I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
‘That fellow’s got to swing’.
Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
A nice dilemma we have here that calls for all our wit
Gilbert and Sullivan, Trial by Jury
The Road to Belmarsh Gaol
Julian Assange, the Australian co-founder of online media organization WikiLeaks is in deep shit. He’s pissed off the Yanks, frustrated the Poms, and angered his Ecuadorian hosts, and now the Swedes want to have another bash …
He was arrested on April 11th by British police at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had been claiming political asylum for almost seven years having lost a final appeal against his extradition to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault. He was then charged with failing to surrender to the court.
While in the embassy, Assange could not be arrested because of the international legal protection of diplomatic premises, which meant police could not enter without Ecuador’s consent. On April 11, British police were invited into the embassy and made the arrest. On the same day, Assange was found guilty on that charge of failing to surrender, sentenced to fifty weeks for jumping bail. and is serving his time at HM Prison Belmarsh.
On April 11, the United States government unsealed an indictment made in March 2018 charging Julian Assange with a conspiracy to help whistle-blower Chelsea Manning,former soldier and pardoned felon to crack a password which enabled her to pass on classified documents that were then published by WikiLeaks – in effect, conspiracy to hack US computer systems, a charge which carries a maximum five year sentence. The US has requested that the UK extradite Assange to face these charges before a US court. Assange has now been indicted on seventeen charges under the espionage act, which if proven, could mean life imprisonment. There is no guarantee that once he enters the the legal system he will ever re-emerge.
In 2010, a Swedish prosecutor requested Assange’s transfer to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations, which he denies. Whilst appealing a British High Court decision to extradite him, he spent eighteen months under house arrest at the home of a supporter (in effect, he has been incarcerated for almost a decade). In 2016, Assange was questioned by Swedish authorities by video link while he remained in the Ecuadorian embassy. In 2017, they closed the case against him, but after his arrest, the lawyer for one of the Swedish complainants indicated she’d ask the prosecutor to reopen the case. Sweden’s Prosecution Authority reviewed the case and renewed its request for extradition; but in November 2019, it dropped the matter citing a lack of substantive evidence.
But the British Home Secretary Sajid Javid has signed off on the US’ extradition request. It must now go through the British courts. The process could take years, well beyond Assange’s initial fifty weeks incarceration, the court’s refusal to free him when it had expired – on the grounds that he was a flight risk (he has form, after all) – and the formal expedition hearing which open in February 2020.
Stay angry, get even
The current US administration cleaves to the maxim “stay angry and get even” – Uncle Sam neither forgets nor forgives. Just wait and see what happens if it can get its hands on exiled hacker and Now Russian resident Edward Snowden. The British Government, relieved to have restored a corner of Knightsbridge to its sovereignty, and currently knee deep in the Brexit “Big Muddy”, probably won’t lift a finger to help him even though by any standard of much-vaunted British ‘fair play’, his self-imposed punishment hardly fits his alleged crimes, an by any liberal and democratic benchmark, he’s certainly served his time. Former Aussie prime minister Kevin Rudd has declared that Julian Assange would pay an “unacceptable” and “disproportionate” price if he is extradited to the United States, that no actual harm to individuals has been demonstrated, whilst the WikiLeaks founder should not take the fall for Washington’s failures to secure its own classified documents.
Our leaders here in Australia, lost in our own short-term political preoccupations bleat from the distant sidelines that it’s not our problem – which politically and diplomatically speaking, it isn’t, other than the fact that he is an Australian citizen (albeit a longtime absentee) and therefore warrants consular assistance. Simplistically put, there are no votes in it.
Will our government now help him out? Demand his return to Australia? Oppose the calls from the US to extradite him from the UK?
Our tepid and tardy response to the detention in Thailand of footballer Hakeem al-Araibi on a dodgey Bahraini extradition order and the asylum plea of Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammad – ironically, again from Thailand – does not auger well for a resolute and reasonable response. The way we left erstwhile al Qaida fellow-travelers David Hicks and Mamduh Habib to rot in Gitmo, and the lack of enthusiasm with which we took up journalist Peter Greste’s case in Egypt – his family and journalists worldwide maintained the struggle for his release – suggest that after what we call “diplomatic representations” (what ordinary folk call “going through the motions”), we will face political realities and bend to the US’ will.
Caught up between our subservient relationship with the US, our slavish pandering to economic and strategic interests, placing these above considerations of human rights, and our government’s susceptibility to the malign influence of shock-jocks and populist politicians, Australia’s official behaviour in such cases is often predictably and reflexively disingenuous.
Nowadays, most governments are desperate to stop leaks, data dumps, whistle-blowers and uncomfortable revelations. Democratic governments have attempted to use ostensibly benign legal and security powers to restrict media oversight and criticism. Witness here in Australian how the Victorian Director of Prosecutions is seeking to put thirty-six media outlets, editors and journalists on trial over allegations that they breached a suppression order in reports published after the prominent and well-connected Cardinal George Pell was convicted of child sex abuse charges. The powerful look after their own.
Less squeamish, more thuggish autocratic regimes have few qualms about consigning journalists and editors to jail and worse whilst their western allies and armourers ‘see no, hear no, speak no evil’. Narrow, national interests as ever trump (an apposite word, indeed) human rights. Witness the hundreds of Egyptian and Turkish journalists jailed without trial, the harassment and even killing of reporters in Eastern Europe and Russia, and, of course, the gruesome murder of Saudi scribbler and stirrer Jamal Khashoggi.
The US, the land of the free and the First Amendment has truly shown its hand, and its true colours, proving that Assange’s fears of extradition were quite justified. The UK, meanwhile, has long ached to nail him for contempt of its bail laws, and just plain contempt, really – and a seriously extravagant waste of already straitened police resources. When Assange had worn out his Ecuadorian welcome, lubricated, it is alleged (by WikiLeaks), a $4.2 billion IMF bailout plus another $6 billion from other financial institutions, the Met was ready to roll. Meanwhile, Australia’s political class, having long regarded his Australian nationality as an embarrassing inconvenience, just hoped that we could be left out of it all.
Rally ‘round the fall guy
The media, mainstream, extreme, any stream really, including social media and sundry supporters and detractors, are rushing to both praise Assange and to bury him. They defend and demonstrate, denounce and demean. So Julian Assange, simultaneously icon and bête noir, is the ideal fall-guy “pour decourager les autres”: for everyone on the left and the right who dig him, there’s another who can’t stand him for reasons political, personal, or perverse.
There’s the role he played in the demise of Hilary Clinton and election of Donald Trump, as if, some believe, he was hoping for some kind of “get out of jail free” card from a Trump administration. There’s his hanging out, in a confined space, with the likes of UKIP’s irritating and arguably obnoxious Nigel Farage. All this has forever tarnished his reputation as a warrior of the left. There’s those problematical charges in Sweden that we now learn have never gone away.
During the Australian Federal election before last, the party running his senate bid in absentia gave its preferences to right-wing libertarian nut-jobs ahead of Labor and the Greens, his erstwhile natural allies – and then put it all down to clerical error.
Sadly, stories about his tantrums, visits by Yoko Ono, Lady Gaga and onetime Baywatch hottie Pamela Anderson (nudge, nudge, wink, wink!) and neglecting to clean up after his cat – lurid tales of his hygiene habits appear have been concocted to dehumanize him in tabloid tittle-tat – have rendered him an object of ridicule. And the images of him being dragged out of the embassy, pale and blinking in the unforgiving daylight, grey-haired, bearded, wide-eyed and disheveled, like some mad old street person, have engendered pathos and pity.
There can be little doubt that his mental and physical health deteriorated during his confinement. For sure he is not the confident man who entered the embassy so many years ago; but the law doesn’t recognise this – it demands a reckoning. And many love to kick a man when he’s down.
In the end, Assange was in so many ways his own worst enemy. It is hypothesized that he could’ve surrendered to the Brits long time passing and took his chances at law instead of hiding, a much diminished figure, in the embassy of a small Latin American republic. The sad irony is that if he’d faced the music all those years ago, he might’ve been a free man by now, either having done his time or been exonerated, or else, a credible and respected political prisoner supported worldwide as a champion of press freedom and free speech.
Lights in dark corners
Amidst all the commentary and partisanship swirling about the Assange’s unfortunate circumstances, there has been remarkably little explanation of what he, Manning, WikiLeaks and Snowden have actually done in a substantive security sense. Robert Fisk and his colleague at The Independent, Patrick Cockburn, address just that.
Fisk wrote on 31st May: “ … the last few days have convinced me that there is something far more obvious about the incarceration of Assange and the re-jailing of Manning. And it has nothing to do with betrayal or treachery or any supposed catastrophic damage to our security”.
Cockburnsuccinctly belled the cat with on the same day: “ … the real purpose of state secrecy is to enable governments to establish their own self-interested and often mendacious version of the truth by the careful selection of “facts” to be passed on to the public. They feel enraged by any revelation of what they really know, or by any alternative source of information. Such threats to their control of the news agenda must be suppressed where possible and, where not, those responsible must be pursued and punished.”
Fisk continues: “The worst of this material was secret not because it accidentally slipped into a military administration file marked “confidential” or “for your eyes only”, but because it represented the cover-up of state crime on a massive scale. Those responsible for these atrocities should now be on trial, extradited from wherever they are hiding and imprisoned for their crimes against humanity. But no, we are going to punish the leakers – however pathetic we may regard their motives … Far better we hunt down other truths, equally frightening for authority. Why not find out, for example, what Mike Pompeo said in private to Mohammed bin Salman? What toxic promises Donald Trump may have made to Netanyahu? What relations the US still secretly maintains with Iran, why it has even kept up important contact – desultory, silently and covertly – with elements of the Syrian regime?
Assange was not, in Fisk’s opinion an investigative journalist; he is nevertheless, a scapegoat, and also a salutary warning for all who shine a light into the dark corners of power: “… what we find out through the old conventional journalism of foot-slogging, of history via deep throats or trusted contacts, is going to reveal – if we do our job – just the same vile mendacity of our masters that has led to the clamour of hatred towards Assange and Manning and, indeed, Edward Snowden. We’re not going to be arraigned because the prosecution of these three set a dangerous legal precedent. But we’ll be persecuted for the same reasons: because what we shall disclose will inevitably prove that our governments and those of our allies commit war crimes; and those responsible for these iniquities will try to make us pay for such indiscretion with a life behind bars. Shame and the fear of accountability for what has been done by our “security” authorities, not the law-breaking of leakers, is what this is all about”.
Back to Cockburn who writes that one reason Assange was being persecuted was for WikiLeaks’ revelations about US policy in Yemen: “Revealing important information about the Yemen war – in which at least 70,000 people have been killed – is the reason why the US government is persecuting both Assange and Yemeni journalist Maas al Zikry … (who) says that “one of the key reasons why this land is so impoverished in that tragic condition it has reached today is the US administration’s mass punishment of Yemen”. This is demonstrably true, but doubtless somebody in Washington considers it a secret.”
A nice dilemma
WikiLeaks and Julian Assange has done the world many favours. They’ve exposed war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; they’ve shine an unwelcome light on wrongdoing, shabby deals, and hypocritical, incriminating and ofttimes embarrassing goings-on in the corridors of power and diplomacy worldwide. And they’ve passed all this on to reputable media sources throughout the so-called free world to sift, analyse, question, join disparate dots, and disseminate.
Yet, in what may seem in retrospect to be a bad dose of overconfidence and hubris, they aspired to be players in the power games of others rather than remaining a neutral and discerning watchdog. And this was perhaps Assange’s undoing – if undone he indeed becomes. This story has some distance to run …
His faithfully longtime lawyer Jen Robinson declared that his arrest, after seven years of self-imposed internal exile, has “set a dangerous precedent for all media and journalists in Europe and around the world”. His extradition to the US, she said, meant that any journalist could face charges for “publishing truthful information about the United States”. She might have added “published outside the US”, Indeed, US revanchism is a chilling demonstration of imperial overreach and a grim warning to others.
Political prisoner, maybe, whistle-blower, certainly, but “not a prisoner of conscience”, at least by Amnesty International’s definition. Compared to many prisoners on Amnesty’s books, innocents and activists banged up by oppressive regimes, Assange has been pretty well treated. The consistent reference in many media reports to a potential death sentence in the US is egregious insofar as the UK will not allow extradition if a death sentence is on the cards. Many would also dispute the tag “investigative journalist” that some have bestowed upon him, seeing as he and Chelsea Manning released classified US and other information. They did not ferret it out, sift it and analyse it for publication as investigative journalists generally do. As for making Assange a “working class hero”, as some on the far-left have done, that is drawing a long bow. Friends and foes alike are now dancing around these distinctions.
In a concise recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Greste, who got to know very well the inside of a squalid Egyptian prison cell and the Egypt’s kafkaesqe judicial system for allegedly publishing what a government didn’t like, makes a few points that Jennifer, her colleague, the eloquent and famous Geoffrey Robertson, and others have skated lightly over:
“Julian Assange is not a journalist, and WikiLeaks is not a news organisation. There is an argument to be had about the libertarian ideal of radical transparency that underpins its ethos, but that is a separate issue altogether from press freedom … Journalism demands more than simply acquiring confidential information and releasing it unfiltered onto the internet for punters to sort through. It comes with responsibility. To effectively fulfill the role of journalism in a democracy, there is an obligation to seek out what is genuinely in the public interest and a responsibility to remove anything that may compromise the privacy of individuals not directly involved in a story or that might put them at risk. Journalism also requires detailed context and analysis to explain why the information is important, and what it all means”.
Greste nevertheless sounds a warning. On the eve of the first extradition hearing on January 25th 2020, in an opinion piece in the SMH, he wrote of how the Obama administration “realized that if they prosecuted him, they would then have to prosecute the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and others for also publishing much of Wikileaks’ material, and in the process do irreparable harm to the constitutional guarantees for press freedom. It is clear that under Trump, Assange is highly unlikely to have his rights respected or get a fair trial, and those, too, are grounds to oppose his extradition. The manner in which US prosecutors are handling his case, and its implications for anybody who believes in democratic accountability, are too serious to let Assange be extradited without a fight”.
“The Australian government certainly appears singularly unmoved by Julian Assange … Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the legal processes must “run their course” and Assange should “face the music”. The government position appears to be that f the US wants to extradite him, and extradition proceedings are underway, Australia can’t intervene even if it wanted to … This is total nonsense, says everyone with experience: diplomacy is all about pulling levers behind the scenes … The problem, say sources in government, is that Australia may be reluctant to expend political capital on behalf of Assange … Australia may also be too afraid – “too craven”, according to one – to test its standing with the US; and there may be a sense that the US has gone too far to back down, so a request to do so would be both embarrassing and useless. The US-Australia relationship may be further tested if, eventually, the UK refuses extradition and deports Assange back to Australia. It appears that the US might then be able to request his extradition directly from us. What will we do then?”
Meanwhile people continue to argue over whether Assange is a hero or a ratbag – our ratbag as an equally ratbag conservative Australian member of parliament called him – demanding, surprisingly that he be brought home). They debate whether he is a legitimate journalist, publisher, troublemaker or whistleblower, a Trumpista or Putinesca. But sycophantic and pusillanimous politicians aside, most informed people of goodwill believe that there isn’t a case to answer and that he should be repatriated to Australia. It will be interesting to see where Jen Robinson’s last minute (February 2020) witness statement about Trump’s offer of pardon will go, and indeed, what the British Court will decide. One thing’s for sure: The Powers That Be will continue to play dirty.
The serpentine storylines of Nathan Hill’s astonishing debut novel The Nixconverge on the chaos and carnage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968, when Hubert Humphrey was selected as candidate to run against Richard Nixon that fall, and Mayor Daley set the city’s finest upon the thousands who had gathered to protest the Vietnam War, racial injustice, and other social and political ills in what contemporary reports described as a “police riot”.
Hill sets the scene beautifully…
“The day before the riots the weather turned. The grip of the Chicago summer loosened and the air was spring-like and agreeable…In the very early dawn there appeared on the ground a thin, slick dew. The world was alive and lubricated. It felt hopeful, optimistic, and therefore disallowable as the city prepared for battle, as National Guard troops arrived by the thousands on green flatbed trucks, as police cleaned their gas masks and guns, as demonstrators practiced evasion and self-defense techniques and assembled various projectiles to lob at the cops. There was a feeling among them all that so great a conflict deserved an nastier day. Their hatred should ignite the air, they thought. Who could feel revolutionary when the sun shined pleasantly on one’s face. The city instead was full of desire. The day before the greatest, most spectacular, most violent protest of 1968, the city was saturated with want”.
Indeed, for most of that year, the western world was full of unfulfilled desires and unsatisfied wants.
In this, the third in a series of posts recalling the tumultuous events of 1968, we review a year that breathless commentators have dubbed “the year that changed America”, and, drawing an even longer bow, “the year that changed the world”. It was indeed a year of seismic social and political change, from the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements in America, to protests and revolutions in Europe, and famine in Africa. And as the year ended, Apollo 8 gave us our first view of our sad, blue planet from space.
It was indeed a great year to be alive, young and engaged – although a very great many endured grief, misery and pain, and met violent deaths. Yet, it is in our nature to imagine and indeed, re-imagine our salad days as the best of times and the worst of times. But looking back through our back pages, the year was perhaps no better or worse, no more significant or seminal than any year fore or aft. Like cars seen through the rear-vision mirror, memories always seem a lot closer and bigger. Recall the last verse of Bobby Goldsboro’s tear-jerker Honey, released that February: “…see the tree how big it’s grown. But friend it hasn’t been too long. It wasn’t big”. But we do, however, enhance our depth of perception, and accordingly, our understanding.
1968 conjures up a kaleidoscope of searing images apart from those of police clubbing demonstrators on the streets of Chicago.
A South Vietnamese general blowing out the brains of a Vietcong prisoner on a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive. The Reverend Andrew Young Jr. and his colleagues, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis standing next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr. and point to where the assassin’s bullet was fired. Students at Columbia University taking over campus buildings, only to be hauled away, battered and bloody by police. Parisian protesters hurling tear gas canisters back at the police. Robert Kennedy felled by Sirhan Sirhan in the basement at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Soviet tanks rolling into Prague. Women dumping bras and girdles into a trash can on the boardwalk outside Atlantic City’s Miss America pageant. Protesters facing off against coppers and horses in a violent mêlée in front of the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square. Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic medalists’ platform in Mexico City, raising their black-gloved fists in the Black Panther Salute as second-placed Aussie Peter Norman stands tall and silent in solidarity (a stance which would earn him opprobrium in his still prejudiced and conservative homeland).
As young people in the UK, we viewed these scenes to an exciting and eclectic soundtrack of blues, rock and psychedelia as the pop music cavalcade of the ‘sixties rock ‘n rolled on.
The Beatles sang Hey Jude, and The Rolling Stones, Street Fighting Man, and Jimi Hendrix delivered simply the best-ever cover of a Bob Dylan song with his blistering, sinister All Along the Watchtower. Imagining we were Born To Be Wild, we were invited to get our motors running and head out on the highway, or else to “take the load off, take the load for free”. We could pointlessly ponder the mysterious meaningless of MacArthur Park, or just lay back in a hazy daze with the Hurdy Gurdy Man (a strange ditty that has enjoyed a brief comeback with the recent hippy, trippy Romans-versus-druids soap Britannia). Koo-koo-ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson!
Images and music aside, what was it really like to experience 1968?
Christopher Allen, in a piece in The Australian reviews an exhibition commemorating the events of 1968 at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. His is an original overview, advising caution when seeking signs and patterns in contemporary events. The past, as they say, is a foreign country – they see things differently there. “The signs 50 years ago were alarming, hopeful or dispiriting, depending on your point of view, but above all conflicting, as are the signs today. We will one day know where events on the Korean peninsula or the latest phase of tensions in the Middle East are leading. The shadowy, seemingly fluid future, with its dramatically different possible alternatives, will have become the ossified, unchangeable past.
In an entertaining and upbeat piece in The Guardian, Hendrick Herzberg rebuts that cliched putdown of how people who remember the sixties weren’t really there, recounts his own adventures, and claims that “In a modest way, 1968 was the kind of year that pushes history in some unforeseen, astonishing direction – a gentler little brother to 1492, 1776, 1848, 1914, 1945, and 2001”. I would add 1789, 1939, and 1989 and 2011. Check them out.
I too remember the ‘sixties, and I too was there, albeit not on the political, social or cultural front lines. But I was at Grosvenor Square, occupied the vice-chancellor’s offices, did drugs (soft, mind), dug Cream, read Oz and IT, and totally got into Hair, which opened in London that year. And today, I share Hetzberg’s reverie: “In 1968, the ‘sixties were almost over, but The Sixties have never fully gone away. For me, and no doubt for many others of my vintage, it’s hard to believe that half a century now separates us from that momentous, tumultuous year, and that 1968 is now as distant in time as 1918 – the year of the end of World War I, the consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia, and the flu pandemic that killed 50 million people – was in 1968. Fifty years from now, it’ll be 2068. The ‘sixties again! I Can’t wait!”
In contrast, Tod Gitlin gazes through a glass darkly in a sober retrospective for The New York Review of Books: “When we fight over the meaning of the past, we are fighting over what, today, we choose to care about. In this way, the 1968 anniversaries stalk 2018, depicting scene after scene of revolt, horror and cruelty, of fervor aroused and things falling apart, and overall, the sense of a gathering storm of apocalypse, even revolution. Inevitably, the “iconic” images of the time feature scenes of brutality, rebellion, and tragedy”.
And indeed, the enduring historical memory of 1968 is one of a succession of seemingly disconnected conflicts and collisions, turmoil and turbulence, not only in the USA but around the world. Yet beneath the apparent chaos, Gitlin seems to suggest, there were patterns that can only be discerned with the benefit of hindsight or as visions from a great height – much like, perhaps, that iconic image of our blue planet.
“Public life seemed to become a sequence of ruptures, shocks, and detonations. Activists felt dazed, then exuberant, then dazed again; authorities felt rattled, panicky, even desperate. The world was in shards. What were for some intimations of a revolution at hand were, for exponents of law and order, eruptions of the intolerable. Whatever was valued appeared breakable, breaking, or broken”.
The pendulum was swinging away from the previous year’s Summer of Love into a darker place. The lyrics of Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride, released that September, seem, in retrospect, to describe the turning tide: “Last night I held Aladdin’s lamp, so I wished that I could stay, but before the thing could answer me, well, someone took the lamp away. I looked around, and a lousy candle’s all I found”. In November 1968, Jimi Hendrix sang: “Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl. Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl”.
There lurked a new narrative, and this was one of backlash and counterrevolution. “What haunted America”, writes Gitlin, “was not the misty spectre of revolution but the solidifying spectre of reaction. As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers, and plutocrats, the left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal”.
”This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, said in 1969. He spoke prematurely. And presciently. Fifty years on from this momentous year, all that is old is new again.
Read on and enjoy these articles and the accompanying pictures.
But first, a poignant memento of 1968 from the 1979 film version of the “tribal love-rock musical” (yep, that how it was marketed back in the day) Hair, which i saw in London in the fall of 1968.
Commemorations are the greeting cards that a sensation-soaked culture sends out to acknowledge that we, the living, were not born yesterday. So it is with this year’s media reassembly of 1968. What is hard to convey is the texture of shock and panic that seized the world a half-century ago. What is even harder to grasp is that the chief political victor of 1968 was the counter-revolution.
When we fight over the meaning of the past, we are fighting over what, today, we choose to care about. In this way, the 1968 anniversaries stalk 2018, depicting scene after scene of revolt, horror and cruelty, of fervor aroused and things falling apart, and overall, the sense of a gathering storm of apocalypse, even revolution. Inevitably, the “iconic” images of the time feature scenes of brutality, rebellion, and tragedy: a South Vietnamese general’s blowing out the brains of a prisoner on a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive; the Reverend Andrew Young Jr. and his colleagues, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr., pointing at where the assassin’s bullet had come from; demonstrators at Columbia taking over campus buildings, then hauled away, battered bloody by cops; Parisian protesters hurling tear gas canisters back at the police; Robert Kennedy felled by Sirhan Sirhan’s shots at the Ambassador Hotel;Soviet tanks rolling into Prague; police clubbing demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; women’s liberation activists dumping girdles, hair curlers, and bras (unburnt) in a trash can on the boardwalk outside Atlantic City’s Miss America pageant; Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic medalists’ platform in Mexico City, raising their black-gloved fists in defiance.
A more thorough survey would take note of social collisions that, however violently repressive, failed to register in America with the same supersaturated significance. For example: the killing of three students in Orangeburg, South Carolina, by highway patrol officers after the students protested segregation at a bowling alley (February 8); the near-deadly shooting of the German radical student leader Rudi Dutschke in Berlin (April 11); Chicago police battering a wholly nonviolent antiwar protest (April 27).
As for less bloody demonstrations, there were so many, so routinely, that TheNew York Times regularly grouped civil rights and antiwar stories on designated pages. Neither does this rundown of calamities take into account images that did not see the light of day until much later, like the color shots of the My Lai massacre (March 16), not published until late 1969—by which time they were almost expected. Or the images that never materialized at all, like the slaughter of hundreds of demonstrating students by troops in Mexico City (October 2).
Images aside, what was it really like to experience 1968? Public life seemed to become a sequence of ruptures, shocks, and detonations. Activists felt dazed, then exuberant, then dazed again; authorities felt rattled, panicky, even desperate. The world was in shards. What were for some intimations of a revolution at hand were, for exponents of law and order, eruptions of the intolerable. Whatever was valued then appeared breakable, breaking, or broken.
The textureof these unceasing shocks was itself integral to what people felt as “the 1968 experience.” The sheer number, pace, volume, and intensity of the shocks, delivered worldwide to living room screens, made the world look and feel as though it was falling apart. It’s fair to say that if you weren’t destabilized, you weren’t paying attention. A sense of unending emergency overcame expectations of order, decorum, procedure. As the radical left dreamed of smashing the state, the radical right attacked the establishment for coddling young radicals and enabling their disorder. One person’s nightmare was another’s epiphany.
The familiar collages of 1968’s collisions do evoke the churning surfaces of events, reproducing the uncanny, off-balance feeling of 1968. But they fail to illuminate the meaning of events. If the texture of 1968 was chaos, underneath was a structure that today can be—and needs to be—seen more clearly.
The left was wildly guilty of misrecognition. Although most on the radical left thrilled to the prospect of some kind of revolution, “a new heaven and a new earth” (in the words of the Book of Revelation), the main story line was far closer to the opposite—a thrust toward retrogression that continues, though not on a straight line, into the present emergency. The New Deal era of reform fueled by a confidence that government could work for the common good was running out of gas. The glory years of the civil rights movement were over. The abominable Vietnam War, having put a torch to American ideals, would run for seven more years of indefensible killing.
The main new storyline was backlash. Even as President Nixon assumed a surprising role as environmental reformer, white supremacy regrouped. Frightened by campus uprisings, plutocrats upped their investments in “free market” think tanks, university programs, right-wing magazines, and other forms of propaganda. Oil shocks, inflation, and European and Japanese industrial revival would soon rattle American dominance. What haunted America was not the misty specter of revolution but the solidifying specter of reaction.
Even as established cultural authorities were defrocked, political authorities revived and entrenched themselves. In so many ways, the counterculture, however domesticated or “co-opted” in Herbert Marcuse’s term, became the culture. Within a few years, in public speech and imagery, in popular music and movies, on TV (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, TheMary Tyler Moore Show) and in the theater (Hair, Oh! Calcutta!), profanity and obscenity taboos dissolved. Gays and feminists stepped forward, always resisted but rarely held back for long. It would subsequently be, as the gauchistes of May ’68 in Paris liked to say, forbidden to forbid.
In the realm of political power, though, for all the many subsequent social reforms, 1968 was more an end than a beginning. After les évènements in France in May came June’s parliamentary elections, sweeping General De Gaulle’s rightist party to power in a landslide victory. After the Prague Spring and the promise of “socialism with a human face,” the tanks of the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact overran Czechoslovakia. In Latin America, the Guevarist guerrilla trend was everywhere repulsed, to the benefit of the right. In the US, the “silent majority” roared. As the divided Democratic Party lay in ruins, Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy turned the Party of Lincoln into the heir to the Confederacy. As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers, and plutocrats, the left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal.
Counter-revolutions, like their revolutionary bêtes noires, suffer reversals and take time to cohere. The post-1968 counter-revolution held the fort against a trinity of bogeymen: unruly dark-skinned people, uppity women, and an arrogant knowledge class. In 1968, it was not yet apparent how impressively the recoil could be parlayed into national power. “This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, said in 1969. He spoke prematurely.
1968: the year that changed America
Hendrick Herzberg, The Guardian, April 15, 2018
Where were you in the 1960s? And what were you? A toddler, a grade schooler, a teenager? A young adult? Were you already old enough to form your own memories? Or were you old enough but in the “if you can remember The Sixties you really weren’t there” category?
Of course, if you’re like most people, you were nowhere. You hadn’t been born yet. You didn’t exist. But wherever and whatever you were or weren’t, it’s a safe bet that you’ve heard about The Sixties – quite enough, maybe. Ad nauseam, maybe.
There is a continuing theological controversy among sixtiesologists concerning when The Sixties can properly be said to have begun and ended. Tuesday 8 November1960 – the day Senator John F Kennedy was elected president – has a pretty good claim to the beginning. Kennedy’s campaign slogan, which appeared on every campaign poster, had been LEADERSHIP FOR THE 60’s. Out with the dull, conformist, priggish, crewcut, Eisenhowerish Fifties! In with the dashing, exciting, daring, sexy, slightly longer-haired, Kennedyesque Sixties!
A darker view – the view I take – sets the clock of The Sixties ticking three years later. The assassination of President Kennedy was a crack in time. Like Sunday 7 December 1941; and like Tuesday 11 September 2001; Friday 22 November 1963 was “a date that will live in infamy”. And, like them, it was a day that is remembered in vivid detail by those who experienced it.
I was taking a noontime shower in my Harvard dorm room, having been as usual up till dawn getting out the college daily, the Crimson. I heard a faint, muffled radio news bulletin coming through the wall from the neighboring room. As I dried off, I turned on my own radio. I can still see the edge of the shower stall and the little bathroom window next to it. On the grass below, a girl was standing under a tree, weeping. The Crimson put out an extra that afternoon, but without my help. It felt too much like a schoolboy stunt. Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t want to play newspaperman. I didn’t want to be distracted from the communal grief all around me.
So The Sixties, in this conceit, began either in 1960 or, like Philip Larkin’s sexual intercourse, in 1963. And the ending? That too has long been a subject of debate. There are plenty of nominees, two of which may be considered the frontrunners. Like the beginnings, one is light and one is dark. The light one: Friday 9 August 1974, the day Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, freeing the nation from a quarter-century of having had him to kick around. The dark one: Altamont. Sunday 6 December 1969. Google it. Or see the movie.
It is possible to build a narrative around two currents of the year’s events, currents that melded and crisscrossed and fed off each other, to startling effect: the music, mostly a kaleidoscopic, wildly imaginative explosion of rock’n’roll; and the politics, mostly a politics of protest – protest against the Vietnam war, against racial injustice, and, more broadly, against what was experienced as the joyless, stultifying blandness of mainstream American life.
Those two currents, the music and the protests, washed over me as they did over millions of others. In 1966, a year out of college and a newly minted cub reporter for Newsweek, I was lucky enough to land in San Francisco. Something was happening there, and I found myself in a position to absorb it.
The scene, cultural and political, was quite something. A new kind of music – rooted in blues, rock, and electronica, and supercharged by psychedelia – was drawing motley-dressed weekend crowds to a couple of repurposed old dance halls, the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom. For $2.50 you could spend hours listening and dancing to bands that were still unknown back east or down south in LA – bands still without record contracts but with wonderful names: Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service – often paired with iconic bluesmen like Muddy Waters and James Cotton. The walls were mesmerizingly alive with rhythmically pulsating, ever-changing liquid projections. It was, in the patois of the moment, mind-blowing. For the gentle dreamers that Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle’s gossip columnist, had dubbed hippies, the Fillmore and the Avalon were Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic.
Like every young man of my generation, I had to reckon with the draft. I was against the war, of course, but I didn’t think I had the stomach to go to jail over it. I had zero desire to go to any more schools, graduate or otherwise. I was unmarried and childless. Canada was not my country, my country was the United States of America. I wasn’t physically or mentally ill and was too proud to fake it. And I wasn’t a conscientious objector. On the other hand, I didn’t want to get killed either. My solution was the US navy.
I got a haircut and reported to the naval base at Newport, Rhode Island, for three months of officer training. From there I asked to be sent to Vietnam, but it wasn’t like it sounds. Unless you were a flier (like John McCain, the future senator), a Seal (like Bob Kerrey, also a future senator) or a member of the Riverine Force (like John Kerry, a future senator, presidential nominee, and secretary of state), being a naval officer in Vietnam, especially a “public affairs” officer like me, posed very little physical risk. Instead, however, the navy, in its wisdom, assigned me to a desk job in lower Manhattan.
As the year rushed on, the pace of events grew ever more frenziedI stole away from the office whenever I could, and devoted the time to salving my conscience. I pitched in at the ramshackle headquarters of the War Resisters League. In March, after Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race, I took to hanging around his Manhattan headquarters, doing layouts and writing headlines for the Kennedy Current, the campaign’s weekly tabloid.
As the year rushed on, the pace of events grew ever more frenzied: the bloody shock of the Tet Offensive; the electoral abdication of President Lyndon Johnson; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and the riots that followed; the murder of Robert Kennedy; the chaotic, riotous Democratic convention in Chicago; Nixon’s hairsbreadth victory over Hubert Humphrey in November. And me? Well, at Christmastime I got the orders to Vietnam (as a “recreation officer” at the US base in Da Nang) I’d hoped for two years earlier. Only this time I didn’t want to go. My antiwar sentiments had hardened to the point that I decided I preferred jail to further military service, and I announced my intention to refuse the orders.
But before I could achieve fame as a martyr for peace an unexpected medical difficulty developed: I had a wisdom tooth pulled, the wound bled for days, and when I was diagnosed with a (relatively mild) form of hemophilia, the navy quickly mustered me out. I had managed to have it both ways: veteran (kind of) and resister (in a way).
Why didn’t I think of that?
In 1968 the sixties were almost over, but The Sixties have never fully gone away. For me, and no doubt for many others of my vintage, it’s hard to believe that half a century now separates us from that momentous, tumultuous year, and that 1968 is now as distant in time as 1918 – the year of the end of World War I, the consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia, and the flu pandemic that killed 50 million people – was in 1968. Fifty years from now, it’ll be 2068.
In one of the most famous stories from antiquity, Croesus, the proverbially rich king of sixth-century BC Lydia, in what is now Turkey, was disturbed by the rise of the Medes and the Persians on his eastern borders. Thinking it might be wise to crush these potential rivals before they became a serious threat, he consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, plying it with gifts to ensure a favourable answer. The oracle replied that if he made war on the Persians, a great empire would be destroyed. Croesus accordingly gathered his armies and attacked, but he was defeated and taken prisoner by Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire.
The oracle had a reputation for accurate yet riddling answers. A half-century after these events, Heraclitus, one of the most brilliant Pre-Socratic thinkers and famous for enigmatic aphorisms, declared: “The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals but signifies.” It is up to us to read the sign he gives, and Croesus had fatally misconstrued that sign in his eagerness to hear what he wanted to hear.
The signs 50 years ago, in 1968, were alarming, hopeful or dispiriting, depending on your point of view, but above all conflicting, as are the signs today. We will one day know where events on the Korean peninsula or the latest phase of tensions in the Middle East are leading. The shadowy, seemingly fluid future, with its dramatically different possible alternatives, will have become the ossified, unchangeable past.
The political protests of May 1968 in Paris were among the most significant events of that year. Although partly emulating earlier student agitation in the US, the French protests were much broader in their implications. The term that the French use for this movement, la contestation, suggests its universal spirit of revolt and its nebulous sense of direction, if not nihilistic disorientation. It was a catastrophic time for many young people caught up in the hysteria and afterwards left to pick up the pieces of interrupted studies and broken careers, in an ambience of cynicism and disenchantment. Ever since the revolution of 1789, the French have been prone to political overexcitement, and throughout much of the 20th century communists continued to believe in their own kind of revolution in the same way Christians believe in the second coming.
The zealots thought 1968 heralded the end of days and the imminence of the dictatorship of the proletariat; but the grassroots movement, spreading from students to workers, was not supported by the Communist Party, which was still committed to a totalitarian and Stalinist model of central control. A few months later, a similar pattern evolved within the communist world: the opening up of Czechoslovakia to greater freedom, democracy and independence — the Prague Spring — was crushed in August when Soviet tanks invaded the country and occupied its capital.
The events of Paris and of Prague dealt a fatal blow to the credibility of communism in the West; the old left began slowly bleeding to death until its collapse with the fall of the Berlin Wall 21 years later. Thus May 1968, as in the story of Croesus, did indeed herald the fall of an empire, but not the one the student rioters thought they were going to bring down.
Much else happened in 1968, including the opening of the new National Library in Canberra, whose anniversary is the occasion for this exhibition. As we enter the exhibition, we are confronted by a wall of 21 tabloid bills, in the centre of which is one announcing the opening of the library. The remaining headlines sum up many other momentous events of the year, starting with the mysterious loss of prime minister Harold Holt, who disappeared, presumed drowned, while spearfishing off Portsea in December 1967.
America was shocked by two political assassinations: that of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June. Both events are covered in the exhibition by photographs, posters and copies of contemporary news magazines. Particularly interesting, especially today, is an article about the revulsion against gun culture that followed the death of Kennedy, whose brother, president John Kennedy, had been assassinated less than five years earlier. There are pictures of individuals willingly giving up guns at police stations: so many were handed in that the police, as we see in another photograph, ended up disposing of them by dumping them in the sea.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was growing more intense — it was the year of the Tet offensive — and provoking greater opposition at home, mainly because of the draft, of which fatal randomness we are reminded by a set of the wooden balls that were used in the birthday ballots. It was clearly a political mistake to send conscripted soldiers to Vietnam; professional soldiers expect to fight wherever their nation sees fit to send them, but conscripted troops should be reserved for national self-defence.
At the time, however, the spread of communism in Asia looked like a serious menace, which it would be smug to discount with the benefit of hindsight. Communism had only recently been suppressed by the British in the course of the Malayan Emergency (1948-60) and, more recently still, by Suharto in Indonesia, in a far bloodier struggle from 1965 onwards. So the threat of violent totalitarian revolution was real. At the same time, there was a prima facie moral justification in helping South Vietnam defend itself against the north. The way that North Vietnamese aggression was turned into a fight for freedom in the eyes of many in the West was one of the first examples of the self-destructive neurosis that has afflicted the Western intelligentsia for the past couple of generations. A map of Vietnam published in the US in 1968 includes an insert labelled “Freedom’s struggle in Asia”, with a pall of black covering Siberia, Mongolia, China and North Vietnam. It is easy to understand the fear of the domino theory in Southeast Asia, and clear that this had serious consequences for Australia.
And to argue that time was running out for the communist dream, and that even China would, within a generation, be starting to build its own unique model, combining capitalist profiteering with communist authoritarianism, would have seemed mere wishful thinking.
For the time being Mao Zedong, after killing 45 million people by starvation during the Great Leap Forward of 1957-62, had launched the almost equally disastrous Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until his death in 1976, and posters showed beaming peasants and workers celebrating the foundation of new socialist regional committees.
This is the great difficulty in anticipating the future: we can imagine plausible scenarios but the really important things are often ones that seem entirely implausible until they happen. It would have seemed far-fetched to suggest that Southeast Asian countries racked with poverty and communist insurrection in 1968 would be booming capitalist economies by the early 20th century, but even more unbelievable that one of the most significant threats to security, freedom and human rights would one day be the rise of fanatical Islamic belief among the populations of several regional countries. Religion in general was assumed to be a long-spent political factor, of marginal relevance in the thinking of left and right.
Even in the Middle East, religion was not yet an important factor. Israel had spectacularly crushed its Arab neighbours in the Six-Day War of 1967 and extended its control over buffer territories in the north and east; its neighbours were angry and humiliated, but were all ruled by secular dictators. Iran was a prosperous, secular and modernising nation under the rule of the shah, even though there was growing opposition to his authoritarian rule. But a map of The Daily Telegraph motor marathon from London to Sydney reminds us how essentially peaceful the region still was: it is many years since such a rally could follow an itinerary from London through Europe to Turkey, then on to Tehran, Kabul and Bombay (as Mumbai was then called), before the cars were ferried to Fremantle for the final legs from Perth to Sydney.
Culturally, the period represented a new level of mass consumption of pop music and other media. At the time, pop groups often seemed to give voice to various forms of social and political dissent, but in retrospect their objective role was to channel and neutralise the malaise, turning it into harmless entertainment. Television had more or less completed its takeover of family life by 1968; people who used to play the piano or talk or read a book after dinner now sat glued to serials and talk shows. TV was a new form of addiction, whose damaging effects we now can begin to understand in the age of far more serious addiction to smartphones and other devices.
The final part of the exhibition is devoted to the conception, planning and building of the new library. Canberra, only 55 years old in 1968, was still in the process of growing into its ambitious urban design. An area from Capital Hill down to the lake had been designated as a special ceremonial triangle, destined to house not only the new Parliament House but also some of the most significant cultural edifices of the new city. These included the National Library on one side and the National Gallery, which was established in 1967 and opened in 1982. The new library was a favourite project of Robert Menzies as prime minister, and the exhibition includes correspondence and his speech in introducing the National Library bill in 1960. Although he retired in January 1966, his successor Holt invited him to lay the foundation stone in March that year.
In his speech on that occasion, Menzies expressed the hope he would live long enough to see the white marble structure reflected in the waters of the lake: this is exactly how Max Dupain photographed the finished structure in 1968. Seeking grandeur in the depth of distance, he takes a view of the new building from across the lake at night, so the library appears as a small but radiant temple-like form, its reflection shimmering silently on the dark waters.
1968: Changing Times. National Library of Australia, Canberra, Until August 12, 2018
London, back in the day. What wonders dwelt within. I recall here but a few. The old church of St. Bartolph-Without, which turned up in later days in a bad Dracula movie. The churchyard of St. Paul’s, a haven for summer’s day lunch-timing. Green Park in spring sunshine as the lily white skin of England divests for primavera. Berkeley Square, where the fabled nightingale sang, and where Clive of India, his mind curdled by corruption and conscience, and haunted by guilt and ghosts, cut his own throat.
Read more in Tabula Rasa – Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume One
My first political excursion. The CND Aldermaston March reaches London, 1966
I was in love with Dusty Springfield. In the drear tea-time of my adolescent soul, I worshiped her truly, madly, deeply. Tiny girl, big hair, panda eyes, hands moving like a beckoning siren. I just had to hear “da da da da da da” and then “I don’t know what it is that makes me love you so…” and I was hers for the next two and a half minutes. Until…
It was one of those beautiful late-spring evenings that you would get in the England of memory. The evening sun poured through the gothic stained glass windows of the school library – it was one of those schools. A group of lower sixth lads, budding intellectuals all, as lower sixth tended to be, gathered for a ‘desert island disks” show-and tell of their favourite records. Mine was ‘Wishin’ and Hopin‘ by you know who. Then it was on to the next. Clunk, hiss, guitar intro, and: “My love she speaks like silence, without ideas or violence, she doesn’t have to say she’s faithful, but she’s true like ice, like fire…” Bob had arrived, and I was gone, far gone. So was Dusty.
I bought a guitar. A clunky, eastern European thing. I tried ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, but what came out was unrecognisable. My dad said he’d break it over my head. One day, that tipping point was reached. It sounded indeed like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, or something similar. I was away, and the rest, as they say, was hearsay.
On a high of hope and hype, so it all began. With a heritage of Irish rebel songs and folksongs, and the ‘sixties folkie canon (but never, ever ‘Streets of London’). Sea shanties, a capella Watersons, Sydney Carter’s faith-anchored chants, ‘The Lord of the Dance’ being the most beloved (a song now and forever burdened with the curse of Michael Flatley). Across the pond, young Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary decanted fine old wine into new bottles, and during the Easter CND march in London in 1966, billeted in an old cinema in Southall, a first public ‘performance’ with Ewan MacColl’s “Freeborn Man of the Traveling People”. The journey had begun, and, as the father of America poetryhad crooned, “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose”.
One leg up and one leg down like an old cock sparrer, flyin’ over Piccadilly with me bow an’ arra. Sydney Carter, Eros
Eros has had a good Brasso session and is looking grand in the intermittent summer sunshine. The skylines of Regent Street, Piccadilly, and Shaftsbury Avenue look gorgeous in their Georgian and Regency splendour. The traffic is terrible and the tourists throng in confused and bemused bunches. The theatres still advertise musicals I would never see in a month of Sundays. The royal parks are in full bloom and abound with swans, geese and ducks and their young families. Soho looks as tacky as ever. And although Carnaby Street looks like, well, just any other street, and Swinging London is a fading artifact of the past, London is London as it always was and always will be in my mind’s eye and in my memories.
There is something about London. It’s in the air and it’s in the paving stones, in the crowds and the smell of the rain (lots of it). I have been coming back here every few years for over thirty years. And it still feels like coming home. As time goes by, you forget more than you remember, but random memories come breaking through the years, your thoughts wind back to way back when. London with its technicolor costume of colour, creeds and complexions, it’s paradoxes of posh and poor, it’s troves of trash and treasure.
In 1777, celebrated essayist Samuel Johnson said “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. A cliché, yes, over-used and over-quoted, oft times, out of context. A cover story of Time Magazine on ‘Swinging London’ in April 1966 was entitled “You can walk across it on the grass’. That was and remains part of the magic of the place. That, and its art, its architecture, its history. “Don’t look at”, they say, “look up!” And, exploring the main streets, mean streets and backstreets, parks and parade grounds, mews and alleys of Old London, I always reckoned that old Sam got it spot on – and still do today, whenever I chance to return.
And adjacent, in Hayes Mews, the hostelry with the longest pub name in London, ‘The Only Running Footman’. Such a magical name, it was, conjuring up motion and majesty, speed and style. And it remained in my mind this half-century hence. I had an affinity with this anonymous, antique athlete. These were my running days. I ran everywhere. To the underground, to work, to the shops, to the pub (but not back), though the city, around the town. I revelled in the movement, in the freedom, in the physical and psychological exhilaration of it all. My running days are long over, but I still run in my dreams
These were days of adapting to new environments and circumstances. They were exciting, they were challenging. I was young, restless, at turns, idealistic and cynical, puritanical and hedonistic. In retrospect, days of emotional and intellectual ferment. Days of “finding one’s way in the world”. Not some reformationey, renaissancial, enlightenment thingy. Post-adolescent onanism, more like.
As John Lennon sang: “Strange days indeed. Most peculiar, Mama!“ Irish bombs, miners’ strikes, power cuts, rubbish piled up on streets, and economic recession. A three-day week as England closed down for want of coal. Candles and coldness. Late starts and early finishes. A stack of books left in the lift in case I was caught when the lights went out. In one job, I’d walk through a bomb shattered foyer, into the mail room, to put all the mail thru a whopping great X ray machine to see if the paddies had sent us any letters. The police arrested my bike when I left it chained to a parking meter – in case it was used to hide a bomb. And you would actually hear explosions as you went about your business. Arriving at a much smaller Heathrow Airport, finding it surrounded by armoured cars and armed soldiers and police. I got a kick out of the blitz-like solidarity, the trench humour, and deprivation and darkness. Layla rocked a London that was neither as drear not as dammed as some paint it. Back then, I was in love with the place. I was young, idealistic, and as the poet said “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!“
Born in the early years after the end of World War II, I was aware that the dominant mood was relief that it was over, sadness at those lost and most importantly a forward looking attitude to improve things and not simply to get back to what life had been like before. The traces of the conflict were all around me in once blitzed Birmingham – in the barren, levelled ‘wastelands’ where streets had once stood, in the austerity, and the monotonous and monochrome drabness of couture and cuisine. To my boyish mind, “the war” was a shared community experience, a shadow which few, I now recall, talked about; but also, the stuff of puerile fantasies fostered by comic books, Airfix models, and patriotic movies that were literally and figuratively black and white.
Life was not all roses in those immediate post-war years, but better by far than what went before. Rationing was still in place when I was born in Birmingham in 1949, not ending until 1954. Young men still had to do their national service (the last call up was in 1960, the year I started Secondary school). We lived with our aunt in a cold-water, back-alley walk-up on the border of Balsall Heath (just inside Moseley, a ‘better’ suburb). Aunty Mary was my mother’s mother’s sister. When her sister died and daddy Paddy ran off with another women, Mary brought the six children over to Birmingham from Enniscorthy, County Wexford one by one. She had come to Birmingham from Ireland before the war, after her husband had run off (these things happened in Catholic Ireland). And she lived in that same old house right through the Blitz when German bombers regularly targeted The Second City’s engineering, motor and arms factories, and not a few public buildings including the Piccadilly and Waldorf cinemas on nearby Stratford Road.
I was born in her house. She had a friend who had once given birth, so that friend was the midwife. My brothers followed over the next two years. By then, National Health Service had kicked in, so they were born in hospital. Childbirth, forever dangerous, was now rendered less life threatening. There we all lived, three kids, our folks, three uncles, two aunts, a dog and a cat. Three bedrooms, girls in one, boys in another, and our family in the third. Outside loo and coal shed, no bathroom or hot water (we kids bathed in the kitchen sink and grown- ups went down to The Baths), Cold and damp, and close to the shops. And there we lived until, in 1956 when a council house in Yardley Wood became our first family home. Cold and colder running water that froze in winter, but it was at least inside the house; bathroom with hot water boiled in a big gas boiler; and an outside flush lavatory that was nevertheless immediately adjacent to the backdoor and not down the garden. A big garden too, for winter and spring vegetables, and summer camp-outs.
There we grew, with free medical treatment for all our ailments, and free optical and dental care. I still have crooked teeth – no fancy orthodontics on the NHS – but I have all my teeth still. And my eyesight. We were educated, for free. This came in during the war with the Butler Act. So, thanks to the Welfare State, we were housed and healthy enough to get to primary school and beyond. Once there, we had free books, free pens and paper, and compulsory sport, and doctors and nurses would turn up on a regular basis to check our vitals. And thus, we were able to reach the glorious ‘sixties ready to rock ‘n roll.
Which brings me by a circuitous route to British director Ken Loach’s 2013 documentary, The Spirit of ’45, a celebration of the radical changes that took place under the Labour government of Clement Attlee which came to power in 1945.
What a year that was! No sooner had the war ended, than the British electorate voted out its esteemed and beloved war leader, Winston Churchill, and bought Labour’s promise of a democratic socialism. Drawing on archive footage, and presented in black and white with contemporary interviews with dockers and miners, doctors and nurses, politicians and economists, Loach describes the nationalisation of the public services, and their subsequent privatisation three decades later. His interviewees provide poignant anecdotes about the poverty of the 1930s, dangerous and exploitative working conditions, poor housing, and abysmal health care, and the renewed sense of purpose and optimism after the end of the war and Labour’s landslide victory. He recounts the subsequent expansion of the welfare state, with its free to all medical service, and the nationalization of significant parts of the British economy, most notably, electricity, the railways, and the mines.
The Attlee government was elected due to a general belief that nothing would or could be as it had been before. Britain had pulled together to win the war; now, it would transform the peace. This was The ‘Spirit’ of ’45.
But whilst ‘spirit’ can imply ‘esprit’ and elation, it can also mean ‘ghost’ insofar as Loach rages against the death of all that hope, optimism, and vision in the decades that followed.. It is a call to arms for a return to the public unity of those heady post-war years and against the policies of subsequent governments, and most particularly those of Margaret Thatcher, that have progressively demolished the Britain that Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan strove to build. And it is a reminder that the NHS is worth fighting for at a time when it is being progressively dismantled. With stills of modern soup kitchens and the Occupy movement camped outside St Paul’s, Loach clearly believes that Occupy inherits that spirit of ’45.
Viewing The Spirit of ’45 was exhilarating. It was full of Wow! moments. The footage of the poverty of the depression years, the slum dwellings, urchin children playing on the streets or on the slag heaps, the unemployment queues, the scavenging for coal, the Jarrow March. Diseases now preventable or eradicated, then mortal. Five in a bed, and two of them dead. Malnutrition and rickets. Bread and dripping sandwiches? You needed beef for dripping. Fat chance. It was bread and jam, thank you (and grateful for it, one was tempted to respond – there were indeed some Monty Python moments there, particularly the one-down-manship sketch “when I was a lad, we were so poor…”
Relying so heavily on memories and reminiscences, the film is nostalgic, sentimental, and simplistic even, with little in-depth analysis. A tick-a-box of the many innovations that greeted the arrival of the baby boomers. Presented in such a clear and uncluttered fashion, it was quite stirring. That is Ken Loach for you. What you see is what you get: a one-sided history lesson.
The film leaps from the Attlee government straight into the darkest days of the Thatcher government, with no discussion of the political, economic and social changes and challenges in between. The road from Clement to Maggie was an eventful and for many, a traumatic one. The Counter Revolution took decades to establish itself. The great experiment of 1945 contained the seeds of its own destruction.
Loach’s focus on the years of nationalization and privatization makes narrative and dramatic sense.
But the years in between were dramatic also. Read Dominic Sandbrook’s great quartet. The titles say it all: Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles; White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties; State of Emergency; The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974; and Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979. These were best of times, these were the worst of times, as the Great Man might have said. And the worst was to come, when Britain apparently went down the gurgler, and Thatcher had to break it to fix it. And like Dr Frank’s monster, it did not quite come back together right.
The Spirit of ’45 received favourable reviews (one follows), most writers qualifying their praise with Loach’s unapologetic partisanship – he is Ken Loach, after all, and you either dig him or you don’t. My favourite film is his 1995 Spanish Civil War drama,Land and Freedom. And you most certainly don’t get a balanced view of that conflict from this. As with The Spirit of ’45, you just sit back and go for a revolutionary ride.
See also othet memories in In That Howling Infinite:
Ken Loach rarely makes documentaries, and when he does, they’re usually about an urgent topical issue, such as the 1980s miners’ strike (‘Which Side Are You On?’) or the 1990s Liverpool Dockers’ strike (‘The Flickering Flame’). On the surface, ‘The Spirit of ’45’ takes a longer view than those films. This rousing and saddening film reminds us of the air of progress and reconstruction that took hold in British politics immediately after World War II. It takes us right back to the founding of the welfare state and, with it, the nationalization of the health service, transport, energy, housing and other areas of public life, as initiated by Clement Attlee’s 1945-1951 Labour government. The faces we see at the beginning of the film of young Britons celebrating in the fountains at Trafalgar Square in May 1945 symbolize the hope of a nation: that things can only get better after six years of war.
But Loach, the director of ‘Kes’ and ‘Looking for Eric’, is equally concerned with the spirit of modern Britain. For him, the socialism of our past – of Attlee and his comrades Nye Bevan, Herbert Morrison and others – could teach the present a thing or two. And so the second part of ‘The Spirit of ’45’ ponders an altogether different mood than that in the 1940s: Thatcherism and the more recent failure of organised labour to live up to its founding principles. If ‘The Spirit of ’45’ might provoke David Cameron to raise his eyes skywards, it might also have Ed Miliband cowering behind an unwritten manifesto. Loach’s quiet, unforced position is that the left is equally guilty of abandoning the promise and passion of the post-war years.
Yet, as political essays go, this is a tender, soft and humane film. It’s a compelling mix of interviews, old and new, with archive footage, much of it from old newsreels and public information films. There’s no voice-over, just faces and voices – the voices of ageing nurses, doctors, miners, union officials and others, alongside a handful of economists and historians. Some of Loach’s arresting interviewees, like Sam Watts from Liverpool and the former Welsh miner Ray Davies, recall what poverty looked like in the 1930s, reminding us why the welfare state was necessary in the first place. Others, like a trio of nurses from Manchester and the Welsh GP Dr Julian Tudor Hart, remember the excitement and the work of the early NHS. In fact, the NHS emerges as one of the film’s chief concerns: it’s both the great survivor of the welfare state and the institution of that age currently facing the biggest threat from political decisions.
Ninety-odd minutes is not enough for this subject. There are inevitable omissions (no education, for example), and Loach makes a slightly jarring leap from a chronology of nationalization that speeds through the 1950s and ’60s to the 1979 election of Thatcher. But always apparent is his clear thesis and the infectious commitment and fervour of his interviewees. The film works all at once as a lament, a celebration and a wake-up call to modern politicians and voters.