Wednesday 23 May 2018

1968, looking back, by Leslie Wilson

Robert Schediwy
On this day in May 1968, 'Les evenements' were in full swing. Left-wing workers and students together were challenging the stuffy status quo of postwar France; that was all my fifteen year-old self knew, but I was deeply excited. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the French student leader, had been evicted from France, but rumours were rife that he would be nipping back across the border. In the Quartier Latin, tear gas was swirling round and students - among them my brother's French penfriend Yvon, were throwing cobble stones at the police, or rather the CRS riot force, and chanting (with some justification) 'CRS, SS!' and 'We are all German Jews' (Nous sommes des Juifs Allemands) because a right wing politician had dismissed Cohn Bendit on the grounds that he was a) German and b) Jewish.

I was supposed to be revising for my O Levels, but spent more time reading novels from the library, slipping them under my duvet (having a German grandfather, I had one, ahead of everyone else) when my parents entered my bedroom to demand if I was working. I was almost sixteen, and in many ways rather young for my age.

I lived in Nottingham, and at the university, there were 'sit-ins' and demonstrations, to the ire of our family friend who was Reader in classics there, a gentle, scholarly man. He took me to watch the award of an honorary degree to JRR Tolkien (I was crazy about Tolkien's work), but nothing could be heard at all because Lord Seebohm was getting an honorary degree that day, and students were demonstrating against his involvement in South Africa. I remember them climbing up to the window and shouting through it. I was disappointed not to hear Tolkien, though I felt vaguely guilty for resenting the demonstration, and also bad that I was inside with the uncool adults while the committed people were outside.

It felt as if the world was changing, and would never be the same again. As if people were standing out against hypocrisy and for freedom, and against war. The Vietnam war was going on, and in America students were burning draft papers; also offering people flowers and saying 'peace, man,' generally in a fume of pot. Hippy fashion, of course, percolated down to us, even such girls at my school as were deeply conservative.

Enoch Powell made his 'rivers of blood' speech, and one of my teachers said he was 'a voice crying in the wilderness.' At tutor time, I got into an argument with another girl, who told me she was racially prejudiced and proud of it; others weighed in against me. I argued against prejudice, with nobody to back me up, and the form tutor accused me of being intolerant and argumentative. I probably was argumentative, and I was certainly intolerant of racism. Teenage girls are sharp-edged; they don't see many shades of grey, in general. I was quite sure my teacher was unfair, and I still am.

That summer, in the heavenly, relaxed time after the exams, I lay in the grass of someone's garden, at a UNA youth group event, alongside a Czech student called Jiri, who'd come to England in the Prague Spring. We all knew that Communism was being transformed in Czechoslovakia, and I somehow expected Jiri to be living in the bliss of a new heaven and a new earth, but he was rather stressed, probably homesick. Something about him was deeply familiar to me, having lived up with people who'd been traumatised by living under dictatorship, though it's only now, looking back, that I can see this. He was very attractive, I seem to remember, with very dark curly hair, long of course, because all boys and young men were growing their hair long. Beards weren't allowed at school; they had to wait for university to grow. John Lennon was the template.

'Hey Jude' came out that year, but the summer, for me, was Yellow Submarine and All You Need is Love, and, of course, still Sergeant Pepper. I sang Joan Baez, my brother was keener on Bob Dylan. We sang 'We Shall Overcome' rather a lot.

Meanwhile, De Gaulle survived a vote of no confidence, and our friend Yvon quit the 'Evenements' when he saw the CRS seize a woman student and bang her head on the pavement. I felt a little disappointed and cast down about that, but now I can see his point of view.

Robert Kennedy, Wikimedia Commons
I have no idea where I was when I heard of John Kennedy's assassination, but I do know exactly where I was when I heard about Robert. I was in the kitchen with my mother; it was a lovely day and the dining table, in the next door room, glowed in the sunlight. My father came in and said: 'Terrible news. They've killed Bobby Kennedy.' He said it was a dreadful day because Kennedy had been 'the great hope of the black man in America.' What I can't remember  is Martin Luther King's assassination, which was arguably a much worse day for black people in the States. Possibly this is, I'm embarrassed to admit, because Robert Kennedy was definitely dishy, as we used to say in those days. He did also seem to stand for anti-racism, for the breaking down of barriers, for liberal values.

But Dubcek and Svoboda were still standing up for Communism with a human face in Prague.
After my O Levels, I was sent off to stay with Yvon's family, the Dufours, in France, who had become close family friends of ours; my dear friend Francoise, who'd also stayed in the family, became my adopted big sister. Having split from her husband, she'd come back with her little girl Jeanne to live with her parents, and she talked to me and entertained me and drove me up to Paris to see the graffiti from the Evenements before they were all washed away. It had all come to an end in the Quartier Latin then. I remember streets of earth where the cobbles had been grubbed up, tidy piles of cobblestones, buses of police and tourists with cameras. It felt rather like the aftermath of Reading festival, and I had an overwhelming sensation of emptiness.
The Dufours drove me down with them to Roaix, in Provence, where my parents were to join us for a camping holiday, in the bumper-to-bumper traffic of the annual French exodus. The campsite was fun: all the young people got together to enjoy themselves. One hot, cicada-noisy night, we danced to a gramophone on an empty threshing floor and the farmer turned up, fired a shot, and drove us away. It was on that holiday that a van arrived and sprayed the trees with pyrethrin (I think, remembering the smell). I don't know what the purpose of this was, but I remember the silence the following night. There were no more cicadas. When later I read Carson's Silent Spring, I remembered that, with deep sadness.

My brother went on a language course in Kiev that year; he was studying German with Russian at Cambridge. On the way back from Kiev, his train had been held up for hours at the frontier while trainloads of tanks went through on the way to Brest-Litovsk. The talks were going on at Bratislava, and there was a bad feeling. The Russians were losing patience.
I remember how the news came through of the Russian invasion. We cried. For me, it felt as if everything was collapsing; there had been a frost that had destroyed the hopes of May. The cicadas had stopped singing, and maybe there was no point in singing 'We shall Overcome' any more. My father said it was the fault of the Czechs, who would have got the freedoms they wanted if they'd only been patient. I was shocked to hear him say so, for earlier in the year he'd been saying quite different things.
One of the tanks that rolled into Prague: Gerritse at Dutch Wikipedia

In the autumn, I went to Germany to spend the first term of the 6th form in a school in Traunstein, Upper Bavaria. I forgot all about politics for a while and just enjoyed the food, the wonderful landscapes, learning to talk Bavarian, and my friendship with Gaby, the girl whose family I stayed in and whose class I was in.
It's fashionable now to say that the 1968 generation became the selfish Thatcherites of the 80s. I know a lot of people my age who are anything but (though I was a very young member of that generation). For me, 1968 lit a flame which has never been extinguished, a belief, in spite of Russian tanks, pesticides, the CRS and De Gaulle, that change is possible, though I guess the year showed me that talk of ground-breaking revolution is often premature.
Twenty years later I was one of 62 peace protestors who got over (in my case round) barricades to mark the outside of the MOD with ash (barbecue briquettes) in an Ash Wednesday protest against nuclear weapons. I already had a criminal record for cutting a strand of the fence at the Burghfield nuclear bomb factory the previous year. I was a regular day visitor at Greenham Common. Unlike my 16 year-old self, I knew exactly what this was about; a life for my children, and every living person on the planet for starters; but Greenham taught us all to 'make the links', showing how inequality and neo-colonialism fuelled war all over the earth. I was committed to non-violence; no cobblestones and Molotov cocktails flying through the air for us peaceniks. But I had no problem with taking a hacksaw blade to the Burghfield fence, or to the courageous campers at Greenham scissoring the fence apart with businesslike bolt cutters.
One gets older; one learns to understand how complex things are. Complexity seems a cause worth campaigning for nowadays, where memes on social media are demonstrating how destructive they can be. Truth is another crucial value, and women's rights, which weren't considered particularly important in the '60s. But for me, 1968 doesn't represent a fixed ideology, rather a year when hope blazed high, a year that made me aware, alive.


Sue Purkiss said...

I remember 1968 too, as being a time of great excitement, when times were very clearly 'a-changing'. I remember hearing the news that the tanks had rolled into Prague when I was youth-hostelling with some friends in Buxton in Derbyshire; we sat in a park and read the newspapers, stunned and very sad. And I remember going to a lecture given in French at Nottingham University about 'les evenements', but that must have been the year after, when I was doing French A-Level. But I also remember listening to 'If you go to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair...' and seeing pictures of people handing out flowers at American airports in the name of peace. And I was aware of Germaine Greer, who taught English at Warwick University, where my sister was. She was beautiful, revolutionary, and sounded distinctly scary. It really was quite a long time ago, wasn't it?

Leslie Wilson said...

Very chauvinist, too! The anti-nuclear movement of the 80s was quite different. The Bob Dylan I really liked was ‘the universal soldier.’