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Monica Porter

Rewriting History

Daily Express, 26 February 2007

MONICA PORTER’s sons think that in the Sixties she was an anti-war, dope-smoking hippy – despite her efforts to tell the truth.

I wonder whether our children ever really know us, or whether, instead, they cherish some fond illusion of what we’re all about – a version of us which makes for a ‘better story’. And if so, must we deprive them of their misconceptions?

I spent my teenage years during the Sixties in America, amidst the greatest youth rebellion the world had ever seen. Let it all hang out – that was the motto of the day. And it didn’t just refer to bra-burning. Never before had teenagers enjoyed such freedom, self-expression and sheer self-indulgence.

My English sons were born in London in 1978 and 1983. They grew up in the Thatcher era. For them the hippie revolution of the Sixties was a distant, exotic chapter of history, seeping into their consciousness through the cultural products it had left behind: the emblematic music, the old film footage, and ageing icons like Mick Jagger.

As far as my sons were concerned, I, too, was a product of that colourful time. They convinced themselves that I had spent my teenage years in a haze of marijuana smoke as a kaftan-wearing hippie with flowers in my hair, into free love and hallucinogens and placard-carrying marches against the Viet Nam War. They assumed I went to Woodstock and danced naked all night in a muddy field.

Boy, did they get it wrong.

To start with, I didn’t take drugs. Everyone was smoking pot, but I was determined to be different so I never took a puff. Not that I was a complete goody-goody. I did think it was cool to smoke cigarettes. So I bought a brand called True -so ridiculously mild that it was like inhaling country air – and did a little posing after school hours.

Secondly, I didn’t wear hippie gear. It never occurred to me to wear beads or flowers or floaty psychedelic dresses. And I was so thrilled at finally having something to put inside a bra that the last thing I wanted to do was burn the thing. No, I modelled myself instead on the Sally Field character from the popular Mid-Sixties sitcom, Gidget – a smart-looking California beach girl. Never mind that I lived in New York. Actually, I bore a striking resemblance to Sally Field at that age. Kids at school even asked whether I was related to her. Naturally, I told them she was my sister and for a while they believed me.

As for free love, all I can say is there was nothing free about it in my house. My strict parents didn’t believe in that great Sixties institution, the all-night party, nor in sleepovers and dubious assignations with boys. While others boasted about ‘going all the way’, I was sneaking the odd snog with some spotty adolescent in an old banger. But mostly I just fantasised: the sort of thing where you kiss your reflection in the mirror and pretend it’s Little Joe from Bonanza.

That leaves the anti-war demos. Now, I hate to say it but I had no particular objection to the Viet Nam War. Not that I was a war-monger. I just had more important things on my mind. While my contemporaries were out on the streets chanting ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’ I was trying to work out the complexities of my angst-ridden private life. I’d be holed up in my bedroom writing introspective poetry or wondering whether I should run away from home…at least for a day or two.

So, decades later, when my own children probed me about what it was like at Woodstock and asked whether I’d ever had any bad LSD trips or got beaten up by the cops, I would explain that for me, the Sixties weren’t like that at all. I was no flower-child. I did no drugs, no politics and not much hanky-panky. Sorry.

The response was always the same. They would exchange looks and snigger. ‘Sure, Mum. Yeah, right.’ They were convinced that all American teenagers in the Sixties did those things, so their mum had to, as well. Surely I must be denying it all so as not to suggest that, having indulged in sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll myself, they were free to follow suit.

The alternative was too awful to contemplate: that their mother really hadn’t known one end of a spliff from the other, or burnt her bra, or stuck a daisy into the barrel of a National Guardsman’s rifle. That she had in fact been entirely, embarrassingly, without street cred.

The Sixties theme cropped up occasionally over the years, but despite my protestations my sons clung to their favoured notions of my wild youth. In the end I stopped denying it. After all, does it really matter if our offspring have a few harmless illusions about us? We perceive everyone – even those closest to us – through the prism of our imagination, and there’s always a bit of distortion in that. So what?

In a few months’ time my grandson will be born. I expect that one day he will question me about living in the Sixties, rather as I might now corner some intriguing old-timer to ask about the Great Depression. But I’m not going through that whole rigmarole again. ‘Look,’ I’ll say, ‘everyone knows that if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there. So I’m afraid I can’t recall a thing. Peace, man.’