Since no generation in history has ever been quicker to congratulate itself than the baby boomers, it comes as a refreshing change to read Francis Beckett’s robust polemic.
The children born between 1945 and 1955, he argues, have left their descendants a world “far harsher than the one they inherited”. They inherited an “extraordinary legacy” from their predecessors – a booming economy, a generous welfare state, a society built on implicit collective values – and they wrecked it.
They talked a great deal about peace and love, but when they got their hands on the levers of power, the results were the sado-monetarist experiment of Thatcherism and the market-obsessed, spin-driven, blood-stained nightmare of New Labour. Their supreme representative, he thinks, was Tony Blair, who “embodies everything that was shallow and hypocritical and mendacious about the sixties”.
Strong as this might sound, it is nothing compared with the sustained ferocity of Beckett’s attack. No doubt many readers will think he presses his argument a trifle too far: the great majority of the so-called baby boom generation, after all, preferred Engelbert Humperdinck to Tariq Ali and have spent their lives toiling quietly away in Aberdeen, Aylesbury and Aberystwyth.
What really distinguishes this book, though, is its store of anecdotes.
“Tell me,” WH Auden asked Marianne Faithfull, hoping to shock her, “when you travel with drugs, do you pack them up your arse?” “Oh no, Wystan,” she replied. “I stash them in my pussy.” Beckett scores this as “sixties one, thirties nil”.
In the long run, though, he puts the Sixties in the relegation zone of history. Grey-haired hippies will read this book and shudder; the rest of us, though, will read it for the splendid stories and shafts of insight.
Dominic Sandbrook is the author of State of Emergency (Allen Lane, 2010)