Pubdate: Sun, 08 August 1999
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Nigel Williams


The Summer Of Love Was An Illusion

The class of 69 tuned in and turned on, but was wrong about almost

There is a photograph of my wife, taken in 1969, the summer of love.
She is wearing flowers in her hair and a skirt that ends only just
below her waist and next to her is a bloke who, because I do not wish
to ruin his retirement, I am going to call Barry. His hair is almost
as long as hers and he is wearing a garment rarely seen these days
outside theatrical costumiers. I have examined it closely, however,
and there is little doubt that it is a kaftan.

Barry is stooped forward slightly, looking at the ground with a
serious, troubled expression and in his right hand is a hand-rolled
cigarette about the size of a policeman's truncheon.

It was Barry who first introduced me to marijuana. The manner of my
encounter did not predispose me to try it again. He had baked a large
consignment of biscuits and, round at his flat one afternoon, I ate
about four of them. Barry begged me not to do this but I was not to be
stopped. "They are quite strong," he said. I said I thought I had a
pretty good head. "I can drink six pints of Young's Special," I told
him, in a voice that may have betrayed that I thought kaftans were
sissy. An hour or two later I was cowering in the corner of his flat,
convinced he was trying to kill me. All I remember saying, shortly
before I passed out, was: "Is there an antidote?"

I was not really part of the summer of love. I was there - but in a
corner, taking notes. "You were," my wife told me the other day,
"basically a careerist." But she and Barry were part of it. They knew
all the words to the songs on the Incredible String Band LP. They knew
a man who went around Oxford with a black briefcase and a set of
scales and when I asked them what the scales were for they laughed and
laughed and laughed.

Looking at that photograph of Barry the other day I found myself
wondering what had happened to him. I knew he had gone into the Gas
Board when we all graduated in 1969. Presumably he had been dismissed
shortly after joining the organisation. Perhaps he was in prison. Or
Nepal. He might even be in prison in Nepal. It would serve him right,
I decided, for allowing me to eat those biscuits.

I called Tim, a talented musician friend from that era. "Oh," said
Tim, "Barry did very well in the Gas Board. In fact he retired the
other day on a massive pension shortly after it was privatised. He was
an amazingly responsible executive for 20 years and now he has taken
the pipe and slippers. His career is over." Tim added, in his
customary self-deprecating way: "I'm still waiting for mine to start."

I somehow could not imagine Barry in the Gas Board. Had he, when he
joined the company, stored the kaftan, the haircut, the beads and the
copy of The Lord of the Rings in some drawer in his neat suburban
house, as a young girl might keep her wedding dress to remind her of
her vanished youth? How had he managed to step out of that photograph
and live that kind of life?

"Simple," said my wife. "Barry was always a very organised person.
Unlike some people, he was never greedy about taking dope. And the
kaftan was... just a garment." I looked at her narrowly. I had not yet
quite forgiven her for calling me a careerist.

Look a little closer at that photograph. Are those real flowers your
wife is wearing in her hair? I think they are. And I think those
things round her wrist may be bells. Her head is slightly to one side
and she is sipping at a cigarette of her own although, as far as I can
see, it does not contain banned substances. She has the unfinished
gentleness of young and beautiful girls and there is a sadness in her
eyes that suggests the cruel world beyond university may be too much
for her.

So much for photographs.

In fact, after my fully paid-up hippy wife left Oxford she got herself
a job with Shelter, the housing charity. She worked on a project
trying to educate children about their housing rights, went on
pro-abortion rallies shouting things like "It's a woman's right to
choose", toured sink estates in Glasgow and, when the funding ran out,
had three children of her own and devoted herself to looking after
them. She is now a successful television drama producer, responsible
for the BBC's Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Tom Jones and so many others
that if I list them it will sound like boasting.

So it was just a fashion thing, then? We all pretended to surrender to
drug-induced visions and then got on with our nice middle-class lives.
We are all careerists!

Oh, but some people took it very seriously. There was the guy I ran
into in Portobello Market, west London, in 1975. I don't think he had
taken his kaftan off for seven years. He told me God was in me and in
bacon and eggs and in the kerb on which we were standing and that if I
wanted to take advantage of this I should get myself to Finchley, in
north London, where he and 30 other lunatics were paying through the
nose to sleep on the floor and accept the guidance of some charlatan
called the Akond of Swat or the Bhugwash of Ghan.

Here is another photograph. It is from a yellowing news clipping and
it shows a personable young man with fuzzy hair and an electric smile.
It is the kind of mug-shot you often see above columns in newspapers
and that is exactly what is underneath the photograph.

The newspaper is called Cherwell. It is the Oxford University student
newspaper. The dateline seems to be around the time of the May riots
in Paris in 1968. However, there is no mention of the political
upheavals in Europe - in Prague or the Sorbonne. The column is all
about a middle-class girl called Fiona who is having a super time at
university and is clearly unaware that there is such a thing as
politics. Reading it now it is difficult to see the satirical point
but back then her refusal to mention the student barricades was enough
to brand her as hopelessly middle class, a side-dish in the dustbin of
history. The photograph is of Michael Rosen - then a prominent student
political activist, now a much-loved children's author.

It was difficult to miss Mike in the summer of 1968. He shambled round
the town like a big, friendly bear and when he greeted you his arms
went as wide as a semaphore signal. He was close to (and maybe a
member of) the International Socialists, the Trotskyist student body,
and yet when he talked about politics his language was almost devoid
of the stale rhetoric associated with some groups on the far left. You
would not catch Mike talking about "reactionary Stalinist thugs" or
"petty bourgeois elements". I remember him once telling me, in
humorous despair, that he had seen a mutual acquaintance running down
the street waving a placard labelled Fanon. "I mean, Nige," I can
still hear him say, "what is that going to mean to the average member
of the British working class?" It did not mean much to me either and
Mike explained that it was the second name of a radical doctor based
in north Africa, who had written a brilliant book about French

Colonialism! Those big words, back then, had more than academic
significance. It was Mike who persuaded me to go on my first
demonstration - to a hairdresser's in south Oxford that was operating
some form of race discrimination. I can still remember my first
cautious attempt at chanting a slogan. I cannot remember what it was -
"Racism! Racism! No! No! No!" perhaps - but, as the chant got louder,
my voice lost some of its middle-class weediness.

Mike went into the BBC as a general trainee along with me and a
chemist called Alan Hayling, who looked like an angel in a renaissance
painting. Funnily enough, although Alan was even more stridently
radical than Mike, he was the first to land a proper staff job with
the organisation.

Was this political discrimination against Rosen? Or was Hayling a
sinister mole working for MI5? When he left the Beeb to work as an
organiser on the shop floor of the Ford plant in Dagenham, we feared
the worst. Although I must say I cannot think of a more unlikely spy
than Alan. At his entry exam for the corporation he was asked to
provide a list of possible uses for a barrel (a test of creativity I
think) and all his suggestions - use it as a soapbox, throw it at a
policeman, etc - were straight out of the Situationist's Guide to
Overthrowing the Bourgeoisie.

Here is another picture. Mike Rosen is in this one as well but not at
the centre of it. It is of a young man with curly hair and with blood
all down his face. He is being hauled into a police van. Behind him
there are horses rearing up and what look like blurred faces
screaming. There are policemen with riot shields and batons and, in
the background, only just visible, is the facade of the American
embassy in Grosvenor Square.

I go in closer to the picture and see that there is something familiar
about the young man's face. The rueful eyes, the jut of the chin, the
quizzical eyebrows. This is - it must be - a face that appears above
another column, 30 years on from the last one we looked at. It is
Donald Macintyre, political columnist of The Independent and author of
a recent highly praised biography of Peter Mandelson.

Don went on the Grosvenor Square march with Mike. They were both
arrested and spent the night in the cells. Don was subsequently
charged with assault by the policeman who, in fact, had assaulted him.

Don went into journalism after leaving university. He started out
working on The Daily Express on the labour desk and one of my most
vivid memories of the early 1970s is sitting in the front room of our
house in south London while he argued with the paper's sub-editors
about the advisability of describing striking Ford workers as "scum".
He had to go to Dagenham and get quotes from these workers at six the
following morning.

Eventually he moved away from the trade union scene. I remember him
saying to me in the mid-1980s: "I joined this business to report
strikes. And there don't seem to be any. I'd better do something else."

"So - another cop-out," I hear the generation behind me snarl,
"another Trot who came in from the cold. Aren't you making the left
politics of those years a cosy rite of passage, a smug equivalent of
the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme?"

Much of the left-wing student politics of the prosperous West in the
1960s was, as Milan Kundera has pointed out, the foolish
self-indulgence of children who had too much too quickly. Many of the
ideas that were fashionable at that time have been exposed as a sham
by subsequent events. Don said to me the other day: "I think we were
wrong about almost everything apart from the Vietnam war."

We were wrong about unilateral nuclear disarmament, we were wrong to
believe that organised labour and student activists would come
together to effect political change (British workers, like the French
Communist party in 1968, voted and acted in line with their wallets).
And it isn't any good for those who still hunger for the
might-have-been of a Trotskyist Utopia to say "If only..." or "But we
were betrayed..." Because those of us who know our history have read
what Trotsky did to the Kronstadt sailors and, if we are honest with
ourselves, realise that Trot heaven is probably not much different
from Stalinist hell.

These are not easy or pleasant things to say, but I think they are
true. Don, as it happens, did flirt briefly with a Trotskyist student
body called the RSSF and, if he sounded a little embarrassed about my
mentioning it, it certainly was not because he thought anyone out
there would think for a moment that he still took those ideas
seriously. Yet although he grew out of what Lenin might have called
"the infantile disorder" remarkably quickly and has been, for as long
as I have really known him, a democratic socialist, my image of him is
defined by that picture of a man being dragged into a van in the 1960s.

And that image - this is important - is not a real one. It is a
picture in my head. None of these pictures are real.

Mike wrote a poem about Don's arrest which was published in Isis, the
Oxford student magazine - so he became a revolutionary, in my mind,
purely by association. The fact that the image evoked by that poem is
now, for me, as concrete as a photograph, reminds us that images of
our private past are hopelessly mingled with the newspaper pictures
that summon up the public history of which we were, or were not, a

The 1960s generation, like any other, defined itself in relation to
the most typical images of the day - whether of student unrest or
doped-out student calm - even if it was completely out of touch with
such images. If, 30 years on, people who were nowhere near Grosvenor
Square like to talk authoritatively about it or those who, back then,
could not tell the difference between Mexican grass and Oregano come
on to their children with a knowing liberalism about drugs, it is
because that generation has held on to the reins of influence with a
grimness never seen before.

We do not only want power. We also want to seem perpetually young. And
- - even in the era of Austin Powers - it still seems fashionable to be
associated with it. "So!" I hear that angry voice behind me sneer, "Is
this one of those laments/celebrations for the class of '69? Another
reassertion that fifty-somethings are still as cool as their children?"

Not exactly. Here is another photograph. Now you know it is not a real
one, do its edges blur? Does it seem deceitful?

It is of a young couple. And - yes - the faces I have given them are
no more real than their names. But the people they represent are real
enough. They seem to be holding a baby. They are displaying it to the
camera with a certain tentativeness, as if they expected whoever was
behind the lens to give them some kind of help with this child.

We will call them Martha and John. They were not going to marry
because marriage was for squares. They lived together for years before
they had the baby. Not long after this photograph they will get
married - in a register office in south London - but Martha will keep
what neither of them will dream of calling her maiden name and she
will preface it with Ms. The child is encouraged to call them by their
first names because mummy and daddy are roles they reject as being
oppressive and bourgeois. They believe in open marriage because they
are nice and sometimes sex with other people is nice so long as you
tell the other person - ie, the one who is your husband or wife -
although, of course, you reject those roles.

When they have told the other person about the other person they
congratulate themselves for being honest and go for a walk in the park
to discuss it and maybe smoke a joint and, if necessary, tell the
children because by now there are probably two or three of them.

They do this again and again as the marriage goes on and they spend a
lot of time discussing it in the park and elsewhere until one day one
of them has sex with someone and does not tell the one who is their
husband or wife because they reject these roles anyway and this new
person is, well, different. And so Martha and John split up and
although they never really believed in property or custody they find
themselves fighting for hours and hours about these very things and
they find themselves wondering how they could have pretended to
themselves that things like ownership and jealousy and duty and - hell
- - maybe even marriage vows, did not exist.

"You screwed up on every front," says that voice again, "sexual,
social, political. Is that what you're saying? Is this an overdue apology?"

Yes and no. Look at the last photograph. This time it is a real one.
It is a picture of a young man with horn-rimmed glasses and hair
brushed well forward over the temples, and you can see he looks
nervous about something. He wants to please. He wants to get on. He is

It was, for a long time, my mother's favourite picture of me. The
image of the kind of person she wanted me to be. It stood on the
cupboard in my parents' house in north London almost constantly
between 1968 and the late 1970s - when I took it away secretly and
hurled it into a passing dustbin.

I left Oxford in 1969 and went straight into the BBC where I have
remained ever since. My politics did not seem to affect my career
much, although Alan Yentob, the head of BBC1, once told me that my
personnel file had Christmas trees on it (apparently this was a coded
sign that an individual was politically unreliable.) The more you got
the more dangerous you were supposed to be. I don't think I got that

I have worked under no fewer than seven heads of the music and arts
department of the television service. Like Sir Walter Raleigh on the
accession of King James I, I am a man left over from the previous
reign. And the reign before that and before that and... Soon perhaps
some fierce young executive will turn over a stone, find me cowering
there and order me out of the place. Until that day I suppose I shall
be making arts programmes and writing books and plays for as long as
people want them.

I suspect there are a lot of people like me. People who were never
quite of any particular moment but seem, somehow, to have survived.
The other day I walked into a party, held in a crowded garden, and was
confronted by face after face that I remembered from the days I have
been trying to recall. There were professors and poets and, in a far
corner, a bloke called Denis Matyasjek (now called Denis MacShane)
whom I remembered from my student days. He joined the International
Metalworkers Federation and for years seemed to lead the socialist
cause from Switzerland. Denis is now a new Labour MP. In another part
was Hermione Lee, the biographer and critic, still studious after all
these years but now a professor, her pale and graceful face keeping
its counsel from me as effectively as it did 30 years ago.

I kept to the edge of the gathering, watching, and as I watched these
people the years fell away from them and I saw a face suddenly
transposed over a flowered shirt, or a hand gesturing around a
wineglass transform itself into a clenched fist. I went up to a friend
and asked after a mutual acquaintance. He had played blues guitar,
done a fair amount of dope, been arrested for stealing books, had
even, some said, gone to Paris in order to help in the revolution (but
nobody was quite sure that he had actually done this).

Although not prominent in any of the cliques of the time, he seemed to
be a part of all of them. He was, we agreed, a quintessentially 1960s
person. After leaving Oxford he had never been heard of again. Where
did he go? Did he hitchhike his way east until 1971? Did he come back
to Britain and join the Angry Brigade in the 1970s? Had he, perhaps,
made money on the stock exchange in the 1980s? Was he, perhaps, now
doing well out of a business involving personal therapy or the sale of
natural body oils?

"I don't know what he did. But somewhere along the way I think..."
said my friend, and the whole crowd of the beautiful and successful
fifty-somethings seemed to freeze or go into slow motion as he said
this, "...he died. You can't stay young for ever."
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MAP posted-by: Derek Rea