Monday, 18 May 2015

So what happened at the general election:
A partly-personal meditation (2)

Altamont Festival 1969

The five years between 1968 and 1973 were precisely the years I was at art school doing Fine Art, an area in which I expected to make no money but survive. I would survive because there would always be something I could do. I would survive because the the summer of love was about surviving outside the rat race and creating a new world with no wars, no Vietnams, no nuclear bombs. The summer of love was about getting so high you would never come down. Some would crash no doubt, and many did, but it would, it was felt, be worth it.

Not exactly in my case. I was not a product of this society but another. Not the product of Union Jacks but of Hungarian flags with the Soviet banner at the centre. Behind them lay the swastika that almost killed my parents and did kill three quarters of our family. It was a different perspective, though I couldn't have said quite what.

The balance of the world was as it was. We had left Hungary in 1956. There was East and West. There was Soviet style communism with its vast army and there was the West with its own vast army, chiefly American. China was a mystery. The rest was tension and anxiety. There was Korea and Malaya and Cyprus. There was the Berlin Wall. There was the Cuba crisis. There was Algeria. There was the Six Day War. The Prague Spring was to come followed by its crushing and a new wave of Cold War bristling. The summer of love's answer to this was to carefully place a flower in a rifle barrel, or in the case of Czechoslovakia (and Vietnam), to set yourself alight.

As to Britain, it was still a military power. The Empire had become the Commonwealth. There were problems of course. There was South Africa (Macmillan had already warned SA that there would be problems) and the Mau-Mau. On the other side there were the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conferences with the Queen welcoming all to the 'mother country'. It was an arrangement of sorts though what it counted for we couldn't tell. According to PR it was a generous act on behalf of Britain to set these countries up as though they were her children and then to send them kindly on their own independent way with the assumption that they'd all be nice to Britain in the way a big happy family is full of relatives being nice to each other and especially to mum.

Then there was Europe, which, at that stage, was the European Economic Community of six nations. Britain (with the Conservative Edward Heath negotiating) tried to join in 1963. Why? Because some believed that the Commonwealth would not be enough to sustain us and that some kind of economic tie to Europe was also necessary. Maybe because the thought of Western Europe forming a bloc against the potentially threatening power of Soviet Eastern Europe was considered useful, even necessary. After all, the US had deserted us over Suez and might desert us again. As it was, Europe (in the shape of Charles De Gaulle) said no. Britain was too close to the Americans. It was a wounding rejection.

I am going back here because history is never irrelevant. It can be a dreadful burden, an awful master, and, at times, a deadly killer, but there is no use pretending it isn't there. Europe is a major question for us now and in the immediate future. It is very complicated and simple slogans are, as always, worse than useless. Slogans don't do history.

In geopolitical terms the idea of military strength counted for something in public opinion. You may have been on the CND's ban-the-bomb marches, you might have grown into the summer of love, but everything around you told you that conflict, and anxiety about conflict, would not be going away in the near future. Donovan (our UK Bob Dylan) might sing about the 'universal soldier' who was really to blame' but a good many working class boys were joining the army for a job, and while you could remove the ultimate MAD deterrent or wrench it from the hands of people like Dr Strangelove, there would still be marching and drilling and border troubles here or there in the world with the two big players looking on, encouraging, supplying and estimating how any set of dominoes might fall.

Certainly, neither the Tories nor Labour were advocating disarming, though you could bet your life on it that the Tories would be greater supporters of Her Majesty's Armed Forces.

Nevertheless, despite the summer of love descending into bloody winter at the Altamont Festival of 1969, the period between 1968 and 1973 retained something of the sixties spirit, albeit ever more ragged, ever more politically radical, and tending towards ever greater violence. Bloody Sunday (1972) brought in a long period of killing.

The radical politics of1968 were, I think, part of the psychological landscape of the time. There was no good news in conventional domestic politics. In 1968 Britain stood at the brink of economic catastrophe. The economy was going down the drain to the extent that Harold Wilson's government considered a financial coup.  There was devaluation. According to the BBC records of the time:

Chancellor Roy Jenkins had forced through a swingeing package of cuts, which had brought howls of protests from ministers. 
In a memo on 3 January 1968, he told the Cabinet: "Our standing in the world depends on the soundness of our economy and not on a worldwide military presence."

American response was:
"If these steps are taken they will be tantamount to a British withdrawal from world affairs," he [President Johnson] said.

No big deal then.

At the age of nineteen I didn't understand any of this. I vaguely followed the news but the crisis seemed distant, almost another planet.  By 1970 I was married. By the end of 1973 I was a father.

[to be continued]


Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

The best banner I've seen since the election simply stated: 'You cut. We bleed.'

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

Chis Fewings said...

I'm following this series with interest.