The decade that rocked the world

The cars and the skirts were mini, but the 1960s were bigger than mere fashion. John Woodcock – who was there and remembers it –reports.

The Sixties. How to begin defining a decade that saw man come close to obliterating much of Earth, but fulfil a noble quest to walk on the Moon? Few periods have been as generous to historians. In between the Cuban Missile Crisis and Apollo 11, came the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother, and Martin Luther King.

If the backcloth of the times was dominated by the Cold War and Vietnam, weaving through the fabric in Britain was a social and cultural revolution. Plus the small matter of England winning the 1966 World Cup at Wembley.

A new permanent gallery at York Castle Museum will attempt the bold task of seeking to explain and illustrate what the era meant in terms of everyday life, behind the headlined global traumas, political scandals, and the excesses and cliches of the Swinging Sixties.

It is scheduled to tell the story for at least five years. To make room for the Sixties show, amid some rumblings of discontent, the Edwardians have been sacrificed. One of them, Dr John Kirk, the Pickering doctor whose passion for social history created the museum 70 years ago, may not have approved of the change. But the decision is understandable.

The heirs to Dr Kirk's far-sightedness argue that the museum's representation of the Victorian and Edwardian periods had become blurred. They felt the Sixties were too significant to be ignored, now that their impact can be assessed from a fair distance.

Also, they are sustaining Kirk's philosophy of exploring a past that is still within living memory. Along the way, the gallery will explode a few myths. Those who claim to have forgotten what happened to them will be restating the old chestnut that if you remember the Sixties you weren't there.

They began just as I was finding my feet as a teenager. At first the new decade was not much more than an extension of the straight-back-and-sides Fifties. But then the great cultural shift occurred, as Philip Larkin nearly said, somewhere between the Lady Chatterley trial and the Beatles first LP.

I was a dull late developer, emotionally tied too long to pursuits like trainspotting and stamp-collecting (and then the need to earn a wage) to rebel much beyond wearing flares and a Harry Fenton jacket. It never crossed my mind to be a hippy, put flowers in my mainstream haircut or spend even a minute, let alone years, in a psychedelic haze. Among others who failed to conform to the Sixties stereotype was Simon – now Sir Simon – Rattle who grew up in Liverpool, surrounded by the Mersey Sound and Beatlemania, but resisted it. In 1966, aged 11, he preferred Mahler's Ninth Symphony to the Searchers and embarked on an ambition that would lead to the conductor's baton of the

Berlin Philharmonic.

For an acquaintance of mine, one of her Sixties highlights was being dated by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones when the band travelled in a van to play at The Boulevard, a throbbing roadhouse on the A64 between York and Tadcaster but now long gone. She and Jones went to the nearby Sun Inn at Colton, then a trailblazer of eating out for the masses with its signature dish, chicken and chips in a basket. She remembers him being shy but fun – certainly unrecognisable from the later alcohol and drug-ravaged figure who was found dead in his swimming pool in 1969.

Mandy Rice-Davies was another iconic Sixties' figure through her involvement in the Profumo Affair, the sex scandal which rocked the Tory government and destroyed the War Minister's political career. She too appeared at The Boulevard during a brief flirtation with pop, and provided an unlikely contrast to her racy public image. She was spotted backstage, sewing. And they reckon they're cool today. It was an era when the new order – exemplified by daring fashion, consumerism driven by technological breakthroughs, and music as varied as Dylan and Lulu, Tamla Motown and Cilla Black – could collide bizarrely with the recent past.

A case in point are the memories of Josie Sheppard, the Castle Museum's curator of costume and textiles who has helped put together the gallery. Her father was in the Army and the family spent part of the Sixties in what had been colonial Malaya. The career soldier saw many aspects of the declining British Empire, but back at camp in Wiltshire his daughter recalls him effortlessly embracing the Twist and buying a bright red Mini. Josie's other recollections of the times are mixed. In one experience, disillusionment with the Sixties hype came early. When she was 12 she pestered her mother to take her to Carnaby Street, the supposed epicentre of trendy London. In every sense it was a long way from Devizes, her home town where the arrival of something called a boutique had caused a stir. "When I finally saw Carnaby Street it was nothing like as exciting as I'd imagined. The sense of disappointment was acute," said Josie. "Even at that young age I saw it as tacky and not as advertised. It's one of the points we want to get across in the gallery – the fact that the Sixties had a superficial glamour. There was much about them that was anything but groovy and hip. Who now remembers the homelessness, which led to the Shelter charity and gave TV a cutting edge with programmes like Cathy Come Home?" A more rewarding visit for her to the West End came in 1967. In Bourne & Hollingsworth's department store in Oxford Street, Josie bought a pair of spectacles of the kind favoured by John Lennon. They cost her half a crown (12p in today's money) and her treasured memento will be among the displays of design innovations, ephemera, and advertising which lured us towards must-have stuff. It's a reminder that one day an iPod Nano will look this outdated.

Mary Quant and Twiggy are represented, from underwear sets and false eyelashes to creations in polyvinyl chloride – a pair of size 5 Quant shoes in red and white PVC. There's a pink wool mini-coat, via Courreges and Harrods and from the Grattan catalogue, circa 1967, a white angora and silver lurex mini-dress, and a "paper" dress which was available through an offer in Honey magazine. "Not as exciting visually as it sounds," admits Josie, "sadly it looks like a crumpled J-cloth." From male wardrobes comes some of the gear of a dedicated follower of fashion, to whom The Kinks paid tribute. You'll find winkle-picker Chelsea boots in white leather, a blue rayon taffeta kaftan, pork pie suede hat, a V-neck collarless jacket, and a T-shirt suitably inscribed "Mr. Freedom" – well, it was 1968 and students were revolting. There's a Vespa scooter harking back to seaside clashes between Mods and Rockers, umpteen vinyl records, and a range of domestic appliances and portable gadgets. They include a transistor radio, and the world's smallest record player - "the fabulous Wondergram", which now surprises in another way. It's stamped "Made in England". It is striking how much of the technology was personally liberating. But in hindsight it can be seen as fostering a self-indulgence some regard as the root of many of modern society's ills. It was an age of aspiration, hence After Eight dinner mints, and The Woman Book of Christmas Pleasure: Part one – food, drinks, dcor for a perfect party plan. Just the job for Abigail's Party. Toys were progressing too. Meccano Set 5 involved "motorized advanced metal construction" and came with four instruction books. I remember those. And no, my dad couldn't get the models together either. A television commercial featured an 11-inch vinyl doll in denim jeans and a striped matelot sweatshirt of red, white and blue, presumably because Harold Wilson's "I'm Backing Britain" campaign was all the rage, even for Sindy. She had the girl-next-door look with rosebud mouth, large blue eyes and a casual "wash and go" hairstyle of bouncy curls, available in blonde, auburn or brunette. A model of an Aston Martin reflected the arrival of James Bond (with a little help from the York-born composer John Barry), while Coronation Street's early marketing pull produced a jigsaw puzzle. You can't examine the Sixties without mentioning sex. In 1961 the contraceptive pill, arguably the most significant medical advance of the 20th century, was introduced in the UK, but

for married women only. The unwed

had to manage as best they could for a while longer. For blokes that usually meant a visit to the chemist's shop, or

an understanding barber with the immortal line "something for the weekend, sir?" The exhibition says it all with a retailer's box of "Durex Protectives", dating from 1962.

The overall aim is to avoid pastiche and present a balanced perspective of the era, says Katy Turner, curator of social history at the museum. "It was an extraordinary decade, partly because it presented huge contrasts with what had gone before. But it also had many layers. Start peeling them back and you can be overwhelmed."

Set against its Wow! factors – vibrant ideas, the rise of teenagers, and the emergence of unprecedented choice and foreign package holidays – came fear of nuclear war, political and industrial unrest, and the downside of social upheaval. Communities began to erode, and while women benefited from labour-saving domestic appliances, it was still women who were expected to use them – and go out to work.

For our photographer, an enduring impression of his 60s childhood was hiding behind the settee during the scary bits of Doctor Who.

Lee Clark, of the museum staff, was too young for any of it. He has to rely on his grandfather's verdict. "The Sixties? Not much changed in Castleford, lad."

The Sixties, a new gallery at York Castle Museum, opens on March 20. Daily 9.30am-5pm. Free to York residents. Information: 01904 687687 www.yorkcastlemuseum.org.uk