Representing childhoods

These contrasting sets of ideas were also apparent in the ways in which childhood was represented within the counter-culture. Before we finally move on to Oz, it’s worth looking at this a little more broadly.

In the United States, the image of childhood as a state of natural innocence and wonder was a recurring trope in hippy music and iconography. In the early heyday of San Francisco’s ‘Summer of Love’, the flower children basked in a child-like, mystical identification with the universe – albeit one that was partly induced by the chemical intervention of LSD. This was apparent in the psychedelic style of album covers, posters and liquid light shows, with their moving swirls and kaleidoscopes of primary colour; and in the recurring use of mythological and fantastical content, often drawn from fairy tales and children’s stories. Images of nature – plants, landscapes, mythological animals – abounded; and nudity was apparent everywhere, not just for its sexual connotations but also because it seemed to imply an Eden-like state of purity and innocence. This idea of a return to childhood and to nature was also evident in musical lyrics. As one leading hippy anthem, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’, had it: ‘We are stardust, we are golden – And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden’.

In Britain, this image of childhood was especially evident in the music of the period. A fascinating BBC documentary, ‘Psychedelic Britannia’, broadcast in 2015, provides ample evidence for this claim. As British pop and rock musicians began to break away from the influence of American rhythm and blues, and came under the influence of psychedelic drugs, a distinctive style began to emerge that (among other things) harked back to a world of childhood fantasy. Some of the early work of Pink Floyd, for example, invokes a pastoral vision of an English arcadia familiar from classic children’s books like The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. While the music itself was definitely electronic, the lyrics – written by one of rock music’s most spectacular acid casualties, Syd Barratt – invoked a twee world of fairies, goblins and gnomes. Released in 1967, their second single ‘See Emily Play’ is perhaps the most poignant expression of this longing for a mythical childhood. Shortly afterwards, as psychedelia exploded into a mass phenomenon, this kind of childhood imagery was everywhere. As the documentary puts it, ‘now every band in Britain seemed to be writing songs about toyshops, toffee apples and rainbows’.

With added influences from traditional British folk music, artists such as Donovan (Sunshine Superman, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden) and the Incredible String Band (The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Wee Tam and the Big Huge) mined this vein of childhood mythology in ways that were often distinctly fey. Even mod bands such as the Small Faces (Itchycoo Park) and working-class Northern bands like The Move (Flowers in the Rain, I Can Hear the Grass Grow) began to adapt their style, albeit briefly. And of course, it was the Beatles who brought much of this child-like imagery to the mass audience. Songs like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ offered acid-fuelled accounts of a return to childhood innocence and the abandonment of adult repression. The television film and album Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and the animated movie Yellow Submarine (1969) presented fantasy narratives that owed much to fairy tales and children’s literature.

As the BBC documentary suggests, this retreat to the ‘secret gardens’ of childhood might partly be interpreted as a reaction against the emphasis on modern technology that was a key political theme of the early 1960s (‘the white heat of the technological revolution’, as Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously put it). Along with the fashion for Edwardian clothing (Sergeant Pepper et al.) and fin de siecle art and design (Aubrey Beardsley, art nouveau), as well as the recovery of late Victorian literature (Alice In Wonderland was notably adapted by Jonathan Miller for the BBC in late 1966), it reflects the generalized distrust of modernity that was a key part of the hippy ethic more broadly. The combination of childhood nostalgia and psychedelic drugs offered a perfect retreat, both inwards and backwards. According to Pink Floyd’s manager, Peter Jenner (quoted in the documentary), it was a matter of harking back to ‘the last bit of English culture they trusted’ – and one that would ‘set them apart from the adults, the straights and the suits’.

Much of this imagery derives from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – and indeed, even at that time, it was already nostalgic. As Patricia Holland points out, the idea of a golden age of pre-industrial, rural life – of the ‘organic community’ of the English village – was being invoked by writers and artists at a time when it had already largely died out. Despite the apparent revolutionary zeal of the hippies, the association of childhood with nature – and with related ideas of innocence and purity – was highly traditional, and could well be seen as reactionary.

It’s quite striking to contrast this with the imagery of the children’s rights movement of the time. Leila Berg’s book Look at Kids, mentioned above, contains numerous black-and-white photographs, apparently selected by the author, which amount to a kind of ‘photo-essay’ accompanying the text. This is very much an urban, industrial (and post-industrial) view of childhood, which is a long way from the pastoral idyll of the hippies. Children are often captured in action, working as well as playing. They rarely smile or pose for the camera, although in some cases they look back at the photographer with a challenging glare. The landscape of the child is not a secret garden, but one of bombsites and abandoned buildings. And of course, the use of high-contrast monochrome represents a powerful claim to documentary realism.

These images of the urban child have much in common with those chosen by the anarchist writer Colin Ward for his book The Child in the City, published towards the end of the 1970s – although in both books, at least some of the images clearly derive from earlier decades. As Mathew Thomson argues, Ward’s images do partly reflect a traditional representation of the child as innocent, free and joyful, albeit in a very different setting; but (like Berg’s) they also show how children are losing some of that freedom, as the pressures of the environment – especially as a consequence of poor urban planning – are beginning to impinge on it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the imagery of Berg’s books written for children themselves is less abrasively realistic. Even so, the drawn illustrations for her Nippers series are also of urban settings, and offer a kind of everyday realism that is far from the sanitized, middle-class world of their predecessors Janet and John (the British equivalent of Dick and Jane) – and indeed from the fey pastoral world of the hippies.

Meanwhile, if the children’s rights movement did make use of more traditional childhood imagery, it often did so in subversive ways. Images of Disney characters and Marvel superheroes were appropriated (and often adapted) to illustrate critiques of US politics – or indeed, of US cultural imperialism, as in Dorfman and Mattelart’s How to Read Donald Duck (1971). The British cartoon hero Dennis the Menace appeared on the cover of Keith Paton’s early seventies tract The Great Brain Robbery with a speech bubble proclaiming that ‘all over the world, the school has an anti-educational effect on society’. And as we shall see in the case of Schoolkids Oz, this subversive use of traditional childhood imagery often provoked particular wrath from the authorities.


Remembering hippy childhoods

Of course, it’s debatable how far any of these representations corresponded with the reality of children’s lives at the time. At the risk of a brief digression here, it’s interesting to look across to some of the written memoirs of ‘hippy childhoods’ that have appeared in the last couple of decades. As I’ve noted, personal memories are not necessarily any more accurate than other sources – and in this case, there seems to be an uneasy mixture of affectionate nostalgia and condescending irony that is characteristic of how the hippy era is seen more broadly. Even though elements of ‘hippiness’ have been widely popularized and commodified in recent years, cheap shots and easy laughs at the past often seem hard to resist. Many contemporary writers read their parents’ approach to child-rearing through the lens of much more conservative ideas that have become increasingly prevalent in recent years: the hippies may have sought to ‘liberate’ their children – or indeed to treat them as naturally and inherently free – but they are also accused of being chaotic, inadequate and neglectful parents.

Obviously there is no single ‘hippy’ approach to child-rearing, but from a reading of various online sources – including some with titles like ‘The Curse of the Hippy Parents’ – as well as published books like Lisa Michaels’ Split: A Counterculture Childhood and Chelsea Cain’s collection Wild Child, it’s possible to identify some shared themes in these accounts. On the one hand, there is much fun to be made of the world of inedible wholefoods, bizarre home-made clothing, candle-making and macramé, as well as the nakedness and the dubious personal hygiene of these hippy childhoods. These were children who grew up ‘deprived’ of sugar, cow’s milk, meat and consumer goods, not to mention new clothes. They were often unaware that other children lived in very different ways until they went to school – at which point, they often became acutely conscious of the awkwardness and sense of exclusion that arose from living outside the ‘straight’ world. These were frequently mobile childhoods, as families travelled across country going ‘back to the land’; but in many cases they were also economically poor childhoods, constrained by the lack of access to basic goods and services. Poverty was a necessity as well as a political choice, and it required resourcefulness and a degree of improvisation. Many of these writers praise their parents for giving them access to diverse experiences, for encouraging them to question authority, and to develop tolerance; but they are also more directly critical of their espousal of ‘free love’, their excessive drug consumption, the children’s premature exposure to sex, and the lack of rules and boundaries.

The story here – in line with Jenny Diski’s quote above – is partly one of inter-generational reaction and counter-reaction. The hippies brought up their children in ways that reacted against the values of their own parents; and their children often grew up to reject them in turn. Conformity bred non-conformity, which in turn led to a return to conformity, sometimes of an almost obsessive kind. For many of these children, there was nothing they wanted more than to fit in and be ‘normal’; many of them craved structure and discipline. Nevertheless, there is a sense among many of these writers of an eventual coming to terms. In line with many childhood memoirs more generally, they look back to a simpler time, a time of sincerity and honesty as well as one of collective values. Hippy child-rearing was occasionally anarchic, and parents often failed to take responsibility for their children, they suggest; but in most cases this was a form of benign neglect – and even of sanctioned immaturity – rather than deliberate abuse.

Ultimately, the struggles of these parents and their children do not seem so vastly different from those of many others. It’s no big surprise to find that parents’ attempts to shape their children in their own image are often less than successful. The hippies might have wanted to see their children as equals, able to make their own choices, or even as political comrades. But the outward appearance of a more open, permissive approach to child-rearing is not necessarily all it seems, and it does not necessarily lead to inter-generational understanding, let alone family harmony. If parents’ apparent desire to return to childhood may have been little more than superficial, their attempts to liberate their children were even more fraught with difficulty.


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