DIARY 25 September 1969

Coming of age 1969

In September 1969 I turned 21 years old. I could already legally smoke, drink, marry, have children, or be called up to fight for my country. Or, although extremely unlikely, I could even be killed by my country. I was liable for any crimes I might have committed and, although capital punishment for murder had been suspended, it would not be abolished until December 1969[1].

Despite having these responsibilities, I was still considered too young to choose who would represent me in parliament or the local council. They lowered the voting age to 18 in 1970 but it was too late for me[2]. I was finally able to vote in the general election held during that year which saw the defeat of Harold Wilson and a surprise victory for the Conservatives under Edward Heath[3].

I was living in Leeds, waiting for the new university term to start. I had spent some of the summer earning the money to take me to Italy with my girlfriend, Gill. We flew out to Rome and hitch-hiked back to England via Perugia, Florence, Milan, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium, returning penniless.

Not having money was not a problem. My rent was one pound and ten shillings a week and I was waiting for my student maintenance cheque for £128 which would see me through to Christmas. I had few possessions and no aspirations. I had grown into my environment in Leeds, met new friends, particularly Gill who made me feel comfortable. I was trying to put aside the confusion and loneliness of leaving home and going to London. A tiny terraced house in Beamsley Mount, Leeds became a haven, despite its lack of plumbing.

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Gill bought me a present for my twenty-first. A rather fine art-deco statuette of a young woman, reclining, clad in something diaphanous[4]. It was an unlikely but perfect gift which I still own. Whilst it represented an incongruous ideal beauty among the cobbled streets and back-to-backs, it had a kitsch appeal. Something that I could enjoy for its own sake, given to me by someone who accepted me for whatever I was.

[1] Capital punishment for murder was suspended for five years on 9 November 1965. It was abolished permanently on 16 December 1969 but not in Northern Ireland until 1973 or for treason and piracy until 1998.

[2] The Representation of the People Act 1969 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, with effect from 1970 and remained in force until the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013 which allowed 16 year-olds to vote for the first time, but only in Scotland and only in that particular referendum.

[3] It was under Edward Heath that Britain negotiated to join the Common Market, as the European Union was then called, finally doing so in January 1973.

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[4] Only a year ago, she suffered an accident and was damaged. I repaired and repainted her in as original a manner as I could manage. I took the opportunity to find out about her. Whilst there are art deco statuettes by significant artists, she is not one of them. She was made in plaster of Paris and would have taken pride of place on a sideboard in a northern terraced house, albeit in a bay-windowed front parlour. She was made in 1936 by Baci & Baci. Not a continental artistic endeavour producing sculptures for smart European drawing rooms but an Italian couple with a small workshop in Salford. I like it even more for for its unpretentious origins.

 

DIARY 18 August 1969 Woodstock: the downing of the Age of Aquarius

Woodstock 1

In August 1969, anyone looking at me in the street would have assumed that I was a ‘hippie’. In Leeds, where I had just finished my first year as a philosophy undergraduate, there weren’t many hippies. There was a bloke called Reg who dressed scruffily like me and wore his hair similarly in an unkempt halo. That was all. I was gently patronised by my fellow students for my poor dress sense and hygienic habits but accepted because I was perfectly likeable but eccentric rather than dangerous[1].

Bethel, New York State, where the Woodstock festival was held between 15th and 18th August 1969, was 43 miles from the town of Woodstock. However, when a resident of that town threatened to ‘shoot the first hippie that walks into town’ the local authority withdrew permission. A dairy farmer from Bethel offered his farm on the promise there would be no more than 50,000 people. Half a million turned up. This initial dislocation presaged the disorganised chaos that would follow.

Leeds, Yorkshire was a long way from Bethel; about three thousand, three hundred and fifty miles. In the 21st century the world is much smaller, with instant communication via satellite on television and radio or, even faster, through social media. Imagine the overload on Facebook or Instagram if Woodstock happened today. In 1969 there were only a handful of communication satellites, including the first successful versions of Telstar. Satellite broadcasts then were highly managed affairs. Fifty years later there are over 2000 satellites deluging the stratosphere with broadcast data 24 hours a day.

In the terraced house in Leeds which I shared with two other students we didn’t have a television. Radios were small transistor-powered devices although the BBC, being the main broadcaster, barely covered the event, treating it as a footnote to the Vietnam anti-war movement. A few thousand young people gathering on a farm over three thousand miles away did not generate much news interest until it all went wrong.

Information about Woodstock that did get through was far from today’s idealised memories of people were probably not there. There was torrential rain, deep mud, food shortages, overflowing toilets, bad acid trips, drug overdoses, low-fi sound systems and bands not turning up. I had never much enjoyed the very few festivals I had attended but these were only mildly uncomfortable compared to the chaos that was Woodstock.

Woodstock 3 mud

Woodstock was a financial and environmental disaster. Conditions became so bad that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was ready to call out the national guard. Clearing up the mess took months. Fires from piles of rubbish burned for weeks. It was years before the land could be returned to agricultural use. The organisers ended up $1.3 million dollars in debt; it took eleven years to clear the debts, helped mainly by proceeds from the 1970 documentary.

Rather than the fabled ‘summer of love’, by the time of Woodstock the hippie dream was turning sour. Haight-Ashbury had become an anarchic drug den full of homeless junkies. Woodstock was billed as ‘An Aquarian Exposition: three days of peace and music’. Instead of heralding the new age of Aquarius, it was more of a wake for the hippie dream that was already turning into a nightmare.

Woodstock 2

Only a few days before, Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by the Manson Family. Charles Manson was a psychopath who manipulated his cult members using hippie imagery. He was no hippie but this event would stoke fears about its darker side.

More chaos followed at free concert held by the Rolling Stones at Altamont in California on 6th December later that year. Meredith Hunter was murdered, stabbed to death, and there were three accidental deaths. Dozens were injured, there was extensive property damage and numerous cars were stolen.

For this hippie, sitting more or less alone in his small room in damp, grey Leeds the dream was definitely fading. I never went to San Francisco or wore flowers in my hair. It was too cold for sandals. I did a few weeks work in a frozen food factory, bought a ticket to Rome and hitch-hiked round Italy with Gill. At least it was warmer.

[1] This was how I looked the previous year. I doubt if I had improved at all by the following summer.

1968 Derek Perry-001

DIARY 20 July 1969 If you believed they put a man on the moon

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20th July 1969. One of the defining moments of the twentieth century. However, I seem to have missed it. The moon landing was one of those news items where you are supposed to remember where you were when it happened, like JFK’s murder or Winston Churchill’s funeral. Except that I can only guess with hindsight what I might have been doing at the time.

The first footprints of a human on an extra-terrestrial body were televised all over the world and seen by an audience of perhaps two billion. I did not have a television; somehow I missed the event. Perhaps it was faked; perhaps all those people were duped.

I was twenty years old and my first year at Leeds University had ended a month previously. I was living in the house I shared with two other students. It was a very small terraced house in a row of about ten in a cobbled street that went nowhere, ending in a patch of grass surrounded by high walls, an incongruous oasis in that red brick desert.

Despite the technological advances which would put two men on the moon, our primitive house did not have a fixed bath and the toilet was in a shed outside. The landlord eventually installed a bathroom but at the expense of my bedroom which was reduced to the width of a double bed.

With the term’s work over, and my student grant spent, nearly three months of leisure and utter penury awaited me. There was little prospect of a job. Despite the relatively full employment of the 1960s, many businesses slowed down during the summer. Some even closed completely as their workers trooped off en masse to their traditional boarding house holidays in Scarborough, Skegness or Blackpool.

There must have been several hundred students scrambling for the few jobs available. It was not difficult for the presentable ones but I was scruffy and hairy; I would not be a suitable front of house or office worker. I considered the possibility of leaving the city for agricultural work but eventually it came to me. A minibus would turn up early in the morning at a road junction in the Hyde Park area where many students lived in the half-empty terraced streets.

The chosen few would be taken to Union Cold Storage, a food refrigeration processor in south Leeds. There we would wait for lorries to arrive from Lincolnshire where they had been loaded with the newly ripened harvest of garden peas. My job was to inspect them as they flowed past me on a conveyor belt, picking out the remnants of stalks, twigs and pods. I had no idea where they had been before me, or even where they had been podded. Nor did I know where they went after me and my colleagues but I assumed they disappeared into a deep freezer.

Mind destroying work but the money was good, especially when you could do double shifts. On one shift, I spent eight hours holding a ladder, a rudimentary health and safety role, on guard for maintenance workers clambering on the roof. The work was intense but it would end soon, once all the peas were ripened and had been picked. Between us we probably processed a high percentage of the UK supply of frozen peas for the coming year.

It was all over within two weeks. But I had earned enough money to pay my rent over the summer vacation and enough to buy a one-way flight to Italy.

DIARY 10 June 1968 Discovering the avant-guard

Discovering the avant-guard

The impressive buildings of the West End epitomise the fabulous cultural edifice that is London. Galleries, theatres, cinemas and concert halls present masterpieces of art, music, drama and film. Museums heave with the cultural artifacts of other civilisations and of other times.

MEDIA Avant-garde COLLAGE

High art: Renaissance master; National Gallery; Queen Elizabeth Hall; Modern art; Theatre.

At 19 years old I was intimidated by this establishment culture. This might have been the pinnacle of the civilisation that had nurtured me but it hadn’t penetrated very far into the terraced streets of Selly Oak. Here was a cornucopia of sensation and stimulation that I had barely glimpsed before.

When I went to the National Gallery I was presented with Renaissance masterworks which dazzled but made no sense to this boy unable to decipher the myths or the religious symbols. I could just about grasp the sentimentality of a few Pre-Raphaelites which I had seen in Birmingham Art Gallery. If I went to the Tate Gallery, turning right after the entrance I was faced by a large canvas by David Bomberg of red, blue and white shapes (detail above). Having been subjected to no art education whatsoever, I was challenged to make sense of this meaningless abstraction.

These galleries were free to enter but  tickets for theatres and concert halls were out of my price range, putting music and drama out of my reach. I would not have known what to choose anyway. I could not tell one composer from another or say anything about drama, except for schoolboy Shakespeare. I began to regret the opportunities I had missed at school although there had been no effort whatsoever to present art or music as interesting, let alone stimulating and enjoyable. I do not recall any discussion of art history, only some desultory lessons about how to draw a tree (upside down, to make the branches more natural). Music lessons were about the structure of symphonies but I do not recall being expected to actually listen to much music. I was never given the chance to learn any musical instrument. A teacher once played us an Ornette Coleman[1] record but left the room frustrated by our incomprehension, calling us cultural morons.

Deprived of high culture by lack of access or ticket money, I learned how to find venues where entrance was cheap or free or with special offers for students. I would take whatever was on offer if my meagre grant would stretch to it. One such place was the French Institute in Kensington, not far from my college. Here I saw plays by Jean Anouilh and Jean Cocteau and films by Jean-Luc Godard. They were in French without subtitles but Chelsea Public Library might have an English translation.

Many of these venues presented contemporary or avant-garde performances which were more interesting to me than the established arts. I recall a play, if that is the correct word, at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane by a group calling themselves ‘The People Show’. More of a comedy sketch although the subject was suicide. There were similar, often improvised performances, at other venues such as Gandalf’s Garden in Chelsea.  

Ustad Vilayat Rosencrantz_and_Guildenstern_book  Lichtenstein

Music, drama, painting.

Another local venue was Chelsea Town Hall on King’s Road. Here I saw a concert by Usted Vilayat Khan. George Harrison had played the sitar in a couple of Beatles’ songs and here was my chance to hear the real thing. One day I saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead at the Old Vic on a cheap student ticket, standing in the gods. I had not even seen Hamlet (except by Olivier on the television) but this play opened my eyes to modern dramatists, some of whom with names like Stoppard were being talked about in magazines as new creative forces.

A new arts venue, The Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, opened in 1968 with an exhibition of work by Roy Lichtenstein, one of the first galleries to present Pop Art. These new artistic movements, Pop Art and Minimalism among others, came to the fore; music was reinvigorated by other cultures and electronic sounds; drama became philosophical and absurd. Theatre was freed from the limitations of censorship by the government[2]. New conceptual art and installations perplexed their audiences. The Computer Arts Society was established and one of the first exhibitions of cybernetic art was presented by the ICA in September 1968.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) was older than me, established in 1947. Set up by artists and critics, it challenged the moribund art establishment of post-war Britain, becoming the focus for a new avant garde. Note the plural in ‘Arts’; contemporary music, art and film were all displayed, sometimes in the same presentation.

OBS Collage1

Obsession: Matta, Thek, Dubuffet, Bellmer, Haworth, Lindner, Bacon, Hockney.

The ICA moved to new premises in The Mall in April 1968. Its opening exhibition The Obsessive Image presented works depicting the human figure in new and innovative ways by over seventy artists including Francis Bacon, Peter Blake, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, David Hockney, Rene Magritte, Claes Oldenburg, Pablo Picasso, Graham Sutherland and Andy Warhol. I was completely unaware of any of these artists at the time and I knew nothing of contemporary art.

I was astonished by the many and different approaches to representing the human figure. Unlike pure abstraction, the image represented was recognisable and I did not have to ponder what it was or if the picture had been hung upside-down. I could just marvel at the inventiveness of Paul Thek’s Death of a hippie, Lichtenstein’s comic cartoons, Dubuffet’s doodle-like figures, de Saint-Phalle’s painted papier-mache torsos, or Stevenson’s massive close-ups.

Until then I had thought that a painting or sculpture was mainly an exercise in technical skill, requiring years of practice and probably some innate talent. Now I saw that images could be manipulated, coloured, distorted, broken down and reassembled to produce not just a picture but introduce new meaning and emotion. It triggered something in me that opened my senses to new possibilities.

The publicity surrounding ICA’s move to the unlikely stuccoed classical premises designed by John Nash must have drawn me in, or perhaps they just offered very cheap student membership. I joined in April 1968 and was presented with art, film and music that surprised and inspired.

Scorpio  Herostratus  Herostratus Mirren  media   

Scorpio rising; Herostratus; Herostratus[3]; Mr and Mrs Kabal.

By the 1960s there was a long-standing tradition of short films which could be shown in cinemas and on the television. This was an innocuous artform, often produced as semi-documentaries about aspects of life in Britain. This was very different to the short films I saw at the ICA. Kenneth Anger’s film Scorpio rising featured biker subculture, homosexuality, religion, the occult, Nazism and rebel icons of the time. It was one of the first films to feature a soundtrack of pop music by The Crystals, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and others but no dialogue. Was it a dream or was it a trip?

A film by Don Levy called Herostratus, on the other hand, was over two hours long. It told the story of Max (Michael Gothard), a young poet who hires a marketing company to turn his suicide into a media spectacle; such themes were controversial at the time. Helen Mirren made her film debut at age 18. Both director and lead actor would later commit suicide.

Walerian Borowczyk was another very different film-maker whose work I saw at the ICA. His 1967 film, The theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal, was a full length animation which properly deserved the epithet ‘surreal’.

The ICA also introduced me to contemporary music. Luciano Berio was an Italian experimental composer who experimented with electronic music. His most well-known work Sinfonia (1967-69) for orchestra and eight amplified voices. The voices do not ‘sing’ in the classical manner but shout and whisper in a musical collage. I discovered how an orchestra can do more than produce academic musical forms but can build an aural landscape.

Revolver Berberian  Revolver Beatles

Revolution by Berberian; Revolver by The Beatles.

Cathy Berberian was an exponent of contemporary vocal music with a distinctive voice. She was married to Luciano Berio until divorced in 1964 but they continued their musical collaborations begun over a decade previously. She worked with many innovative writers and composers including John Cage, Igor Stravinsky and Anthony Burgess. Free from the formalities of lieder and aria, her voice became a creative tool. One of her productions featured a baroque reworking of twelve songs by The Beatles.

I was not actively looking for the avant-guard but it appealed to me more than establishment art and was more accessible. I was hooked; I would thereafter seek out obscure film-makers, theatre groups with a mission, innovative music-makers and artists who looked for new ways to interpret the world.

I took my time to catch up on established arts; later at another university I learned about the Renaissance. It would take twenty years before I really began to enjoy opera; classical music largely remained elusive. I became a culture-vulture, picking up whatever I could.

[1] Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was an American jazz saxophonist who was one of the main innovators of the free jazz movement in the 1960s. As schoolboys we never stood a chance of getting to grips with it.

[2] Until 1968, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office could refuse licenses to ‘unsuitable’ plays. Theatres such as the Royal Court had to turn themselves into private clubs in order to present anything controversial. This censorship was abolished by Act of Parliament in September 1968. The following day, the ‘love-rock’ musical Hair featuring nudity on stage opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre. The Royal Court was situated just down the King’s Road in Sloane Square, not far from my college, but I never went. The complications of buying membership, and not understanding the ideological importance of the plays they presented, were barriers to my participation.

[3] Helen Mirren.

DIARY 27 May 1968 The times they are a-changin’

Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’. (1)

It was a watershed year in history. The ‘old road’ was coming to an end; there was revolution in the air. Revolutionary bonfires would be lit in Paris, Prague, Los Angeles and many other places; the sparks fell everywhere. Mutually assured nuclear destruction may have kept the peace in the developed world but bloody battles between the superpowers were being fought in Vietnam and would flare up across other continents. There were increasing demands for recognition, rights and self-determination. The world became smaller through technology; culture burst into multi-colour.

My own ‘old road’ was ending too; 1968 was one of my personal watershed years. This diary is all about how this boy from south suburban Birmingham discovered the world, went abroad for the first time, suffered the pangs of unrequited love, became both confused and enlightened by philosophy, and was awe-struck by music, art, drama, films. That year defined me in many ways that I am still trying to understand fifty years later.

I watched the events of May 1968 in Paris on television. I had been there and it was no longer just a news report. In London, colleges were being occupied by students; all I had to do was to get on a bus to join them. I joined a student demonstration in Trafalgar Square. It was supposed to be about cuts in grant funding but with students occupying in Paris and London, there was talk of more than just subsistence allowances.

I was impressed by a student leader from Leeds who was making various radical demands. I was equally impressed by the support he had brought, some ten coachloads from his university. I was disappointed by my fellow students; I saw only one other person from Chelsea College at the demonstration despite the fact that the number 11 bus would get you there in 20 minutes. Jack Straw, the president of Leeds University Union, had brought several hundred on a 400-mile round trip.

My political awakening was just beginning. It had no name but I was becoming anti-war, anti-apartheid, anti-racist and anti-establishment. The latter was possibly the most important at the time. Organised politics meant little and I would not be joining any political party, at least for some time. Certainly not the Labour Party which was part of the establishment. Having been subjected to no particular socialist, liberal or conservative influences during my tender years, I was politically naïve and could best be described as a hippie (student section).

1968 Derek Perry-002  Me in 1968.

61HBN+VQlHL Bob Dylan in 1968.

(1) Thanks, Bob. You got the mood right and with such poetry.

DIARY 25 April 1968 Paris in the spring

Paris in the spring

It was not only my first trip abroad but also my first flight; not that I spent much time in the air. I had booked through the National Union of Students’ travel agency which sold me a return ticket for the unlikely sum of about five pounds. It meant a coach trip from Victoria almost to the south coast where the terminal was a wooden hut on a former RAF base. I did not expect a large airliner but, even so, I was relieved when it wasn’t a biplane. I was a slightly nervous passenger but the flight lasted only fifteen minutes, barely time to start hyperventilating.

We landed at Beauvais airport which is over 60 miles from Paris. By the time we reached the outskirts, about half of my ‘flight’ had been at ground level. We did not even reach the centre of Paris; the coach stopped at Porte de Clignacourt, the northern end of the Metro line. I went off to buy a ‘carnet’ which I was informed was the best way to buy a ticket for the Paris Underground without having to use too much French.

placestmichel

M = Metro Place Saint-Michel

In the six months that I had been in London, I had learned to use the Underground to navigate that metropolis. I would do the same here in Paris using le Metro; ligne no. 4 became my geographical centre of gravity for the five days or so that I would be in Paris. 

Paris-Saint-Michel-gezisi-1024x768

I would come up out of the Metro here. Behind the grand building, to the left, is the Seine and a view of Notre Dame. Just to the right is the less grand Rue de la Huchette where I stayed.

I had nowhere to stay but decided to head for the university area where I might find a fellow student to let me sleep on the floor. Ligne 4 took me directly to Saint-Michel, the nearest stop to the Sorbonne. I had inadvertently chosen the Left Bank, Quartier Latin, le Boul’ Mich’; it was fortuitous.

The students I saw in the Place Saint-Michel were too well-dressed and middle class to be approachable by this scruffy Englishman with poor French. Wandering down a side street, I found a grubby hotel which offered a cheap room and hot water for two hours a day. I paid the old woman who sat in her concierge’s booth giving me incomprehensible instructions while I tried to look attentive.

rue_du_chat_qui_peche.1379079.w630  lechat2  Caveau UF

There was a jazz club under my hotel named after the Rue du Chat qui Pêche. I only went once, unsure of my credentials as an intellectual.

I was now lodged in the Rue de la Huchette, in the centre of bohemian Paris. A good choice for an erstwhile beatnik and aspiring intellectual. I had found my way here on my own, I had somewhere to sleep, and I was not confused by public transport. I felt surprisingly at ease on my first day as a foreigner.

My next prime necessity was something to eat. Again, the university failed to provide anything even for its own students in terms of catering so I wandered off down the Boulevard Saint-Michel where, to my great satisfaction, I found a cafeteria called ‘La Source’. Restaurants, with their maitres d’hôte, menus in French and prices in francs, were impossible to negotiate so to be able to see what I was buying, with prices I could quickly calculate, put me in control.

To a young man used to a diet comprising what was available in the Bull Ring in the 1950s, cafeteria food in Paris was a revelation. I am not even talking about exotic unknown foods cooked with unusual ingredients. I had never before had raw grated carrot with olive oil; or boiled eggs in jelly; or meat patties in breadcrumbs; or salads with a garlic dressing; or warm crusty baguettes. You could even have a small carafe of red wine with no fuss whatsoever. With an individual fresh strawberry tart.

Next to my hotel there was a narrow alleyway called Rue du Chat qui Pêche which opened onto the left bank quai opposite Notre Dame cathedral. Passing the bookstalls, this became the first steps of my perambulations through Paris. In the few days I had to explore, I rarely used my carnet except as a quick route to Les Halles and the flea market at Porte de Clignacourt. At that time these were lively working markets which I preferred to the more formal boulevards cut through the city by Haussmann.

I visited the great monuments and parks by foot, somewhat surprised by the compact size of Paris. I bestrode the city from the Luxembourg Gardens to the Etoile, Invalides, Eiffel Tower, taking artistic inspiration on the way from the Louvre and the Impressionists housed at that time in a small gallery called L’Orangerie. There were plenty of places I did not see but I had already decided that this was a place I could enjoy and would return to.

The reason I was in Paris was a young woman. Her name was Lyn; I had walked her home one night from Selly Oak Youth Club but, unlike other girls, she had let me repeat this gallantry. She lived on the other side of the Bristol Road which meant a half-hour return walk for me; after a few weeks these solitary homeward promenades allowed me to revel in the fantasies of a young man who, if pushed, might admit to being in love.

Scan_20171017 (2)-002  Lyn, Paris, April 1968, taken by me.

We were at different schools when we met, both studying for ‘A’ levels. She was serious-minded, intelligent, and knew many things that I didn’t. She was in her final school year when I went to London and we could meet only occasionally. When she announced that she would be going on a school trip to Paris, it seemed obvious that I should try to follow her. Although she would be shepherded, cloistered and secured from any actual experience of Paris or French people with the rest of her class, I thought it suitably romantic if I could whisk her away from her custodians even for a short time.

She and her class were taken to a high walled school which was not even in Paris but in Sceaux, to the south. Crammed into dormitories at night, fed from communal marmites in a refectory and subjected to classes and tests every day, her visit seemed to be more about sequestration than education. She had a highly regulated programme; there was insufficient information for me to intercept her. Somehow, she managed to escape for a few hours one afternoon; our assignation felt surreptitious and we went to the cinema as if to hide from public gaze.

Le Samourai UF

We watched ‘Le Samouraȉ’ starring Alain Delon; he acted the silent type and there were long periods of no dialogue, fortunately for my lack of French comprehension. A walk from the Arc de Triomphe to Les Tuileries and along the Seine in sunshine took us back to Rue de la Huchette. The concierge grumbled as we entered my hotel. We had only a short time alone together. The train back to Sceaux stopped at Saint-Michel, just yards away at the end of the rue, and I reluctantly took her back to incarceration. I did not see her again until we were both back in England.

It was quintessentially romantic; two young lovers meeting up in Paris, snatching a few hours together. But like all interesting love stories, there was a shadow. This brief encounter was a prelude to many other rendez-vous over the next year or so, lasting at most a few days. In England, as in Paris, we would have separate lives, but in different cities. Marriage was a rejected bourgeois notion; I expressed a wish that we should live together but I could offer no means to do so. Perhaps we should have just run away; at least we would have been together.

Huty21891 003  B1EA57C3-5F4A-4C40-8B61-396041DC6821_cx0_cy6_cw0_w1023_r1_s  Rue St Jacques

Scenes from Paris, May 1968

Back in England, barely a fortnight later Paris was in the news. On 6 May, a demonstration against the police occupation of the Sorbonne was broken up by riot police. I watched on television as tear-gas exploded outside the Café Saint-Severin where I used to take coffee. I was still a long way from political awareness but I could not ignore the flickering flames of revolt now evident so close at hand. There were barricades in the street I had recently walked and the cobble stones were being ripped up to be hurled at the police.

Ends

Copyright Derek Perry 2018.

 

 

DIARY 4 April 1968 Race awareness 1

MLK SQ

Martin Luther King (15 January 1929 to 4 April 1968)[1]

Race awareness 1

In April 1968 I was back at home in Birmingham for the Easter break; six months previously I had left home to study in London. I was politically naïve although I had attended my first large demonstration and had sold newspapers outside South Kensington tube station. This was International Times, an alternative rather than explicitly political newspaper although it presented itself as challenging authority and the establishment. I just hoped I might meet some friendly people.

There were two major events which changed my ideas about racism in that April fifty years ago; one in the USA and one in Britain. On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis Tennessee. On 20 April 1968, Enoch Powell made his ‘rivers of blood’ speech at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham, England. 

Martin Luther King Jr. was an American Baptist minister and activist who became a civil rights leader from 1954 to 1968. King led the 1955 Montogmery bus boycott and helped organise the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped to organise the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

On October 14, 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1965, he helped organize the Selma to Montgomery marches. FBI agents investigated him for possible communist ties. In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on 4 April.

Hector_pieterson

Sharpeville 1960. The death of Hector Pietersen, one of 69 demonstrators shot by the police.

I had heard on the news how badly black people were treated in some countries. The Sharpeville massacre[2] in South Africa, eight years previously, had introduced me to a new word, ‘apartheid’. This was an alien word from an alien culture. I thought South Africa was part of the British Empire but while we were handing back some countries to their black populations[3] why were they being deprived here? Attempts by Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, to declare independence based on white minority rule, were not recognised so why should we allow South Africa to continue with apartheid?

We saw on the news how blacks were segregated in a similar way in the USA. Worse, they were treated as having no rights and genocidal murder was common. The news could in no way present the reality of life for black people in the southern states of America. But we saw on our news the fightback by communities, the demonstrations and the responses both non-violent and riot. There had been hope for improvement, especially when JFK was elected but his assassination ended those hopes. With Malcolm X also murdered and now Martin Luther King, there was despair that white power might prevail.

Birmingham, England was not Birmingham, Alabama. I knew there were a few black people in the north of the city, in Handsworth and Aston. But I never went there and I never saw anyone with a brown skin except a man in a turban who came door to door occasionally, selling brushes. The images on television or in the new Sunday paper colour supplements described an incomprehensible distant reality. There were plenty of jokes about other races, mostly of a patronising nature. But in Selly Oak in 1968, race did not appear to be an issue.

Enoch Powell SQ

Enoch Powell in 1968

At least, not until Enoch Powell made his speech on 20 April 1968 predicting a bloody race war if we continued to allow immigration. Powell was born in Birmingham and made his speech at the Midland Hotel near New Street Station, ensuring local interest although the speech made news across the country. Edward Heath sacked him from his position as Shadow Defence Secretary in the Conservative opposition. However, dockers and meat porters in London came out on strike in support of him. Right wing groups were able to grow in this environment; Powell’s political career was finished but the spectre he raised continues to have appeal for racists.

Perhaps Powell had been considering the riots which had taken place in America the previous year. Over 100 cities had been hit by serious rioting, vandalism, looting and building fires during 1967. Some 90 people had died, hundreds were injured and over 11,000 people were arrested. These events were apocalyptic at the time but the riots had happened almost a year earlier. It could not be imagined on Britain’s streets; instead he talked of an insidious takeover of Britain in racist terms.

The Exodus 1968

Kenyan Asians leave for Britain after expulsion 1968

Powell was not alone in panicking over mass immigration. Weeks before the speech, the Labour government had rushed through the Commonwealth Immigration Act which restricted immigration from Commonwealth countries to those with a direct connection with Britain, such as a grandparent. Previously, all were considered citizens of Great Britain and the Colonies, and so had a right to enter the UK. The prospect of up to 200,000 Asians who might be expelled from newly-independent Kenya coming to Britain led to the border gates being shut on anyone with a brown skin.

In 1968 I was 19 and I had not yet realised that any control of immigration is essentially racist. Neither had I worked out that welcoming fit, young, educated people[4] who were willing to work would make this country better off. I could not yet dream of the cultural benefits which would enhance the lives of the British including myself; from chicken tikka masala, ska and reggae, khatak dance, fabulous fabrics, Bollywood, Chinatown, et al.[5]

I had picked up some Malthusian ideas from my teenage reading that talked of limited resources being shared out amongst a population and how a sudden increase (by migration) would impoverish everyone. However, while there might be a short-term cost, instead of just mouths to feed a country would gain with more hands to work and more brainpower to think. I am proud of my later anti-racist activity but regret this early misconception.[6]

[1] Most of this section is from Wikipedia, with acknowledgements and no apologies; I have edited it to suit my purposes. I am a supporter of Wikipedia and make a monthly donation.

[2] On 21 March 1960, up to 7,000 protestors went to the police station in Sharpeville, Transvaal to demonstrate against the pass laws. The police opened fire, killing 69 people, some in the back as they ran away,

[3] Ghana in 1956 was the first black African nation to be granted independence by Britain.

[4] Who also looked after their children and old people.

[5] I speak from personal experience; I met and married someone from another culture. I have enjoyed and benefited from wider cultural horizons. 

[6] Please see my forthcoming article in this blog about race and race awareness in Birmingham in the 1960s.