1968: The year of the posturing rebel
The student unrest in Paris and London 40 years ago filled our writer with revulsion. The protesters enjoyed enviable freedom and had no idea how lucky they were
In 1968 I was living the good life with my first wife and first baby in our first house on the swell of my first play and was beginning to be noted by my peers as someone who was politically dubious.
It was to be some years before a well known left-wing director, asked to typify a “Royal Court play”, replied that it was a play not written by Tom Stoppard, but I was already conscious of a feeling in myself which detached me from the prevailing spirit of rebellion when bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but to be young was to be where it’s at.
The feeling I refer to was embarrassment. I was embarrassed by the slogans and postures of rebellion in a society which, in London as in Paris, had moved on since Wordsworth was young and which seemed to me to be the least worst system into which one might have been born – the open liberal democracy whose very essence was the toleration of dissent.
I had not been born into it. You don’t need to be a qualified psychologist to work out that in England in 1968, 22 years after I arrived, I was much more disposed to champion my adoptive country than to find fault with it. For all I knew to the contrary, if my father had survived the war (he was killed in the Far East) he would have taken his family back to my birthplace in Czechoslovakia in 1946 and I would have grown up under the communist dictatorship which followed two years later.
I was as aware as most people were that not everything in the gardens of the West was lovely and of course we didn’t know – one never knows – the half of it. But when in August 1968 the armies of the Warsaw Pact invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, an act which was simply the ongoing occupation of eastern Europe writ bold, my embarrassment at our agit-prop mummers’ “revolution” turned to revulsion.
What repelled me was the implied conflation of two categorically different cases. The “free West”, God knew, was all too often disfigured by corruption and injustice but the abuses represented, and were acknowledged to represent, a failure of the model. In the East, though, the abuses represented the model in full working order.
A small incident which must have confirmed some people’s worst suspicions about me occurred when I was asked to sign a protest against “censorship” after a newspaper declined to publish somebody’s manifesto. “But that isn’t censorship,” I said. “That’s editing. In Russia you go to prison for possessing a copy of Animal Farm. That’s censorship.”
Communism’s “normality” relied on the distortion of language and my new hero, George Orwell, had long since diagnosed the disease in his own society, so I took this kind of thing very much to heart.
And in 1968 there was Paris, too. By August the smoke of May in Paris had cleared. There had been pitched battles between thousands of students and riot police, followed by a five-week occupation of the Sorbonne and a general strike. These were immense events, not much diminished – from my viewpoint in a thatched cottage off the M4 – by the coat-tails attachment of famous philosophers, actors and other luminaries of a generous state culture.
Even at this 40-year distance les événements of 1968 still give, by association, our more constrained English version a resonance for people who are vague about what happened in Prague or why. But I look back on our “revolution” – the occupation of the London School of Economics, Horn-sey College of Art and all the excitements of those heady days – as little more than a saturnalia.
This indeed was one of the things I loved about England. The English version of continental eruptions suggested a national character in control of itself. In France, Germany, Italy and Spain, political activism at its extremes included murder, kidnap and bombs. My Italian publisher, one of the most sophisticated, charming and charismatic people I’d ever met, was later killed by his own explosives while trying to blow up an electricity pylon outside Milan.
A few miles away across the Channel, clashes between protesters and riot police were affairs of burning cars, overturned buses and buildings turned to rubble. Our own street-fighting man was only rock’n’roll.
There was something self-con-scious about rebellion here. Demos had a carnival air about them. Our meetings – and I was drawn to a few – were earnest convocations of squat-dwellers and what would now be called media types planning to overthrow society by starting a magazine and discussing how to get “the workers” behind them. Trevor Grif-fiths’s fascinating play The Party, set in 1968 and performed at the National Theatre with Laurence Olivier as a working-class activist invited to a meeting in a house in SW7 with an early Hockney on the wall, is for me the perfect time capsule of the posh end of ’68.
It wasn’t all posh, of course. The “scene”, as we called it, was more populously located in a shifting underground of art events – exhibitions, gigs, happenings, poetry readings – in dark places around Covent Garden and elsewhere and here the word “revolution” takes on some substance, I think. It was not a social revolution, but there was a sense of a cultural revolution pivoted on that moment.
Unfortunately I was embarrassed by that, too. I loved the music and the dressing up but I couldn’t take to the dialogue: a reductive argot of comrade-jargon and bogus wisdom derived from misunderstood eastern religions.
That last phrase I have taken back from a character in my last play, Rock’n’Roll, which begins in 1968. Ironically, the person who speaks for me on the subject of that revolution is a Marxist, a Cambridge communist called Max looking back in 1990 when he is about the same age as I am now.
The way he remembers it is that the 1950s was the last time that liberty opened up only when you left your youth behind you. By the mid1960s young people started off with more liberty than they knew what to do with, but confused it with sexual liberation and the freedom to get high so it all went to waste – wasted, that is, in a cultural revolution rather than social revolution. “Street theatre” is what Max calls it.
Altering the psyche was supposed to change the social structure but, as a Marxist, Max knows it really works the other way: changing the social structure is the only way to change the psyche. The idea that “make love, not war” is a more practical slogan than “workers of the world unite” is as airy-fairy as the I Ching.
I wish I had known this man in 1968. We could have been embarrassed together as we looked upon the spectacle. He had fought fascism in the slums and in Spain and when he remarked sarcastically that his hippie daughter “thinks a fascist is a mounted policeman in Grosvenor Square,” I might have said, “Right on!” or “My own view exactly.”
He could have also, on the other hand, changed my views about a few things, starting with the society that I was grateful, and remain grateful, to have joined. What about those abuses? Are they really egregious or are they endemic to the system? And where does the job of editing blur into censorship?
I wouldn’t have asked these questions of myself in 1968, the events of which are examined in Revolution 68, an edition of The South Bank Show, tonight on ITV1. But it is not just I who have changed. Society has changed, too.
In 2005 I interviewed a film-maker in Belarus who had been beaten up by state security for the usual reasons and he said a few things which were remarkably like a speech I had just written for a Czech Anglophile in Rock’n’Roll.
What the film-maker in Minsk told me was this: “The fact that you can call your prime minister a liar and a criminal is not [an attack on] his virtue, it is your virtue.” The article that I subsequently wrote about Belarus was published almost on the very day that Walter Wolfgang, an 82-year-old Labour party member, was forcibly ejected from the party conference for heckling the foreign secretary. I received a gleeful postcard from Harold Pinter.
The idea of the autonomy of the individual is echoed, I realise, all over the place in my writing. In The Coast of Utopia I was using 19th-century Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen’s own words about the English in the 19th century: “They don’t give asylum out of respect for the asylum seekers, but out of respect for themselves. They invented personal liberty without having any theories about it. They value liberty because it’s liberty.”
If I had known in 1968 what we were going to squander, long before we had the excuse of 9/11, I might have joined in the fun with less embarrassment, with less to lose. But at the time all the goings-on seemed frivolous compared with the freedoms we had invented – or should I say the freedoms you invented?
I was 31, I had been earning a living for 14 years, I was too old, too self-conscious, too monogamous, too frightened of drugs, too much in love with England and too hung up to let it all hang out.
Revolution, violence ... and shoes
Bernard-Henri Lévy, French philosopher The 1968 riots marked the beginning of the antitotalitarian movement in France, which appeared to be communist but in actual fact was an antiMarxist movement, in support of the Czech demonstrations. Our hearts beat to the same rhythm and for the same cause as the people of Prague
Martin Amis, novelist The main pretext for the demonstrations was the war in Vietnam and a growing antiAmerican sentiment, but my feeling is that the real reason was the consolidation of the youth movement. The ’68 riots were a celebration of youthfulness: for the first time in three generations, young men weren’t being sent off to die at war. And, as a result, the young celebrated being young
Frank Field, Labour MP Looking back at the newsreels of the Grosvenor Square protest, I am amazed at how violent it was. It is a lesson in how easily things can blow up. I had no interest or involvement at the time and I’m quite amazed that these events took place in my own nation. Although we have a peaceful nation now, one wonders what’s bubbling under the surface. It teaches you that being a peaceable kingdom is not necessarily a permanent state
Emma Tennant, novelist Determined to join the revolution, I was walking towards the Sorbonne in Paris when my shoes collapsed. There is little so unrevolutionary as sitting in a shoe shop, awaiting a fitting, as Madame Guillotine stands outside. And in London, my ambition to join (the radical activist) Tariq Ali at a demonstration was thwarted again by shoes – this time, worn by nervous horses. I just ran for it. But I have a cupboard full of footwear for the next revolution – vive Jimmy Choo
Compiled by Emma Buckle