Christopher Booker in the offices of Private Eye with Richard Ingrams and Willie Rushton in 1963

Return of the 60s neurosis

Christopher Booker’s stinging takedown of the 1960s, The Neophiliacs, is even more relevent today


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

By the time the veteran journalist Christopher Booker died in 2019, he had witnessed enough of the twenty-first century to notice how much his book on the 1960s (The Neophiliacs, published in 1969) resonated with it. Two years into this decade, it’s become apparent to others, too, that there are striking parallels between the themes highlighted in his critique of the 1960s and social trends that test us in the present. 

Which part of the fantasy cycle are we in?

“In order to become mature, in short, we must not only reject the authority of our parents — but, at the same time, in order to replace them, we must also learn to kill off our own fantasy selves”, Booker, in Jungian mode, wrote. “Only by killing this fantasy self can a man become fully mature. Unless he does so, he is still in a state of rebellion, a perpetual state of immaturity.” 

He was referring to the reputed revolution that occurred in the 1960s (which he dated to beginning in 1954). It was a conflict between the young and the old; the past and the present. It was attributable to developments that contributed to major upheaval and a constant pursuit of the new: technology, consumerism and something akin to affluence, compared with the austerity and rationing that had gone before. 

The old guard had little understanding of the new order, and vice versa. Booker believed this resulted in a form of general neurosis, for which two key factors were responsible: the imagery conveyed by the media, and the speed at which life was being lived following innovations in communications and transport. It created “a profound subconscious restlessness which neurotically demands to be assuaged by more speed and more change of every kind”. 

The culture war we’re experiencing in the present is not simply between old and young, as many left-wing foot soldiers have yet to kill off their fantasy selves and succumb to maturity. Over the last two years we’ve watched young posh people pulling down statues and old posh people sticking their faces to the tarmac of roads and motorways. The former attempt to erase a past they don’t want us to return to; the latter believe we are destroying a future that the younger of the species will never see. 

Fringe issues have moved into the mainstream where they are championed by the young — well, students and graduates — which is customary, and by those that have dragged the student politics of their youth into middle age and beyond. We see this arrested development in the trans and gender issue; in Black Lives Matter and the race issue; in the environmentalism that becomes a priority when it’s a slow week for racism. Youth can be forgiven. It’s the elders believing they are picking up the baton of those that marched for change in the 1960s that are an entirely twenty-first century phenomenon. 

Identity politics does not build on the activism of the 1960s. Rather, it desecrates it, by refusing to acknowledge the progress that’s brought us to an enlightened present. Are those labouring under the delusion of this belief the new neophiliacs?

You find the “neophiliac” in a Salinger short story, and the outpourings of cult author Robert Anton Wilson, but the term is largely associated with Christopher Booker. Despite his relatively young years (he was 32 at the time of publication) Booker was dismissed as a reactionary neophobe by critics appalled by his take on the 1960s. Not satisfied with burying the decade before it died a natural death, he brought religion and faith into the epilogue, as though administering the last rites. 

Booker viewed it as the death of a fantasy as much as the death of a decade. He’s once again in Jungian mode when he describes the five stages to the fantasy cycle: the Anticipation Stage, the Dream Stage, the Frustration Stage, the Nightmare Stage and the Death Wish Stage. The death throes culminate in an “explosion into reality”. In short, everyone wakes up. 

The attacks on him were not solely from the pundits and progressives on these shores. According to the New York Times review from 1970: “Christ arrives on roller skates in the final chapter, as an example of ‘the perfect man’ who went through the Fantasy Cycle all the way past Death Wish and was reborn.” 

It had been a different story at the beginning of the decade. Booker was among the bright young things of the burgeoning Sixties scene. Despite being well-bred and well-connected, they led the charge against the establishment by way of the BBC, where Booker was a writer for the satirical review That Was the Week That Was, and Private Eye, where he was the first editor. 

But by 1965, when magazine and newspaper articles began listing the influencers from pop, fashion, photography, film and television that were kicking against the pricks by embracing a supposedly classless “new aristocracy”, Booker was having a rethink. He cocooned himself in a flat in central London as the zeitgeist buzzed on King’s Road and Carnaby Street and began work on The Neophiliacs

Magazine essays extolling the classless elite were his starting point. These didn’t mark the beginning of a social revolution, but the beginning of the end of a fantasy that time would transform into myth. Yet, as he wrote the book, change was spreading beyond fashion and pop to trigger a far-reaching and timely impact on the law. 

Under the aegis of Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, there was a bonfire of restrictive legislation relating to abortion and homosexuality. The divorce law was reformed. Stage censorship was abolished. Responding to charges that the government was kowtowing to the permissive society, Jenkins declared that it was heralding a civilised one.

Later in the same year that The Neophiliacs was published, George Melly offered an alternate take on popular culture — that revolt had become style. The revolution had been televised, sold, bought and buried. Or, as Danny the Drug Dealer says in Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I (1987), set in 1969 Camden Town: “They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man.” 

The pursuit of novelty and change is with us in the present perhaps more than any decade since the 1960s. The anomalies and the outliers have come in from the cold, finding a home in the mainstream with the establishment, the media and capitalism providing the safe space. Revolt is more than style, it’s the orthodoxy, championed by those that cling to the outsider status they once endured in society’s margins. 

The times change, but the chants and the slogans remain the same

The absence of maturity and reality about which Booker writes is as applicable to some of today’s figures as those he described in the 1960s. Perhaps more so as, by comparison, that decade seems positively quaint: a time when men only took the knee to propose; when women had cervices; when white people predominated in adverts. Today, the rightful changes that came from the 1960s onwards and brought us to the diversity of the present are overlooked in slogans and soundbites that fall apart under the slightest scrutiny: women have penises; society is systemically racist; white supremacy persists, the patriarchy is upon us, and the end is nigh. To the few this is a faith; to the many a fantasy. But which part of the fantasy cycle are we in?

I first read The Neophiliacs in its entirety when writing the book, The Likes Of Us, in the early days of this century. It was relevant to a chapter that covered being an infant in an urban setting in the 1960s — a working class south London neighbourhood that was beginning to experience a different form of change. A shift that would ultimately alter the landscape and those that occupied it. 

It’s been said, ad infinitum, that if you remember the Sixties you weren’t there. Yet these people remembered it all: the lengthy list for council housing; the shabby state schools; the pursuit of employment; the apprenticeships; marriage; living cheek by jowl with parents; becoming parents; becoming their parents but with longer hair, shorter skirts, bigger and better record collections. 

Young shoppers on Carnaby Street, London, circa 1968

The social revolution didn’t quite find its way to this neck of the woods, even though Carnaby Street was a mere five tube stops from Elephant & Castle, the backdrop in the book I’d embarked upon. Non-conformity may have been an option for those further up the social ladder, however the celebrated “classlessness”, the new aristocracy, was absent in this south London neighbourhood and in similar postcodes. 

Nevertheless, change found its way there. As Booker points out in the introduction to a later edition of The Neophiliacs

If I had to cite just one instance of the destructive power of the Sixties dream it might be the way we became so excited by the vision of sweeping away large areas of our old cities and replacing them with vast new concrete housing estates and immense towers. When we look at the architectural chaos in inhuman desolation left by that time we are seeing at least one aspect of The Sixties dream the nightmarish consequences of which few would any longer deny.

In The Neophiliacs he mentions Elephant & Castle shopping centre, built at the beginning of the decade and a harbinger for one of two monolithic brutalist estates that would follow, eradicating the infrastructure of the neighbourhood and demolishing tenements, streets and houses. The lifespan of these new compounds would be half that of the flats they replaced. 

Many of the old blocks were, of course, condemned, hard to let and sandwiched between vacant lots left by bombing and an earlier bout of slum clearance. By the 1960s, they were the setting for ciné-vérité films and BBC dramas that made the poor working class central to the plot, or at least the agenda of the radical middle-class auteur.

Elephant and Castle shopping centre: harbinger for the brutalist estates that would follow

In the mid-1960s, the young director Ken Loach turned up at the Elephant, with a camera crew and Terence Stamp, to film Nell Dunn’s Poor Cow. Later the bulldozers arrived and took out the buildings that bombs had failed to.

Just over a decade ago, I fronted a BBC Four documentary on social housing, which addressed both the good and bad elements of the visionary council estates of the 1960s. Booker told me he had once tried something similar, but found no redeeming features. “The BBC never invited me back to do another documentary,” he said. 

We were living in neighbouring postcodes in a rural setting, years on from the 1960s and miles away from the buildings I was once surrounded by and wrote about, which were now being demolished as rich prospectors started a gold rush in these neighbourhoods and introduced gentrification. It was as if London was ready to swing again.

In the wake of its author’s death, I re-read The Neophiliacs, still unclear as to what brought about the Damascene conversion that made him reject the decade of which he was once so much a part. Was it elitism? Was it snobbery? 

In the book he talks about the exhibitionism of the masses enjoying a freedom as consumers and citizens that was without precedent, as they fixated on the fleeting and the new. One revered critic did make a salient point when reviewing the book at the time. “Would we have been any happier (or wiser if you like),” asked Cyril Connolly, “without Tynan, Frost, Satire, Queen, the colour supplements and the Beatles? Certainly not.” 

In being too dismissive of the 15 years before the publication of his book, Booker occasionally fell into the trap of the neophiles he criticised, who were too keen to dismiss the decades that came before. Then, as now, we are in such company — some with a greater desire to eradicate history, but a lesser understanding of it. They are often reviving battles that have been won, or inventing new ones to classify themselves as victims or others as victims to give substance to their endeavours. The times change, but the chants and the slogans remain the same. And the bleat goes on. 

The columnist Peter Hitchens was one of the mourners at Christopher Booker’s rural funeral, along with a number of locals and grandees from modern Grub Street that made the voyage out for the day. Writing recently on the continuing significance of The Neophiliacs and those that adhere to the legacy of the 1960s, Hitchens described “a generation of perpetual adolescents, balding bejeaned Glastonbury-goers in their sixties, with drug stashes in the high cupboards of their expensive London houses, still in imaginary combat with a crusty establishment which ceased to exist 60 years ago.” The world has moved on, but some of those that wanted it to have not. 

You wonder how long it will be before they reach the death cycle of the fantasy, when there is that explosion of reality; you wonder when they will lose their fantasy selves and embrace maturity. Will they ever wake up and grow up?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover