You want polarisation? Forget the carbon tax, gay marriage, exporting uranium to India. Start talking about the Sixties.

Half a century later, people still argue about their impact and message. Today’s chasms in ideas and beliefs can easily be charted back to that stirring, uproarious, revolutionary, radical, demonstrative decade that started with John F. Kennedy’s campaign for the US presidency and Princess Margaret announcing her engagement to a commoner, and ended with patched jeans, grubby toes and the arrest of Charles Manson and Co.

Was it the era that liberated us and taught us to look high and far, or the period that all these years later is doing us in?

It depends on what you mean by the Sixties.

Last weekend, in The Sydney Morning Herald, David Dale wrote, “The Sixties were the coolest decade in history.”

I agree. But Dale classifies the Sixties as starting in 1963, the year the Beatles had their first big hit.

My argument is that that’s about the time that the true spirit of the Sixties started gasping. The most exciting and thrilling years didn’t involve Woodstock,  LSD, flower-power, psychedelic music or student riots in Paris. That’s a con and one that doesn’t do the Sixties justice.

The best part lasted from January 1, 1960 – the dawning of the decade – to November 22, 1963, the day president John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

And that’s the bit we keep revisiting.

Director Ang Lee’s film, Taking Woodstock, about the 1969 three day festival hardly made a pip at the box office when it was released two years ago.

Meanwhile, the cult television series, Mad Men, which starts in the early Sixties, goes into its fifth season next year and another three seasons are planned. Its effect on fashion alone has been remarkable. Next week, in Britain and the US, My Week With Marilyn, a new movie about Marilyn Monroe  who died in August 1962 will be in the cinemas. It stars  Michelle Williams. Photographer Bert Stern still gets publicity for his famous “last sitting” shoot of Monroe, from June, 1962. Vintage has just published a 50th anniversary edition of Joseph Heller’s 1961 radical anti-war novel Catch 22.

Next month, Hachette will publish Sydney author Marion von Adlerstein’s first novel. She’s 79 and her book, The Freudian Slip, based on her own experiences, is set in a Sydney advertising agency in 1962. There are many long lunches at Beppi’s, women use black cigarette holders and hold down senior jobs and there is dancing at Romano’s in the basement of the Prudential Building on Martin Place.

When journalist and editor Frank Devine died two years ago, his family used a black and white picture of him with his wife, Jacqui, on the funeral order of service. The couple had moved to New York in 1960 for Devine’s job as a foreign correspondent and the photo shows them looking drop dead elegant. Sexy. Polished. Sophisticated.

The early years of the Sixties weren’t about pot-smoking in public or wearing jeans to formal occasions or treating your teachers – or parents – like your pals. They sure weren’t about anti-elitism.

What they were about was confidence.

Several weeks ago, I interviewed architect Sam Marshall for the (Sydney) Magazine about his $53 million extension and refurbishment of the Museum of Contemporary Art on Circular Quay. The new wing, which will open at the end of March, is unashamedly modernist with its rectangles of grey, white, black and brown. It looks like an abstract painting from the Sixties. Marshall told me, “That’s the era I was brought up, that post-war optimistic era… Modernism has been the biggest influence on me … Modernist philosophy is that there is a future; we can make this a better place… It’s about optimism; it’s about life.”

I haven’t been able to get Marshall’s words out of my head since I heard them. I loved the Sixties too even if I was only four foot tall at the time and too young for most of their early pleasures.

I’ve always thought I appreciated them because they were elegant, glamorous and sleek.

In fact, the truth is it was terrific to be a kid in 1960 with the moon walk nine years into the future but already being planned and talked about.

Anything seemed possible.

Far more is possible now than then but do we have the same spirit? The bounce in the heels, the far sightedness, the belief in our reach? (When did the Peace Corps start? 1961. When was Australian Volunteers Abroad founded? 1963.)

Societies need optimism to be at their optimal best.

David Dale also claims his Sixties – which he puts as 1963-1972 and the last walk on the moon – were about “optimism, idealism, enthusiasm” but as the decade progressed after ‘63, the mood darkened and grew cynical, wary: escalation in Vietnam, race riots, the Warren commission, China’s first atomic bomb, the 1968 Paris commune, drug charges against the Rolling Stones, the Manson murders …

The real Sixties, the ones we keep hankering after, were a different age and they lasted just four years.

People were changing they way they thought, acted and dressed, but they still believed in clean fingernails. The key institutions were still in place and respected, and, in America, the new edition of William Strunk and E.B. White’s guide to good prose and grammar, The Elements of Style, was selling in its hundreds of thousands to a fresh, eager and literate audience.

The happiness boys – which is how White described the post-modernists and “anything goes” liberals already lurking in the universities – were yet to wreak their havoc.

JFK’s inaugural address of January, 1961, delivered against the background of the Cold War and Soviet power, projected an idea of newness. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech – 1963 – captured the era’s idealism.

Old school values were still in place but they had been given fresh vigour. Nothing, including babies, had yet been chucked out with the bathwater.

And as lawyer Alan Anderson, pointed out in an essay on the Mad Men phenomenon in the IPA Review a year ago, there was another crucial difference: children were treated like children and adults were expected to be grown-up.

He also wrote of the TV series: “Its portrayal of a world relatively free of stifling political correctness, hypersensitivity and nanny state regulation is an artful rebuke of those nonsensical post-modern predilections.”

In his latest movie, Midnight in Paris, director Woody Allen cautions against nostalgia. (If you haven’t yet seen the film, get to a cinema fast.) He’s right. We have to live in the times in which we find ourselves and make the best of them too.

But, in trying to achieve that, there’s nothing wrong with identifying a particular and remarkable period of history and trying to unlock its secret.


Media Watch exited our screens for the year with an odd, final segment which took a savage swipe at a sister programme.

Host Jonathan Holmes had taken exception to a  two-parter screened in late October on Australian Story about the case of Jeffrey Gilham who was convicted in late 2008 of murdering his parents back in August, 1993. Gilham’s appeal against his conviction and his sentence of life imprisonment will be heard from November 28.

It’s a case I know well, having sat through almost all the trial. I then researched the matter intensively for another two months before writing a long article for Fairfax’s Good Weekend in early 2009.

I also know how Australian Story got going on their programmes. A friendly producer had congratulated me on my article after it came out and expressed interest in the tangled tale with its divided family, divided friends and neighbours, red herrings, lost evidence and lengthy legal delays and hiccups. After I finally met Jeffrey Gilham’s wife, Robecca, months later, I put the two in touch.

And that was that until the two programmes aired on October 17 and 24.

Since the trial, Robecca and friends have formed a support group “Jeff Needs Justice” and spent the past three years doing research to help build an appeal case. I was interested to hear how they had gone.

But Holmes pooh-poohed the interviews that Australian Story did with them.

Does Media Watch sell jars of that kind of certitude? Where can I buy some?  I’ve now been keeping an eye on the case for years and I’m still torn.

It’s a perplexing, difficult saga which began with three deaths, not two, 17 years ago.

Gilham has always claimed that his elder brother, Chris, had murdered their parents and he, walking into the scene, had then killed his brother. Friends and some relatives believe him. Others, notably his uncle, Tony Gilham, don’t. The court didn’t believe him either – although it did take two trials, one hung jury and eight days for the jury in the second trial to reach a guilty verdict.

In my story, I presented the whole saga and the evidence that must have convinced the jury to reach their verdict. I interviewed neighbours and relatives who are sure Jeffrey did it. Much of it was damning.

But I also reported the things that bothered me.

“The science of crime and punishment is inexact,” I wrote in GW in the last third of the story. “In real life, police investigations and courts can rarely tie up all loose ends. Excruciatingly for Jeffrey’s supporters, this case has several.”

Those same things still bother me.

But not Mr Jonathan Holmes whose programme appeared on November 7, two weeks after the second Australian Story show had aired, which means he and his team had, at most, three weeks to explore some points raised, a fortnight to cover others. Nor did Holmes say he had any prior knowledge of the case, nor any association with it.

Yet he was able to say dismissively in his conclusion “However much Australian Story may deny it, the fact is it did question the jury’s verdict reached after a seven week trial. As I’ve said before, only compelling new evidence justifies a TV program doing that – and in my view, we didn’t get it.”

Odd because on camera, different members of Gilham’s support group had discussed various appeal points that will be raised in court and I was intrigued by what I heard.

But then, what would I know?

That’s exactly why I’m looking forward to hearing all of the appeal points – there are 18 altogether with 10 supposed to involve new evidence or interpretation – during the four days set aside for the hearing. I look forward with as much interest to the crown’s responses.

(The crown prosecutor in Gilham’s second trial was the extremely effective Margaret Cunneen SC who has since become a friend. The new Director of Public Prosecutions, Lloyd Babb SC, is expected to handle the appeal.)

I wonder if I’ll see Mr Holmes in court.

The most worrying part of Media Watch’s segment is its sub-text: that by giving attention to the “Jeff Needs Justice” group Australian Story was somehow endorsing that campaign.

No it wasn’t; it was methodically covering a story that still fascinates and divides people. I also know plenty of viewers who were convinced by the interviews with Tony Gilham. Go and look at comments on-line and see for yourself.

Australian Story did not make judgements, nor should it have, given the court proceedings ahead.

But Holmes did pass judgement and his broadcast was even closer to the appeal. Ironic.

It’s one more curious twist in a story that never stops surprising me.

The happy expression on Holmes’s face as he delivered his conclusion made me think of that line in the 1987 hit film Broadcast News. A television executive leans in to the face of the main character and says: “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to think you’re the smartest person in the room.”

(At least the lead, played by Holly Hunter, replies: “No, it’s awful!”)


We’re moving into muggy summer even if it can’t quite make up its mind. Here to encourage it along is a bit of calypso from Harry Belafonte to accompany quite a lot of Rita Hayworth. Watching this made me feel exactly the way Midnight in Paris did – optimistic.