You say you want a revolution

Did you say that? John Lennon didn’t when he wrote the song: that’s why his lyrics say ‘you’ and not ‘I’. Most people in Britain didn’t say it, at least in the context of a political revolution. These thoughts and many others occurred, along with a thousand memories, when I went to the V&A last Sunday to see You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. I may now forget my reason for going upstairs at home, but I remember almost everything this exhibition was celebrating as if it were yesterday.  

But it wasn’t yesterday. It was fifty years ago. The magic of the exhibition was that I absorbed it in two time zones. One was the present, thinking how all this belonged to a changed, almost unrecognisable world. The other was fifty years ago, thinking how fresh and immediate it still felt.

Shuffling round the cavernous rooms was a large sprinkling of people of my own age, come to relive what they had experienced at first hand. But there were many others, of different ages, perhaps there to discover why the late ’60s are regarded as a legendary period. They would have found an answer.

The focus of the exhibition was on music and politics. There was a nod to fashion and a nod to consumerism, but not much else. The revolution in question did not become, in the end, a political revolution: it was a cultural revolution. However, at least as defined by the V&A, it was culture in a narrow sense. The beat poets got a look-in, but there was little on theatre or art, apart from graphic art. It was politics, fuelled by music.

It was also Anglo-American. Very little on Paris, May 1968. Nothing on the counter-culture elsewhere in Europe or the world. This focus acted as the reminder, or perhaps the revelation, that the movement took quite different forms in Britain and America.

In Britain, the counter-culture was almost never violent. In fact, it was close to being cuddly and was frequently humorous. It had a high political content, but that content was mostly self-contained. It found public expression in marches and demos, and in books and pamphlets, but carried little immediate threat to the Establishment. It seemed more a generation saying ‘we’re going to do things differently when we’re older’ than one saying ‘we’re going to smash you now’.

In 1969, I was a spectator at a demo on Parker’s Piece in Cambridge, organised by the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation. Also there was Sgt Cox, from the Cambridge police. He hoped to be inconspicuous with his short back and sides, sunglasses and suit. The speaker at the demo shouted through the megaphone: ‘Comrades, over there on a bench is Sgt Cox from Special Branch. You may not know this, but today is Sgt Cox’s birthday. Why don’t we sing him a song?’ The entire rally sang Happy Birthday, and Sgt Cox swiftly departed.

This surely could not have happened in America (or in France). There, the political content was more overt and more violent. There, the threat to the Establishment was immediate and real. Given this difference, I’m not sure that the British and American experiences during those five years belong in the same presentation, at least without the distinction being drawn. The impression is of a universal trans-Atlantic movement. Some elements were universal, the music especially. Others weren’t.

As my wife pertinently asked, what would the period have been like without the Vietnam war? It was the war, more than anything, that provided a universal political focus. Opposition to the war was a worldwide unifying force for a generation. Except that this too was felt in different ways. Intellectual opinion might have been close to universal, but personal experience was not. Young Americans watched friends come home in body bags and wondered if they were next. That did not, could not, happen in Britain. This had to affect the immediacy of the politics in each country.

Another issue that affected it was race. In America, the lid that had been kept on the pressure cooker for decades was blown off. Lyndon Johnson’s reforms of the mid-’60s, made acceptable by the restraint of moderates such as Martin Luther King Jr, opened to the door to a more aggressive black consciousness. This in turn fed into the Vietnam protests, and into other issues, to produce a cocktail of extreme political anger.

That’s not to say Britain didn’t have its own racial problems. But they were smaller, more recent and, at the time, lacking in a developed political consciousness. Again, the depth of anger, the depth of alienation, the depth of relevance, did not exist in Britain as they did in America.

There was one unpalatable lesson for me in the exhibition. As a moderate liberal of the centre right, then as now, I abhor revolution in any form. My instincts are so firmly in favour of gradual change that, when extreme change is presented to me, I reject it unthinkingly. In the late ’60s, I could easily embrace the music. To me, it was detachable. I didn’t embrace much else of the counter-culture, although I was happy to be surrounded by others who did.

What the exhibition illustrated was that you cannot rely on gradual change happening of its own accord. Change is frequently a stop-start process. When it stops, someone has to kick-start it again, and that is likely to be someone far more radical than I ever was. The last five years of the ’60s were one massive kick-start. In retrospect, I welcome most of what the period started. At the time, I felt apprehensive about it.

Everything has to begin somewhere, even if it takes decades to crystallise. The drive to gender and racial equality, gay rights, environmentalism, consumer rights, the right to uncensored self-expression – all these things sprung out of the late ’60s. They weren’t invented then: the seeds had been sown decades, perhaps centuries, before. But the ’60s generation gave them enough of a kick-start to propel them towards mainstream acceptance. Do go to the V&A Exhibition and find out.
Regular readers of this blog will have been sad, as I was, to read of the deaths of so many members of the Red Army Choir in an air crash at the end of last year. When I resurrected an old piece on the Choir in a blog on 18 December (see below), it had seemed a humorous anachronism, but the past always comes back to bite us.

I am on holiday in India for the next few weeks. All being well, pre-prepared new blogs will appear here each week as usual. We arrive in India on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, so will thankfully miss it. If the world should happen to end while I’m away, it won’t be covered here.