by Karen Moller
(Swans - September 25, 2006) The aims of the cultural and social revolution in the early years of the sixties in London (when Tony Blair was a young boy) were awesome and far-reaching: not just to ban the bomb, but to reallocate military money to improve community life, to rid the world of oppressive and exploitive governments, and bring democracy to the poor and under-developed countries by sharing our resources. Only in this context you can understand Blair's belief that it was possible to rid the world of oppressors like Saddam and create a climate for democracy.
In the spring of 1962, I took the train to London. Due to my Canadian diet of Shakespeare and Dickens, I felt a profound and romantic attachment to England and in particular to English eccentricity. That affection was rather shaken when I ventured into a typical-looking pub at the exit of Waterloo station. It was rather dirty and, perhaps to hide the dirt, dark. The handful of customers at the bar appeared to have been sent by the playwright John Osborn to play the part of regulars hanging out, reading the paper, and throwing the occasional political comment to each other.
Until that moment, I had assumed that the strange and funny accents of Peter Sellers and Spike Mulligan's Goon Show, (a popular English comedy program on the Canadian radio after the war) were creative inventions. Within minutes, I realized that those accents, so removed from the familiar English of the BBC, were not put on for my benefit but were in fact the way people talked. Added to that, the half pint of beer was rather tepid and flat. "The way good beer is suppose to be," the barman, informed me.
"And the food inedible, I presume?"
He looked surprised, as if no one had ever complained before. "We don't do any of that American rubbish here."
Wow, I thought, I hope it's not going to be all like this.
And thankfully it wasn't.
In 1963, life in England was generally very drab and squalid. The red double-decker buses were the single flash of color in an otherwise seemingly dreary mixture of monochrome browns and grays set in a rain-sodden landscape. Even the suits of city gents were greenish brown to hide the dirt and stains. The "you never had it so good" boom of the fifties had ended when the John Profumo scandal blew the lid off thirteen years of Conservative government. That minister's affair with a prostitute was no surprise to any of us. It was probably a usual occurrence, but the revelations of his association, by proxy, with the London low-life of Rackman, the notorious slum landlord, and Russian spies showed the old guard's exhausted hypocrisy. It was more than the public could stomach.
Still, there was little indication that "the times were a'changing" until the sudden death of the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell. Abruptly the Labour Party took on a new and unexpected lease in the person of Harold Wilson. He presented himself as a working man who intended to marry economic improvement with greater individual choice. Young and naïve as I was, I took his talk of revolutionizing restrictive union practices, and his aim to create equality for all, at face value. I thought he was giving the green light for Britain to break out of its limited, introverted, class-bound structure. Of course, as always, it was political bullshit.
Once in power, it wasn't Wilson, but the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins who proved to be in tune with youthful aspirations. Instead of continuing that office's usual narrow-minded conservatism, he promoted a level of freedom never known before in Europe. More than anyone else, he was responsible for the liberal, open atmosphere that made Britain so creative. Jenkins fought for his beliefs and instigated the social democratization that began in the sixties and has continued ever since.
As the months passed, that intelligent hippie in a business suit often said things that for the times were revolutionary. Just to mention a few: Government should try to create human happiness by favoring tolerance and beauty; by encouraging people to produce better food, better books and music; by preserving the countryside and by building towns people would want to live in. I found Jenkins' words so full of truth it seemed impossible to object to them. Yet even some of his own party rose up against him when he said, "I am opposed to the puritanical restrictions that are responsible for the drab, ugly pattern of British life. The authorities should not dictate to the people but leave them free to live their lives and make their own mistakes, provided they don't infringe on the rights of others. Intolerance breeds intolerance."
In the golden haze of that dawning period, I thought it was not too much to ask, but apparently, for some it was. Drab has always been associated with the Labour left and dowdy Conservatism with the politically correct. Both continued to demonstrate that going to the moon and testing nuclear bombs were more important than good education, clean air, or a healthy future for their children. It made me wonder how far things had to go before the general population rose up and said, "Enough is enough!" I am still wondering.
Yet, England was on the threshold of a cultural revolution that would transform Western society. Unlike the protest movement in America which was mainly political, the hippie movement in England became a way of life. The anti-war protests, as well as other protests, were important and increased throughout the sixties, but the movement was more than that. It was a fun-loving, liberal revolution that sought to change the elements that made up our daily lives. A revolution where I felt comfortable and quickly took my place. The weather was unusually warm for our three-day 1962 Easter CND (Committee for National Disarmament) march from Aldermaston to Hyde Park. The number of participants increased along the forty-mile march and by the time we reached Hyde Park the sun was high in the sky and the good spirits disguised an air thick with rebellion. Lord Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher and spiritual leader of the movement, was convinced that CND would only be taken seriously when people were hurt or put in jail. His followers planned several acts of civil disobedience, from sitting in the street and blocking traffic, to throwing anything at hand at the police. I was, to say the least, nervous. It was not a good idea for foreigners to get caught, as they were likely to be deported.
Suddenly, like a match lighting a haystack, the crowds became uncontrollable as we tried to break the lines of encircling police and reach the street. I was horrified by the blood and screams as the police beat demonstrators over the head with their batons. Someone shouted, "Head for the Undergound," an idea verging on the inspired that saved me from whatever unimaginable but obviously dreadful fate had I been caught.
To the Establishment, the anti-war marches were intellectual pilgrimages without relevance. The press, however, began to suspect quite rightly that the Underground was after a radical shift and labeled the protesters unsavory elements likely to destabilize society. In fact, we did, although not for the reasons anticipated. The free association between the different levels of society brought together by CND started the disintegration of the English sense of their place in a class-bound society. From there it was a simple step to declaring all people equal, with an equal right to the benefits of our bountiful world. Oddly enough, women were not included in this idea of universal equality till our protests at the end of the sixties.
I often met my new friends in a Soho coffee bar. Coffee bars were off limits to the young; they sold exotic espresso and cappuccino in glass cups, which for some reason seemed perilous to the adult world. Hanging out in coffee bars was nothing new to me. I had been engaged in that innocuous activity since my art school days, and the idea that such an activity was subversive and led to anarchy was novel to me.
It was there in that coffee bar that I first heard about the Establishment Club and its new comedy review Beyond the Fringe, fresh down from the Edinburgh Festival. I went to see it and came away completely stunned. A group of young university students portrayed Britain as a class-ridden, racist society, bankrupt of ideals and ideas, and made it funny to boot. I recall in particular a skit that mocked my own hopeful, liberal attitude. Two upper-class and two working-class comedians pointed out to each other, with obvious intentional irony, "We can all work together: We are all in this together." Those comedians were later to create, among many, the TV series Monty Python. They satirized almost everything, from the monarchy, religion, and nationalism to sexual hypocrisy and snobbery, and appeared to have no script but to spontaneously spark off each other from one riposte to the next, each in their individual style. I was particularly enchanted by Peter Cook, who had a verbal fluency that came across as uncontrollably inventive. The night I saw the show, Prime Minister Macmillan was in the audience, perhaps to see Cook's impersonation of him. I disliked Macmillan, but Cook's portrayal of the elderly bureaucrat presiding over a dying empire was wicked enough to inspired pity in me.
A heady mix of the Underground publications mushroomed; the most inventive was Private Eye. It was full of witticisms and satirical drawings. Terribly anti-establishment! To my surprise, one issue announced the BBC was about to launch a satirical television program with Peter Cook. It sounded marvelous but unlikely under the traditional conservatism of the BBC. There was, nevertheless, a feeling of disappointment all around when the article turned out to be a spoof. Sometimes when an idea is born, it is impossible to bury, and so it was with that spoof. On the 24th of November 1962, the night before my twenty-fourth birthday, the BBC launched the incredible show That Was the Week That Was. I didn't have a television (much too poor) so I went down to the pub to watch. The show was tremendously funny and the sketches highly satirical as the participants of that very serious program mocked conventional attitudes and the blind conformity of the British old fogies and in a very casual style contrasted them to the new idealists.
London had moved a long way by 1965, when Ginsberg dropped in at Better Books to see Barry Miles, the manager. Barry Miles, better known as Miles, numbered the most literate rock stars, London's intelligentsia, and the old Beats among his friends and clients. Ginsberg's world tour had been shaped unexpectedly through sheer force of circumstance as he was bumped -- or branded persona non grata -- from Cuba to Prague. He just kept going till he got to London.
Miles asked Ginsberg to give a poetry reading a few nights later and for once, Ginsberg stayed sober. His soft, gentle voice as he read a poem about his mother was unforgettable. A few days later, the third of June, was Ginsberg's 39th birthday. David Larcher, a well-off and occasional participant in counterculture activities, had a big house and decided to give him a birthday party. In spite of Ginsberg's family history of mental disturbance, he was a heavy drinker and often indulged in drugs. By the time I arrived, he was already flying high and naked. Bizarrely with his now-hairy body and massive beard, he hardly looked naked until a girl draped his underpants around his head.
Miles had invited the Beatles but no one expected they would actually show up. Probably not even Ginsberg, as he hung a sign on his penis that said "No Waiting." When John Lennon and George Harrison eventually arrived with their wives, Ginsberg seemed to have forgotten that he was totally naked. In an attempt to embrace Lennon, he raced across the room like a streaker. Harrison turned his back to shield Cynthia and Patti, while Lennon put his hands up to fend off the human missile about to collide with him. "Hey man!" he said, "You don't do that in front of the birds." Within minutes, they were gone. Lennon was rather straight in those days, perhaps scared of the wrong kind of publicity until later, when having become so famous he didn't worry about showing his own bare ass.
With most of the Beats in Europe and Ferlinghetti about to arrive, someone suggested a big poetry reading. Barbara Rubin, a New York filmmaker, perked up. "What's the name of the biggest hall in London?" she asked. The Royal Albert Hall was the only possible answer. Thus began the preparations for the Wholly Communion, that singular poetry reading which united all the sixties cultural and artistic strands. Alex Trocchi, the Glaswegian writer with an acknowledged reputation as a drug-taking Scottish beatnik, and the poet Michel Horovitz formed a Poets' Co-operative to plan the reading. Sales of tickets took a change for the better a few days before the event when the BBC news at nine included a minute-long item on the event.
That night, sanity and madness dominated the evening. The staid atmosphere of the Royal Albert Hall contrasted starkly with the crowd's Flower Power haphazard mix of caftans, flowered skirts, harem pants in satins and velvets, and cheap Indian cottons with beads and tinkling bells. Alex Trocchi, despite his heroin fog, tried his best to host the show, but the old beatniks were all hopeless, especially Corso, who read some autobiographical self-analysis that went down badly. Ginsberg, the star, was totally drunk and incomprehensible as he read "Howl," accompanied by the chiming of his finger cymbals. To cap the show, Burroughs' tape, which might have been good, was impossible to hear on the poor PA system. Harry Fainlight got on the podium but he freaked out; too much speed perhaps. He was booed off but the chaos continued with participants muttering and shouting unintelligibly into the microphone. The most astonishing work was a wordless sound poem by an Australian; the most memorable a poem by those practiced performers, Horovitz and Brown, who created riotous laughter with their reading of Schwitters' Sneezing Poem.
Despite the abysmal organization and the generally deplorable quality of poetry, the Wholly Communion was in fact an accident of courage and initiative whose significance lay, not in the poetry, but in the precedent it set for future events. It brought together more than seven thousand innocent, hopeful, fun-loving hippies and the most important and influential figures of the Underground. They were the link between the old Beats, the rock world, and London's intelligentsia. Under their influence, London burst forth with avant-garde art galleries, arts centers, bookshops and the underground newspaper IT.
London in the sixties was a uniquely creative city of opportunity, with imaginative possibilities in every field. The first generation of hippies worked hard, often for just causes and little money, but thanks to the movers and shakers who helped create that period, we had a great time doing it. If I had to sum up that epoch, I would say it was a beautiful time of gay, open, and carefree days of unashamed utopianism. The hippie revolution may still in part be waiting to happen. But then, there never were any guarantees that noble purposes would produce the best of all possible worlds or bring about the demise of greed and intolerance.
By the late sixties the undercurrent within the counterculture began to value being over doing, expressing over accomplishing. Yet the hippie movement did have an enormous influence and was instrumental in bringing about the slow onset of social democratization in England. Much of the amalgam of reforms that we now take for granted -- civil rights, and women rights, general reforms of local and central government -- were in part or wholly accepted into daily life. Nevertheless, the sixties proved to be poor training ground for future politicians. Few of the members of government echoed the liberal spirit of the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins and no immediate successor with his far-sighted vision followed in his footsteps. Blair is the child of the hippie generation and many of us hoped he would be the new Jenkins. In many ways he has been good for England and is far superior to the pathetic group of politicians in the rest of Europe. It is unfortunate that he has been embroiled in Bush's mad war even though he has at times been a moderating force on Bush.
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