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Decades and decay

I'm not sure that I have much time for the practice of dividing our century into decades or quasi-decades: the Edwardian age, the last gasp of an old culture; the decade of the First War; the ''roaring twenties''; the thirties, with their connotations of decadence, bad faith and gathering dread; the forties , when the thunderclouds of the previous ten years were cleared, at a terrible price; the fifties, the era of standardization, comfortable materialism (and growing apprehension that perhaps bad things come in threes . . .). So why am I doing it? Perhaps the very characteristics ascribed to such periods reinforce the tendency to think in such terms.

The other day I told my sister, who is not yet a quarter of a century old, that she spanned four decades. My intentions, though misunderstood, were wholly kind: to point out the absurdity of constraining ourselves within conventional measurement in the first place. I myself, though not yet a third of a century old, narrowly missed the forties (simply, I am convinced, by good judgment on my own part) and thus escaped spanning five decades by a narrow squeak.

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I know nothing about having been born, only what others have told me. My experience on this planet has been a gradual emergence from mists into relative clarity, that is all.

I don't remember much of the fifties. I was too busy avoiding fights with other boys (I wore glasses) and football games (they interfered with my reading). When the sixties came and the boys with glasses turned into antiwar demonstrators and pilgrims to Nepal while the ones who had bullied them settled down to jobs in banks and insurance offices, life became more hectic. I found myself (by coincidence) in Paris in '68, in Woodstock in '69. I could have paraphrased the Romantics: bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was a real groove, man. Except it was a false dawn for most of us. Roughly , we were divided into two camps, the subjectivists and the objectivists. The former believed that the way to change reality was to change oneself, while the latter held that the way to change reality was to change reality. I held then and still hold to the former view, as I have never believed that reality is all it is cracked up to be. But the means many of us employed in that inner search led to nothing but breakdown and destruction.

And yet there was a light about the time, and while it may have been the function of a boom economy, it was not reducible to it. Decry it as you will, there wasm something more to Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock than drugs and licentiousness. There was a sense of joy and love and, paradoxically, of innocencem about those times which led some of us to think we were part of a great evolutionary turning point: from the sword into the ploughshare. And, even in the light - or rather darkness - of everything that has happened since, a part of me stubbornly continues to think so.

There is a strong belief in almost everyone except the current young that youth culture in general and ''the music'' in particular took a nose dive as soon as the sixties blinked out: the ''humanism'' of the Beatles gave way to the ''decadence'' of David Bowie; the happy anarchism of long hair and bright colours gave way to the more sombre and discordant nihilism of Punk Rock, evidenced in the very names of the groups: Madness, Bad Manners, and so on. The seventies, about which there is almost universal agreement, were not a happy time for those naive hopes of the sixties, for a freer, happier, more playful and loving society had vanished or at least receded in the face of a determined onslaught from the oil sheikhs of the Middle East and terrorists, East and West.

And yet there was more to it again than a mere facile, economic reductionism would allow. For one thing, the cultural point had been made: that man is more than a clockwork mechanism, wound up every day to perform his role obediently and mechanically; that men have a ''feminine,'' creative, beauty-loving component as well as a ''masculine'' one.

Yet it may be that the decadence that is an undeniable component of the youth culture of the seventies is traceable itself to certain elements which the sixties embodied. For there was licentiousness as well as love, idolatry as well as a genuine search for something higher, narcissism as well as altruism. Good and evil, though they seem to mingle for a time, eventually separate. And it may be that, rightly viewed, decadence is exactly that: the decay and dissolution of everything which is not of the highest. Hegel, I think, had an inkling of the process: a phenomenon (the hopes of the sixties, perhaps), because of its essential imperfection and incompleteness, produces from within itself its opposite, which, in striving with it and against it, forces it to a higher level. A simpler analogy might be to think of the tide coming in. A wave, though it recedes, never recedes quite as far as its starting point. And there is always the next one. . . .

And there arem inklings of things to come: the women's movement for one, which , in counterpoint to men's discovery of their ''feminine'' side, discovers the ''masculine'' element in woman; the gentle, loving spirituality of the songs of Stevie Wonder; the astringent yet cleansing denunciation of moral evil in the songs of the ''born-again'' Bob Dylan; the swing, based on a respect for women, towards a ''new puritanism'' in that most unlikely of places, Sweden. As one looks towards the middle eighties and beyond, it is possible to discern, at the end of the dark tunnel through which we trudge so wonderingly, something that kept our forebears going through weary centuries of strife and striving and which may now be nearer than anyone dares to dream or hope: a shaft of golden light.