I was right there in 1966. Was it bliss, very heaven to be young? To be honest, I’m not sure. Yes and no. The young are too full of self-conscious anxiety to be good at bliss. (You get better at it later).
The Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution?, celebrating 1966-1970, opens on Saturday, a glorious spectacular of gigantic themes and minute detail from an extraordinary time. Or was it? Is this just cultural imperialism by us baby boomers imposing our best ever youth by sheer weight of numbers and purchasing power? My generation has earwormed our music into the heads of our children and grandchildren, and we didn’t die before we got old.
I came away overwhelmed, lump in the throat, with a flashback and memory shock, and the soundtrack of John Peel’s record collection doing my head in (as I might or might not have said, I can’t remember). But also a kind of horror, maybe just at the passing of so many years, at the fossilising of ephemera, things once quick, bright and throw-away now dog-eared and moth-eaten in glass cases. Yes, I had a paper dress just like that! Oh and Biba and Granny Takes a Trip dresses too.
That’s the trouble with history. Those of us who were there are unreliable witnesses, let alone the younger curators who sweep up history’s remains to shape them into sense. But by the time you exit through the gift shop, you will be beaten into submission: no, there is no doubt these few years 66-70 were mindblowingly extraordinary, bookended by the Beatles. Like the music, you know the images too well – the 400,000 with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, John and Yoko giving peace a chance in bed, Oz and the schoolkids issue.
Yes, I wrote a bit for Oz, and sadly Richard Neville died this week. Sixty-six was an electric year for me, working for Amnesty in Rhodesia until I was deported, arriving at Oxford and publishing a novel that certainly would never have been printed if publishers weren’t so anxious to grab on to anything, anyone young, regardless. I dropped out of Oxford the next year and lived in a filthy one-room no-bathroom bedsit above the Spaghetti House in Greek Street. Later I worked in Tate & Lyle’s sugar-packing factory in Wandsworth, believing in the honesty of manual work. But by 1968 I had landed a temporary job at the Observer and covered the Grosvenor Square Vietnam demo, one foot reporter, one foot demonstrator. Fleet Street and central London were boarded up as the establishment panicked about a reprise of the Paris riots.
Drugs? A bit, not much. I had a junior doctor friend in Poplar hospital who brought green medicine bottles of tincture of cannabis, still legal in the pharmacopoeia at the time. I went to interview the now ultra respectable Release, campaigning against long prison terms for drug possession, where someone insisted I puffed their hookah and I reeled back to the Observer office with nothing but tiny squiggles in my notebook. I was at the 1969 Dylan Isle of Wight festival, where the press tent had one enormous bed where everyone slept: I was squashed up against Christopher Logue.
None of that makes me a useful witness, just anecdotes. This brilliantly curated exhibition pulls together inter-related themes, making sense of psychedelia, politics, protest and potheads. The soft-headed hippy daftness of the summer of love always grated with those of us who were more political, and yet it infused the air, bringing wit to protest. Though goodness knows, the myriad warring splinter groupuscules of Marxists and Trots assembled for the 68 demo were oblivious of any hippy stuff.
Serious things were happening: those Woodstock kids with daisy-painted faces had the Vietnam draft hanging over them. Women’s lib, gay lib and black power movements burst out, with a new environmentalism of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome and the Whole Earth Catalog. It’s all there in glass cases, videos and music.
Step back at the end of this epic show and ask what lasting effect it had? Auras of the moment grip the imagination and get set in the aspic of history – but what changed? The co-curator Geoffrey Marsh, taking me round, points out how most protest failed: in 1970 Richard Nixon was elected in the US and Edward Heath in Britain. Too many rock greats, of the Janis Jopling-Jimi Hendrix stamp, died young, while others went into tax exile (the Rolling Stones and David Bowie). The yippies became Wall Street bankers. And yet nothing was ever the same again.
Unglamorous, unhip Harold Wilson with pipe, Gannex and compromises, emerges as the unlikely 60s hero. Under his aegis, thanks to Roy Jenkins, came abolition of capital punishment, divorce reform, abortion reform, an end to theatre censorship, the Race Relations Act, the gay rights Sexual Offences Act and the Equal Pay Act. The Open University was a pure 60s inspiration, education for all springing from the comprehensive ideal. I would add the extraordinary flourishing of high-minded collective endeavour, resulting in the founding of Shelter, Crisis, Centrepoint, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Brook Advisory, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the Playgroups Association, toy libraries and much more.
But the curators end with a reminder of another child of the flower children: out of all this revolution against the system came a me individualism that grew into neoliberalism. Early hippy ideals of silicon valley soon morphed into each-for-yourself, pay no taxes, screw all governments. Anti-establishment freedom has many dark sides and the Beatles had it right: We all want to change the world / But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out.
It’s a clever exhibition about ideas as much as style, style as reflections of thought – but walking through this history of an explosive era is an unsettling time warp for those of us who were there.
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