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.

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Copyright Derek Perry 2018.

 

 

DIARY 4 April 1968 Race awareness

MLK SQ

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

Race awareness

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 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.

DIARY 18 March 1968 Taking to the streets

Taking to the streets

At the time I moved to London, my awareness of politics was very low. Unable to vote, I had never been asked to make any political choices. But in this momentous year, 1968, history was on the move.

Traf Sq 1968

Trafalgar Square 17 March 1968

On Sunday 17 March I took the Piccadilly Line and made my way to Trafalgar Square. I was attending my first demonstration, against the war in Vietnam. I had never been in such a large crowd before; even going to see the Blues at St Andrew’s could not match this crowd. Reports said there were over 80,000 people.

Most of those on the demonstration appeared to be in their twenties or younger; students, hippies, many too young to vote. Much like myself[1]. There were a few older people who were identifiable as pacifists, including the occasional priest, nun or Buddhist. CND members were prominent, identified by their duffle coats.

Hue MArch 1968

The destructive liberation of Hue by South Vietnamese and US troops 1968

The war in Vietnam had lasted for years. The USA decided it had to ‘stop the spread of communism’ by sending hundreds of thousands of troops and billions of dollars’ worth of equipment. 1968 was to be the crucial watershed year of the war. The North Vietnamese Army launched its Tet Offensive in January 1968, their attempt to end the war. In response, the US poured in more and more men and equipment. By the end of 1968 there were 820,000 troops in the South Vietnamese Army and 536,000 US troops.

 My-Lai-massacre-vietnam-war-usa-military-pentagon  My_Lai_massacre

My Lai 16 March 1968

The people on the demonstration, including myself, had seen all this in colour on television and in magazines We had witnessed forests sprayed with defoliants, napalm fire bombs ripping across the treeline, terrified Vietnamese farmers and their children, angry and desperate American troops slogging through jungles. The demonstrators would have been even angrier if they knew what had happened at My Lai[2] on the previous day.

 Ali Redgrave HAwking

Tariq Ali, Vanessa Redgrave and Stephen Hawking (left) on the demonstration

Two of the leaders of the demonstration, Tariq Ali and Vanessa Redgrave[3], made their way to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square to present a letter of protest. They were allowed through a cordon while the rest of the protesters were held at bay by hundreds of policemen.


Protests of 1968  Girl on the floor

Grosvenor Square 17 March 1968

Ordered to leave, many protesters refused and tried to break though the cordon. In response, the Police broke up the demonstration using horses; over 200 demonstrators were reported injured. This was before the Police had special riot units and protective gear[4]; nevertheless, these ‘bobbies’ with their pointed helmets and big boots demonstrated what they could do.

 I left as the trouble flared up; being on my own I thought it wiser to go back to my digs in Acton. This was the first of many demonstrations that I would attend over the next few decades. I learned a lot from this one. Here was a place where I could express my opinions and be part of a group of like-minded people. I began to learn that there was a possibility that we might change the future. I could now identify at least some of the enemy. This was one spark of many that would turn 1968 into an inferno.

Copyright Derek Perry 2018.

For newsreels of the day:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgbAsiW9Q3Y

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLRL6qYSDuI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXFII8x2BXs

[1] In 1968, the voting age was 21. Already seen as anachronistic, the voting age in the UK would be reduced to 18 in 1969, just in time for my 21st birthday when I would have got the vote anyway.
[2] The My Lai Massacre was the mass murder of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by US troops in South Vietnam on 16 March 1968. Between 347 and 504 unarmed people were massacred by the US Army soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated. It would take a year and eight months for details to emerge.
[3] Tariq Ali has long been associated with the New Left Review. Ali was involved with The Black Dwarf newspaper and joined the International Marxist Group (IMG) in 1968. He continues to be a writer and political activist. In 1961, Vanessa Redgrave was an active member of the Committee of 100. Redgrave and her brother Corin joined the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s. Since then she has maintained an acclaimed acting career and remains a political activist.
[4] Riot shields and helmets were developed in the early 1970s. The Special Patrol Group (SPG) was set up to control public order in the 1960s but was unarmed and had no special equipment. One of the SPG’s most controversial incidents came in 1979, while officers were policing a protest by the Anti-Nazi League in Southall. During a running battle, demonstrator Blair Peach was struck on the head and died as a result of his injuries; a report later stated that it was an action of the SPG. In the inquiries which followed, a variety of unauthorised weapons were found in the possession of SPG officers, including baseball bats, crowbars and sledgehammers .

DIARY 12 March 1968 French connection

French connection

I have no idea where my interest in France came from as a teenager. I was good at French, passing my ‘O’ level with a grade three; not bad for someone whose main subjects were scientific. French was not considered a suitable subject for a boy; including and especially by my fellow pupils. I recall my class destroying a new French assistant within three weeks with a concerted barracking. He soon left dejectedly but we were not punished for our bullying.

PAris Match Algeria

Paris Match 1967

As a paper delivery boy at the local newsagent, it was my job to deal with the special orders for magazines. In Raddlebarn there was one person who read the Times Literary Supplement, one other who ordered the Scientific American, and one who read Vogue; all delivered to the posher houses on the way to the university. A couple of people would get magazines in Polish and someone else had an order for Paris Match.

 Caveau UF 2-magots UF Beatnick 4 UF 

How I imagined French intellectual life when I was a teenager

I ordered an extra copy for me. It probably helped my French but I never came to understood the complexities of French politics; at the time there was some impenetrable scandal over Algeria. I affected a ‘French’ look with a black polo neck sweater and Gauloises to give flavour; I even had a beret. Being the only ‘beatnik’ in Selly Oak meant that I had no-one to talk to so I became the proverbial outsider and thus an existentialist, as far as I understood what that might mean.

Poets

Poets: Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire

When I reached London, France would be part of my new intellectual world; I read Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. I discovered Zola, Camus and Sartre; I went to the French Institute in Kensington to see plays by Jean Anouilh and films by Jean Cocteau. Jean-Luc Godard became a favourite film-maker.

My girlfriend was to join a school trip to Paris in spring 1968. Although there was little chance that we would be able to meet in Paris, I decided to follow her on my first trip outside England. I would spend £5 for the return trip from London to Paris on a student discount ticket.

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Copyright Derek Perry 2018.