A Very French Revolution

To get into the right mood to read this you need to go and dig out any Jimi Hendrix tracks you still own. If you have lost them or never owned them, then go You Tubing, find them and turn the volume up to 11. If not Hendrix, then Sgt Pepper or The Doors will do.

Let me take you down,

‘Cause I going to Strawberry Fields,

Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about.

This story starts in 1967, later to be called the Summer of Love, and we need to be in San Francisco with a celebration known as the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park on January 14.

It was at this event, Timothy Leary, American psychologist, and writer voiced his now famous phrase, “turn on, tune in, drop out”. This wasn’t all about LSD but was a shout-out to the whole hippie subculture. This was going to be a very different rebellion of communal living, political decentralization, and dropping out which was a call to abandon education for a summer of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

Have your head bobbed and weaved,

Choose a side to be on,

If the stone glances off,

Split didactics in two

In the UK, the anarchic pirate radio stations were closed by the Government and brought across to the BBC. It seemed like a cop-out and a source of a free voice was removed. But still, we had John Peel feeding us Nico and Lou Reed with the rest of The Velvet Underground.

Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather,

Whiplash girlchild in the dark,

Comes in bells, your servant, don’t forsake him,

Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart.

The Vietnam War was in everyone’s consciousness. You couldn’t be young and not be against it. In the US the chances were that you were about to be drafted or were already fighting in Asia.

I am probably 4 or 5 years too young to fully understand exactly what was happening, but 1968 was a pivotal year.

You know that it would be untrue,

You know that I would be a liar,

If I was to say to you,

Girl, we couldn’t get much higher

It is May 1968. I am 16, the sun is shining bright and it seems as though the clouds have gone forever. I must have been preparing for an exam because I was always taking exams in the summer. We didn’t know it, but May 5th, 1968 turned out to be the peak casualty day in the Vietnam war.

There was anger all around, but we didn’t quite know what we were angry about. It wasn’t just the anger of a generation. There was something substantive. The Vietnam War? Maybe. Sexual repression? Almost certainly. This was the generation of free love.

The time to hesitate is through,

No time to wallow in the mire,

Try now we can only lose,

And our love become a funeral pyre

The was the setting fifty years ago for the students of Paris. We never quite knew why there was an uprising but this time it wasn’t in the distant West coast of America. It was on our doorstep. Rebellion was now a European event. This was our moment. This was our generation.

People try to put us down.

Just because we get around.

Things they do look awful cold.

I hope I die before I get old. Talkin’ ’bout my generation.

Some called it a revolution as there was a feeling that there was an attempt to change the Government, but at best it seemed half-hearted. Cobblestones were thrown but kissing, love and sex were as important. Anarchy was at the forefront. It was a very French Revolution that lasted just a few weeks.

Out of the anarchy, a local student hero emerged. Daniel Cohen-Bendit was a revolutionary leader who with his brother Gabriel published Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative. John, later to be the best man at my wedding, gave me a copy. I think it was for my birthday but that happened too soon after the revolution. It must have been later in the year. It became a treasured possession and memory.

Spring was never waiting for us, girl.

It ran one step ahead as we followed in the dance,

Between the parted pages and were pressed, in love’s hot, fevered iron, like a striped pair of pants,

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark.

It looked as though there the change was going to be permanent and widespread. In the spring of 1968 Alexander Dubček, the leader of Czechoslovakia, wanted to democratise the country. This later became known as the Prague Spring. But Spring is just one passing season that always moves on and so it was in Czechoslovakia. In August 1968 there was a Soviet invasion. Czechoslovakian citizens responded with passive resistance and Soviet troops were frustrated as street signs were painted over, and their water supplies mysteriously shut off. It had little effect. Dubček was forced to recant.

The students went back to studies. Cobblestones were replaced. Winter returned to Haight-Ashbury and I carried on playing rugby and taking exams. By the end of 1968, the old-world order was restored but nothing was quite ever again the same. It was a watershed.

This was the year when a youth movement finally had something to say about the world and how it should be organised. It was the start of a movement that carries on today. It was the May when commercial, as well as political power, passed down one or maybe even two, generations.

I know you’ve deceived me, now here’s a surprise,

I know that you have ’cause there’s magic in my eyes.

I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles.

The seeds of what I am today were sown in those years. Deep down I am still a 1960s hippy. Turn on, tune in, drop out.