What Marianne Faithfull Really Teaches Us About the Swinging Sixties

What swung in the Swinging Sixties turns out in many cases to have been a wrecking ball. That wrecking ball is still swinging and is still damaging many lives. We need to moderate the sexual revolution.

'If you remember the 1960s you weren't there'. So goes the famous saying. But a lot of people who were there, right there in the very epicentre of the Swinging Sixties, do remember it, and a lot of what they remember they do not like.

The latest famous child of the 1960s to remember the period is Marianne Faithfull in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? She is as much an icon of the period as Brigitte Bardot or Jane Fonda. But we like Marianne better than those two because she lived in London which is close to us, because there's a vulnerable, dreamy quality about her, and because she has spent a lot of her life in this country.

As you can probably guess, I'm about to write a critique of the excesses of the 1960s and it might be suspected that my real agenda in writing such a piece is to try and 'drag us back' to the 1950s.

No, that's not it. I haven't the slightest desire for Ireland to go back there, not even to the enormous levels of Mass-going which prevailed then because that masked a lot that was wrong in the Church and the country.

The reason we need to critique the excesses of the 1960s - a lot of which are still with us - is because they genuinely damaged, and damage, a lot of people.

But let's not start with Marianne Faithfull. Let's start instead with someone much less famous, the art critic Robert Hughes who died last year.

Hughes was one of those brilliant Australia ex-pats like Clive James and Germaine Greer who washed up in London in the 1960s and left their mark.

A few years ago Hughes published his memoirs, 'Things I Didn't Know'. Hughes wrote of his marriage to Danne Patricia Emerson, a woman he met in Notting Hill at a drinks party.

He called the marriage "the most extreme and durable misery I had ever felt". The reason? Danne was "a flying test-bed for every fad that existed in the 60s", including 'free love'.

She ordained the marriage should be 'open' and basically slept with any man she fancied. This reduced Hughes to "stammering misery" and he started sleeping around with other women, just to be even.

But tellingly he says: "I sensed then, and know with a fair degree of certainty now, that it is an illusion to suppose that sexual promiscuity helps create personal freedom. There is a huge difference between the condition of freedom and that of accepting no responsibilities to anyone".

Hughes and Emerson had had a child together, Danton. Emerson took no responsibility for him, Hughes took some. But Danton was badly messed up. He committed suicide in 2002. Emerson herself died in 2003.

We also have the memoir of our own Edna O'Brien which presents a more glamorous look at London in the Swinging Sixties except when we learn about the terrifying effects of LSD on O'Brien and her friend, Sean Connery.

One of the figures that drifted in and out of O'Brien's circle of friends and acquaintances was Marianne Faithfull herself, then the girlfriend of Mick Jagger.

Faithfull was the very image of sexual liberation. But it turns out she couldn't enjoy sex until she was in her fifties, long after her moment in the sun because her mother and grandmother had been raped in Austria at the end of World War II by Red Army soldiers and passed on some of their loathing of men to Marianne.

But Marianne felt obliged to go along with 'sexual liberation' because in her circle that's what you did whether you really wanted to or not.

Faithfull says: "It was a big problem for me in the Sixties, especially as I had to pretend that everything was wonderful, wild and sexual. But it really wasn't."

And here we have a real paradox, because sexual liberation means nothing at all unless you can say 'no' as well as 'yes'.

Writing about Faithfull in The Daily Telegraph the other day, Angela Neustatter also wrote about the pressure she and others like her felt at the end of the Sixties to have sex with men they didn't really like because they were so terrified of being seen as "a dismal throwback to a puritan era".

Neustatter reckons it's even worse now. This is certainly borne out by the kind of experiences recounted to The Sunday Times recently by a group of older teenage girls about the constant pressure they feel to have sex and never say 'no'.

One said: "What does love look like? It doesn't exist, it's just sexual attraction. They only want one thing, then they leave."

Another stated: "I took the morning-after-pill when I was 13 because I was too young to even think of getting pregnant. I thought I was being responsible. But the boys push you into sex by saying you can take it the next day."

A third said: "Most times I feel pressure to have sex. It's about people-pleasing."

This is not liberation. It's anything but. The lives of these young women are as damaged and blighted as surely as the victims of Puritanism in the past.

Robert Hughes's life was also damaged. So was his wife's. So was their child's. So was Marianne Faithfull's.

What swung in the Swinging Sixties turns out in many cases to have been a wrecking ball. That wrecking ball is still swinging and is still damaging many lives. We need to moderate the sexual revolution.

This article first appeared in The Irish Independent.

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