With a colourful history of drug-taking and rebellion, author Jenny
Diski tells why she isn't one to romantacise the Sixties
Published Date: 21 June 2009
By Aidan Smith
WE ALL wish we were better read, but if you can't be, let people
think you are. Twice I reckon I managed to impress with my
literary-based trivia, most recently at a posh wedding, on being
introduced to a young man called Balthazar, when I wondered out loud:
"... as in the beastly beatitudes?" The time before that was six
years ago, on a train in Canada, and a young woman's name-tag
prompted me to inquire: "Any relation to Jenny Diski?"
I've never read JP Donleavy but I have read Jenny Diski, who today is
sitting in her publisher's office in Bloomsbury, London, while Chloe,
her daughter and the girl on the train, waits for her on the other
side of the glass partition. This is disconcerting for the writer
because I've just asked how she went about motherhood, after her own
mother made such an appalling job of it.
A reasonable question, given how much Diski, 62, has written about
her gruesome childhood, and that her mother creeps in and out of her
third memoir, about the Swinging Sixties. At first she says: "I'm not
going to talk about that because my daughter gets very cross." But
moments later she's explaining how the first memoir, Skating To
Antarctica, wasn't prompted by the urge to travel, more to flee a
possible reunion with her mother.
She says: "When Chloe was on her gap year she started mouldering on
about having a granny somewhere. I told her I didn't want to know.
But she went to the records office to find out if she was still
alive, so I went to ends of the earth. Luckily for all of us
including, I think, my mother it turned out she'd died in 1988.
"So what kind of mother am I? Less mad, hopefully."
Born in London to Jewish parents, Diski had adored her conman father
(he seduced well-off women) who left when she was six, when her
mother suffered a nervous breakdown. That was the age at which Diski
says she became depressed and the Sixties, however much they swung,
didn't change things. "I was a miserable cow," she says.
Swotting up on Diski, I thought she might be a difficult interviewee.
She doesn't do eye contact, and sometimes she answers abruptly, but
she can also be funny. "We are the disappointed remnant, the rump of
the Sixties" is one of several good lines from the book. When I quote
it back at her, she says: "Maybe my publishers should give away
knickers with the book saying 'Jenny's disappointed rump', what do you think?"
Then she tells me that the book's themes Were the Sixties really
about changing the world? Weren't the ideas old ones dressed up by
Biba? Didn't Sixties "freedom" open the way for Eighties greed and
self-interest? are to be the subject of a debate on Radio 4's Today
programme. "Who shall we get on, they said Pete Townshend? I said
Pete Doherty. Someone of this generation who complains that the
children of the Sixties are always banging on about them but who
doesn't write anything in riposte. I'd love to discuss this with Mr
Doherty but the only name they've come back with is Felix Dennis
(publisher of Oz in the Sixties; less epochal stuff since]. What am I
going to say to him? How's Asian Babes?"
Diski initially turned down her book, called simply The Sixties. "We
didn't need any more about the period, and they were all dreadful.
Too partisan, too sentimental or written by ten-year-olds." So what
changed her mind? "If someone's insistent enough then eventually I'll
Perhaps the most headline-grabbing line in the book is: "On the basis
that no means no, I was raped several times by men who arrived in my
bed and wouldn't take no for an answer." In the flower-power era no
one said it with flowers. "Want to f***?" was usual chat-up. "And it
was considered rude not to," she says.
Expelled from boarding school for attending an all-night party and
sniffing ether, a runaway, an attempted suicide at 15 and a
foster-daughter of Doris Lessing (whose dinner-party guests included
radical psychologist RD Laing), Diski says she was "the Sixties
waiting to happen". In the second of her three "bins" psychiatric
hospitals she developed a taste for methylamphetamine. Back in the
real world of a Covent Garden bedsit, she smoked dope, dropped acid
and even tried heroin. The night she thought bugs were crawling over
her body persuaded her to quit drugs. Presumably, though, the bugs
were preferable to unwanted men.
Diski doesn't romanticise the Sixties; nor does she name-drop. She
had a friend who lived with Pink Floyd but he doesn't make it into
the book, and his glamour quotient was dulled by him being "as mad as
a rat" and convinced "the mother of all pubic crabs" inhabited the flat.
The Sixties was a time of great narcissism "there's no doubt about
that." But she doesn't hold with the view that the hippie begat the
yuppie. "We may have been woolly-minded but we were interested in
what was going on in the world and concerned about each other more
than the young now, I think."
For the would-be writer, the Sixties was the "solipsistic dream".
"Others took drugs and had sex; I did them and sat in a corner and
watched all these crazy thoughts zoom past." Diski's bad poetry from
that era is kept under lock and key, far away from her current
partner, a proper poet, Ian Patterson, but the writing has got much
better since then.
So what's her next book about? "Animals," she says. "I much prefer
them to humans." v
The Sixties (Profile, £10.99) is published 2 July
Review by Michèle Roberts
Published: June 22 2009
By Jenny Diski
Profile £10.99, 143 pages
Jenny Diski is one of Britain's sharpest social commentators, her
writing distinguished by its bleak wit, its honesty and acerbity.
Looking back at the radicalism of the 1960s, the attempts to change
consciousness, the sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll, she invokes nostalgia
and immediately mocks it: "In truth, the only thing that is
absolutely certain is that the music then was better."
Viewing this era through the lens of personal memoir makes sense,
says Diski: "After all, weren't the Sixties accused above all of
having consolidated the sense of the self which created that most
monstrous beast: the Me Generation?"
Born in 1947 in London, Diski reminds us that "the Sixties" actually
began in the mid-1960s with the rise of popular culture, "aided by a
generation of people who did not have an urgent economic fear, nor
(in Britain) a war to deal with". It ended in the mid-1970s, "when
all the open-ended possibilities we saw began to narrow, as
disillusion, rightwing politicians, and the rest of our lives started
to loom unexpectedly large".
She crammed in intense experiences, "regretting the Beats, buying
clothes, going to movies, dropping out, reading, taking drugs,
spending time in mental hospitals, demonstrating, having sex,
teaching". She worried about the cold war and went on the Aldermaston
marches. American culture and politics were a powerful presence.
Diski's narrative perspective wavers interestingly between "I" and
"we". Sometimes "we" means everybody, sometimes middle-class youth,
sometimes a particular bunch of refuseniks. It rarely refers to
political groups she neither joined the organised left nor became
part of women's liberation.
The Sixties is Diski at her most characteristically brilliant but
she doesn't reflect on how this time later informed her fiction or
non-fiction. Yet the complicated experience of these years clearly
helped to turn her into a writer, one perhaps most at home in
intellectual exploration in non-fiction.
Her analysis is that of a clever individual eager to experiment with
communal living but determined to think for herself. Those aims could
prove contradictory. Diski's youthful sense of vibrant self
occasionally shattered. She charts a breakdown, suicide attempt and
psychiatric treatment. Her experience of being detained in London's
Maudsley Hospital under the Mental Health Act and forcibly injected
with Largactyl provokes a brilliant chapter on the brutal treatment
of "the institutionalised mad" and the resulting anti-psychiatry movement.
She contrasts the appalling suffering of those going through
psychotic episodes with the calm philosophising of those observing
them. She admires RD Laing as a theoretician but criticises him as a
practitioner: "Dr Ronnie's patients were often dumped back into
institutions or left to cope for themselves when they became too hard
even for him to handle."
If mental suffering could not be wished away in words, nor could
sexual jealousy, much as the communards of Diski's generation tried
to abolish it by trying to ban the word "no": "It was very difficult
not to fuck someone who wanted to fuck you without feeling you were
being very rude ... The idea that rape was having sex with someone
who didn't want to do it didn't apply very much."
Feminists reinstated the idea of female desire and argued for the
necessity of female solidarity but Diski felt wryly detached from
such collectivity. Instead, she co-founded a free school and argued
for liberal education for both sexes.
What was the 1960s' legacy? Diski asserts that believing in the
individual's right to respect and equality didn't inevitably bring
about "the greed and self-interest of the Eighties". She concludes
glumly: "Some fine souls are still battling; most of us who had the
good fortune to be part of the Sixties are plain discouraged."
Michèle Roberts is author of 'Paper Houses: A Memoir of the 70s and