradual social changes (for example, attitudes towards unmarried mothers, the life-changing freedom of the contraceptive Pill and the rise of feminism) are allowed to unfold as they happened.
Towards the end of How Was It For You?, Nicholson makes clear that hers is no Whiggish treatment of the past. “Let’s not pretend it all came to an end when the Women’s Liberation movement began”, she insists. “Sexism is like a Hydra. Chop off its head and two more grow in its place.” At one point, such a conclusion might have seemed hyperbolic. Now, though, there’s a sad truth to it. For all that the 1960s were ostensibly about change – the flouting of convention, the questioning of tradition – it’s the continuities revealed in these pages that prove most unsettling. But there is no Hercules on hand to slay the monster.
Virginia Nicholson was a shy girleen in bare legs and a cotton dress when that decade was going full bore; now she’s put together a kaleidoscopic, 492-page history of that most “yeasty” of decades... This is Virginia Nicholson’s fifth social history book. She comes with impeccable credentials: grandmother Vanessa Bell, great-aunt Virginia Woolf, mother Anne Olivier Bell, who edited VW’s diaries, coming home from the British Library “covered in dust”. She’s knocked a good deal of dust off the 1960s and how it was for women. How wonderful.
For me this book evokes a Gigi duet moment: ‘You wore a gown of gold.’ ‘I was all in blue.’ ‘Am I getting old?’ ‘Oh, no, not you.’ Memory plays us false, and it takes the skill of a sympathetic historian such as Virginia Nicholson to sift the evidence, written and oral, and unfold a story that is both plausible and sound... It is her enthusiasm as much as her scholarship that makes this such a beguiling read, especially for those of us who were there at the time and indeed have shared our recollections. In the course of answering her own question she draws on a parade of witnesses now in their sixties, seventies and even eighties, women who in their comfortable retirement remember what it was like in their youth
The awkwardness of this book is that by mixing up famous and non-famous sources, Nicholson has to describe the non-famous ones and her tone is often unbearably patronising – “Beryl’s neutral sitting room, in a north London flat, demonstrates how little appearances matter to her.” Also she can never get over her amazement that women who now look so old and ordinary once had exciting and adventurous lives. But the evidence of her own book proves that we did. We had all the fun.
How Was It for You? is social history-lite. It never quite cuts through the ephemera to the key question: did something really important and radical (culturally, morally, politically) take place in those years and if so why? If all that happened in the 60s is that women started wearing bizarrely short skirts and were freed from chastity by the pill, then really it would not seem to matter very much. But Angela Carter (among others) thought otherwise: “Towards the end of that decade there was a brief period of public philosophical awareness that occurs only very occasionally in human history, when truly it felt like Year One, when all that was holy was in the process of being profaned. And we were attempting to grapple with the real relations between human beings.”
Nicholson’s book is a chronological account of women’s lives through the 1960s, brought to life by testimony from a group now in their seventies who talk candidly about how it was for them. Women such as Margaret Hogg, who had her first child at the age of 18. David was born with the deformities caused by Thalidomide. The male doctors were reluctant to let her take him home, telling her: “It would be better if you left Baby here, and went home and just forgot that you had him, and just carry on and have another baby.” She refused, and David, whom the doctors predicted would not survive beyond five, is still alive, while his mother has become a campaigner for the rights of Thalidomide people and the disabled generally.
Nicholson paints a luscious picture of the Swinging Sixties. “Can you imagine a better time to hit the ground running?” says Mavis Wilson, who recalls having the time of her life, arriving in London in 1964 to work as an art gallery receptionist; she did a quick “mascara top-up” each evening after work, then went out to party all night. However, Nicholson reminds us that for some young women, in the provinces or with high Christian morals, life barely moved on at all. Jenny Sullivan in Cardiff in 1969 was at the age of 24 still working in a typing pool and living at home with parents who imposed a 10.30pm curfew.
In How Was It For You? Nicholson uses individual stories and interviews with a wide range of characters to spell out the gloomy world confronting women at the start of the 1960s. It reveals the highly varied lives women led — from suburban housewife to miniskirted hippy — and how the influences of music, the pill as well as outrageous and affordable fashions suddenly showed there was more than one way to live.