It was a cold wet windy night in May as we wound our way up to Montmarte, arriving at our destination, an old stone building on the steep and cobbled Rue des Saules. It was after nine o’clock and we were late – the evening’s entertainment had commenced. The man who greeted us at the door asked us to wait until a song had finished and then ushered us into a a dimly-lit cellar-like room, its walls festooned with an eclectic collection of pictures, wooden tables and chairs, and stout benches pushed against the walls.
A bad start! The master of ceremonies, an eccentric chap with the air of an impatient headmaster gave us a stern look of disapproval as we took our seats in a corner at a wooden covered with initials that had been carved into its surface over decades – as if to say “bloody tourists!” A friendly chap bad us “bon soir” and served us glasses of the obligatory, sweet house red; and thenceforward, he, Le Maître, and the audience, who all appeared to be old pals, ignored us completely. Nevertheless, the evening was a hoot as our headmaster led the room in songs which everyone sang loudly and with gusto. All in French – we sang along when we knew the words. There were a couple of what us folkies would call “floor acts”, one a young man who reminded us of a friend of ours back in Oz, and a chirpy accordionist who seemed to have come straight out of French cabaret central casting.
Welcome to Au Lapin Agile, the famous and venerable Parisian cabaret cum folk club in the centre of Montmartre (in the 18th arrondissement not far from the Basilica Sacre Coeur), where people gather and sing old French songs accompanied by guitar, piano and accordion. The musicians encourage the audience to join in with the singing so it helps if you speak French or are a quick learner – or if, like us, you remember the choruses from school days, including the famous Allouette, Frère Jacque and Les Chevaliers du Table Ronde (it’s about boozing and not King Arthur).
It’s been going literally forever – the mid-nineteenth century, anyway – and was originally called Cabaret des Assassins. So named, ‘tis said, because a band of assassins broke once in and killed the owner’s son. It had also been called Rendezvous Des Voleurs or “Thieves Meeting Place – which says something about the provenance of the punters back in the day.
It was over twenty years old when, in 1875, the artist Andre Gill painted the sign that suggested its permanent name – the picture of a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan. Locals started calling their neighborhood night-club Le Lapin à Gill, or “Gill’s rabbit’, and in time, this evolved into Cabaret Au Lapin Agile, or “The Nimble Rabbit Cabaret”.
Befitting its early reputation, Au Lapin Agile became popular with dubious Montmartre characters, including pimps, eccentrics, simple down-and-outers, a contingent of local anarchists, and students from the Latin Quarter, a sprinkling of well-heeled bourgeois out on a lark. and show business types like Parisian cabaret singer and comedian Aristide Bruand, the subject of a popular painting by Montmartre artist Toulouse Lautrec. When, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Au Lapin Agile was facing closure, Bruand bought the joint and handed the tenancy to Frédéric Gerard, known to all as Frédé.
It became a great venue for budding musicians to make their debuts and also a regular haunt for impoverished artists. Picasso, Modigliani, Apollinaire and Utrillo would spend their evenings immersed in philosophical debate and music. Often Frédé would accept paintings from the artists in payment for their drinks – Picasso gave Frédé an artwork actually called Au Lapin Agile which portrayed himself dressed as a harlequin sitting in the cabaret with a female companion. Frédé is also in the picture, playing the guitar in the background. In 1912, Frédé sold the painting for $20. In 1989, it went to auction at Sothebys and sold for $41 million. A replica of Picasso’s painting is on the far wall in the interior image below – the walls are covered with similar stuff. The original is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The painting helped to make the cabaret world famous. The cabaret was also captured on canvas by Maurice Utrillo.
Au Laoin Agile – Arelquin tenant un verre by Pablo Picasso
Since the place was at the heart of artistic Paris at the turn of the twentieth century, it became a mecca for visiting artists and writers, including Ernest Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin, who would play his violin there. There was much discussion at the cabaret about “the meaning of art”, which inspired American comedian and entertainer, Steve Martin to write a play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile (1993) imagining a meeting there between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein. We saw it at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre and thought it so good, we returned the following week to see it again – and bumped into film star Ralph Fiennes in the foyer during pre-play drinks (though we weren’t introduced).
We never imagined that the place actually existed and that one day, we’d one day go there!
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
“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”.
The famous line from that old romantic William Wordsworth evokes a degree of nostalgie for les temps perdue. And so it is with the many published recollections and reveries surrounding the fifties anniversary of “les évènements de Mai” 1968. Perhaps we would be better served with Charles Dickens’ take on an earlier French Revolution:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only”.
As German social historian Ulrich Raullf has written: “Our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”. During the closing scenes of the western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. And so it is with that Paris Spring.
To those of us who were young and politically progressive in those dear dead days, the protests, strikes and other forms of civil unrest of that springtime in Paris offered a mix of hope and vicarious adventure.
It was not simply a fight against something, like the Vietnam War that was raging at the time. Rather, It was a fight for something – for social change, for new forms of political, economic, social and class relations. We believed change was in the air, and there was a palpable frisson (such a great French word) of excitement.
We’d all read our Communist Manifesto, that mercifully brief and breathless primer for wannabe rebels, and now, to misquote oldKarl Marx (ironically, two hundred years old this month), a spectre was indeed haunting Europe. Anything could happen. The future was unwritten. Regimes could tumble, and old ways crumble. Everything was mutable, impermanent – an idea that was simultaneously uplifting and terrifying.
We watched these events from across the La Manche with admiration and not a little envy. Our perspective may have been obscured, coloured and tittilated by distance and the biases of mainstream media, and by the pictures and the posters that found their way onto bedsit and bedroom walls. But there was not the 24/7 syndicated saturation that we get nowadays nor the live tweets and FB posts from the Sorbonne.
As Mitchell Abidor wrote recently in The New York Times: “The images…which changed my life when I was a teenager watching them on TV, are still burned in my memory: the enormous marches through the streets of France’s major cities; the overflowing crowds of people speechifying and debating in the amphitheater of the Sorbonne; workers occupying factories and flying red flags over the gates; students occupying universities and being beaten by the police. Workers and students, it appeared, were united against a sclerotic Gaullist state…These were images of the previously unimaginable: a revolution in the modern West. Revolution was no longer something that happened only in the past, or elsewhere, or in theory”.
Mick Jagger later explained how he and Keith Richards came to a compose one of the Rolling Stones’ seminal songs, released that August on Beggars Banquet: “Yeah, it was a direct inspiration, because by contrast, London was very quiet…It was a very strange time in France. But not only in France but also in America, because of the Vietnam War and these endless disruptions … I thought it was a very good thing at the time. There was all this violence going on. I mean, they almost toppled the government in France; de Gaulle went into this complete funk, as he had in the past, and he went and sort of locked himself in his house in the country. And so the government was almost inactive. And the French riot police were amazing”. And so the Stones sang:
Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy ‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy Well what can a poor boy do Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band ‘Cause in sleepy London town There’s just no place for a street fighting man
We all have differing memories and perspectives of those days, as do today’s commentators who may or may not have been born back then, or lived of the far side of the world, and who in these polarised times, cleave to tediously turgid talking points.
News Corp opinionistas and others on the right have put it all down to the nihilistic nonsense of pampered youth, using it as yet another stick which to beat the virtue-signalling, politically correct, young culture warriors of today. And on cue, The Australian’s resident Ayn Randista Janet Albrechtson is particularly possessed of the perception that a “wabble of woudy webels” holding our universities hostage to what she sees as a virulent post-modern anarchism identical to the apparent hedonist nihilism of the students of Paris. But many on the left are also captive of binary thinking, looking back on the events as a grand and glorious upsurge of worker and student solidarity and revolutionary zeal – a latter-day replay of the Paris Commune (another doomed Intifada that ended with firing squads during le semaine sanglant”. And then there are others who view it today as the political equivalent of coitus interruptus, remembered all over the world this year as a great missed opportunity, and the end of a revolutionary illusion. But, as the selection of articles featured below demonstrate, in retrospect, it probably a mix of all three, and maybe, even, none at all …
To many contemporary commentators, the violent unrest that shook Paris through May 1968 was driven by a cathartic reaction to a national feeling of ennui. After decades of economic growth, high employment rates, rising living standards, and a burgeoning educational system, France was bored – with the ageing but immovable and indomitable President Charles de Gaulle, and with a stultifying, bureaucratic, “father knows best” vein that ran through the public, political and social establishment, through administration, education, industrial and sexual relations.
The times they were a’changin’, but the ferment, the fashion, the fun that roiled and rock ‘n rolled the US and even staid and stitched-up Great Britain, had somehow bypassed La France – 1968 did not begin in Paris, but in Berkeley, California around 1965, where the Vietnam protests originated, spreading by early 1968 to Britain and to Germany. Viewing photographs of the sit-ins, demonstrations and street-battles, commentators remark on the straight appearance of the students with their sports jackets, ties and long skirts, and “short back and sides” haircuts, such a long way away from London’s Carnaby Street and California’s Summer of Love. To borrow again from Karl, the French has nothing to loose but their chains.
No doubt there was indeed a fair dose of teen rebellion during that Parisian prima vera. But there was much more to it than just wild oats, teen spirit, a cursory reading of Marx, Mao and Marcuse, and a battle cry of Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité! It takes more than the desire for a yahoo to take to the streets for a month of barricades and cobblestones (so French and red chic!) in the face of paramilitary batons, water-cannons and teargas. Though it must be said that the French do Revolution extremely well. It doesn’t mean that they succeed. Indeed. Most have failed, and have ended badly with blood on the streets, betrayal and retribution.
But there were in, effect, three Mays, each of them quite distinct and different.
There was the May of the students, which we all recall so well in our own subjective hindsight, a protest against the rigidity and hierarchy of the French university system, defying the historical deference of young people to their elders, and yes, demanding more sex!
Then was the May of the workers with their call for higher wages, less hours, and consultation with management. Some ten million people came out on strike and brought the factories of France to a virtual standstill. They were, despite the slogans of worker-student unity, no true friends of ostensibly spoiled middle class student firebrands and their foreign pals. They joined the revolution for their own sectional and economic reasons, and the end, the state represented by Jacques Chirac, secretary of state for employment, and the unions, led by the Communist Georges Séguy, agreed that the revolt had to end, and negotiated tremendous pay increases, a shorter working week, the strengthening of workers’ councils, and much more.
And there was a third May – an “anti-May even – that ultimately carried the day, one that the students failed to take into account and which their left wing heirs have often ignored. On May 30, half a million people paraded on the Champs-Élysées in support of President de Gaulle – perhaps the largest demonstration of the month. The France that the students were rebelling against, one they thought was all but dead, turned out to be very much alive – and eager to put rebellious youth back in its place. Charles de Gaulle emerged triumphant from the elections in June. And the political right remained in power in France until the victory in 1981 of François Mitterrand and his very un-1968 brand of socialism.
In the wings was the maker and breaker of kings and communes: the French Army, the traditional bulwark of successive French Republics, and the strong arm up canny conjurer Charles de Gaulle’s sleeve. Then there were those half a million French men and women who took to the streets at the fag end of the month to defend the staid and safe republic. De Gaulle had at first been nonplussed by the students, describing them at one point as chienlit – literally, “shit-a-bed” – youngsters and and shocked by the scale of the strikes, and even briefly fled France for Germany whilst he recalibrated. And finally, when Le President had made his feints, and done his deals, and went to the people, he was re-elected in a landslide in an anxious conservative backlash.
The revolution, such as it was, kind of faded away, much like Marx has reckoned the state would fade away. The students went back to their crowded classrooms, and the workers, to higher wages and a shorter working week. And those who John le Carré might’ve called “the many too many” returned to the safe, serene, suburban lives. God was in his heaven and de Gaulle back in the Élysée Palace.
Since then, the French left has been reduced to a shadow of its former self, while the right and neoliberalism have grown ever stronger. As for “les soixante-huitards”, some have become grumpy old men, and conservatives even. Others, like Daniel Cohn Bendit, Sorbonniere firebrand Danny Le Rouge, and now a Green, German member of the European Parliament, are open to new ideas and changing times.
Chou En Lai, China’s premier at the time, was asked of the French Revolution – the big one, that is, if 1789 – whether he thought it was a good thing. “Its too early to tell” he replied. As many conservatives are eager to point out, he seems to have been talking about May 1968.
But, after May 1968, “all changed, changed utterly”, to quote WB Yeats. As the Bobster had written just a few years prior, the line had been drawn and the curse had been cast, and the order was rapidly fadin’. The old dispensation of patriarchal authority and catholic morality had been mortally wounded. the Karl’s chains had indeed been broken and France had entered the swinging ‘sixties.
That’s all from me. Read on and enjoy the stories and loads of fabulous pictures…
The Paris riots of May 1968: How the frustrations of youth brought France to the brink of revolution
Fifty years ago today the streets of Paris staged a battle between 6,000 student demonstrators and 1,500 gendarmes – within days it had snowballed into civil dispute that saw 10 million French workers go on general strike and brought the economy to a virtual halt. Andreas Whittam Smith recalls the events of ‘Mai 68’
The French always celebrate 1 May with a few riots. They did so this year with added piquancy because it was the 50th anniversary of the famous “Mai 68” when, in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the Left Bank, the whole month was devoted to riotous assembly led by students. In contemplating these events, I recall Wordsworth’s often quoted phrase: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive” – unless, of course, you were struck by a cobblestone hurled by a student demonstrator or soaked and knocked off balance by a police water cannon.
Presumably those who were demonstrating in Paris last Tuesday have now resumed their normal lives. The point about May 1968, however, is that they didn’t go back to college or to work the next day, they carried on, some of them for the whole month. Why was that? After all, economic growth had been unusually strong, the country was calm, both politically and socially, inflation was weak, living standards had been rising and there was little unemployment.
Was it in a way a very 1960s thing? That question is prompted by a French historian of the period, Éric Alary, who observes that “May 68 is seen as a period when audacious moves seemed possible and during which society profoundly changed”. For that is an accurate description of the nature of the 1960s, whether in Western Europe or in North America.
At the same time, there was a big rise in the sheer number of young people as a result of an increase in the birth rate in the closing stages of the Second World War and for some years afterwards. Thus, in France, the under-20 cohort rose from 30.7 per cent of the population in 1954 to 33.8 per cent in 1968. At the same time in France (1967), the school leaving age was raised from 14 to 16.
Two men take evasive action during a Paris street riot on 30 May (Getty)
This required a massive expansion of teaching staff and building. As a result, students often found themselves being taught by hastily trained teachers in hastily built class rooms. In France, as in Britain, this was followed by a big expansion of the university sector. There was inevitably something ramshackle about it all, and students noticed. Yet the command structures of educational establishments remained unchanged.
Nonetheless, universities are never just academic establishments full stop. For their campuses and their indoor and outdoor spaces lend themselves to meetings and debates and even to organising mini demonstrations. The intellectual gods of these 1960s students were Marx, Freud and Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher. In a famous passage, Sartre wrote that “God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within himself nor without does he find anything to cling to”. This struck home. For as Bob Dylan sang in 1965 – “How does it feel/How does it feel/To be on your own/With no direction home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone?”
One had either to start things on one’s own without adult backing, or not at all. This was an unprecedented and intoxicating freedom. As the French student leader Dany Cohn-Bendit told the Paris demonstrators in May 1968: “There are no marshals and leaders today. Nobody is responsible for you. You are responsible for yourselves.”
In fact, as is the way of things, Mai 68 began not in central Paris, but in Nanterre, a suburb seven miles to the northwest, and not in May but on 22 March. The construction of the university of Nanterre campus in a bleak shanty town had begun in 1962. In the spring of 1968 it was still not finished. The building were exceedingly functional and contained some 12,000 students. They were particularly shocked to find themselves living and doing their studies in what was in effect a building site. They demanded, too, the right to circulate freely between the residences of males and female students, still forbidden in what one might call pre-1960s style. There was a lot of justified discontent.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit was known as ‘Dany le Rouge’ because of his politics as well as the colour of his hair (Getty)
Some 150 students, including far-left groups together with a small number of poets and musicians, occupied a building. The police surrounded it. After publication of the students’ wishes, they left the building without any trouble. But then they took their protest movement to the Sorbonne in the very middle of the Latin Quarter. That was how Mai 68 started.
In a drastic action, the authorities shut down the University of Nanterre on 2 May. The students who had decamped to the Sorbonne were bound to think that this was a hostile act, an outbreak of war between the university authorities and the student body. It had been natural to head to the Sorbonne, France’s premier university, which had the prestige of its ancient foundation 700 years earlier. This meant nothing to the police, of course, who invaded the Sorbonne the next day.
In response, on 6 May the national students’ union and the union of university teachers organised a protest march. It was one of the key events of the month. The head of the Paris police was obsessed by the need to protect the Sorbonne and its surroundings from a massive invasion by the students. He placed 1,500 officers in defence. But then came 6,000 protesters in waves. Overnight the confrontation was particularly violent. Thousands of cobblestones were ripped up and used as projectiles by the demonstrators. The police responded with teargas grenades. Dozens of gendarmes were taken to hospitals. Students were wrenched from the arms of the police by their colleagues.
The next day, students, teachers and increasing numbers of young workers gathered at the Arc de Triomphe to demand that all criminal charges against arrested students be dropped, that the police leave the university and that the authorities reopen Nanterre and the Sorbonne. But negotiations broke down. When the students returned to their campuses to find that the police were still in occupation, a near revolutionary fervour began to grip them.
The lyrics of Bob Dylan captured the sense of isolation and alienation felt by many young people
The next big date was 10 May. The atmosphere became more and more tense. Left-wing students were seeking a confrontation and the force of law and order did nothing to avoid it. Senior politicians now began to fear that an insurrection was being planned that would soon set ablaze the whole country. When the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, a special police unit specialising in riotous situations, blocked the demonstrators from crossing the river, the crowd again threw up barricades, which the police then attacked at 2.15 the next morning after negotiations once again floundered. The confrontation, which produced hundreds of arrests and injuries, lasted until dawn.
The events were broadcast on radio as they occurred, and the aftermath was shown on television the following day. This demonstration of heavy handed police brutality brought on a wave of sympathy for the strikers. Moreover, in a highly significant move, the major union federations called a one-day strike and demonstration for Monday, 13 May. The workers were going to march with the students.
They had their own grievances. There had been sporadic industrial trouble since the beginning of the year. More than half of them put in a 48-hour week. They feared that their standard of living had ceased to improve. Unemployment, albeit from a low base, was beginning to rise. As a result this was no longer a Paris event, for workers took to the streets throughout France. Their slogan was “Ten years! That’s enough!” referred to Charles de Gaulle’s long period as president.
French politicians Michel Debre and Andre Malraux at the tomb of the unknown soldier, demonstrating their support for De Gaulle (Getty)
The events the next day, 14 May, were as important. For workers began occupying factories, starting with a sit-down strike at the Sud Aviation plants near the city of Nantes. If students could occupy their universities, then workers could seize control of their factories. By 16 May, workers had occupied roughly 50 factories throughout France and 200,000 were on strike by 17 May. That figure snowballed to two million workers on strike the following day (18 May) and then ten million, or roughly two thirds of the French workforce on strike the following week (23 May).
The unions assumed that the workers simply wanted more pay. So, when they were able to negotiate substantial pay increases with employers’ associations, they thought their job was done. But workers had also demanded the ousting of the De Gaulle government and in some cases demanded to run their own factories.
The demonstrations and the strikes went on. Meanwhile on the morning of 29 May, De Gaulle suddenly boarded a helicopter and left the country. He went to the headquarters of the French military in Germany and called a meeting of Council of Ministers for 30 May back in Paris. On that same day, the unions led 400,000 to 500,000 protesters through Paris chanting “Adieu, De Gaulle”. The head of the Paris police carefully avoided the use of force.
Sensibly De Gaulle responded by dissolving the National Assembly and calling a new election for 23 June. He ordered the workers to return to work immediately, threatening to institute a state of emergency if they did not. The Communist Party agreed to the holding of the election. Immediately revolutionary feelings began to fade away. The police retook the Sorbonne on 16 June. And the Gaullists won the greatest victory in French parliamentary history.
The May days of 1968, it turned out, had been a convulsive moment, nothing more enduring than that. Nonetheless in Wordsworth’s words, “to be young was very heaven”.
Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968
It began with a demand by students for the right to sleep with each other. And it ended in one of the greatest upheavals in French society since the revolution. John Lichfield goes in search of the spirit of 68 . Saturday 23 February 2008
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”
It took a dead British poet to understand May 1968. The conventional French politicians of the time did not have a clue what was going on, even the left-wing politicians. The student and worker revolt in France 40 years ago this spring was a cultural revolution, even a sexual revolution, before it was a political one.
The young William Wordsworth wrote the above lines about a much bloodier French revolution. They express perfectly, all the same, the mood of May 1968: the idealism, the whimsy, the zeal, the humour, the self-righteousness, the excitement.
The photographs tell the story. On the first night of rioting in the Paris Left Bank, on 3 May 1968, the riot police wore old-fashioned uniforms and old-fashioned helmets. They looked rather like French soldiers from the 1914-18 war.
The male students wore jackets and ties or neat jumpers and short hair and well-pressed trousers. The women had long hair and sensible skirts and hair-bands. There were few jeans or sandals or beards.
This, remember, was more than a year after Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was the year after the Flower Power revolution had begun in San Francisco. No self-respecting, revolting student in America or Britain or Germany would have worn a jacket and tie on a barricade in the first days of May 1968. Before the end of the student revolt in early June, the French students looked more convincingly revolutionary: they were scruffier, more hirsute and more psychedelic. They had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.
May 1968 was, in its origins, a revolt against the stifling papa-knows-best conservatism, and dullness, of General Charles de Gaulle’s economically booming 1960s France. It was, at one level, a catch-up, fast-forward revolution for the right to wear long hair and purple trousers. It began in March, at the new Nanterre University west of Paris, as a demand for the rights of boy and girl students in their late teens and twenties to sleep together.
There were other student revolts in Europe and America, before and after May 1968. In no other country did a student rebellion almost bring down a government. In no other country did a student rebellion lead to a workers’ revolt, one that rose up from the blue-collar grass roots and overwhelmed the paternalistic trade-union leadership as much as the paternalistic, conservative government.
The two revolts remained largely separate: despite the efforts of a fringe of Maoist students, despite the eloquence of Jean-Paul Sartre, who stood on a box outside the Renault factory at Boulogne-Billancourt telling the workers about the student-worker-intellectual paradise to come. (“Be brief,” someone advised him, but he wasn’t.)
The workers’ demands were tangible and precise. The students’ aims were diffuse and contradictory: more philosophical than political and often shot-through with sexual innuendo (and frustration). “Marxist, Groucho tendency.” “Be realistic, ask for the impossible.” “Take your desires for realities.” “Unbutton your brain as much as your trousers.”
Of the two rebellions, it was the wildcat general strike by workers which worried the government most at the time. A young minister called Jacques Chirac was sent secretly to prepare the way for the pay rises, and reduced working hours, which helped to bring the strike to an end. He put a revolver in his inside jacket pocket before going to his clandestine meetings. This was not self-dramatisation; it was just the giddy mood of the times.
And yet, 40 years on, it is the student revolt which is most remembered and the workers’ revolt which has been almost forgotten. This is partly because the leaders of the young people who built barricades and overturned cars in the Paris Latin Quarter in 1968 went on, in many cases, to become senior journalists, writers, philosophers and politicians (including the present foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner).
It is also because the French cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s was compressed so memorably into four or five weeks. Elsewhere the changes were stealthier. Philip Larkin (another dead British poet) said: “Sex was invented in 1963, between the Chatterley trial and the Beatles’ first LP.” In truth, the end of the old social and sexual certainties and taboos in Britain was a gradual process from 1963 to 1970, driven by the Profumo scandal, the Beatles, the reforms of the first Harold Wilson government and a virus of revolt carried on the wind of television from Vietnam and the United States.
In France, typically enough, the same transition was acted out in a great, concentrated psycho-drama on the streets. As the French journalist and writer Jacques Julliard said, revolutions in France are “rites of passage”. Quiet, peaceful, social transitions, even noisy, peaceful transitions, are not the French Way.
“To go from Louis XVI to Louis XVIII, from moderate absolutism to a parliamentary monarchy, clumsy foreigners would have gone by way of a Louis XVII,” M. Julliard wrote. “We went via Robespierre and Napoleon.”
By the same logic, France needed six weeks of mayhem to go from grey trousers to purple trousers; from the social and sexual repression of the 1950s to the social and sexual freedom, and confusion, of the 1970s (and afterwards).
The French students who manned the Left Bank barricades thought – among other things – that they were revolting against French-ness itself. In fact, they were behaving in a classically French way.
Perhaps because it was such a French occasion, French commentary to this day tends to treat May 1968 as a purely French phenomenon. Reading some of the French analyses of 1968 – both for and against – one could have the impression that the May student revolt alone created the post-1970s world of tolerance and individualism, free-thinking and consumerism.
Other Western countries were going the same way before France. Most of them had brief or scattered outbreaks of anti-establishment violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even of terrorism in the case of Germany and Italy. None of them had a brief, intense, mythologised youth rebellion as France did.
The fast-forwarding of events made the myth of May 1968. And the myth, as myths do, has achieved a life of its own.
During his presidential campaign last year, Nicolas Sarkozy launched into a series of vituperative speeches in which he promised to “liquidate” the legacy of 1968, which he blamed for everything from poor school results to high crime figures and the decline of old-fashioned patriotism.
And yet M. Sarkozy, a twice-divorced, consumerist, value-muddling, politican par excellence, is himself a child of 1968. At least, he is a child of the social changes which 1968 symbolised rather than generated.
Similarly, on the French Left, May 1968, precisely because it was so memorable, has become a sacred totem. Unfortunately, it is the most hidebound, unthinking lefties who cling onto the memory of France’s revolution manqué. The open-minded, joyful, jokey, surreal side of May 1968 – the “Groucho tendency” – tends to be forgotten. There are, none the less, specific reasons why “May 1968” – which began in March and ended in June – happened in France in the way that it did.
From 1945 to 1975, still known as “les trentes glorieuses”, France enjoyed 30 years of unbroken growth and relative prosperity. After the revolving-door governments and the lost colonial wars of the 1950s, France under President Charles de Gaulle settled into a period of unusual stability in the 1960s (give or take a few incidents of pro-colonial terrorism).
In that period, an old France, mostly agricultural, mostly Catholic, was being quietly buried. In 1945, there were still 7,000,000 farmers and peasants in France. By 1968, there were 3,000,000. (There are now, by the way, only about 500,000.)
The rural population poured into towns and suburbs and worked in offices and factories. Their children thrived in urban schools. Long before 1968, anyone who passed the baccalaureate (equivalent to A levels) had an absolute right to go to university, virtually for free.
In 1938, France had 60,000 university students. In 1961, it had 240,000. By 1968, it had 605,000, as many as Britain, West Germany and Belgium combined. Few new university campuses were built or extended to take the massed ranks of students. Nanterre University was one exception.
Despite the overall rise in prosperity, and levels of education, De Gaulle’s France was a quietly oppressive place. Memories of French failure in the war were everywhere but rarely discussed. The general wanted a modern, dynamic France rooted in an old, conservative and non-dynamic social system.
Students felt that they were treated like children and herded like cattle into vast “amphis” or amphiteatres to scribble down notes. Factory workers were treated like inferior beings, by bosses and union bosses alike. They also resented the fact that the 1960s prosperity had failed to trickle down to the shop floor.
In a celebrated, prophetic, but also obtuse, article in Le Monde on 15 March 1968, Pierre Viansson-Ponté said that France was suffering from a dangerous political malady: “boredom”. Elsewhere, he said, from Spain to the US, students were protesting about wars or fundamental liberties. “French students are mostly concerned that the girls … should be able to visit the bedrooms of the boys, which is a rather limited conception of human rights.” Not so limited if you are French, aged 20 and the sexual revolution is already well under way in the United States and even in supposedly frigid Britain.
The right of young adults to have sex with one another in their rooms was, indeed, one of the first of the demands of students at Nanterre University, which led directly to the events of May 1968. Sociology students at Nanterre, led by a 22-year-old, red-haired, French-born German called Daniel Cohn-Bendit, successfully used sexual oppression as a symbol for political and spiritual oppression. ………
By 22 March 1968, the issues were much wider, including the Vietnam War. Cohn-Bendit led 300 students in an occupation of the admin block at Nanterre. Several students, including Cohn-Bendit, were accused of “agitation” and threatened with expulsion.
A demonstration in support was planned in the courtyard of the venerable Sorbonne, in the centre of Paris’s Left Bank, on 3 May. A far-right-wing group, Occident, enflamed tempers – and pumped the left-wing students with self-righteous adrenaline – by threatening to attack the “manif” (demo).
The police scattered the “righties” and then began to remove the “lefties” from the Sorbonne. The demonstrators had been promised that they could leave freely. About 400 of them were brutally arrested.
Larger demonstrations gathered. The first “pavés”, or cobble stones, were thrown at the police. The Paris police, supported by a few busloads of the notorious CRS riot police, responded with indiscriminate baton charges and volleys of tear gas, assaulting students, journalists, passers-by, tourists, cinema-goers and elderly couples who were sitting at café terrasses watching the fun. Many of the younger victims, and some older ones, joined in the riots. By that night, there were barricades all over the fifth arrondissement.
A week later a large crowd of students tried to “liberate” the Sorbonne, which had been ringed by the CRS. Trees were ripped up, cars overturned and cobble stones hurled – exposing yards of sand, and leading to one of the best-known anarcho-libertarian sayings of 1968: “Sous les pavés, la plage” (Under the cobble-stones, the beach).
On 13 May, the trades unions – against the better judgement of their own leaders – called a one-day strike and demonstration. The government ordered the CRS to withdraw, and an immense student and worker demonstration choked the Left Bank. But the strike did not end after one day as the union leaders planned. Eight million workers went on indefinite, wildcat strike, the largest labour stoppage in French history.
The demonstrations spread to provincial cities. A half-hearted attempt was made on 24 May to burn down the Bourse (the Paris stock exchange). The Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, began secret – and then public – negotiations with the unions. Cohn-Bendit was expelled from France, returned and was expelled again.
Parts of the Left Bank of Paris came to resemble giant debating chambers, in which anyone who wished could discuss, endlessly, the future of humanity. At the 18th-century Odéon theatre, beside the Luxembourg gardens, there was an all day and all night, open-ended conference between, among others, Renault car workers, students, cleaning ladies, tourists, celebrated writers and artists and businessmen with nothing to do because
their factories were on strike. In the wings of the theatre, young men and women performed loveless sexual acts never previously seen on the French stage.
On 29 May, De Gaulle left France for Baden-Baden in West Germany. Crazy rumours spread that he had resigned or that there had been a military coup. In fact, De Gaulle was talking to the French military high command, making sure that they would support him.
The next day a carefully managed, but huge, counter-demonstration by De Gaulle supporters blocked the Avenue des Champs Elysées. The President called early elections (which he won easily the next month).
To the fury of the students and the more revolutionary workers, the trades unions accepted a generous, capitalism-preserving deal from the government: a 10 per cent increase in all wages and a 35 per cent increase in the minimum wage, a shorter working week and mandatory employer consultations with workers. Right wing economists argue that France’s post-war prosperity ended that day, though in fact it continued until the mid-1970s and the first oil crisis.
By early June, the strikes and the student demos had melted away. France was saved. Utopia was cancelled, or at least postponed.
What remains of May 1968? Some left-wing thinkers of the time have – like William Wordsworth before them – become grumpy and conservative in their old age. The philosopher Régis Debray, a minor figure in the events of 1968, argues that, far from a left-wing revolution, “les évènements de Mai” let loose the individualism and the ultra-capitalism of the 1980s and 1990s. Under the paving stones, the beach; under May 1968, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
But this is once again – in the French way – to mistake May 1968 for the whole of the Western zeitgeist of the late 1960s. If anything survives of May 1968, the month and the myth, it is the tendency to romantic absolutism of the French Left. What other developed Western country could produce four (or was it five) Trotskyist candidates in a presidential election? French social democracy is still paying the price for such dogmatism, which is quite alien to the best of the free-wheeling, mind-opening spirit of ’68.
This, at any rate, is the argument made by a 62-year-old Green German Euro MP who played a part in the “events of May” in Paris. “I say forget May 1968,” he said. “It is finished. Society today bears no relationship with that of the 1960s. When we called ourself anti-authoritarian, we were fighting against a very different society.”
The Green German Euro MP is now a pro-market, pro-European, libertarian liberal and ecologist. Like the best of the “soixante-huitards” (sixty-eighters), his mind is still open to new ideas and changing times. His name is Daniel Cohn-Bendit.
May 1968: A Month of Revolution Pushed France Into the Modern World
By Alissa Rubin, The New York Times My 5
Just six weeks after France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, pronounced that the country was “bored,” too bored to join the youth protests underway in Germany and in the United States, students in Paris occupied the Sorbonne, one of the most illustrious universities in Europe.
The day was May 3, 1968, and the events that ensued over the following month — mass protests, street battles and nationwide strikes — transformed France. It was not a political revolution in the way that earlier French revolutions had been, but a cultural and social one that in a stunningly short time changed French society.
“In the history of France it was a remarkable movement because it was truly a mass movement that concerned Paris but also the provinces, that concerned intellectuals but also manual workers,” said Bruno Queysanne, who, at the time was an assistant instructor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, one of the country’s most prestigious art and architecture schools.
“Each person that engaged, engaged himself all the way,” he said. “That was how France could stop running, without there being a feeling of injustice or sabotage. The whole world was in agreement that they should pause and reflect on the conditions of existence.”
Today it is hard to imagine a Western country completely engulfed by a social upheaval, but that is what happened in May 1968 in France. It is hard to find any Frenchman or woman born before 1960 who does not have a vivid and personal recollection of that month.
“Everything was enlarged by 1968; it determined all my life,” said Maguy Alvarez, a teacher of English to elementary school students, as she walked through an exhibition of posters and artworks from the period.
“In religion, in sexual things, what it meant to be a woman — that it did not mean only to serve a man or to submit to men. These are questions you think about your whole life,” she said.
Both the women’s liberation movement and the gay rights movement in France grew out of the 1968 upheaval and the intellectual ferment of the time.
While some people saw the mass strikes and protests as a shattering and painful event that upended social norms — the authority of the father of the family and of the leader of the country — for most, it pushed France into the modern world.
“The 19th century was a very long century,” said Philippe Artières, a historian and researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research and one of the curators of the show on the posters of 1968.
“We’re hardly out of it, and you have to keep in mind that in ’68 we were just 50 years after the revolution of ’17 and a century after the Paris commune,” he said, referring to the Russian Revolution and the 1871 uprising by mostly poor and working class residents of Paris (although the leadership was middle class) that was brutally put down, leaving as many as 10,000 dead.
President Emmanuel Macron, who was born in 1977, is the first post-1968 French leader not to have personal memories of the upheaval — the exhilaration, the sense of possibility, and the potential power of the street.
Universities across the country shut down as students, often joined by their professors, occupied the classrooms and courtyards. In Paris and other major French cities, workers, students, intellectuals and anyone else who was interested thronged into the street for mass rallies.
Blunting the sense of exhilaration were the daily confrontations with the police. As early as May 3, police charged into the Sorbonne and ousted the students; in the ensuing melee, some 600 were arrested, according to Agence France-Presse.
The students returned and quickly set up barricades to stop the police from entering the areas where they were massing. The two factions faced off night and day: The police wearing helmets and armed with riot shields, tear gas, truncheons and water cannons; and the university students, sometimes still wearing the ties and jackets mandated at the time by the university administration. The students dug up paving stones from the Paris streets to heave at the police.
The night of May 6 was particularly violent, with 600 people wounded and 422 detained, but it was overnight between May 10 and May 11, known as the “night of barricades” that people still talk about.
The protesters ripped up the paving stones from two streets in the Latin Quarter, where the Sorbonne is, set fire to cars and confronted the police. By the time the bloody fighting ended, hundreds of students had been arrested and hundreds more hospitalized, as were a number of police officers.
“During the night there were very violent protests, cars burned, things broken, but during the day, there was an air of vacation, of summer, a relaxed feeling,” said Mr. Queysanne, who later became a professor of the philosophy of architecture at the University of Grenoble and then at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles.
“But then the next day, people came and discussed what they had seen; some were for, some were against. This was incredible, there was freedom of speech, words were set free.”
Amazingly, somehow the violence did not taint the euphoria of the protesters.
“The feeling we had in those days, which has shaped my entire life really, was: We’re making history. An exalted feeling — suddenly we had become agents in world history,” said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most prominent of the student leaders at the time, in an essay in the May 10 issue of The New York Review of Books.
Simultaneously with the student protests, France’s factory workers walked off the job and in many places camped out on the factory floor, refusing to work and demanding a new order.
The shipyards in Nantes stopped loading and unloading freighters, and work in much of the car manufacturing and aeronautics industries also ceased. The unions did not call the strikes but when workers and students embraced them, they acquiesced.
By the third week in May, between 10 and 11 million people were on strike. There was no gas for cars because the refineries came to a halt; the trains did not run, nor did the Paris Metro.
In France, the enemy of change was the government, then headed by President Charles de Gaulle, who tried to repress the strikes and the sit-ins, but on May 29, he appeared to be overwhelmed.
In an unprecedented move, he left the country without saying either that he was leaving or where he was going. It was a startling turn of events and for a day or two the students and workers thought they had won.
But Mr. de Gaulle returned, dissolved the National Assembly and called an election for the end of June. Already, on May 27, the government and the unions had made a deal to get the striking workers back on the job, offering them generous pay increases and benefits.
But the established hierarchy and formality that permeated relationships between teachers and students, parents and children, bosses and workers, and ultimately even politicians and citizens, had been upended.
“At the level of daily life, and the relationships of people with institutions, there were big changes,” said Mr. Queysanne, the professor of the philosophy of architecture.
When students returned to classes, they could now ask questions in class and dispute ideas — a revolution in the French educational system. Bosses had to treat their workers better.
But that heady atmosphere of social foment, excitement and a sense of deep camaraderie that cut across class and education, that touched factory workers, students, intellectuals and farmers alike had passed.
There would be other moments of social protests, but none that were quite the same as those that occurred in the Paris spring of 1968.
During the major strikes and student uprisings in France that year, the École des Beaux-Arts turned itself into a workshop for revolutionary messages.
PARIS — Fifty years ago, almost to the day, students here began to strike over the rigidity and hierarchy of the French university system, defying the historical deference of young people to their elders; the same day, workers at a major factory near Nantes walked out.
Within days, the strikes spread to other universities and factories, and garbage collectors and office workers joined in. By mid-May, more than 10 million people across France were on strike, and the country had all but come to a standstill.
The protests of 1968 ushered in more than five years of social upheaval, intensifying an antiwar movement in Europe and contributing to the women’s liberation and gay rights movements. And it all started with a call to upend the old order.
“There was an idea that France was a class society and it had to be torn down,” said Éric de Chassey, a professor of contemporary art who curated, with Philippe Artières, “Clash of Images,” an exhibition at the Beaux-Arts de Paris. It showcases posters from those early days of social upheaval, as well as art and documents from subsequent protests for women’s rights and gay rights.
The show’s title refers to the way the 1968 protests evolved from uniting the left and people from different backgrounds — middle class and working class — to dividing them when the strikes ended and leftist factions re-emerged. But in those first months of protest, university students, factory workers and government employees joined intellectualsand teachers to try to fulfill the dream of making France a more egalitarian place.
The École des Beaux-Arts was at the center of the revolt. Many of the prestigious art school’s students and teachers occupied the 300-year-old stone structure on the Left Bank of the Seine: Rather than holding meetings only in the building’s vast rooms and courtyards, they turned the school into an atelier, or artists’ workshop, where they created protest art.The often arresting posters straddled the line between art and propaganda.
In keeping with the utopian ideals of collective work and anonymous authorship, the artists labored together to conceptualize, design and write slogans for the posters that framed their revolutionary sentiments.
“Someone would say ‘We need a poster that talks about immigration,’ ” Mr. de Chassey explained. “Then someone would propose a design, someone else would propose a slogan and then it would be discussed by a committee.”
The students printed hundreds or sometimes several thousand copies of the posters and taped them to lampposts and walls around Paris. In an era before the internet, the posters became a trusted way to communicate plans for action as well as the protesters’ political messages. There was little faith in electronic media at the time because it was state owned.
The strikes that began in May 1968 became the template for social protest in contemporary France, and although the fervent anti-establishment sentiments have faded, the mentality of struggle still resonates. The Beaux-Arts posters, on display through May 20, give a sense of the ferment of idealism, rebellion and rejection of the status quo that permeated French society and marked the second half of the 20th century.
Some of the posters are easily comprehensible, but others need a little explanation. Here’s a look at 11 of the most emblematic.
One of the most iconic posters on display depicts a member of the French riot police (the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, or C.R.S.) as a baton-wielding member of the SS, the Nazi special police.
Under the title “Grève Illimitée” (“Unlimited Strikes”), three figures walk arm in arm, representing the students, union members and factory workers who joined together in protest.
The words on a bottle of poison read, “Press Do Not Swallow,” a warning not to trust the state-owned news media. At the time, France’s television and radio stations were state-owned corporations.
The raised fist is a straightforward call to march and to fight for the causes of students and workers. It remains a well-known symbol of solidarity on the left.
Police officers raided the École des Beaux-Arts and forcibly expelled the students who had occupied it, turning the complex into a workshop. In this poster, a helmeted officer, complete with wolf-sharp teeth, grips a paintbrush in his mouth, a symbol of the police takeover of the school.The slogan plays on the French verb “afficher,” which means “to display” but in its reflexive form, “s’afficher,” means “to show up.” The poster says: “The police show up at the Beaux-Arts, the Beaux-Arts displays in the street.”
The poster above is a straightforward reference to the ties that bond factory workers and university students and that calls on them to unite.
This poster shows the silhouette of Charles de Gaulle, a World War II general and the French president at the time, covering the mouth of a young man. “Be young and shut up,” he says. The expression was also an adaptation of a well-known phrase, sometimes used to denounce sexism, from a popular French film of 1958 titled “Be Beautiful but Shut Up.”
A sketch of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a French-German student leader during the uprising, above the French words for “We are all undesirables.” It refers to Mr. Cohn-Bendit’s expulsion from France during the protests, when he was deemed “an undesirable.”
In this poster, the factory chimney completes the last letter of “Oui,” or “Yes,” above the words “Occupied factories,” to encourage workers to take over more of them. At the time, factories all over France were closed or occupied by striking workers. Among the many companies affected were the auto manufacturers Renault and Citroën, and the aeronautics firms Sud Aviation and Dassault.
In response to the protests, Mr. de Gaulle was reported to have said: “Reform, yes. Havoc, no.” The poster above reads “Once again, the havoc is him.” Until 1968, Mr. de Gaulle was primarily associated with the resistance in World War II, but in ’68 he tried to repress the strikes with armed police officers. His lack of sympathy for the strikers and his seeming inability to understand them made him the target of much of the protesters’ anger.
This classic poster of May ’68 depicts unity between French and immigrant workers. France had recruited many workers from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to help build railroads and other infrastructure or industrial installations. A short man, who appears to symbolize the factory owners or owners of capital, tries to push them apart. The slogan reads, “Workers united.”
Daphné Anglès contributed reporting from Paris.
Alissa Johannsen Rubin is the Paris bureau chief for The New York Times. @Alissanyt
Its been a diverse year In That Howling Infinite. We have traveled, to quote Bob Dylan, “all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem” – and to many other places in between. Vikings and Roman legionaries; Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn; Britain in the ‘forties and Paris in the ‘fifties; America, the Levant, and even Wonderland. By Year’s end a million souls will have journeyed to Europe from the war-ravaged lands of the Middle East, and my final posts for the year contemplate what it might mean for refugees who find to safe haven in Australia.
Here is a retrospective.
The year began with a short piece on recent archeological discoveries in Jerusalem that strongly suggested that the Via Dolorosathat Jesus trode on his final journey to Golgotha was the wrong route, and that instead, it began just inside of the Jaffa Gate. I took a light-hearted look at the Jerusalem Syndrome, a mental condition involving the presence of religiously-themed obsessive ideas, delusions and other psychoses triggered by a visit to The Holy City.
I read but one piece of fiction this year – a sad admission from a lifelong bibliophile – but this one book was probably one of the best I have read: The Incorrigible Optimists Club, winner of the prestigious Prix de Goncourt, by Jean Michel Guenassia. It is set in Paris’ Rive Gauche, as the ‘fifties gives way to the ‘sixties; as the crooners makes way for rock n’roll; as the Cold War divides a continent, sending dissidents and refugees fleeing to a safe haven in Paris; as the Algerian war divides and destroys families: and as the seeds of ‘les evenments de Mai 1968’ are sown in the hearts and souls of France’s young people. It is a coming of age book, of young hopes and fears, love and loss, a book about writers and reading, and the magic and power of the written word in prose and poetry.
March saw the passing of my old friend Dermott Ryder, chronicler and luminary of the Folk Music revival in Sydney in the early ‘seventies. Dermott’s Last Rideis my tribute to him. And April was a month of anniversaries and remembrance. Forty years since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, and the centenary of the landings of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. Pity the Nation takes its title from Robert Fisk’s tombstone of a book on the long war; and he had taken it from a poem written in 1934 by Khalil Gibran, Lebanon’s most celebrated poet, a poem that was both a prophetic testament and a testimony of times to come: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation”. The Watchers of the Water is a song about Gallipoli sing by a Turkish solder.
May saw two diverse pieces of social history. The Spirit of 45 takes personal perspective of British filmmaker Ken Loach’s documentary of the excitement and optimism that followed the Labour Party’s election victory at the end of World War II. This laid the foundation stone for the British welfare state. Bob Dylan’s Americana discusses the meaning and significance of the lyrics and the imagery of Dylan’s early ‘eighties masterpiece Blind Willie McTell, a harrowing journey through America’s dark heart.
In June, we visited Yorkshire and in London, conjuring up memories and historical connections. Harald Went A Vikingis a saga about the first of two kings to die on English soil in the late summer of 1066, and the adventures that took him from Norway to Constantinople and Jerusalem and finally, to Yorkshire. Roman Wall Bluestakes its title from WH Auden’s poem about a homesick and grumpy legionnaire on Hadrian’s Wall, and contemplates the lives of the ethnically polyglot soldiery who defended the Empire’s borders. And June saw another famous anniversary, the Bicentennial of the momentous and bloody Battle of Waterloo. The Long Road to Waterloo prefaces a song for the men who, after twenty six long years of war, never came home.
Battle of Stamford Bridge, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow
In July, controversy erupted in the Land of the Free over the flying of the Confederate Flag in states that were once part of Old Dixie. The dead hand of the Civil War reached out and touched the hearts of Americans and their friends throughout the world in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This time, a young man gunned down worshippers at prayer. That the victims were folk of colour, and the shooter, a young white extremist, reopened wounds that have never really healed. Rebel Yellsurmises that The South will always be with us, in our thoughts, in our historical memory, in our art and literature, our books and films, and our favourite music.
September marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s timeless, fabulist masterpiece Alice In Wonderland. Go Ask Alice, I Think She’ll Know reproduces Australian critic Peter Craven’s masterful celebration of Alice 150. The title belongs to the mesmerizing Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane who cut through to the rabbit chase channeling the long-gone Lewis in a psychedelic musical masterpiece.
On an infinitely sadder note, Ruins and Bones is a tribute to the memory of Syrian archeologist Khaled Muhammed al Asaad, murdered by ISIS in August 2015, and of Palmyra, the ‘Pearl of the Desert’.
Allende’s Desk and Osama’s Pyjamas is a brief commentary on the extension of American military power and the pathology of demons and demonization. Tales of Yankee Powerlooks at American foreign policy during the 1980s from the perspective of the songs of Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn.
November’s Children of the Revolution looks at the events that led up to the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, and the early days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. Those days of hope are long gone.
A highlight of this past year has been my work as a volunteer with the Humanitarian Settlement Services programme. The HSS’ mission is to assist newly arrived refugees to settle in Australia. In No Going Home, I endeavour to imagine the refugee journey. Hejirais a sequel of sorts and, indeed, a happy ending.
Happy New Year to these prospective New Australians, and to all my readers. May 2016 be fortunate and fulfilling.
The rebel yell that resounded in Paris in the summer of 1789 reverberated around Europe for 26 years until it sounded for the last time on the fields of Waterloo. On an overcast summer’s morning on Sunday 18th June, two hundred years ago, over one hundred thousand soldiers prepared to face each other in damp Belgian farmland. More gathered during that “longest day”. When darkness fell, up to fifty thousand of them lay dead or seriously wounded. A British rifleman would later recall: “I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed, but this seemed likely to be an exception, as all were going by turns.”
This song is for all those men who, after these long years of war, never came home.
Chaos is majestic in its way. I contemplate this vista of destruction and death with pain and helplessness in my soul. Red Army Captain Pavel Kovalenko, in All Hell Let Loose, Max Hastings, 2011
Before him, he carries noise, and behind him, he leaves tears; death, that dark spirit, in’s nervy arm doth lie; which, being advanc’d, declines, and then men die. Volumnia, in Shakespeare’s Corialanus, Act 2, Scene 1.
A new age dawned when the Bastille fell
Twenty six long years ago.
We marched the road of Europe
In the revolution’s glow.
In the floodtide of that revolution,
We bartered our young lives away.
And shoulder to shoulder we stood to arms
And held our foes at bay.
Against the might of empires,
Beyond our wildest dreams,
We fought the professional armies
Of Europe’s old regimes.
And hungry, tired and poorly armed,
We ragged volunteers
Pushed them back in disarray
Far from our own frontiers.
And we talked that time of setting stars
And the twilight of great powers.
And we never once thought that the sun would set
On an empire such as ours’.
But the siren song of liberty
Has lost its golden thrill.
The new age is now stained with blood
And we are marching still.
There came a great adventurer
For whom France was much too small.
As if we’d had not enough of war,
We answered to his call.
He was like a father unto us.
He served his children’s need.
A substitute for politics, for intellect and greed.
But he overreached in pomp and pride
To serve his vanity.
And we, the soldiers of the line,
Paid with our blood his fee.
‘til the whole world turned against us.
It neither forgot nor forgave
We who came to liberate
But stayed on to enslave
And we talked that time of setting stars
And the twilight of great powers.
And we never once thought that the sun would set
On an empire such as ours’.
But the siren song of liberty
Has lost its golden thrill.
The new age is now stained with blood
And we are marching still.
From the dust of Torres Vedras
To the bloodstained Russian snow.
We followed the Eagles loyally.
Never questioned why we go.
‘til the tide of conquest turned abut,
And showed us how it feels
To retrace weary footsteps
With the wolves hard at our heels.
And now we march our final march
On Belgium’s fertile soil.
We see an end to all or pain
And an end to mortal toil.
And the dream which fired us through the years
Has nothing left to yield
But peace that comes from a nameless death
On a confused battlefield.
And we talked that time of setting stars
And the twilight of great powers.
And we never once thought that the sun would set
On an empire such as ours.
But the tyrant song of liberty
Has lost its golden thrill.
The new age is now stained with blood
And we are marching still.
To historians, Waterloo is one of the great battles of history, a turning point, the beginning of the modern era. It ended the wars that had convulsed Europe – and since the French Revolution, the First French Empire and the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest commanders and statesmen in history. And it ushered in almost half a century of international peace in Europe; no further major conflict occurred until the Crimean War.
This year, many acres of print and gigabytes of data will be spent trawling through the story. Here are two particularly good reviews.
A story of exile and of exiles, of revolutions fought and betrayed, of wars and causes lost, of faith and failure, of shame and regret, tolerance and redemption, of secrets and confidences kept and broken, of untold stories and restless ghosts.
And this winner of France’s prestigous Prix Goncourt is one of the best books I have read in years!
They say for every boy and girl there’s just one love in all the world and I know I’ve found mine. Carole Joyner and Ric Cartey, Young Love, 1956
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapdly agin’ . Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand for your times they are a-changin’ . Bob Dylan, 1964
In Montparnasse, a metro station exits onto the wide Place Denfer-Rochereau, the centrepiece of which is a magnificent bronze lion, sculpted by Frédéric Bartholdi, creator of The Statue Of Liberty as a memorial to the heroic defence of Belfort during the Franco-Prussian Way of 1870-1871. Directly opposite is the entrance to the morbidly amazing Catacombes de Paris. On the Boulevard Raspail side of La Place is a big cafe where on a freezing, wet and windy May morning a few years back, Adele and I drank hot espresso whilst waiting for the Catacombs to open. I like to think that in the late fifties, this very cafe was indeed the Balto, where much of this magnificent novel is set:
Le Rive Gauche, as the ‘fifties gives way to the ‘sixties; as the crooners makes way for rock n’roll; as the Cold War divides a continent, sending dissidents and refugees fleeing to a safe haven in Paris; as the Algerian war divides and destroys families: and as the seeds of ‘les evenments de Mai 1968’ are sown in the hearts and souls of France’s young people
It is a coming of age book, of young hopes and fears, love and loss. It is book about writers and reading, and the magic and power of the written word in prose and poetry. Like the games of chess that punctuate the narrative, it is about how life and learning is characterized by strategy and tactics, calculated feints and moves, patience and passion. And the paradox that pervades the story: nothing happens by accident, but never underestimate the power of coincidence.
Michel Marini, our narrator, is a precocious twelve year old when we first meet him, navigating his rocky road through high school, addicted to reading, rock n’roll, playing table football in the local cafes, and his introduction to the club of the title. This gathering of argumentative, chess-playing, smoking and boozing, grumpy old émigrés become in many ways a surrogate family. Michel first encounters these outcasts of Eastern Europe in the back room of a bistro. They are The Incorrigible Optimists Club, where, despite the ancient discord of its members, the club serves as thier sanctuary. “The Poles hated the Russians, who in turn loathed them; the Bulgarians detested the Hungarians, who ignored them; the Germans abhorred the Czechs, who despised the Romanians, who could not care a damn. Here, they were all stateless and equals in adversity.”
Lost souls, the flotsam Old Europe, hugging their faded and vanished dreams, their language, their culture, their sad and often traumatic memories of their past in a strange land. Men without women, stateless, penniless, jobless, homeless, dispossessed of their wives and children. Bent, but not broken. These are memorable characters, each with his own colourful and poignant back story. The pilot who defects for love, the doctor who drives cabs because his qualifications are not recognised. The Hungarian movie idol and his enamoured agent. The mysterious photography expert who befriends and mentors the young narrator. They are trapped between worlds and irreconcilable desires: “When a man achieves his dream, there is neither reason, nor failure, nor victory. What is most important in the Promised Land is not the land, but the promise.”
And there is also Michel’s actual family, his mismatched, over-worked and out- of- time parents, each from a different class and station, and their parents and siblings, particularly Michel’s art-loving Italian grandfather, and his dislocated pied-noir uncle and cousins. His chatterbox little sister, and his tortured, intellectual brother Franck. And front and centre in Michel’s adolescent life, Franck’s girlfriend and her would-be-revolutionary brother, beautiful, intelligent, rebellious, orphaned rich kids who become young Michel’s muses: and literally colliding with him through serendipity and synchronicity, his first true love. And behind them all, casting ominous shadows and unleashing sundering storms, lurks the dangerous backdrop of the closing years of the bitter and bloody Algerian independence war.
A knowledge of the Russian Revolution and its dramatis personae, Stalin’s Terror, The Great Patriotic War, the Hungarian Revolution and the building of the Berlin Wall, and of the ‘savage war of peace’ that was Algeria, is not obligatory, but it certainly helps set the scene for the various stories and vignettes that unfold. Cameo roles include philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, novelist Joseph Kessell, and one Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev – and the sinister ghost at the feast, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin.
Every now and then, your jaw drops and you say to yourself “this is a masterpiece”! Like when I first heard Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s The Swell Season. Sultans of Swing and The Boy in the Bubble. When I first read the opening paragraphs of Catch 22, and Chapter 41 of Moby Dick. The Incorrigible Optimists Club cast the same spell.
I leave the last words to the author: “Before you read a book, you can know immediately whether or not you are going to like it, just as with people, you can tell just from looking at them whether or not you’ll be their friend. You smell it, you sniff it, you wonder whether it’s worth spending time in its company. The pages of a book have an invisible alchemy that imprints itself on our brain. A book is a living creature”.
You cannot find a better testimonial for the printed word than that.
Paris has a myriad of attractions for history tragics. For me, there are three ‘must sees’ that are at the top of the ‘out there’ list. Les Catacombes de Pariss are one. The folk cabaret Au Lapin Agileis another. and the third is LaCimetière du Père-Lachaise, the most famous cemetery in the world.
For the dear departed, Père Lachaise is the best address in Paris. Some 300,000 people reste ici. A cavalcade of French cultural and political history, with a few foreign entombments, including the playwright Oscar Wild and Doors front-man and zeitgeist icon Jim Morrison.
Summer is the worst time – there never is a good time.
They come from all across the world just to visit him.
A lot has come and gone since nineteen seventy one,
But I’ve never ever gotten used to living next to Jim.
Why do they come and queue for a man they never knew
Who had gone to meet his maker before most of them were born?
I guess that it’s the fame, or the magic of a name,
Or a spirit never tamed, that brings them here to mourn.
The Poles will throw a party for their Chopin, and the arty
Bring flowers, poems and candles, and others’ wine and bread,
Why do young folk come to rave ‘round an ancient rocker’s grave?
Don’t they know how to behave in the presence of the dead?
It’s the best address in town, but I think I’d rather be
With Karl and all the comrades up in Highgate Cemetery.
Though there’s nothing to compare with this famous cemetaire,
There’s not much love to spare between the Lizard King et moi.
Pourquoi? Dites moi! Je vous dis que…
Living near the great is highly over-rated.
They stand upon my headstone just to get a better view.
If I was recreated, I’d sooner be cremated
And scattered on the river or some quiet avenue.
Yes, Père Lachaise is the most famous cemetery in the whole wide world. Therein recline some of the most famous names in French history and culture. And imports like Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. Edith Piaf, Marcel Marceau, Delacroix and Gericault, The man who built the Suez Canal, and Antoine Parmentier who popularised the heath benefits of the humble potato. Maria Callas’ ashes were there until some Greek stole her urn and scattered her on the Aegean Sea.
C’est vrai! C’est l’esprit de mort! Et maintenant, l’encore:
The singers, and the dancers, and the actors, and the chancers,
The rebels and the statesmen, and the fallen communards,
Napoleonic Generals and politicians’ wives.
The poets and the dreamers, all those other famous lives.
The writers, and the waiters, and those great large format painters,
Deportee commemorations, Oscar’s winged androgenoid,
The names no one remembers, and the ones no one forgets,
But Jim’s here with empty coke cans and the smell of cigarettes.
And, summer is the worst time – there never is a good time.
They come from all across the world just be with him.
A lot has come and gone since nineteen seventy one,
But I’ve never ever gotten used to living next to Jim.