They called 1967 ‘the Summer of Love’. It was the height of the hippy movement, a time of brilliant art, film and music, of joy and hope for a kinder world. At Monterey, up to 90,000 gentle, happy people with flowers in their hair (and few clothes) danced to The Byrds, The Who, Grateful Dead, Hendrix and many more. It was wonderful, naïve, and it couldn’t last. 1968 was the Year of Intolerance, a backlash.
To be fair, the year did witness more cultural breakthroughs. The Beatles were prolific (Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, Hey Jude, the White Album); there were huge music festivals at Newport and Miami, and Led Zeppelin gave their first live performance. The movies 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes and Rosemary’s Baby were premièred. Also in the UK, theatre censorship was finally abolished and was followed, the next day, by the London première of Hair!
But alongside these joyful scenes, a much darker world was emerging. To be honest, many of the year’s conflicts were justifiably initiated by young people themselves. There were huge black and student protests, notably against the Vietnam War, while students and workers rioted in Paris demanding social and educational reform. These brought a savage response from the authorities. There were other mass protest movements across the world and, in Derry, Northern Ireland, the RUC baton-charged civil rights demonstrators and ‘The Troubles’ began.
One of the saddest and most poignant events of 1968 was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4th. And with extraordinary insensitivity, this was followed two weeks later by Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
What on Earth had happened to ‘peace, love and tolerance’? All the hope and optimism of the Swinging Sixties seemed to be crushed. Suddenly, the peaceful revolution had become violent as love (caring for others) and politics (the status quo) became intertwined.
Meanwhile, another major story was brewing in central Europe. Many of us didn’t take much notice, perhaps because we had so much happening on our own doorsteps – or are we not really interested in foreigners’ politics? After all, there was an Iron Curtain separating us from the communists and what went on behind it didn’t affect us (unless they moved their bombs closer). But this story was going to erupt in a dramatic and life-changing way, not only for Europe but also for at least one particular British individual.
On the 5th of January, 1968, Alexander Dubček became leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (as it was then). Prompted by a fast-growing movement of students and workers who called, in their own way, for social reform and civil rights, the Prague Spring was born. In April, Dubček made a major speech calling for individual liberties, political and economic reforms, and a change in the structure of the nation. This was followed in early July by the Two Thousand Words Manifesto, signed by the nation’s writers and intellectuals, the clearest statement yet of the people’s yearning for liberalisation. Socialism had failed, administered by people who didn’t have “the decency to listen to the opinion of others”, to a point where nobody felt they could trust anyone else. Sounds familiar?
The same month, that one British individual (okay, yes, it was me) was having a short holiday in Wales before going up to Manchester University. Naïve and immature, knowing nothing about politics and possibly less about girls, the angels decided to move my life on rapidly. Out of the blue, I found myself undeniably falling in love at first sight with a girl on the beach. (‘Aha,’ said the angels, ‘nothing is that simple.’) Unfortunately, the girl was Czech and had just decided that she needed to return home to see whether her folks were okay. In any case, our own families could not tolerate the relationship (“She’s a communist.” “He’s a capitalist.” You can guess the sort of thing.)
The Soviet Union’s response to the Manifesto was not welcoming. Just as we in America and Britain were finding our own peaceful revolution thwarted by our governments’ reactions, the Czechs and Slovaks were about to be crushed by the forces of the Warsaw Pact as 750,000 troops, 6,500 tanks and 800 planes invaded on the 21st August. A peaceful, democratic nation could not be tolerated by its ‘family’.
Fifty years on, for all the wonderful growth of ‘spiritual awareness’ in the meantime (of which this magazine is a shining example), we still face huge challenges in bringing the `Sixties revolution to fruition. On our streets, there is more intolerance than ever of those who are ‘different’, of religious and ethnic minorities, and of those who don’t agree with our politics. To the east, Russian imperialism is rising again.
Those of us who believe in the spiritual way of life have a great challenge and responsibility now. We must “be the change that we want to see” and adopt the hippies’ example every day of living in peace and caring for our neighbours, whatever their differences. And we must never forget the past sacrifices of so many others in the name of peace.
Ah, what happened to the young lovers?! I tell the story in my novel Broken Sea, based on those personal experiences It is published by Local Legend (ISBN 978-1-910027-23-3).
Article by Nigel Peace