The Late 60s RememberedLes evenements de Mai 1968?
As the month draws to a close and this now slightly rheumy-eyed soixante-huitard
draws towards his own kind of close, hoping it is still a fair way off, the memories come into focus.
The glistening waters of the Bristol Channel behind me, I entered College House, one of Swansea University’s largest buildings and went to the bookshop. Julian, the manager, an anarchist, asked me if I was following the events in France. “Events in France?” I asked, somewhat askance.
He explained, and so I went to a TV and saw that the streets of Paris, Lyon, Marseilles and so on were in uproar. Then I got hold of the papers and learned that a student and worker rebellion was on and that at the heart of it was a German Jew called Daniel Cohn-Bendit. (No, not ’bend it’ - like Beckham - but bon-di
) and various Trotskyist 'groupuscules'.
They weren’t just protesting the capitalist order and the state; they were facing off against the Stalinist French Communist Party.
I learned that some at least were taking their inspiration from a German philosopher called Herbert Marcuse
and his book ‘One-Dimensional Man
’. So, back to the bookshop to buy this tome and read it. I did, cover to cover, but, believe me, it must have found its way straight through my cranium. Who, I wondered, would be fired up by such an abstruse text as this?
Ah, those were the days, ’68, ’69, ’70, ’71…
Chant, chant, chant, the kids are marching!
“Link arms, comrades, link arms! Close up!”
The chants… I hear them now.
“CRS, SS! CRS, SS!”
The hated French riot police were compared, somewhat wildly to the Nazi terror squads.
“Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!”
The streets of London’s West End rang with the name of the bearded little man who had once washed dishes in the city’s swank Savoy (or was it the Dorchester?) Hotel. The tramp of marching feet as we did the Ho Chi Minh Trot to the astonishment of London’s bourgeoisie, tongues aloll, on the sides on the street.
“Smash the bourgeoisie!” chanted 200,000 mainly middle-class kids of all ages. And then we went off for a pint in a West End pub. Contradictions, you tell me.
“One side’s right, one side’s wrong
Victory to the Viet Cong!”
Would I chant that now? No, knowing some of what I now know but I have no regrets at all about supporting the Vietnamese nationalist cause by donating blood to Medical Aid For Vietnam and opposing American imperialism. What many of us did not appreciate at the time was the way in which Britain’s intervention in Vietnam in 1945 had prepared the way for the ghastly French and American adventures.
“Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids have you killed today!”
We saw the napalm and the carpet bombing and were angry, genuinely so if not altogether coherently. We saw the zipper squads setting fire to villages just as we had seen ‘Bull’ Connors turn the dogs and the electric cattle prods on the Civil Rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, and we were angry. We saw the Freedom Riders go into that vipers’ nest of the US Deep South and face the segregationist white mobs and their masks of hate and we were inspired.
And the beating they gave you is pounding my brain,
We knew the names of some who would never return home, Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney. Some of us knew the words of the fine American singer-songwriter Tom Paxton’s tribute to them. James Chaney, your body exploded in pain.
And they laughed as they spat their tobacco
The night air is heavy, no cool breezes blow
The sounds of the voices are worried and low
Desperately wondering and desperate to know
About Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney.
All memorably re-told in ‘Mississippi Burning
Yes, as the rheum in my eyes increases and my joints ache that tad more, I can re-call that it was the soixante-huitards
who protested the 1968 Soviet bloc invasion of Czechoslovakia, not the conservatives. And, believe me, I do not regret that. Nor do I regret a couple of years later protesting the Springbok rugby tour of Britain in the winter of ’69-70 and getting arrested at the game in Swansea - charges dropped!
Well, the rocking chair beckons …David Jardine