A SELECTION OF REVIEWS AND TRAVEL JOURNALISM BY JENNY DISKI
(Click on a title)
Author, author: Advice for young writers-to-be
Beatles to Bowie: beneath the surface of 60s photography
A voyage to world's end
Speaking for Myself: The Autobiography by Cherie Blair
The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness
From The Guardian, Saturday 3 October 2009
Given how crammed with eventfulness the 20th century was, it's surprising that the seventh decade should have made quite such an impression. It can't be that it was the only fun decade, since it included the Vietnam war, the Biafran war, a string of assassinations, invasions, riots and numerous famines. In most parts of the world, it wasn't much fun at all. It's true that in Britain there was no war, invasion or famine, and only a little rioting. But I don't think that the lack of desperate events is why the decade is celebrated. Most of what happened from 1960 to 1969 happened in the United States first, and we, as usual, tagged along behind. Nevertheless, in his preface to the catalogue for Beatles to Bowie: The 60s Exposed, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne, sees the period as transitional, a time when "introverted Britain . . . was moving forward to a renewed, creative and cosmopolitan future".
It depends which direction you look in. If you were there at the time, and involved in the creative and the cosmopolitan, it must have seemed like an arrow pointing to a new dawn – at any rate, a change from the dreariness of the austere 50s. If, like Nairne, Jon Savage (who writes the catalogue's introductory essay) or Terence Pepper, the exhibition's curator, you were born in those dreary 50s and were a little young to be moving and shaking at the time, it must have looked impossibly golden, watched through glass, like hungry kids in front of a restaurant: the tales, the music and pictures of those who were actually taking the photos, singing the songs, promoting the stars and modelling the frocks. I was born a little earlier, and to me, the 50s was the golden period I'd missed: the Beats, jazz, pure folk, the real bequeathers of the 60s, or at any rate of the 60s that still interests me beyond nostalgia. Not really pop, but something darker. It's all a matter of perspective.
Now those of us old enough to have had the fun, or young enough to have watched others having it, are in full voice, remembering our youth, as all generations do, with wistfulness and a sense that such times will never come again. We were, and still are, a mouthy lot, many of us ending up in the media – writing, editing, curating – and before we take our leave we are going to give the 60s all we've got. Anyone of a later generation getting cheesed off with the festival of the 60s we've been imposing on the world for the past 40 years has only to wait. We will eventually shut up.
By offering every year of the 60s through the photographs of the chart toppers and the fan mags of the time, this exhibition limits itself to style. If that's all the National Portrait Gallery requires, it will satisfy the nostalgia seekers and those who believe that, to its detriment, style was all there was to the period. Photographs are apt to do that, especially photographs commissioned by record companies, glossy magazines and weekend colour supplements, as most of these exhibits were. There are no candid snaps on show here. Everyone is posing and snapping for money and glory. Most of the subjects are being manipulated, albeit willingly, not just by the photographers (that is what photographers do) but by those who are not themselves in the pictures – the managers, the agents and the company executives. Here's Cliff Richard in shades of grey, looking dangerous in 1960, his collar up, his eyes peering threateningly from under his brow, a pout on its way to a snarl on his lips. He is the living presence of the 50s, still not really gone away, but there is Cliff, also in 1960, on stage in white trousers and a cropped jacket performing in the pantomime Babes in the Wood at the Globe Theatre, Stockton, promising to be a very undangerous all-rounder (Tommy Steele, leathered Teddy Boy from the 2i's coffee bar, had already gone that route and by 1959 had a huge hit singing "Little White Bull", from his film Tommy the Toreador). Here are the Shadows, moody and thoughtful in more Fair Isle than it seems possible four people could wear; Johnny Kidd is a pirate, a little bit dangerous, a little bit pantomime; and there is Adam Faith standing arrogantly upright, staring out the camera below him, but also awfully awkward and decidedly at home in a sharp suit, with a photo of the girl next door behind his left shoulder, and his mum's trellis wallpaper behind his right.
All over the place, 1960. There's the promise of being young and having, unlike any other generation, money in your pocket. Got a lotta becoming to do. But also there is showbiz and tradition, and the need to get beyond the faithless kids into the heartland. The only people who knew that the kids were going to grow up were the grown-ups. They were the ones in charge who knew that style was only style, and that it could change according to the needs of the income stream. By 1963, Cliff is pictured in his lovely home, a bar in the corner, modern Swedish furniture and classical panelling above the mock-baronial fireplace. He lounges in an armchair, like an infant emperor, eating an apple while his mother and sisters sit and stand behind him, rigid as waxworks, in a supposedly casual, candid shot of bourgeois living. No hint of danger.
Also in 1963, is a shot of the Springfields. Two rest their heads on the shoulder of the one next to them. Both have their eyes shut; they appear to be asleep. One is a woman, with a great big bow on her blouse as if parodying the first woman prime minister yet to come. Only the man on the right is awake, looking quizzically at the other two. Maybe they're bored, maybe they spent the night making wild love and now can't keep their eyes open. Maybe they're puppets who haven't had their strings pulled. The woman will wake up quite soon, actually, and then she'll become Dusty Springfield, something radically different from the sleeping doll of 1963. The first shots of the Beatles and their soon to be darker shadows, the Rolling Stones, come in this year. Both groups stare unsmiling at the camera: looks like things are going to change. Sleep, and then that stare. It's a warning. But, like Dusty, the unexceptional looking Stones are going to need a bit of waking up before they start to frighten the mums and dads.
In fact, it's more of a warning that the new photographers and the new Sunday colour supplements are going to take style to the world. By 1964 Mick Jagger has become a bit of an animal in David Bailey's single portrait of him: lips parted, eyes dead or focused on some inner need, and his face enclosed in a fur hood – fox, very likely. There's nothing in the background, not even the other Stones. Nothing to distract from the immaculately lit, studio study of Jagger. This is no longer just about selling a group to their fans. The portrait became part of Bailey's Box of Pin-Ups that year; a book of gorgeous, glossy photos of famous people. The title was surely meant to be ironic. Bailey and his models (I almost wrote poseurs) are far too cool for fandom. Not jazz-cool, of the 50s, focused on the work, internalised, keeping out of society's way, but new cool like knowing and superior (hauteur, Savage calls it in his essay) society itself, showing the rest of the world, for the mere price of a book, what style is really like. The picture is pretty, Jagger is pretty, Rudolf Nureyev is pretty, Roman Polanski is pretty. But what about the music, the dance, the films? All of them were exceptional at what they did, but the real irony of the Box of Pin-ups was that it wasn't ironic at all, it was just that.
By 1965 there's a move to dirty realism. Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers is photographed by Robert Whitaker in the mean streets of Liverpool. In one street, actually, standing dead centre in the middle of a grey and rainy road flanked by workmen's terrace two-up two-downs. He's sideways on, in boots with two-and-a-half-inch heels, leather jacket, hands in pockets, and like that picture which becomes a rabbit or an old woman depending on how you look, he is announcing to the camera that this is his place, or that it was and isn't any longer. It was one of the conundrums for the stylishly successful working-class young of the 60s. More posed still, and stranger, are a pair of portraits of Marianne Faithfull and Sandie Shaw, in full colour (well, they're girls). Their faces, from my ancient retrospect, are too young to be more interesting than pretty, each with their head resting on one hand, putting together a jigsawed photograph of the other woman. Telling us what? That the one who isn't them is a construct, or the photographer telling us that they're both constructs? Strange, anyway, unlike Petula Clark having her hem turned up in the street or Cilla Black in purple and pink splayed out in a window frame like Vetruvian man. By now, everyone's getting it; even Cecil Beaton takes a soft-focus snap of the Walker Brothers.
The jump comes in 1967, when pop separates from a more contentious sort of music and style. The Who are hard-edged Mods who hope they die before they grow old (and didn't), and Hendrix a silk-swathed, wild-haired and purple-hazed blues child (who did). Even pretty Marianne is in leathers on a motorbike. The hippies and supergroups arrive, in diaphanous silk scarves and unmanageable hair, though the studio and pop studies are still going on because Englebert Humperdinck, the Bachelors and the Seekers are up there in the charts. The Beatles, however, by 1969 look quite adult enough to split up. Hairy as Jesus, grim-faced, wasted, the four of them sit on the ground, and there's Yoko right in front, in a fedora and white tie, John's wrists resting on her shoulders, and Paul in infamous yellow socks. But even this photo isn't as interesting as one taken the year before at Wapping Pier by Don McCullin. Although the fab four take up most of the central space of the photograph, you have to drag your eyes away from the river and wharf buildings in the background to see them. They even look as if they're trying to get in the picture, to get McCullin's interest. Eager to be seen, not sure they're being paid proper attention. Or even if they deserve McCullin's gaze.
McCullin usually filled the colour supplements with pictures of war and famine in faraway parts of the world. It was a kind of tax we paid for the pin-ups and slick ads that took up the rest of the space. This is the only photo of the exhibition I'd like to have on my wall. The only one in this exhibition that hints at the possibility that there was a world of any substance going on beyond the "creative and cosmopolitan" 60s in Britain.
Beatles to Bowie: The 60s Exposed is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (020 7306 0055), from 15 October to 24 January 2010.