‘They were the best of times and they were the worst of times’. They were times of magic and they were times of mayhem. They began with the election of John Kennedy and the creation of the Camelot legend… Kennedy’s inspiring, idealistic and often profound words spoke to the whole world of young people. His ravishing wife mesmerised them. His death devastated them.
It felt as though a light had gone out. Joseph Campbell in his powerful description of his funeral in ‘Myths to Live By’, described him accurately as “that magnificent young man representing our whole society… taken away at the height of his career, at a moment of exuberant life”.
But we picked ourselves up, and listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and began to see the world through different eyes. Mary Quant changed the way we dressed (her father had taught me history – a sprightly and kind, grubby little man with his daughter’s features, who told me their name came from the Quantock hills in Somerset, where their family had lived forever). Up went our hems and out went our stuffy classics – the clothes our parents wore.
A name we’d never come across before, began appearing on our TV screens – Vietnam. It crept up on us. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s haunting song ‘The Universal Soldier’ came out in 1964, but it didn’t mean much to us then. It took a few more years before it became our lament for the war.
And the Beatles came in singing, songs pouring out them, ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Penny Lane’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and then Sgt Pepper, which took them and us to a whole new level. In their snappy suits and with their long hair – except that it wasn’t really long – they terrified parents who saw them as decadent. But they were innocent schoolboys compared with the Rolling Stones.
Vietnam rumbled along, spawning horrible words like overkill and escalate, which disguised the indiscriminate killing and the napalm. The soldiers came to Hong Kong from Saigon, for what was called R and R – rest and recreation – which really seemed to be exhausting themselves in the brothels of Wanchai. And all the really great newsmen in the world were stationed there in Hong Kong, the heads of NBC and CBS bureaus, journalists on the great newspapers from the capitals of the world, and the magazines like Time and Life. I was lucky to know many of them, and saddened when some of them never came back from Vietnam, and then Cambodia, and their broken-hearted wives and children packed up to go back home.
Maybe it wasn’t so, but it often seemed that the whole world was focussed on this part of the world from Saigon and Phnom Penh, to Hong Kong and Peking, as it was still known then. Draft dodgers from the US ended up in Hong Kong, refugees from the Cultural Revolution, as well as Quakers on missions of peace.
And as the news from Vietnam got worse, and then the news from the America, I hardly knew what to say to my closest American friends, as they grieved and felt ashamed for the assassination of Martin Luther King, and then Robert Kennedy a few months later. They shared the shame too, of Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. The students’ protests in the States, the rallies, the marches, the singing all reached us in Hong Kong.
But we were so close to the conflicts in Vietnam and then Cambodia,that these places overshadowed our lives as the correspondents and photographers flew in and out, escaped the Tet Offensive and Dien Bien Phu, or were ambushed and never came back. I lost several close friends, and their families lost fathers and husbands. And we were also sucked into Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which reverberated on into Hong Kong, with student rallies and bombs and Mao’s Revenge – cutting off our water for the whole summer of ‘68. We existed between the convulsions of China and the traumas of America.
And all the while we sang the songs of our time, and embraced what we called Women’s Lib, the gentler fore-runner of a later angrier and more effective feminism. We wore clothes with colours called psychedelic. And in ‘67 when we loved and danced to ‘When you come to San Franscisco,’ and the words, ‘there’s a strange vibration, a new generation, with a new explanation’ – flower power took over the world, and gentleness was fashionable. Girls in their long skirts, long beads and long hair, boys in ragged jeans, beads and beards were the symbol of those times. Hippies and alternative life-styles became part of our language and our culture.
They symbolised a youth who had turned their back on the values of the old world, the world of war and the assassination of all their heroes. They set their world on fire, marching, protesting, having sit-ins and singing, forever singing – ‘We shall overcome’, ‘Blowing in the wind’ … placing flowers in the mouth of the guns facing them on the campus. It was a conflict of established power against the youth of the world and the fulcrum was on US campuses. When firing erupted in May 1970 at Kent University it felt unbelievable. Did authority feel so threatened that they wanted to kill their own young?
Woodstock had felt like the triumphant ending of the decade in 1969… the young really felt then that the world would change, that their good intentions and their ideals, their songs which mirrored their disillusionment with the past and their hope and determination for the future, were the beginning of a new Aquarian age of love and peace.
Some say it was all hot air and youthful rebellion. That all the idealism and hope were dissipated with adulthood and a mortgage and materialism. But a recent survey of people who participated in those days of flower power – who were committed to changing the world – has found that those people were, and are still committed to their beliefs – that they had worked in places where they could help people, and live out their beliefs in love and peace, trying to bring hope to those who had none.
They had been volunteers in shelters, social workers, overseas volunteers and teachers, some were Buddhists or Quakers, or had found other spiritual beliefs. Some had none. Some were simply committed. But they hadn’t given up, the sixties did change them, and at grassroots level they are still putting into practise their songs and protests and beliefs about love and peace.
Those of us who lived through the sixties wear it as a badge of honour. This was our time, and Christopher Fry’s poem says it for us:
The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move,
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size….’
Those words are as true today as when they were written, but perhaps more urgent.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
When I have stale bread, I use it in two ways, unless there are ducks to feed! I chop it into cubes, and quickly fry them in hot olive oil (light). They can be used straight away in soups, or frozen and re-heated in the oven. Good bread like sour dough or wholemeal is best for this. Supermarket soggy reverts to type as soon as it hits the soup.
If I have stale sliced bread – supermarket soggy – which I’ve bought for indulgent sandwiches, (love egg, and cucumber sandwiches in soft white bread!) I lightly toast it, and cut the crusts off. Using a very sharp knife I slide it down the soft middle, and then have two very thin pieces of half toasted bread. I put these in the oven on medium for about ten minutes, and they curl and become wonderful melba –like toast for pate or spreads. Make sure they don’t over brown…if you have toast bread, it’s even better.
Food for Thought – Christopher Fry’s poem has given us that!