In 1968 itself it often felt as if they had put something in the water. It was a mixture of longing and exhilaration, and that choking feeling that something important was going on somewhere nearby, and you would have no peace of mind until you found it.
In fact, I now think, they had put something in the air, most especially in the music. It had been working on us for years. Mostly it was not politics, just the clever use of certain chords and rhythms to fill us with excitement and anticipation. Take the extraordinary Phil Spector hit of 1963, Da Doo Ron Ron – the key phrase in the lyrics was intentionally nonsensical, but the thunder of the opening drums and all that followed had a clear message which bypassed all the civilised senses and went straight to our primitive core. It said “Do what thou wilt”.
I remember that particular song echoing through more than one summer of the middle Sixties, and I suspect that it had far more of an effect on young minds than the overtly political lyrics of Bob Dylan’s 1964 The Times They Are a-Changin’. The lines that had real, powerful influence were much more along the lines of the apolitical Beatles’ 1967 song Getting Better, with its sneers at uncool teachers and rules, or She’s Leaving Home, of the same year. This curious song, based on a real case of a teenage girl who slipped away from her home to run off with a croupier, ends with the seemingly final words “bye bye!”, which always sounded to me like a cruel dismissal of her parents’ distress at her departure (“we gave her most of our lives”). In fact she did eventually come home, pregnant. And then she aborted the baby.
That would not have made much of a song. But nobody wanted to know about such sordid outcomes. We all thought we were in a safe suburban garden, somewhere in Enid Blyton Land, where our actions could not have grave consequences for us or for anyone else.
In fact we were on the edge of the Wild Wood. We had no idea of the real nature of the ancient dangers from which our parents’ supposedly crabby morals were protecting us, or of the madness, death and ruin that would wreck the lives of so many who were seduced by the troubadours of the time. When we stopped to think about it, we were scared and lost, as Leonard Cohen put it so beautifully when he asked around the same time, “Where do all these highways go, now that we are free?”
And then, after several years of this, came the May events in Paris, and – some weeks earlier – the strange outbreak of violence outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, on St Patrick’s Day 1968. I was at Grosvenor Square that day, and a few weeks later longed to be in Paris, and – though I was more or less clueless about the causes involved – I think I now understand why.
All of us long to cloak our petty personal desires and pleasures in the grandeur of a high purpose and a mighty army. Foolish rows with parents over trivia, clashes with teachers over poor work and misbehaviour, not to mention the listlessness and solitude of the adolescent state – all these things are given meaning by revolution.
From then on our sulks and delinquency, our greasy dabblings with drugs and our scrofulous, immoral sexual scuffles (ending rather too often at the abortion clinics which were just getting up to speed in 1968) are dignified by a high-minded concern which elevates us above the compromised generation who have allowed Vietnam, or whatever it is, to happen. Everything we do is justified because we are scared of nuclear annihilation (though I never was, for a moment), or because we are allegedly disgusted by the dropping of napalm on peasants in Southeast Asia. Or we can look down on the older generation because they are, or so we believe, racial bigots.
The Paris events of 50 years ago actually began because male students wanted access to female dormitories at the University of Nanterre, a rather sexist ambition which their modern revolutionary successors would deplore, or pretend to deplore. Somehow, by the strange magic of events, this squabble led to barricades and pitched battles, and the panic flight of President de Gaulle, a man who had refused to surrender to forces surely much greater than this. Yet perhaps he saw how huge a monster it was that had been unleashed. Taken as a political or economic protest, 1968 was a short-lived, noisy failure. But properly understood as the first great impulse of cultural and moral revolution, it was a huge, lasting and continuing success.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday