Plots he has made, so ingenuous. Dangerous follies and schemes For he has stage-managed quite strenuous Drunken prophecies, libels and dreams. Lucifer, Paul Hemphill, after Shakespeare’s Richard II
Everybody who was alive when JF Kennedy was assassinated remembers where they were, just as we remember where we were when Neil Armstrong made that “great step for mankind”, and when we’d heard that the Twin Towers had been hit. And there is an almost universal consensus as to how, why and when these events occurred.
But many beg to differ, and cynical or suspicious, curious or just plan mischievous, they say “Ah, but …” and ascribe ulterior motives, describe oblique patterns, and maintain that they possess clear sight whilst the rest of us sport white sticks and dark glasses.
So, it was inevitable that some folk would some how find a link between COVID19, atmospheric chemtrails and the roll-out of the 5G telecommunications network. Before the coronavirus outbreak even began, 5G was being blamed for everything from cancer to infertility. Now, there are hints of deep state” plots and Illuminati plans to control population growth.
Many of the people spreading such theories are the same that share unfounded warnings about the dangers of vaccinations. indeed, folk who grasp conspiracy theories tend to go for the buy one, get five free deal – and the rest! Antivax, chem trails, JFK, 9/11, Apollo II, climate change, Illuminati, deep state, white replacement, the Rothschilds, George Soros, Satanic cults, black helicopters, Freemasons, Jews … Yes, it always come back to the Jews …
Although many common conspiracy theories flourished – some would say festered – in back streets and bedsits, the advent of social media has energized and amplified them. Facebook groups that act as petri dishes for new viral rumours to spread can be easily found by searching for ‘5G’ or ‘coronavirus’ on the social network.
Opportunistic political groups stir the pot, often for subversive and strategic ends. For example, RT, the Kremlin-backed broadcaster, has given a platform for 5G conspiracy theories long before coronavirus existed. The New York Timesrecentlysuggested that consistently reporting the “5G apocalypse” through its foreign media channels could all be part of a ploy to slow the roll-out of the technology so that Russia won’t be left behind.
Fear, suspicion, insecurity, resentment, powerlessness and a feeling that things are out of our control have much to do with it, rendering people of a bitter, misanthropic or nihilistic disposition – or a compendium of such traits – susceptible to unproven facts, untethered rumours, and in some cases, outright fantasy, and subscribing to alternative narratives, histories and universes.
In Contagion, a 2011 film about a deadly worldwide pandemic that has killed seventy million, a public health official retorts to a conspiracy theorist: “In order to get scared, all you have to do is come into contact with a rumour”.
Below, In That Howling Infinite provides links to three recent articles that endeavour to cast a light into the shadowy world of conspiracy theories and its inhabitants. But first, the irrepressible Sybil Fawlty’s excruciating exposition on fear and loathing:
“Old people are wonderful when they have so much life, aren’t they? Gives us all hope, doesn’t it? My mother on the other hand is a little bit of a trial, really. You know, it’s alright when they have the life force but Mother – well she’s got more of the death force really. She’s a worrier. She has these, well, morbid fears they are, really. Vans is one. Rats. Doorknobs. Birds. Heights. Open spaces. Confined spaces. It’s very difficult getting the space right for her really, you know. Footballs. Bicycles. Cows. And she’s always on about men following her, I don’t know what she thinks they’re going to do to her. Vomit on her, Basil says”.
Lies travel faster than facts
“Lies travel faster than facts and, perversely, efforts to debunk a conspiracy theory can end up reinforcing it … Increasingly, authorities treat such misinformation contagion like their biological equivalent – proactively pushing out the right facts to inoculate people against unfounded theories or encouraging good information hygiene (such as checking sources) … such theories more as symptoms of a bigger problem, whether it be lack of transparency or a failure of communication … For most people, the more consistent and clear the messaging is from the people higher up, the better – even if that information is “we don’t know yet”.
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story
“Conspiracy theories aren’t fueled by facts; they are fueled by attention. Twitter in particular, as the platform of choice for many national journalists as well as Trump, has become the perfect vehicle for conspiracy theories, misinformation and racist screeds to find massive audiences; messages grow from a few viral tweets, to a trending topic, to news coverage … When you ask experts about ways to limit the reach of racism and conspiracy theories on platforms such as Twitter, they’ll tell you to watch how it’s amplified: Sharing a meme to condemn it is still a share. Retweeting a racist tweet to shame its writer still gives the tweet more eyeballs … Even though many journalists and media organisations have gotten better at realizing that trending hashtags are often more representative of the weaponization of attention rather than a reflection of popular opinion, trending hashtags are still an effective tactic for courting news coverage of fringe ideas – even if that coverage is intended to debunk it”.
Christopher French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London explains in a Scientific American article. “As a species, one of our greatest strengths is our ability to find meaningful patterns in the world around us and to make causal inferences. We sometimes, however, see patterns and causal connections that are not there, especially when we feel that events are beyond our control.”
Voting for Brexit and Trump was found to be associated with a wide range of conspiratorial beliefs, with researchers uncovering that these groups are more likely to believe climate change is a hoax, vaccines are harmful, and that Illuminati-style groups rule the world. They also found that 33 percent of British and French people believe their governments are obscuring the truth about immigration and that many also supported a theory known as “the great replacement” which posits that Muslim immigration is part of a plan to make Muslims the global majority …
… As is the case with the Holocaust and the Second World War, as time passes, truth and fact often become distorted and replaced with myth and alternative stories to support new, disruptive thought. Although many common conspiracy theories flourished – some would say festered – in back streets and bedsits, the advent of social media has energized and amplified them. In the dark recesses of the Internet, all amplified by the likes of QAnon and 8chan which are only loosely tethered to reality, and para-State organs like RT which have more subversive and strategic motives.
A simple explanation of seventeenth century physicist Robert Boyle’s Law is: the greater the external pressure, the greater the quantity of hot air.
And none more so than in contemporary Australian politics.Commenting on the shameless political posturing and finger-pointing inflicted on us by our inadequate leaders during this fiery week, Australian journalist Jacqueline Maley nailed it:
“Politicians like to talk sentimentally about how much Australians pull together in a crisis, putting aside differences to help out their neighbours. And of course they have during these bushfires. We always do, when it comes to natural disasters. It was the politicians who failed to. And they keep failing. Increasingly it feels the government, so keen to invoke its “quiet Australians”, is using the phrase as a gag on debate. “Quiet Australians” is a genius political term – mystical and impossible to disprove. If you self-nominate as one, you ain’t one. Strangely the quiet Australians’ biggest boosters in the media tend to be the loudest, un-drown-outable voices”.”
We know the system is broke. But how to fix it?
Author and onetime publisher Steve Harris offers some directions as he recalls the genesis of two seminal books on Australian history, politics and culture and examines their continuing relevance. It is a scathing commentary on the sad state of politics and governance in Australia today and of the wit and wisdom of our elected rulers in addressing the myriad problems confronting our country and indeed the wider world.
“Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” remain ironic.”
Harris writes of our need for a better understanding of our past, present and future We are “led”, he observes, by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councilors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies; and concludes that we have “so much “government”, so little good governance’.
“Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless point-scoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government. Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, consumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability”.
The result, he laments, is a re-run of issues revisited but not resolved, opportunities not seized, and challenges not confronted … “it is no surprise that the distance between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement”.
On 16 the November, the Sydney Morning Herald’s economic commentator Jessica Irvine reported on the malaise described by Harris, quoting John Roskam, the director of conservative think tank The Institute of Public Affairs “Public policy in Australia is often made on the run, built on shabby foundations, motivated by short term political gain, and consequently having mediocre outcomes.”
On the same day, the Herald’s political editor Peter Hartcher voiced similar sentiment. He was referring specifically to the politicians’ inability to unite to face a common foe – the devastating bush-fires raging through New South Wales and Queensland – but his diagnosis is much wider than this:
“Now we have to ask if we’re entering a new phase of over-politicization. Where each party is so intent on its own internal politics that they are incapable of coming together to deal with a parched country, running out of water, and burning as never before. This might be premature. The so-called leaders might yet discover leadership. Real leadership would bring the major parties, and governments federal and state, together to soberly deal with a national crisis. There is a much broader agenda than climate change alone, but it’s also hard to pretend that climate change is irrelevant.
And yet, he concludes, “The omens aren’t good. The Prime Minister refuses to meet former fire chiefs who’ve been seeking a meeting since April to warn of fire catastrophe. Refusing expert advice on a national crisis because it might not exactly suit your existing policies is hardly the stuff of leadership. Politics at its best is problem-solving. Guys, it’s your job. Don’t tell us “not now”.”
Veteran journalist Laura Tingle has summed up a widely felt frustration with our leaders: “For so many people, and so many communities, there have been days and nights of sleeplessness, exhausting anxiety, and fear of monstrous firestorms; and for some, the destruction they have caused. And now the oppressive knowledge that it is likely that this could go on for months. It has also been a week of catastrophic failure of our political dialogue. It’s easy to just express exasperation at the sniping of some of the statements made by politicians this week as they have tried to fight a culture war about climate change in the midst of such disastrous scenes. But there is actually something much more alarming going on here. If our political conversation really is at a point when these cultural weapons can’t be downed in the face of a crisis, we really are in a lot of trouble”.
When commentators and opinion-makers on all sides – even conservative platforms like The Australian and the IPA – are lamenting the (sclerotic?) condition of our body politic and the (toxic?) quality of much public debate, I am reminded of what an old Greek once said (or maybe didn’t say it quite like this): those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first render stupid.
For more on Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite, see: Down Under
A failure to create our own luck results in new tyranny
Steve Harris, The Weekend Australian, 2nd November 2019
Dragon years are especially significant in the Chinese zodiac, the dragon being the only animal born of imagination, and dragons seen to be the world’s best leaders because of their traits of ambition, courage, tenacity, intelligence and risk-taking. And so it was in the dragon year of 1964, when the storyline of China was challenged by its own leadership and the storyline of Australia was challenged by three men with a different perspective.
In 1964, China exploded an atom bomb and Mao Zedong made his famous “China will take a giant stride forward” speech, declaring the country had to “not just follow the beaten track traversed by other countries … and trail behind them at a snail’s pace” but be unstoppable in showing that the East could best the West.
And three Australians took some bold strides: a young Rupert Murdoch bravely launched The Australian to start a global reshaping of media. A former newsboy and young historian, Geoffrey Blainey, accepted a commission that became The Tyranny of Distance, a bold and fresh perspective on the story of Australia. And journalist-editor Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country, a courageous and challenging critique of Australia’s capabilities.
In their own way, Mao, Murdoch, Blainey and Horne understood Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s sentiment of the 1950s, one Barack Obama also adapted in 2008 in his landmark “A more powerful union” speech that set him on the path to the presidency: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” All understood this, and wanted to impact our knowledge of the arc of history and its consequences, and the capacity to bend it.
The three Australians reflected a view that conventional wisdom is more conventional than wisdom, that status quo can be code for “not good enough”. Today The Australian is an integral part of the national lexicon, so too “tyranny of distance” and “the lucky country”, and half a century on the potency of their thinking remains very alive.
In the final chapter of his study of Australia in the 1960s, Horne lamented that his country had ridden for too long the “luck” of its natural resources, weather, British antecedents and distance from problems elsewhere in the world. It had become manacled to its past, bogged in mediocrity and lacked imagination. “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. Although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”
Blainey ambitiously elevated his commission to write a slim volume on the history of transport in Australia into a deeper exploration and explanation of how Australia’s remoteness and distance from the British “mother country”, and the enormous size of the continent, shaped so much of Australia’s history and thinking. He originally had two equal halves, The Tyranny of Distance and The Taming of Distance, and his first choice for the title was Distance and Destiny.
Blainey was somewhat hesitant about The Tyranny of Distance as the chosen title, and it did not initially sell well, stirring critics and resentment as much as Horne’s Lucky Country. But then the launch of new satellites transmitting images between hemispheres and the first reigning pope visit saw people boasting of a conquering of the “tyranny of distance”. It featured in the Split Enz masterpiece, Six Months in a Leaky Boat, and now, as perhaps the ultimate modernist cred, is the name of a vegan restaurant in Melbourne.
Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” remain ironic.
A 2020 publisher might commission new versions called The Mucky Country and The Tyranny of Distraction, recognising that while Australia has come a good distance and been “lucky” in many respects, we have not made the most of our “lucky” assets and have “mucked about” on too many fronts.
Yes, we have seen notable examples of national ambition and outcomes but they are the exception. And, yes, there has been some taming of distance with the global transformation of transport, trade, communications and economics but it has also brought us closer to world forces of nationalism, terrorism, crime, social unrest, civil rights, people movement, pandemics and the environment.
Such authors might argue that we still have a poor understanding of the many forms, the tyrannies, of “distance”, that distance and proximity can swing between positive and negative. And that “luck” is a fragile companion. They might see new and different tyrannies of distance and more reportage evidencing a country limping along the same beaten tracks, unable to take “giant strides. They might challenge us to think whether it is due to a “she’ll be right” lethargy, insouciance and detachment. Or distraction. Or lack of imagination, ambition or competence.
We have the world’s oldest civilisation yet have not learned much from its people’s practices and powerful sense of “country” or “mob”. And still not closed the distance to full connectedness and acceptance.
On the driest continent on the planet, we still struggle to have national policies on how to optimally trap, maintain and use our rainwater and rivers. Government departments insist we are on “the leading edge” of water policy, yet urban rain and water flows into the sea, we recycle almost anything except water for drinking, our rivers have become ill-used and ill-managed, and we have a mirage of national drought, climate, energy and environmental policies. Dorothy Mackellar’s “sunburnt country” has not seen us become a world technology epicentre.
A scheme that took 25 years, 100,000 people from all over the world to build 10 townships and 1600km of road and track in rough terrain to divert water for farms and energy sounds like a heroic engineering tale from 19th-century America or 21st-century China. Or a pipe dream in modern Australia. But this was the Snowy Mountains scheme just 70 years ago. Forget such ambition and commitment today: we muck around with decisions, let alone delivery, of even modest infrastructure.
Australia’s colonies united in part to end rivalry and inefficiency. But it didn’t prevent passengers from Perth to Brisbane having to travel in six trains and Sydney-Melbourne passengers changing trains at Albury. A century on, we still have inefficient and disconnected systems in and between cities and towns.
We salute the self-sacrifice of so many of our military, the ethos of “mateship”, and ride on the shoulders and self-sacrifices of our parents and grandparents. We have talked about “a fair go” for our soldiers, young, aged, disadvantaged and ill since Federation, and every election features words about “the battlers” and “the forgotten”.
Yet today we have unresolved wounds among our vets and in Veterans Affairs management. An estimated 700,000-plus children live in poverty, 30 years after Bob Hawke’s prepared speech declared that “by 1990 no child need live in poverty”. About 600 children under the age of 14 are incarcerated and frequently held in solitary confinement, despite its condemnation as a form of mental torture. Our age of criminal responsibility remains at 10. Suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 15-24.
We see more intergenerational disadvantage, with diminished prospects and ambitions, more uncertain paths through education to meaningful employment. The “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” mantra, job security and training-skill balance are victims of globalisation, outsourcing, casualisation, contracting, ageism and wage theft.
A royal commission is demonstrating that our entire aged-care system, despite numerous past reviews, is on the point of collapse, yet there is no sense of urgency or action. Health systems are struggling and one’s wellbeing can depend on a postcode. Inquiries into corporate and financial malfeasance do not seem to prevent new sins.
After decades of prosperity, the dream of home ownership has become unaffordable to many, and we build houses and apartment complexes that are unsafe and unsound in engineering and environmental terms. We celebrate our story as a nation of immigrants, and bristle at any charge of being racist.
Yet 70 years after the post-World War II rallying cry to “populate or perish” in the pursuit of economic and military security, and despite all the economic and cultural upsides of immigration and living in one of the most diverse populations in the world, with almost half the population being born overseas or having at least one parent born overseas, we lack meaningful policies and strategies on population and immigration. Half a century after the Whitlam government dismantled “White Australia” laws, we have not buried latent racism, inequality and bigotry.
Colonial Irish and Catholic settlers were demonised, their religious leaders pressed to disown any troublesome members and avow “loyalty” to Australia. We now have multiple faiths but still slide into moral panic and demonisation when “different” religious and ethnic groups are seen to be threatening or un-Australian “them” rather than “us”.
The Cold War 1960s and “yellow peril” fear has been overtaken by the “luck” of our natural resources being fuel for China’s great strides, and the dollars from fee-paying students and tourists. Now we fret over China’s Belt and Road Initiative economic and military influence across the globe, including our South Pacific backyard.
We don’t know how Brexit and Trump nationalism will impact our longest-standing allies and alliances. Closer to home, outside trade and economic pragmatism and holidays in Bali and South Pacific, few Australians could honestly say they have a real understanding of and/or trust with many of our nearest neighbours other than New Zealand.
Australia’s 43 universities ought to be unambiguously at the heart of curating our past and present knowledge and understanding, and underpinning nation-building. But too many pursue fee-paying students even if it means compromising standards and results; send conflicting signals about academic freedom and assaults on free speech, science and reason; opportunistically offer populist and profitable courses while reducing crucial engagement in Australian history, culture and literature.
The national need for a better understanding of our past, present and future is not for lack of government, reviews and regulations. Or perhaps the need is greater because of it. We are “led” by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councillors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies.
So much “government”, so little good governance. Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless pointscoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government.
Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, consumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability.
The result, predictably, is a re-run of issues revisited but not resolved, opportunities not seized, challenges not confronted. And it is no surprise that the distance between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement.
There is something amiss in the national storyline when we have long had many more assets and opportunities than billions of others in the world, yet we have reached a point in our story where many Australians see too many tyrannies of distance in their lives, too many doubts about future “luck” and prosperity.
If we do not better see and respond to needs and opportunities then current distances will become greater, risking whether our destiny is one of our own ambition. One hopes we don’t have a future historian challenging us with a critique of a place called Lostralia, a land where “distance” and “luck” slayed the dragons.
Steve Harris is a former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age and Herald Sun, and author of three books on Australian history. His latest book is The Lost Boys of Mr Dickens, How the British Empire turned artful dodgers into child killers (Melbourne Books).
Well we know where we’re going But we don’t know where we’ve been And we know what we’re knowing But we can’t say what we’ve seen And we’re not little children And we know what we want And the future is certain Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads
To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.
The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.
The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.
And so, to the year in review:
During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its watch with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.
In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.
It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in Crisis, Milo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.
There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death ofStalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.
As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Home, and a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.
Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Bluesshone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.
The highway is alive tonight Where it’s headed everybody knows I’m sitting down here in the campfire light With the ghost of old Tom Joad
In the last of our posts commemorating 1968, we pay tribute to author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck who died fifty years ago this month.
Back in the day, The Grapes of Wrath was included in our GCE A level curriculum, nearly thirty years after its publication and its iconic status. It was, to our formative minds, a pleasantly surprising choice. In the mid ‘sixties, before Vietnam became the quagmire that sapped America’s blood and treasure and trashed its post-war reputation as a force for good in the world, the land of the free and home of the brave was also was a beacon of bright consumerism, great movies, and pop music. The idea of an American novel in English Lit, so long the preserve of Britain’s literary canon, wonderful though it was, has a certain excitement to it. It gave to us a new literary language, a different sensibility, a fresh perspective.
But Steinbeck’s America was new to us, an America far removed from of the hope and glory that we’d been accustomed to in the years following what was seen as the US’ triumph in World War Two (the costly and critical contribution of the Soviet Union, now our ostensible foe, was singularly downplayed during these years). The Grapes of Wrath was a revelation, an eye-opener, a primer, indeed, for a youthful awareness and politicisation that would be further nurtured by the escalating war in Indochina and the rise and rise of the civil rights movement in the US.
The inevitable examination question in the summer 1967 was exactly that: why were studying an American novel? Any discerning reader taking in the opening pages of chapter one can answer this in a trice. The simple beauty, the lyrical and descriptive power, the gradual but relentlessly unfolding narrative is such that I can recite parts of it from memory over half a century later.
To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.
I have reproduced chapter one in full below. In a few short pages, it describes how the the last rains fell on Oklahoma’s cornfields and how the searing summer sun rendered the land to dust, creating the dust bowl so chillingly portrayed by filmmaker Ken Burns in his singular documentaryof that name, and propelling tens of thousands of destitute ‘Okies’ “on the long, hard road of flight” (as Bob Dylan would describe it in Chimes of Freedom) to California. As a literary record of an unfolding environmental disaster, it is without equal. It is poetical, powerful, and profoundly unsettling, and there’s worse to follow.
There are few books that strike such a chord with me – books that I reread in whole or in part once in a while, often aloud, just for the verbal and lyrical thrill. Moby-Dick is such a one, Herman Melville’s classic treatise on seafaring, whales and obsession – from which this blog takes its name – particularly chapter forty one which brilliantly describes the demented and doomed sea captain’s descent into madness.
Whilst few writers can lay claim to have written the “great American novel”, Steinbeck and Melville cracked the code. My own personal contender would also be CE Morgan’s Sport of Kings,a long and deep story about a old Kentucky horse-breeding family – the “kings” of the title. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it is a harrowing journey through America’s dark soul. Morgan’s debt to Steinbeck is transparent in her descriptive power.
Far across the road, cattle moaned with longing for a night coming in fits and starts. The air was restless and the crickets thrummed. The hot, humid breath of August was lifting now from the ground, where it had boiled all day, rising to meet the cooler streams of air that hovered over it. Airs kissed and stratified, whitening and thinning as the sun slipped its moorings and sank to the bank of the earth.
Following the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath, I republish an informative essay from The Independent with regard to a new biography of Steinbeck on the anniversary of his death. He was a gifted, complex and at times, unpleasant man. His stories of the lives of migrants and workers during US’ Great Depression, most notably in The Grapes of Wrath, and his short stories Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, resonate today, prefiguring as they do the mass migration of populations due to climate changes, infrastructure collapse, the heartless hypocrisy of trickle-down economics, the reluctance and even refusal of the powers-that-be to help those cast by the wayside or onto the scarp-heap, and the demonisation of those are forced to take to the roads and oceans of the world in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their children.
In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck said:
“People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California. They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”
I recall Tom Joad’s parting words in the 1940 film adaptationwhen he leaves his family to fight for social and economic justice:
“You don’t aim to kill nobody, Tom?”
“No. I been thinkin’, long as I’m a outlaw anyways, maybe I could — Hell, I ain’t thought it out clear, Ma. Don’ worry me now. Don’ worry me.”
They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said, “How’m I gonna know ’bout you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’ know. They might hurt ya. How’m I gonna know?”
Tom laughed uneasily, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one – an’ then -”
“Then what, Tom?”
“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”
And now, let Steinbeck set the scene for why Tom Joad and his family abandon their farm, pile their possessions on on old truck and head into the west …
The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter One
To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.
In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.
In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.
When June was half gone, the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rainheads. The men in the fields looked up at the clouds and sniffed at them and held wet fingers up to sense the wind. And the horses were nervous while the clouds were up. The rainheads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country. Behind them the sky was pale again and the sun flared. In the dust there were drop craters where the rain had fallen, and there were clean splashes on the corn, and that was all.
A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn. A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky.
The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.
The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.
Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.
When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. The people brushed it from their shoulders. Little lines of dust lay at the door sills.
In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning they knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth it settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.
The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break the children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust.
After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the Watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves That no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first. As the Day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and Little rocks. The men sat still—thinking—figuring.
John Steinbeck: A flawed genius
Martin Chilton, The Independent 20th December 2018
It’s the 50th anniversary of the death of Steinbeck, who will be the subject of a new biography in 2019. The Nobel Prize-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath was a complicated and controversial man, explains Martin Chilton in The Independent 20th December 2018
“I have left a lot of tracks in my life,” said John Steinbeck, a giant of 20th-century literature, who died on 20 December 1968 at the age of 66. Novels such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden made him world famous, yet some of the truth about his past has taken half a century to come to light. Steinbeck was a complicated and contradictory man – and weirder than you might have thought.
Mad at the World is the title of a new biography to be published in 2019, and there is little doubt that Steinbeck was an angry man. He was outraged by injustice, poverty and prejudice, as his books make clear. He was also capable of more personal animosities, whether that was towards Adolf Hitler, his second wife or even book reviewers (“what lice they are”).
The quirkiness of his character was evident at a young age. Steinbeck was already dreaming about becoming a professional writer when he enrolled as an English major at Stanford University at the age of 17. He tried to sign up for a practical course in how to dissect corpses. “I want to learn about human beings,” he told a clearly unimpressed dean of the medical school. His application was rejected. Medicine’s loss was literature’s gain, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in the novel category (1940), the Nobel Prize in Literature (1962) and the United States Medal of Freedom (1964).
Although he never got the chance to cut up bodies, he was to spend a lot of time in hospital, because illness and freakish accidents were a recurrent theme in his life. The pattern started at high school in Salinas, the Californian town where he was born on 27 February 1902. At age 16, Steinbeck contracted pleural pneumonia and came close to death. A doctor saved him by cutting through his rib cage to drain the fluid. Around a year later, he was seriously ill again and had to have his appendix removed.
Things were little better in adulthood. He had a serious kidney infection that required hospital treatment. He had an operation on a detached retina, an operation to remove varicose veins and another to repair a shattered knee cap after a balcony rail gave way on the second floor of his Manhattan home. In 1959 he suffered a stroke, in 1960 he had a suspected heart attack. At the end of his life, he was poleaxed by a back injury that required complicated surgery.
As fate would have it, an injury to a stranger was one of the decisive factors in pushing Steinbeck towards full-time writing. After leaving Stanford without graduating, he had spells working on farms and as a painter’s apprentice before moving to New York in the mid-1920s. In New York, he worked on a building site, ferrying wheelbarrows loaded with 100 pounds of cement, during the construction of Madison Square Garden. Six weeks into the job, a co-worker fell to a bloody death near where Steinbeck stood. The horrific sight made Steinbeck throw up. He quit his job that night.
His uncle helped him land a job as a reporter for the New York American, a William Randolph Hearst newspaper, but he quickly became disillusioned by journalism and returned to California. He worked as a tour guide and it was in that job he met his first wife Carol Henning. His wedding came shortly after the publication of his first novel, 1929’s Cup of Gold. It was the start of a career that would produce 16 novels and novellas, two sets of short stories, 11 non-fiction books, two plays, two screenplays and a large volume of letters.
Steinbeck sometimes played up to the image of a struggling writer whose upbringing was hard financially. Throughout the 1920s, however, Steinbeck was getting an allowance from his father, the treasurer of Monterey County, of $50 ($700 or £550 in today’s terms) a month. “Most people imagine that Steinbeck came from an impoverished background and was almost one of those workers in The Grapes of Wrath, but his family home in Salinas was a beautiful Victorian house with maids and servants,” said his biographer Jay Parini in 1994. “His was a self-conscious identification with working people, but he always travelled first-class and stayed in suites at the Dorchester in London and the Georges Cinq in Paris,” Parini added.
After a series of well-received novels, including 1935’s Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck won critical acclaim in 1937 for his novella Of Mice and Men, the moving portrait-in-miniature of 1930s California, seen through the friendship of oddball ranch workers George and Lennie. Two years later came The Grapes of Wrath, one of the defining novels of the 20th century, a work of rich descriptive power, in which Steinbeck showed his ability to summon poetry out of poverty in the lives of the “Okie” Joad family.
This deeply affecting story about the oppression of migrant workers, who were fleeing from the Dust Bowl states to California, struck a chord with an America reeling from the Great Depression. By February 1940, the novel was in its 11th printing, having sold nearly half a million copies. More than 15 million copies were bought in the next eight decades and around 50,000 copies are still bought in America every year.
The impact of Steinbeck’s work on the American people was momentous. When I met the singer and actor Harry Belafonte, he told me Steinbeck “was one of the people who turned my life around as a young man”, inspiring “a lifelong love of literature”. Arthur Miller wrote of Steinbeck, “I can’t think of another American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, who so deeply penetrated the political life of the country.”
The 1940 film adaptation of the novel, starring Henry Fonda, is considered a Hollywood classic. Only a bitter legal dispute over the writer’s estate (between Steinbeck’s stepdaughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga and his daughter-in-law Gail Steinbeck) prevented Steven Spielberg from going ahead with his proposed remake of the movie in 2017.
Steinbeck rarely gave interviews, but in 1952 he spoke to the radio network Voice of America about how he had been “filled with anger” at the ill-treatment of migrant workers. “People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California,” Steinbeck said. “They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”
Many years later, it emerged that the FBI file had begun to keep files on the writer at this time, justifying it with claims that “many of Steinbeck’s writings portrayed an extremely sordid and poverty-stricken side of American life”. Thankfully, more enlightened minds than FBI director J Edgar Hoover were in positions of influence when Steinbeck won literature’s most illustrious award. It is notable that the Nobel committee praised his “keen social perception”.
The Grapes of Wrath was making Steinbeck world famous just as the 41-year-old began to fall for a 22-year-old nightclub singer called Gwyn Conger, whom he married in 1943. Three decades later, as a divorcee in her late fifties, Conger gave a series of interviews in Palm Springs to a show business writer called Douglas Brown. These interviews remained unpublished for more than four decades, until they were discovered in a loft in Wales in 2017.
After they had two children together – Thomas, born in 1944, and John Steinbeck IV, born in 1946 – the acrimony became unbearable and she divorced him in 1948. “The impulse of the American woman is to geld her husband and castrate her sons,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend shortly after his marriage ended. “American married life is the doormat to the whorehouse.” He would exact his revenge a few years later when he based Cathy, the wicked alcoholic character in East of Eden, on Conger. He would also fight her in court throughout the next decade to avoid paying child support.
Steinbeck, a heavy drinker, was not blind to his own failings and mood swings. “I know of no sadder people than those who believe their own publicity,” he said. Steinbeck had suffered from bouts of depression in the 1940s and even after meeting and marrying his third wife, Elaine Scott, he was frequently brought low by what he called his “what-the-hell blues”. Steinbeck said he “hit the bottom” in October 1953, a year after the publication of East of Eden, when he was treated at Lenox Hill Hospital by psychologist Gertrudis Brenner. “A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ,” he remarked.
In this period of mental health problems, he produced some of the strangest work of his career. In 1955, he published a short story called The Affair at 7 Rue de M, a horror-like tale about a child who is unable to get rid of a piece of bubble gum. Wherever he puts it, the gum keeps finding its way back into the boy’s mouth. In desperation, the father cements the gum to a dining table and it takes a week for the piece of gum to die. Steinbeck later burned dozens of stories from this period. He also abandoned a novel about a man who watches one too many westerns on television and then puts on a cowboy hat and heads out to be an urban vigilante.
Poet Ezra Pound once dismissed accounts of a writer’s life as a mere “laundry list” and Steinbeck shared this disdain for focusing on the personal life of an author. Perhaps he has a point. What can we ultimately conclude from the knowledge that Steinbeck preferred writing with pencils (using up to 60 in a day), that he liked jazz, enjoyed playing the harmonica, laughed at jokes by Bob Hope, preferred smoking small cigars and regularly snacked on tuna-covered crackers, washed down by red wine?
“The fact that I have housemaid’s knees or fear yellow gloves has little to do with the books I write,” he said. He derided the public’s need to “create a Steinbeck out of its own imagination” and insisted there were more important matters on which to focus. In 1938, for example, shocked by reports of the Nazi looting and burning of Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany, he was among a small band of writers, including Dorothy Parker, who sent a telegram to President Franklin D Roosevelt urging him to cut all ties with Hitler. Steinbeck became a war correspondent for The New York Herald during the subsequent conflict, reporting from England, North Africa and Italy.
Steinbeck was certainly a progressive in a backward era of race relations. He asked for his name to be taken off the screenplay for the wartime Alfred Hitchcock film The Lifeboat, because he was furious that the “dignified and purposeful” black character he had created had been “distorted”. He wrote to 20th Century Fox to complain about the addition of “a stock comedy negro”, blaming them for “strange and sly obliquities”. Not only did the Fox bosses deny his request, they actively stepped up a publicity campaign that highlighted Steinbeck as the screenwriter. The Oscar nomination he received simply added salt to the wound.
Despite these laudable actions, he was not above his own dirty tactics. In 1958, he was asked by Adlai Stevenson’s fixer, William McCormick Blair Jr, to write a novel that featured a corrupt version of presidential candidate Richard M Nixon. Steinbeck rejected the idea and instead suggested attacks on Nixon’s character, “kidney punch” zingers as he called them, such as starting rumours about Nixon and wife-beating. “All of these are dirty, but as I said, the man who tries Queensberry against gutter fighting is going to get the hell kicked out of him,” Steinbeck wrote to Blair.
John Updike said that for most Americans in the post-war era, Steinbeck’s reputation was as “a best-seller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent”, but during the 1960s Steinbeck’s politics moved away from the liberalism that had earned him a reputation as America’s social conscience. He became friends with President Johnson (helping him to write his acceptance speech) and reported sympathetically on the Vietnam war from late 1966 to early 1967.
Observers in Vietnam noted Steinbeck’s fascination for American weaponry, especially the Douglas AC-47 Spooky gunship, nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon”. It could fire a hundred rounds of 50-calibre bullets every second. The writer loved going target practice shooting with the same type of M16 rifle the troops carried. He even manned a US army outpost during a night of sporadic fire.
His sons Thomas and John were on active duty in the US army at the time of his visit. John later became a fierce opponent of the war, a stance that put him at odds with Steinbeck, who wrote publicly about how Vietnam peace protesters gave him “a shiver of shame”. Steinbeck derided the hippie demonstrators for their “dirty clothes, dirty minds and their shuffling drag-ass protests”.
It is a characteristically odd twist that the 64-year-old who was able to survive a night taking on the Vietcong – and an attack on a helicopter in which he was a passenger – did himself irreparable harm with the innocuous action of lifting some beer. In Hong Kong, travelling back from Vietnam with his wife Elaine, he helped a Chinese delivery man. As he lifted the case of beer, he ruptured a spinal disc. Six months later, still in agonising pain, he had a five-hour operation on his back. The last few months before his death from a heart attack at his East 72nd Street home in New York were deeply miserable.
Biographers Jackson Benson (1984) and Jay Parini (1995) have previously battled with the character of Steinbeck and that challenge has now been taken up by William Souder, whose biography Mad at the World: John Steinbeck and the American Century will be published by WW Norton & Company in 2019.
There is no shortage of fascinating material for Pulitzer finalist Souder to re-examine. As well as Steinbeck’s writing (the prize-winning novels and less-well known masterpieces such as Cannery Row, The Pearl and Sweet Thursday), there is his sometimes madcap life, such as his drunken treasure-hunting escapades in the Bahamas. Even his friend, the noted psychological novelist Sherwood Anderson, admitted that he couldn’t “figure out Steinbeck”.
With Steinbeck, the unexpected was the norm. When his New York house was burgled in 1963, for example, the police report listed the stolen items as “a television set and six rifles”. The writer enjoyed the idiosyncrasy of humans. When he was asked for his “rules for life” by a friend in Vietnam, Steinbeck replied with his four mottos: “Never make excuses. Never let them see you bleed. Never get separated from your luggage. Always find out when the bar opens.”
Souder says he is excited by the challenge of writing about such a complex figure. “One of the things that attracted me to Steinbeck is that he was far from perfect – as a man, a husband, a writer, he had issues,” Souder told the website Steinbeck Now. “He had a permanent chip on his shoulder. He got side-tracked by ideas that were a waste of his time and talent. Some of his work is brilliant and some of it is awful. That’s what you want in a subject – a hero with flaws. Steinbeck was a literary giant who wouldn’t play along with the idea that he was important. I love that. He was mad at the world because it seemed somehow mad at him.”
Steinbeck wasn’t always mad at the world, though. Ten years before his death, this conflicted genius wrote a memorable letter to Thomas Steinbeck (the full version is available here), after his 14-year-old son revealed he had fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan.
“There are several kinds of love,” he wrote, signing the letter as “Fa”. “One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had … don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”
These tender and optimistic words of advice remain, like Steinbeck’s best writing, an absolute joy, despite the flaws of the man.
Fifty years ago this month, on August 20, 1968, troops from the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance formed in 1955 between the Soviet Union and seven Eastern European nations in its thrall invaded Czechoslovakia to crush liberal reforms enacted by communist leader Alexander Dubçek in the brief era known as the Prague Spring. In ex post factum justification, the following month, LeonidBrezhnev, General Secretary if the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, expounded what became known as The Brezhnev Doctrine: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries”.
The Brezhnev Doctrine was meant to counter liberalization efforts and uprisings that had that challenged Soviet hegemony inside the Eastern Bloc, considered by Moscow as an essential defensive and strategic buffer in the event hostilities were to break out with NATO, the western alliance. In practice, it meant thatbloc members enjoyed but limited independence. Any challenge to the cohesiveness of the Eastern Bloc, whether, by either threatening the communist parties’ grip on power, or Lenin forbid, actually attempt to secede, the Soviet Union assumed the authority and the power to define “socialism” and “capitalism“, and to act militarily to defend the status quo.
With Dubçek detained and Prague occupied, the country was subsequently taken over by a hard-line Communist regime subservient to Moscow. In 1968 alone, 137 people were killed by Warsaw Pact soldiers, and a total of more than 400 died during an ccupation of that ended only after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, when veteran dissident poet Vacláv Havel became the first and last democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia – he served from 1989 until the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 when he became the first President of the Czech Republic.
The events in Prague in August 1968 are described and appraised in an recent, informative ‘long read’ in The Independent, republished below.
With friends like these…
But first, as part of a continuing chronicle of the events of 1968 in Into That Howling Infinite (see below), here are some recollections of my own.
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was in many ways a seminal event in my own journeying. Until then, I was a political ingenue and a naive communist (yes, a member – the only party I have ever joined!) fellow-traveler, although my evolving perspectives were transforming and expanding as I studied the history and politics of Russia and the Soviet Union, under the tutelage of exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely.
The summer’s events in what is now-bisected Czechoslovakia occurred against a backdrop of anti-war demonstrations in the US, including the Kent State shootings (“four dead in Ohio”), the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the tumultuous evenementsde Mai ‘68 in Paris. These came as I was writing a dissertation on the Hungarian Rising of 1956 – a tragic precursor to Prague and to Brezhnev’s doctrine – and provided a pertinent background narrative and also, a coda for my story.
The shock-waves of the Prague pogrom rippled through my own world the following August when I was contemplating how to spend my summer vacation once I had earned enough money on the motorway construction site to pay for my travels.
I had a Czech friend – self-exiled Camille –who encouraged me to visit his country that summer and to drop in on his folks in Prague. Having completed my dissertation, I was pretty keen to visit such a historical and controversial city. So I booked a one-way ticket to Prague on British Caledonia – my first-ever aeroplane flight! It was my intention to visit the place where “Good King Wenceslas last looked out” and then head home to England via Austria and Germany.
But, as they say, man proposes, God disposes. Or life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. The date I’d chosen to travel just happened to fall a year to the day of the Soviet invasion. Our turboprop plane headed east into what was still the Soviet Bloc – that had twenty yeqrs to run – and flew OVER Prague! The first we happy travellers – students mostly – knew was that we were circling to land in the Hungarian capital of Budapest.
So there we were, in passport control, without visas and accommodation, our itineraries awry, amidst border officials who were wondering who the hell we were and what the f@$£ we were doing there in their portal to the Iron Curtain. Eventually, things were sorted, visas issued, money exchanged (exorbitantly, as was the way in those days), and a bus provided to take us to a Communist Party Youth hostel, bleak, spartan, and crowded with enthusiastic, gorgeous Young Communist lads and lasses.
So there I was, in my first communist country. And, you know what, “they who know only England, who only England know”. I walked through old Buda and Pest, strolled by the Danube and the Sejm, the famous parliament building, walked the boulevards of my dissertation, and saw the scars of battle still there in the brickwork twelve years after the doomed Intifada of 1956.
I’d heard and read about how the affluent and decadent west was an altogether different and better world than the drab, depressed and depressing cities of the workers’ paradises to our east. And yet, to my ingenue eyes, the look, life and life-style of Budapest appeared no better or worse than my Birmingham and Berkshire backwaters.
Maybe it was because of my youth, inexperience, and background – maybe I hadn’t traveled enough to interpret and to judge. Apart from brief Boy Scout and schoolboy excursions into Europe-lite, Brit-friendly Belgium and Luxembourg, this was my first foray into distinctly ‘foreign’ lands with histories, cultures, governance, and world views quite different to the fields that I had known.
I’d like to think that perhaps it is something intrinsically part of my software – an ability to adapt, accept, empathize, and, as far as it is indeed possible for a stranger, to become one with the scenery and slip into the machinery, and, to put it bluntly, take it all at face value. As a “stranger in a strange land”, I accepted what I saw, observed, heard and learned, moved on – to quote American beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti – like “a mirror walking down a strange street’. For this is how I traveled in thise roving years, leaving very little by way of words and pictures of my travelling. All I saw, heard, observed, felt and learned was mostly stashed away on my hard-drive to be accessed in latter years – waiting, perhaps, for the advent of social media, blogs and highly portable electronic devices.
Given the circumstances of our arrival, and the atmosphere prevailing in the Bloc on the anniversary of Prague invasion, the authorities had given me a visa for four days only. I had therefore to depart the country quick-smart. I had effectively two choices of non-Soviet countries –westwards to Austria, or south to what was then Yugoslavia. In a split second decision, I took the road less traveled – south to Szeged and the Serbian border. Wondering through the rural outskirts of Novi Sad, I was taken home by a pair of Serbian boys. I spent my first evening with their most hospitable family and slept that night on a bed of furs. “Novi Sad, Beograd” the lads had chanted, and so, instead of setting my direction home, I hitch-hiked south to the ancient Danube city of Belgrade.
In the Yugoslav capital, I resolved to keep going southwards. Over the next two weeks, I transited Yugoslavia to Thessaloniki, where decided to continue with my southern odyssey – to Athens and the Greek Islands. At journeys end, I hitchhiked back the way I’d come, only this time, reaching Austria via the Croatian capital of Zagreb.
That impulsive decision in Budapest led me into new pastures. Back in Britain, an Indian summer gave way to bleak autumn and dark and damp winter, and my compass re-calibrated. I had been focused on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, on deep history and the Russian ‘soul’ (whatever that might be), on ideologies, betrayals, and Cold War skulduggery. But the clear Hellenic sky and the cobalt blue of the Mediterranean, the parched hills and pine woods of the Peloponnese, the dazzling light and the warm sun on my body, and the ruins and bones of antiquity sang a siren’s song. As Jack Bruce warbled:
You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever, but you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun. And the colours of the sea bind your eyes with trembling mermaids, and you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses.
My thoughts and dreams no longer ranged eastwards. My next journey took me back to the Mediterranean, and thence, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great – the golden hero of legend, not the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” destroyer – through the Middle East and on to the Hippy Trail to India. There and back again, to quote JRR Tolkien, so fresh in my undergraduate canon. I traveled through lands of which I knew little, picking up fragments of history and heritage, parables and politics as onwards I roamed.
Through the lands of antiquity and of empire: Greece and Cyprus; Egypt and Israel; the Levant (old French for the lands of the rising sun – Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan; Iraq before Saddam, and Iran under the Shah; Pakistan and India, who went to war with each other whilst I crossed their frontiers (a story for another time); and then back to Britain by way of Turkey and the fabled Pudding Shop.
I stood beside the great rivers of ancient stories – the Nile, the Jordan and the Orontes, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and the Ganges. I traveled though deserts and mountains, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. I climbed through the Kyber Pass, immortalised by imperialendeavour and hubris, and the valley of Kashmir, a betrayed and battered paradise. I stood atop ancient stones in Memphis and Masada, Baalbek and Babylon, Jalalabadand Jerusalem.
On my return, I resolved to learn more about these lands, their peoples, and their histories, and this I did. The Middle East has long-since captivated and colonized much of my intellectual life, Imbuing it with a passion that has found expression in my persona. my politics, my prose, my poetry, and my songs.
In these troubled times, much of the world I once traveled is closed to the casual and the curious. I mourn for those dear, dead days when the map of the world was a signpost and not a warning. But today, I go wherever and whenever I can go, and I feel a wonderful sense of homecoming when I touch down in the bright sunlight. I get the thrill of fresh adventure when I arrive in new places with their sights, sounds and aromas. I reclaim and revel in the curiosity and wonder, knowledge and understanding, awareness and wisdom that was born back there in Budapest.
And that is how Leonid Brezhnev changed my life!
These are the lands of testament and prophecy, of sacrifice and sacrament, of seers and sages, of vision and vicissitude, of warriors and holy men. The spiritual and the temporal have melded here since time immemorial. We still see the remnants of ancient empires and the echoes of their faiths. We can chart their decline and fall in the fortunes of their monuments and their mausoleums, in the “tumbled towers and fallen stones, broken statues, empty tombs” where “ghosts of commoners and kings walk the walls and catacombs of the castles and the shrines”. Histories carved in stone,mysteries locked in stone, as “canyons and castles pass ageless and ageing and captive in time”.Forward to East – An Arab Anthology.
The Prague Spring: 50 years on what can we learn from Czechoslovakia’s failed attempt to reform communism?
Mick O’Hare, The Independent, 19 August 2018
Fifty years ago this week, on 21 August 1968, the citizens of Prague awoke to find tanks on their streets. For some it came as no surprise. Student activist Pavel Kamenicky was sleeping. “At first I thought it was the university bus trying to find the right gear,” he says. “But I realised it was way too loud. I jumped up thinking, ‘they’ve come’.”
Czechoslovakia had dominated news bulletins throughout the summer after its premier, First Secretary Alexander Dubcek, had begun reforming his communist government’s structures earlier that year. But now, what had become known as the Prague Spring, or Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face”, was lying crushed beneath the tank tracks in Wenceslas Square.
The Soviet Union feared its grip on the satellite states of eastern Europe was loosening and its patience had finally run out. Czechoslovakia and Dubcek had fallen foul of USSR leaderLeonid Brezhnev’s eponymous doctrine, espoused retroactively in justification the month after Warsaw Pact troops took to Prague’s streets: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries,” Brezhnev said.
Soviet forces, alongside those of Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, crossed the Czechoslovakian border at 11pm on the evening of 20 August. East Germany withdrew at the last minute when it was realised that, just over two decades after the end of the Second World War, the presence of German troops on Czech and Slovak soil could lead to unintended repercussions. The following morning, the foreign soldiers were in the capital, offering fraternal support to loyal comrades in Czechoslovakia.
Soviet tanks had intervened in post-war eastern Europe before. Towards the end of October in 1956, Hungarians revolted against their Marxist-Leninist governmentand declared a new administration, withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact and disbanding the communist-run state security apparatus. But barely two and half weeks later the western world watched aghast, but impotent, as Soviet forces entered Budapest to restore one-party rule.
Yet there had been real hope that Czechoslovakia could be different. 1968 was, of course, a year of revolution and political protest across the planet. But the Czechoslovak version was in many ways a rather gentler form of dissent. Dubcek had never set out to overthrow communism, merely to reform it.
The nation’s planned economy had been in decline throughout the 1960s. Dubcek had replaced previous first secretary, Antonín Novotný, in January 1968 and had attempted to liberalise communist party rule by tolerating political institutions and organisations not directly controlled by the party. Even multi-party government was mooted. More repressive laws were loosened, travel was made easier and freedom of expression, especially in media, accepted.
Leonid Brezhnev shares a joke with US president Richard Nixon in 1973 (AP)
Unwittingly though, Dubcek had created either a vicious or a virtuous circle, depending on one’s political viewpoint. Reform emboldened progressives and led to demand for further liberalisation. Dissidents, especially students, but also the wider population in numerous Soviet satellite nations, began to push for similar freedoms.
He was wrong: 2,000 tanks and a 250,000-strong Soviet-led force of men invaded on Brezhnev’s orders; 137 Czechoslovak civilians were killed resisting; and, pleading with his citizens not to fight back, Dubcek was flown to Moscow.
Some citizens used the power of argument to voice their opposition, engaging troops in discussion to make their point – until photographs were used in Soviet propaganda to suggest the locals were making friends with the invaders. Dubcek returned as little more than a puppet of the Soviet regime and was replaced early in 1969. Half a million of his supporters were expelled from the Communist Party.
The members of Nato, especially the United States – already involved in conflict in Vietnam and aiming to broker a disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union – condemned the invasion but had no intention of intervening. In the aftermath, 300,000 Czechoslovaks, many highly qualified, emigrated to the west, although the authorities soon clamped down on their ability to leave.
The period between 1969 and 1971 is known in Czechoslovak history as the era of “normalisation”. The country returned to the Soviet fold; opposition both within and without the country faded; and the Communist Party returned to the hardline position it had held before the onset of the Prague Spring.
So, 50 years later, what does the anniversary offer today’s Europeans still struggling with political upheaval and, certainly in the east of the continent, getting to grips with increasingly nationalistic, repressive governments? Apart from the sense of betrayal felt by Czechs and Slovaks, both towards their own government and their supposed allies, and the reminder that totalitarianism brooks no dissent, are there lessons to be learned from the Prague Spring; and what became of Dubcek, its architect? Unsurprisingly the legacy is complex – as legacies are wont to be.
Perhaps the key to understanding Czechoslovakia in 1968 is that, unlike similar uprisings against the establishment, both in communist Europe but also elsewhere around the world – witness the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011 – the Prague Spring was not a movement of only liberals, students (among other young people) and political intellectuals fighting a conservative establishment. It had wider cross-generational support drawing on the strong traditions of democracy that had developed in Czechoslovakia between the two world wars, after its formation in 1918.
Czech-born writer Milan Kundera, author of the Unbearable Lightness of Being, who lived in exile in France from 1975, argued that it was a movement falling back on the “best traditions” of Czechoslovakia’s brief history: a “higher quality of democracy not based on the ills associated with capitalism”. By contrast, the later revolutions that would finally overthrow communism in Europe at the end of the 1980s were driven as much by the “victory” of Reaganism, free-market economics and monetarism as they were by the right to vote freely and express opinions openly.
It has become fashionable, with hindsight, to blame the suppression of the Prague Spring on “communism”. But let it not be forgotten that it was fervent communists who were carrying out Czechoslovakia’s reforms. Whether the Prague Spring was a “purer” revolution than those that followed is probably an argument for political ideologues alone, but a glance across the border towards Viktor Orban’s Hungary shows that the spoils of the “freedom” won in 1989 might not always manifest themselves with good intent.
Two decades after Dubcek’s attempt to reform communism from within, the then premier of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, issued an apology on behalf of all Warsaw Pact nations, stating that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was a mistake, and that the USSR should never have interfered in the internal affairs of another sovereign state. (It should be noted that both Romania and Albania had refused to participate in the 1968 intervention; and Albania ultimately withdrew from the Warsaw Pact in the aftermath.)
It was the culmination of a number of apologies from Warsaw Pact nations throughout 1989 and it seems reasonable to argue that there was a direct link between these acknowledgements and the overthrow of communist governments in East Germany, Poland, Romania and, most poignantly, Czechoslovakia, that same year. Protesters realised that their actions would no longer lead to Red Army interference, and the Soviet bloc of eastern European nations had replaced their communist rulers within months of one another.
Perhaps 1968 showed us, if 1956 had not already, that the post-war façade of communist interdependence, internationalism and fraternal allegiance was broken, if indeed it had ever been more than a charade at all. The alliance was built on flimsy foundations and maintained by suppression. Czech historical novelist and writer Ivan Klíma has said that – for good or ill – the most important legacy of the Prague Spring was the delayed but ultimate destruction of the international communist movement.
But warnings must still be heeded. In a world where a nationalistically invigorated Russia under Vladimir Putin increasingly looks beyond its borders for a bulwark against Nato and the EU, the demise of communism and the Warsaw Pact does not mean a concurrent diminishing of militarism: the annexation of Crimea by Russia has shown us that very clearly. And – even putting aside the Brexit debate – illiberal governments in Slovakia, Poland and Hungary threaten to overturn the European Union’s free-market liberal consensus. The threat, while changed in ideology, still lurks.
And what of Dubcek? After he was ousted as first secretary he worked for the forestry service near Bratislava, in his native Slovakia. And after the final overthrow of communist rule in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution of 1989 he briefly returned to political prominence as chairman of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly, and later as leader of the Slovak Social Democrats.
Pavel Kamenicky, now 70, says: “We were idealistic. But Dubcek should have realised what was going to happen. Did he really think Brezhnev would shrug and say ‘carry on’?” On the other hand, Dubcek’s son Pavol has defended his father’s position, once saying: “I don’t know if people really understand what it meant to have your fate in Brezhnev’s hands.”
For right or wrong, however, Dubcek had in truth become more or less a political irrelevance by the time of the Velvet Revolution. Václav Havel, the poet and statesman who played a prominent role in the events of 1989 and became Czechoslovakia’s first post-Soviet era president, said: “Dubcek is a symbol of our nice memories, but nobody thinks he can influence the situation now.” Dubcek himself rarely spoke of 1968.
Although a Slovak, Dubcek was opposed to the 1993 split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia and maintained his belief in the idea of a single, united nation. He was killed in a car crash in 1992, declared in an official investigation to be an accident. Conspiracy theories abound and even today 50 per cent of those Slovaks who know of him believe his death was almost certainly not an accident.
The crushing of the Prague Spring continues to echo down the ages, its eventual legacy yet to be determined.
Bob Dylan is currently criss-crossing Australia on yet another circuit of his globe-trotting, decades-long Never Ending Tour. He played Sydney’s gorgeous art deco State Theatre the other night, at oure one-time local venu, the small but venerable Enmore Theatre in Newtown, to acclaim from fans young and old.
Veteran Australian folk music critic Bruce Elderwrote somewhat underwhelmingly: “… given the inevitable limitations (his voice is an ageing, husky, adenoidal instrument; he doesn’t talk to the audience; he always offers new interpretations of his old material; every song was delivered from behind his piano; he never tries to establish a rapport with his audience) this was a fascinating stroll through the “great American songbook” via an eclectic reinterpretation of twenty of his songs”. But friends of mine were much more enthusiastic. Stephane wrote me: “I thought of you last night. The show was great, it was fantastic to see him (he is still in good shape at 77!!). We even saw him smiling and dancing a bit at some stage on a fantastic version of “Gotta serve somebody”. Charles messaged: “It was really, really good. He was in top form. His voice sounded better than it has for quite a while. He played only piano but that with gusto and energy – and sometimes tenderness – throughout. The band cooked and arrangements were brilliantly re-imagined bringing new focus to the lyrics “. And this from Llew: “Started with It Aint Me Babe and Ballad of a Thin Man, so I was happy no matter what else happened. He did an encore of Blowin’ in the Wind and Don’t Think Twice. Not the old versions of course. He never said a word to the crowd”.
At a Bob Dylan concert – and I’ve been to many – we hear what we wish to hear, filtered through the memory of how we heard him all those years ago when we were young and idealistic and our world was new. To this day, I can never get enough of Bob – in all of his many guises. I listen to at least one or two of his songs every week and always discover something I hadn’t heard before. He has been a constant soundtrack to my ever-evolving, often revolving sense and sensibility. I wish that I’d been there in Newtown on Sunday night.
Bob in Newtown
Meanwhile, I have recently read classics professor Richard F Thomas’ scholarly frolic Why Dylan Matters. It is an entertaining and informative if ponderous and overwrought exegesis of the Bobster’s interaction with and intertextualizing (there’s a nice, fresh word for us all) of the old Greek and Roman poets and playwrights, and also poems, plays and folk songs of later vintage, including Rimbaud, of course, and Robbie Burns, and the hunter-collectors Cecil Sharp, Alan Lomax and the eccentric Harry Smith’s encyclopedic Anthology of American Folk Music so well analyzed in Greil Marcus’ insightfull Invisible Republic – Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes.
And then, last night, by chance I watched the Todd Hayes’s 2007 film I’m Not There, an imaginative and at times surreal biopic inspired by Bob Dylan’s life and music, in which six actors depict different facets of Dylan’s public persona. I first saw the film when it was release and recall being a tad disappointed at the time and unsatisfied – although I did think that Cate Blanchett was fabulous as electric Bob.
Second time around, however, thought it a marvelous film full of allusions and illusions, facts and fictions, follies and fantasies. The selection of songs was superb, particularly Memphis Blues Again during the many railroad sequences, Ballad of a Thin Man in a smokey Blonde on Blonde cabaret, and The Man in the Dark Black Coat as the leitmotif for the Billy the Kid parable. The mix of extracts from interviews, chronicles, and other stuff was fascinating, and with the lyrics of the songs, demonstrate just what a gifted poet and songwriter Dylan was and is – which is the message Thomas gives in his professorial take on the man.
Cate was, as before, peerless. A great choice if a daring one on the producer’s part. She has the voice, the gestures, the body language down to a tee. She got a global globe award for that, and an Oscar nomination. Ben Whishaw as French poet Arthur Rimbaud is also very good, as is gorgeous Frenchie Charlotte Gainsbourg as Susie/Sara. And, much to my surprise, Richard Gere was good as the aging Billy the Kid (he got away after Pat Garrett done him in).
The weirdest thing is that just that morning, I was reading the lyrics to Tombstone Blues. And the second song up in I’m Not There was Tombstone Blues, sung by the late Richie Havens and a little Marcus Carl Franklin who goes by the name of Woody. They didn’t sing the best verses, but there is a cut, later on, to a Vietnam era President Johnson saying “the sun is not yellow, it’s chicken”. How about that?
With Bob Dylan once more on our fair shores, critic and author Peter Craven explains how Dylan’s “way with words helped change our times”.
It is reproduced below to surmount News Corp’s paywall.
Bob Dylan: rock poet’s way with words helped to change our times
Peter Craven, The Australian, 11th August 2018
For a lot of people who were young in the 1960s and starting to think of themselves as adults, Bob Dylan was a kind of god. And the funny thing is that this image of him as a sort of dynamised genius, a cross between Shakespeare and Marlon Brando, has never really gone away. We thought of him as a great songwriter who was also a great performer and, in a thrilling way, a great poet. And somehow this atmosphere of awe remains.
Dylan released what is probably his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, in mid-1966 — 52 years ago — yet on his present Australian tour (his first was, you guessed it, in 1966) a lot of bright young kids, millennials aged 22 or so, who are a bit bored with Shakespeare and a bit vague about Brando, will be there along with contingents of their parents or grandparents.
Rock music is partly a domain of classic fashion and no one is going to shift Dylan’s status because, in its contemporary aspect, Dylan created it. As he said to Keith Richards, that old villain of the Rolling Stones, “I could’ve written Satisfaction but you couldn’t have written Desolation Row.” Is that why they gave him the Nobel Prize in Literature two years ago? The fact he could write a 12-minute rock song that could include lines such as:
And Ezra Pound and TS Eliot Fighting in the captain’s tower While calypso singers laugh at them And fishermen hold flowers Between the windows of the sea Where lovely mermaids flow And nobody has to think too much About Desolation Row
Is it that with Dylan, and especially the Dylan of those great records when the singer went electric (though Desolation Row is plucked out on an acoustic guitar with only the lamentation of the harmonica by way of accompaniment), rock music had thrown up a figure with the courage to trail the greatest artistic pretensions like a cloak?
Think of those mermaids in this long, deliberate monstrosity of a song, so lame with the limitations of musical talent and so grand and sepulchral in the way it overcomes them. Do the mermaids deliberately invoke TS Eliot’s Prufrock (“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.”)?
Who knows? You could almost say who cares, as the logic of Desolation Row is annihilating because — whether by design or accident — it’s a pop-art replica of Eliot’s The Waste Land. It’s as if Dylan has revised and rewritten Eliot’s poem and turned it into his own.
All of which is weird beyond belief. Dylan is the singer-songwriter with the highest reputation in the history of rock music, if not the whole of popular music, yet this reputation depends pretty absolutely on a few hours of music that he wrote in the 60s — between his second LP, The Freewheelin’Bob Dylan, in 1963 and John Wesley Harding in 1967, where he is already tending towards lean meditations on the bare bones of country music.
The only other album for which the very highest claims continue to be made is Blood on the Tracks,which dates from 1975 and is venerated by many enthusiasts, but which to the diehards sounds a bit like Dylan imitating himself, whatever claims you make for songs such as Tangled Up in Blue and Idiot Wind, and however endearing it is to hear Dylan throw off lines like “Relationships have all been bad / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud”.
You can make a case that Dylan is very like Rimbaud — the French teenager who wrote some of the greatest poetry of the later 19th century — not in his relationships but in his relation to language. Like the French adolescent prodigy he took the poetic diction of our tradition — in its further reach, Western civilisation — and remade it in his own image.
So, in one way he’s like Rimbaud because he blazed so young, so briefly and so brilliantly, and lived to outlive his genius. Though it’s odd in a way to think that with Dylan, as with the casualties of rock 50 years ago (such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix), the reputation depends on the early work.
Then again, that’s some kind of norm, isn’t it? Think of how much the Rolling Stones trade on the vigour of what they wrote 50 or more years ago.
The 60s were when popular music upped its ante. Philosopher Raimond Gaita said to me once that before Dylan, anyone at a university was expected to educate themselves in classical music, according to their limits, but afterwards not. It helped of course that Dylan burst on the world in the early 60s with songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind, so that he’s still sometimes thought of as a folk singer and a protest singer.
Poet Robert Lowell, who thought Dylan wrote some great lines though not sustained poems, said he had “a Caruso voice”, and it’s true that he had a voice — and in some sense still does — of such overpowering individuality that it haunts or harrows the soul.
He created his early music by sounding the depths of what he could learn from Woody Guthrie and the blues, but he gave it a grave monumentality that was at the same time radically individual — it sounded like nothing on earth, it didn’t sound like anything that was ordinarily called singing — yet it seemed, too, to speak for the folk, so that when he says in With God on Our Side “The country I come from / Is called the Midwest”, you believe him.
In fact, as “the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond” — as Joan Baez, his one-time lover and very beautiful vocal interpreter once called him — Dylan crisscrosses the US. But in his work from the mid-60s — in particular in the great songs on Blonde on Blonde such as Visions of Johanna (“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet? / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it”) — he sings in a New York accent.
It’s the voice of the greatest of urban metropolises that enunciates that great line from Just Like a Woman — “I was hungry and it was your world”.
How could he dare to write with that kind of plainness and that kind of grandeur? And how could he create such an opalescent, allusive and elusive thing as the side-long, 11-minute Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands? Perhaps it’s an image of the eternally mourning woman, widowed by life: “And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go” — as much a transcendence of the popular culture it plays on as the very greatest of Warhol.
And that’s the trick with Dylan: he inhabits the form of an idiom he is re-creating. He sounds grounded in the deepest folk tradition yet the inimitable voice is the voice of something that a lifetime ago was a form of rock ’n’ roll. Think of the stately ravaged opening of Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues:“When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez / And it’s Easter time, too / And your gravity fails / And negativity don’t pull you through …” It sounds pretentious to say this sounds like Baudelaire, but it does.
Dylan’s idiom — a language that was at once streetwise and capable of literary reference — also had extraordinary emotional range. Think of the blistering invective of Positively 4th Street and then place it against the lyricism of Love Minus Zero/No Limit (“My love she speaks like silence / Without ideals or violence / She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful / Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire …”) There’s a dazzling simplicity in that but the juxtaposition of “ideals” and “violence” is completely new in the world of popular music.
The times were a-changing and there’s a symbolic sense in which Dylan changed them. Quite early on he could write a song such as The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll that had as its refrain “But you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears” where “philosophise” is used in the sense of rationalise but the upshot has a Shakespearean effect; it’s as if Dylan bypasses ordinary literary language to create a kind of sung poetry shorn of artifice.
And it’s there in the most lushly romantic and dreamy of Dylan’s songs, Mr Tambourine Man, perhaps the clearest example of why he is such a great songwriter, why he was once such a dazzling singer and why he is a poet.
In Ballad of a Thin Man Dylan derides someone who has been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books and is described as having discussed lepers and crooks with great lawyers.
I once discussed Dylan with one of the world’s great literary critics, Christopher Ricks — the man who did the knockout edition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and who wrote the knockdown defence of Milton against his modernist critics. Ricks is one of Dylan’s most formidable admirers. He believes that when you put Dylan’s words together with music, he is an extraordinary maker of worlds out of words.
Dylan created for the rock music of the baby boomer generation a poetic language equal to its hubris in thinking it could discover a new heaven and a new earth, that it could encompass a radical new politics and some kind of derangement of the senses that might open up a new spirituality.
It may be that all these things were delusions or potential traps, but the language he used to shape and shade them has outlasted its occasion. That’s why it speaks to the millennials. That’s why they’ll be there in droves to see the grand old man of rock who is also so much more.
Dylan changed the language in which we think and feel.
Decades ago I gave up rock music and tried my way with classical music. But Dylan’s words and music have never left my mind.
When we shore up the ruins of what we have made Western civilisation, how could he not have a high and mighty place? Who do we think could compare with him?
I’ve read a lot about Dylan, and Peter Craven’s article is excellent, but the thing is, no words seem aver to come anywhere near accurately describing what seems to be a very personal and unique relationship / interpretation each fan of Dylan has with his work.
Here are some of the comments posted in respnse to Craven’s piece:
You make sweeping statements of Dylan’s relevance and output in the context of “decades ago I gave up rock music”. Making your critique of the greatest singer/songwriter’s career output rather shallow. “Tried my way with classical music” – good for you! In my experience, and in my own case, Dylan goes deep and has produced extraordinary work over decades, because of his singing and phrasing. The emotion, uniqueness and genius of his singing. Unfortunately his live voice has been off badly, imo, for about a decade now. The man is genius but it isn’t because of the songwriting. He should never have received a Nobel for Lit, that’s says more about the self important (why do we give it so much attention?) Nobel Academy than anything else. Dylan is rock n rolls greatest and most influential singer songwriter by a million miles. He is steep in rock, country, blues, folk and Americana. How predictable we get another tired article in a broadsheet newspaper misunderstandings & representing Dylan and from someone who “gave up Rock decades ago”. Why give up rock? And gave it up for classical, how worthy!!
He also wrote two of the most vicious put- down songs ever: “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively Fourth Street”.
Have seen him three times – each time was different. Would see him again. Love the fact that he constantly reinvents his classics and always has a sensational group of musicians with him. This concert is no exception – his piano playing is standout.
Dylan, in centuries to come, will not be so much seen as a singer song writer, but a written history of humans of the western world of the 20th century. Sent from the future to document and capture a deep understanding of the soul of humanity.
You get the impression of Dylan as an almost unsurpassed songwriter but reluctant performer, due to the brilliant cover versions of his songs. Think of Hendrix with All Along the Watchtower, Peter Paul and Mary with Too Much of Nothing (and Blowin’ in the Wind), Manfred Mann with Just Like a Woman and You Angel You, Bryan Ferry with A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, and UB40 with I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.
l And you might add Simon and Garfunkel’s repertoire…The Sounds of Silence, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, and more thought-generating songs.
@Peter “reluctant performer”!!. No one in the history of rock n roll anywhere near is level of fame and influence has performed as many times. He is engaged in the “Never Ending Tour” that has been going essentially non-stop for two decades! Performance is the absolute essence of who and what Dylan is.
At 76 years of age I loved the good music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Occasionally I would hear the radio commentator, mention the name Bob Dylan but that was it. Never knew his songs or was ever interested in them.
He’s my favourite songwriter of all time and undoubtedly a genius, but I gave up on his concerts years ago. There seemed little point when he’d be half way into a song before I could actually (sort of) recognise it. I’ll stick to my record collection – and there are quite a few stinkers in there too – and memories of the great concerts.
I don’t agree with much that Peter Fitzsimmons says, but he called Dylan an impressionist and I think that is the best description of him.
No mention of “Lay lady Lay”. my favourite love song. ” whatever colours you have in your mind, I’ll show them to you, you’ll see them shine” Of course ” lay across my big brass bed” is not too shabby either.
His concerts have been unattendable for 30 years. Still a genius.
He may well be a good poet and songwriter. I agree with Bob Rogers, he should leave performing to others.
f only van Gogh painted like da Vinci, imagine how much better his paintings would be!
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
TS. Elliot, Little Gidding
“One of those days in England, with a sword in every pond”, sang Roy Harper, the high priest of anglo-angst. And so it was when we looked out on England and imagined a wider world. Our journey took us to this farthest shore on the brink of the mighty Pacific.
This month saw the passing of a fine old friend whom I’d first met fifty years ago this September when we arrived as young freshmen at the provincial red-brick university in Reading, Berkshire, a provincial southern town on the banks of the River Thames, less salubrious than its famous riverine neighbours Oxford and Windsor, and noted mainly for biscuits and beer. Fate determined that a bunch of disparate ingenues from all parts of the island boarded at the same ‘hall of residence’.
It was there that John and I bonded through folk music. I had a battered Spanish guitar that I’d strung with steel strings, and had started writing songs and playing them to our friends. One day, I left my guitar with John and headed to Hull to visit an old school chum and do my first trip (“those were days, yes they were, those were the days”). When I’d landed and hitch-hiked home, John had not only mastered the instrument, but was able to play me a couple of his favourite songs – Ralph McTell’s Streets of London and Michael Chapman’s One Time Thing (see below). Very soon, he could play them note-perfect from just listening to the vinyl. Instead of me showing him chords and finger picking, he was teaching me. And whilst emulating his guitar idols, over time he assembled a fine repertoire of his own songs.
With a bunch of university friends, we later flatted in London whilst they earned enough money to get themselves overland to Australia. There, two of the fellowship settled down, built families and careers, and raised a mob of clever, creative and beautiful children. I was never born to follow; but life seeks out its own highways and byways, and in time these led me also DownUnder.
Those London days inspired my Harperesque, navel-gazing epic London John (see below).
Though his later life rendered him victim to a treasonous DNA, he fostered and followed through a passion for the wide, dry flatlands west of the Great Divide. He would undertake long-distance solo driving tours “beyond the Black Stump” (which is to say “the back of beyond”, or more prosaically, “to buggery”); and would send us dispatches of his journeying, with beautiful photographs and stories of shooting the breeze with the locals and playing his guitar in pubs and by camp fires. When driving was physically no longer an option, he’d catch the train to outback Broken Hill.
Like Banjo Paterson, one of our national bards, and his poetic alter-ego Clancy of the Overflow, he treasured “the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, and at night, the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
All those years ago …
Northern lads in a southern town.
Working-class in a middle-class world.
To Reading we’d come and then to London Town.
We are all compadres still.
Lent you my old guitar when I was roved out.
I came home and you’d played like a pro. Streets of London and One Time Thing.
Note perfect played by ear.
And you were teaching me.
In London we busked on the Undergound
Got busted when playing Pavan.
Bow Street Magistrates Court.
“Soliciting reward without license”.
The only record we’d make together.
You took the hippie trail to Asia and beyond.
Bound for Bondi Beach.
Sang of mushrooms and a dog on the shore.
Four amigos washed ashore DownUnder.
Where you found your true home.
I came hither by another road.
Our paths forever criss-crossed.
Like ships passing in the night.
You headed always to the bush
But got to see our forest home.
Once you lent me your Martin guitar.
And I went and lost it.
You probably never forgave me for that.
But maybe you’ll find it again in the valley beyond.
Because old friends always meet again.
There’s a song we’d all sung
When we were all young.
Of when we were no longer so.
Written by an ancient Greek
Over two thousand years ago.
I’d rolled it into a song of my own
As bold songwriters do.
And as years run us down and transfigure us
It echoes through the foggy ruins of time.
I hear it now as clear as the days we sang:
In those days when were men, Ah, you should’ve seen us then. We were noted our for our courage and agility. We carried all before us In battle and in chorus, And no one could’ve doubted our virility. But those days are past and gone And the feathers of the swan Are no whiter than our heads For now we’re old. And yet, as you can see, Thinning relics we may be, In spirit, we’re still Manly, young and bold.
Farewell, old friend,
And flights of angels sing you to your rest.
Vale John Rugg 1949 -2018
(early in the morning at break of day)
Valance: The capacity of something to unite, react, or interact with something; connections; relationships.
In the afternoon they came upon a land in which it seemed always afternoon.
Lord Alfred Tennyson, The Lotus Eaters
Out of the cradle so restlessly rocking,
Ringing the changes that resonate still,
The rolling momentum of memory sailing
Like some graceful galleon, onwards until
We came in due course to harmonious havens,
Seeking the warmth of another land’s sun –
Such was the feeling, and such was the motion
Of onwards, and upwards, and endlessly on,
Out of those valances, casual, knowing,
Seeking out payments for debts never due,
The curious cadence of melodies flowing,
Gathering vagrants in pastures anew,
Forgotten weekends of such transient yearnings,
The edginess felt as we near a strange land,
Vanishing echoes of strange dreams returning,
Just out of reach of the memory’s hand,
They’re falling like mist through my arms,
Flowing like mist through my arms,
Broken memories, fractured songs
Are flowing like mist,
Flowing like mist through my arms,
Flowing like mist through my arms,
Broken memories, fractured songs
Are flowing like mist, like mist through my arms.
Out of the days of such recklessly wandering,
Seeking sensation and stretching the mind,
Journeying aimlessly, canyons and castles
Pass ageless and ageing and captive in time,
What lies before us and what lies behind us
Are little compared to the treasures we find,
Are nothing compared to what’s lying within us
As secrets unfold and the stories unwind,
And down through the ages, the prophets and sages
Set beacons to guide us both forward and aft,
We rise on the billow, descend to the hollow,’
Climb to the top-mast, or we cling to the raft,
And when all is unravelled, the road that’s less travelled
Winds back to the start, and we know it again
For the first time, and we know that there’s no more to say,
So early in the morning, at breaking of day.
Falling like mist through my arms,
Flowing like mist through my arms,
Broken memories, fractured songs
Are flowing like mist,
Flowing like mist through my arms,
Flowing like mist through my arms,
Broken memories, fractured songs
Are flowing like mist, like mist through my arms.
In those days when men were men,
Ah, you should have seen us then
We were noted for our courage and agility.
How we carried all before us,
Both in battle and in chorus,
And no-one one could have questioned our virility.
But those days are past and gone,
And the feathers of the swan
Are no whiter than our heads, for we are old;
And yet as you may see,
Thinning relics we may be,
In spirit we’re still manly young and bold.
Though we may be phased out crocks,
The whiteness of our locks,
Does the country better credit, I should say,
Than the ringlets and the fashions
And the wild immoral passions
Of the namby-pamby youngsters of today.
But for all our sacrifice for to make a better life,
For those who followed to be proud and free.
Oh, we had to watch you grow
Into some horticultural show.
“Was it thus worth all our toil?” The dead ask me.
We lived like men, we looked the part;
We held our country to our heart;
We always did our best and better still;
But you who came too late to fight,
You’re living off the state alright,
And from our hard exertions, take your fill.
But those days, alas, are gone,
And the feathers of the swan
Are no whiter than our heads for now we’re old.
But if we could have seen
What the fruits of toil would’ve been,
Would we still have been so manly, young and bold?
The image of my life is laid out before me:
It shows how well I fate, how hard I fall;
How people curse and jibe, how friends ignore me;
And I scream in a soundless voice, “I don’t care at all”.
You look at the world through different eyes to me:
You see life in a greyer shade of white;
Embrace the past, dictating what is there for me;
Telling me what is wrong and just what is right.
But I tell you I just don’t care.
You can’t change my mind.
And all your stories just won’t wear.
Let se speak my mind.
So i don’t fit your picture of the ideal man,
And if I don’t impress your sight – you say I must.
If I don’t don’t suit your taste like so many others can,
Must I conform to gain your meaningless trust?
I tell you I just don’t care.
You can’t harm my mind.
And all your fictions just won’t wear;
Let me speak my mind.
You say my behaviour’s a disgrace to modern life.
This permissive way of living’s got to stop!
“Why can’t you accept the guidance
Of those who are older and wiser?”
But then I just don’t have a wife to swap,
Or the guns to kill,
Or the power to guide men’s lives,
Or to bend their will,
And I don’t have the blood on my hands,
And I don’t have lies in my mind,
And your explanations won’t wear,
And you won’t change my nine.
And my ears are not deaf to the tears,
And my eyes are not blind to the plight,
And my senses not numb to a world
That has yet to emerge from its night.
Put me on the road to God;
I know it’s the path to Hell;
Ins if I fall, don’t heed my call.
Just say it was just as well.
Michael Chapman: One Time Thing. This was one of John’s early favourites back in the day. He’d borrowed guitar when I’d gone off on a frolic and when I’d got back. he’d not only learned how to play guitar, but he played this note perfect – and sang it much better than Chapman.
Amazing Blondel : Pavan. We got busted when we played this on the London Underground. John used to play the flute riff on his guitar. It was the only record we made together – in Bow Streets Magistrates Court!
Al Stewart. Ivich. Al was a longtime favourite of John’s, from Reading days, and we used to go to see him in Cousins in Soho when we lived in London. John admired his excellent guitar-work. A friend of ours – ex-GF of one of our flatmates, actually – went out with Al for a while. I think John had left for Australia by then, but I got to know him. He even came for supper at my folks’ home in Birmingham when he played there once. And most amusing, that was.
Here’s another Al Stewart song that John liked, In Brooklyn
Roy Harper, the English High Priest of Angst, was another of John’s favourites. Here’s one of his ‘softer’ songs. Very nice. Another Day.
And probably, John’s all time favourite, Ralph McTell’s Streets of London. John played this note perfect too, from the get-go. I hated it, but there’s no accounting for bad taste.
Picnic in Whiteknights Park 1969.
The M1, Summer 1972. Brendan, John, Eric and Paul
Hemphill Family Home, Birmingham, Summer 1972
Bardwell Park, October 1983 Paul, John, Andrew, Damian, Christian and Jean
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
As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood
Fifty years ago, conservative British MP Enoch Powell got himself sacked as a shadow minister after he controversially warned that Britain would face “rivers of blood” if it did not reduce immigration. The BBC has now kicked off a shit-storm by announcing that Scottish actor and erstwhile Stars Wars emperor Ian McDiarmid will recite Enoch’s incendiary speech in full for the very first time.
What Powell said back then, at closed gathering of Conservative Party faithful in Birmingham on 20th April 1968, was regarded as unacceptably over the top, rhetorical hyperbole. But we get stuff like this all the time these days. Every Tom, Dick and Himmler on the right of politics from Brixton to Brisbane, from Galveston to Gdańsk, from Hopkins to Hanson, come up with this and worse every day – to the delight of dog-whistling shock-jocks, populist politicians, and angry white men and women who want somebody or other to go back to where they’re came from – which quite often happens to be just around the corner: comedian Lenny Henry, raised in the Midlands’ Black Country (just west of Birmingham) which many wanted to make white, would satirize such white delusions: In a gig at West Bromwich , he said the National Front wanted to give black people £1,000 to go home. Fine, Henry said: after all, that would more than cover his bus fare back to Dudley.
After what was regarded at the time as Britain’s most racist election in 1964, Liverpudlian bard Brian Pattenpenned the wistful, unseasonable I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick (just down the road from Brum and Dudley) in response to the the mood of certain sections in the population about immigration, a mood which entered the national dialogue in odorous array once Enoch let slip the hounds of woe, and which, as the Brexit referendum and its fallout continue to demonstrate, has never dissipated.
Immigration debates are running hot in western democracies, including down here in Australia, and on the neo-authoritarian eastern edges of the European Union, as fringe and mainstream parties defend and propound their invariably conflicting and flawed understanding of western civilization against disparate and often doomsday scenarios of mass migration and islamification. .
This is not, however, the time or place to engage with these issues. The fiftieth anniversary of Enoch’s seminal “Rivers of Blood” speech has been greeted with many articles and reminiscences. This one in the New York Review of Books, Enoch, Bageye and Me, I found particularly informative and also entertaining. A piece in the Guardian on that infamous Smethwick by-electionis also worth reading. I reproduce Brian Patten’s poem below.
But right now, I want to leave the commemoration and commentary to the pundits and recall my own encounters with the phenomenon of Enoch Powell. I never actually met the man – the nearest I ever got to him was about twenty metres – let’s just say that on several occasions, our paths intersected
Back in the day, the words that Enoch had made flesh were not to be said in polite company. And yet, they could not be unsaid, and in pubs, parlours and playgrounds across Britain, he strummed a power chord long before these were invented.
In the summer of 1968, I had completed my final school year in, yes, Birmingham, of all places, at what was then emphatically white-bread Moseley Grammar School.
Those hypothetical rivers of blood had a particular resonance in the industrial West Midlands with its motor industries and variegated populace a long-time home of immigrants and their descendants from all quarters of the coloured commonwealth. As I have written earlier, the bleak and bland streets and suburbs of our English and Irish Birmingham were already rocking with new sounds and flavours, from the ska and reggae beats of Sparkhill to the spicy aromas of Balsall Heath and Alum Rock. There was prejudice, there was discrimination, there was at times violence, but as Britain emerged from the austerity of the war years, as the bombed cities were rebuilt, and a resuscitated economy created a consumer society, labour shortages persuaded politicians to facilitate mass immigration from the empire – and particularly, from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent (See: Weighing the White Man’s Burden)
And Birmingham, the Motown of the north, was at the heart of the kalabash. But scratch its skin, and you find … Ron Simcox.
I spent the summer of ‘68 working as a labourer on a building site in Chelmsely Wood on the outskirts of Brum. Back then, my back was strong, my eye was keen, and my ears were sharp – and my memory for conversations, well, it must’ve been good, because a few years later, I was able to recall almost verbatim the world according to Simcox, a dark angel washed in White Tide. Warning, but! Some bad language follows.
Ganger-man, foreman, industrial spy, jack of all trades, agent provocateur, martinet, scourge of the to bureaucrats, friend of the workers, champion of the oppressed, bless his soul and damn his eyes in the same breath. The man’s an institution – like prostitution. Big mouth, big belly, very big. Look, look at my tan, my body beautiful, “all muscle 18 stone and still as fit as a 18 year old!”
“Go to the other shop – not to the black man’s. You don’t know what filth he has in that place. Mind you, his bird could do with a good seeing to…”
“Bleedin’ wogs – we never should’ve let ‘em in now. Old Enoch Powell’s dead bloody right, int’e. We should kick ‘em all back to fucking India. If I had my way, I’d shoot the bleeding lot of them filthy cunts, coming over here and spreading their diseases, an’ fillin’ up all our hospitals, and taking the money and sending it all back home, and getting the fuck out of here when they get it…”
“We should offer to pay to pay ‘em a thousand quid each to go home, then put them in a boat and send them all to Jamaica or wherever the black monkeys come from. And when they’re in the middle of the ocean, torpedo the lot of them buggers. Anybody who gets to Jamaica after that would deserve the thousand bloody quid, I tell you!”
Ron couldn’t brook the shirkers, could Ron. But that was easy as he was always heard before he was seen even, and even if you had pleasure of gazing upon this Adam, he would rarely see you as he was for ever distracted by the body he was always admiring in car windows or or by the local talent of the estate across the way.
“How would you like those thighs around you, eh? Corr! I could take that one from behind!”
Ah, Ron, a way with words. “What are you doin’ Enoch? Come ‘ere bollock-cops. Fucking stoodents – good for nothing bastards. If I had my way, y’know what I’d do to these stoodents if they caused trouble? You know what I’d do. I’d turn the fuckin’ sewer hoses on ‘em, I would, cover ‘em in shit. Then they’d have to wash to get rid of the smell. Turn the noses on ‘em. Cover ‘em in all the shit and rubbish, and all the jonnies and the jammies and the slime. That’d really shake ‘em up and give ‘em some sense it would!”
Always a one for words was Ron. All this and the big blue tractor to. Nine hours a day, six days a week and thirty quid at the end of it…
Among the Left, of course, Enoch was the fifth horseman of the black apocalypse. Even his name, with its Old Testament pedigree, was vicariously baleful. I recall his patrician mug on the cover of many a Private Eye, and artist Gerald Scarfe’s visceral caricature of the metaphorical hornèd one recoiling from a jar of Robertson’s Marmalade (golliwog and all – and, did you know that you can still buy golliwogs in Australia?)
Soon after Enoch’s incendiary oratory, prime and minister Harold Wilson chose a wet and windy Sunday afternoon in Spring to attend a Labour party function at Birmingham’s Victorian town hall. It was just over a month since the memorable melee in front of the American embassy in Grosvenor Square, and many of us, students, unionists, anarchists, and a raj taj and bobtail of South Asian organisations, anticipated a confrontation with Birmingham’s finest. We were, predictably, outmaneuvered and outnumbered, and in an early incarnation of what is today we call “kettling”, the “wabble of woudy webels” were hemmed in, facing uphill on Bennett’s Hill, a wind-swept side street of Birmingham’s finance district. We learnt here, as we did during those Vietnam demonstrations in Grosvenor Square that there’s no greater killer of revolutionary passion than the sight of a wall of fat horse’s arses backing towards you with those nervous hooves a’twitching (see: The Twilight of the Equine Gods).
Children of the Revolution
But I digress. Enoch! He was like catnip to the young and not so young of what was then the idealistic, radical, and what with Vietnam and Paris providing the fuel, fired-up left. What was it Old William Wordsworth said? “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven”. As Marc would warble, “you can’t stop the children of the revolution, oh, no…”
Later that year, I had gone up to Reading University, and as one would in those dynamic days – though not so many working class lads like myself – and, as a political ingenue, was I was soon involved in sundry sit-ins and soviets. It was what young students did. Enoch Powell, now a backbencher, was at lose end. He had yet to be born-again as an Ulster Unionist MP, this most Churchillian – in a turncoat sense – of politicians. And like many career-truncated pollies nowadays, he had embarked on what was then a not so lucrative speakers circuit, and he was addressing the Conservative Club on the subject of … economics!
Naturally, we arrived well in advance, revved up and ready for revolution, and totally packed the lecture hall. The Young Tories were left out in the cold in their tweeds and twinsets (really, thats what straight folk wore in those days). When Enoch entered, there was sheer pandemonium. Cat-calls, wolf-whistles, swearwords, and those corny couplets that folk chant at marches (“Yes, we are all individuals!”). You couldn’t hear a bomb drop. The antichrist just stood there at the lectern, cool, calm and collected as the vitriol poured over and around him. In retrospect, knowing as I do now that he’d “had a good war” as a decorated, veteran combat officer in WW2, he was ice-cool under fire. Stock-still, silent, that famous, disdainful mug of his calm and expressionless. As the hubbub subsided, people got bored, tired, and impatient, muttered and mumbled, and shut up. And he gave his prepared speech. On economics. No old Roman aphorisms. No allusions or innuendo. Plain and simple, dry, ecomomics. And gave it well. Cogent, it was, the odd joke, even, and informative. He had our interest, had our attention, and we listened. And when he’d finished, he was given a standing ovation. In recognition of his courage, I would like to think. Daniel in the lion’s den, cool as a cucumber.
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
(An old, never-to-be-forgotten song by Brian Patten)
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick,
One I didn’t want to know,
Where they’ll have allwhite, allright children
And the White and White Minstrel Show.
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
Where they’ll have a brandnew dance;
Teach their kids to close their eyes
And forget that once
Strange men came to Smethwick
With slogans whitewashed on their minds,
They campaigned about a while
And left their shit behind.
I saw black father christmasses
Burning in the snow,
Protesting to the Opposition
About what happened a while ago.
The last blackbird’s been shot in Smethwick
And the council’s doing allright,
The M.P.’s in the Commons
Making sure his words are white.
Chorus: May all your days be merry and bright
And may all your citizens be white.
Poet’s Note: As in numerous folk songs, the words may be improvised on to suit the present.