In the summer of 1968 I was 16 years old and, in retrospect, those months appear significant for me only because I had sat my O-level examinations, and was waiting apprehensively for the results. Consequently, the rest of the summer of 68 remains something of a blur, but it’s not surprising that my memories are vague: the 1960s are over half a century ago now – a fact that, I suppose, makes them genuinely historical.
And yet, just before that same summer, the US was aflame with the most widespread riots in its history, following the assassination of Martin Luther King in April. Nine weeks later, in June, Robert Kennedy was also assassinated, and the autumn began with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in August, terminating the hopes of the Prague Spring with brutal efficiency.
Furthermore, 1968 had started with baleful auguries. In January, in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong launched the Tet offensive, almost overwhelming the might of the American and South Vietnam military. There were more than half a million US troops in Vietnam at the time. As spring ended, Parisian students and workers took to the capital’s streets, unleashing an eruption of civil strife that created a near revolution, effectively ending the era of Gaullism. And Germany was also convulsed with a social upheaval driven by students that shook society to its foundations, initiating the policy of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“Coming to terms with the past”) that still dominates German political debate and culture today. The list of significant sociopolitical traumas that occurred in that year is a long one. It is one of those years, like 1789 or 1848 or 1914 or 1933, where, with a little hindsight operating, one can see a paradigm shift in the affairs of the world and its peoples. Maybe that will prove true of 2020, as well.
As I began researching the precise time and location of my new novel, Trio (I had plumped, almost on a whim, for 1968) the serendipitous wisdom of my choice became apparent. Suddenly I had a fascinating context for my characters and their secret lives – all involved in different ways, in the making of a zany, swinging 60s movie – that had a strangely global relevance. The comedy and the absurdity of the situation, plus the intensely private and personal lives of the characters, were ideally counterposed with the darker geopolitical state of the world.
The cataclysms happening abroad had their effect on British society but, compared with the rest of the world, we were caught up in that complacent, hedonistic, freewheeling era. Despite malign rumblings in the background – sectarian discrimination in Northern Ireland provoking unrest and confrontation; Harold Wilson’s Labour government’s singular inability to pacify or negotiate with the trade unions – the state of Britain in the second half of the 60s is usually starkly contrasted with what was going on in the rest of the world. Britain’s travails seemed small-scale and localised compared with the whirlwinds tearing through the US, France, Germany and Italy and elsewhere.
The counterculture in Britain was small and isolated – intellectual and well-to-do – there was nothing similar to the stridency and potency of the student movements elsewhere. However, the historical watershed that was the 1960s and its legacy – and the tipping-point that was 1968 – can still be seen, albeit transformed, today. Martin Luther King’s assassination shifted the civil rights movement into something altogether more radicalised and militant. In 1968, Eldridge Cleaver published the seminal text Soul On Ice, placing the Black Power movement in the foreground of African American political engagement. In Memphis, striking black workers marched silently in protest with large placards slung around their necks proclaiming “I am a man” in foot-high letters. It’s not a big jump to Black Lives Matter.
Later, the vicious pitched battles between demonstrators and police in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention effectively demolished the hopes of Hubert Humphrey being elected president and allowed Richard Nixon to cruise to victory on a “law and order” ticket. Sound familiar? The same effect could be witnessed this coming November.
Other parallels abound. The French riots of May 1968 found their echo in the confrontations in Paris by the gilets jaunes last year. The first demonstrations at the Miss America pageant in September by the Women’s Liberation Movement started a process that led to victory in many feminist battles, although the war is not won, yet. At the Mexico City Olympic Games in October, black American medal-winners raised their fists in Black Power salutes on the podium. Now they “take the knee”. Far-left protest groups began to emerge with more anarchic, utopian objectives. In the US, the Weather Underground briefly flourished. In Germany the leftwing student movement, the SDS, nurtured the seeds of the Red Army Faction. Urban terrorism was reborn – direct action, circumventing due legal process, became more popular. We see the same tendencies today in Extinction Rebellion, Pussy Riot, Femen and other radical human rights organisations.
Whatever they may have inculcated or initiated, the swinging 60s in Britain didn’t actually begin in 1960. The early 60s were remarkably like the 50s, but various crucial cultural signposts have been proposed as to when the party actually started. Was it in 1964, when the first Brook Clinic opened and unmarried women as young as 16 could be prescribed the contraceptive pill? Was it in July that year when the Rolling Stones had their first No 1 hit with “It’s All Over Now”? Or was it the day that the model Jean Shrimpton wore a dress with the hem cut five inches above the knee to the Melbourne Races in 1965 and sparked world-wide astonishment and condemnation – and the miniskirt was born?
Dominic Sandbrook, in his remarkable and compendious history of the era, White Heat, plausibly advances the key moment as something less ephemeral, occurring in January 1965 when Winston Churchill – who was born in 1874 – died. With Churchill’s death went the last symbol of British Victorian imperial hegemony, and all the national myths constructed around him, and by him, suddenly lost their objective correlative. We were just another mid-sized country slowly sliding down the road to relative powerlessness and moderate influence. It was time for a change and the change duly occurred, but not in the way the rest of the word experienced it. Sandbrook comments that, “Bearing in mind [Britain’s] self-conscious traditions of conservatism and pragmatism, the relatively comfortable conditions in the universities, the rather gloomy stability of its political life and the long continuity of its institutions, it is hardly surprising that Britain did not witness vast protests to compare with Paris in May 1968.”
It wasn’t all depressing however, there was fun to be had. Elvis Presley rebooted his career with massive weight loss and a Comeback Special; Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey was released; Hair opened on Broadway; the Beatles didn’t break up, their White Album indicating that the show was still on the road, sort of; and the Apollo 8 astronauts successfully orbited the moon in the days leading up to Christmas.
So 1968 ended on something of an upbeat note – but the consensus was that many parts of the world had been through a particularly torrid, bleak and conflict-ridden period. In the editorial of its end-of-year issue, Time magazine summed up the preceding 12 months. “Seldom has the nation been confronted with such a congeries of doubts and discontents. While US prestige declined abroad, the nation’s self-confidence sank to a nadir at which it became a familiar litany that American society was afflicted with some profound malaise of spirit and will.” For the US, read the world. For 1968 read 2020. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
• William Boyd’s new novel, Trio, is published by Viking (£18.99). To order a copy go to Guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply