Were You There?

‘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 Khe Sanh, 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!


Filed under cookery/recipes, culture, great days, history, life and death, music, philosophy, poetry, politics, spiritual, The Sound of Water, the sxities, Thoughts on writing and life

40 responses to “Were You There?

  1. Pure nostalgia evoking wonderful memories of times gone by. “Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.” [Mary Hopkins].


    • Oh Lizziejoy…I’d forgotten that gorgeous song… was that sixties or seventies? but the sentiments were definitely sixties!
      Lovely to hear from you-
      Actually you’ve been on my mind – I went back to Russell’s blog after I had a long long message about God, and found you had had one too!


      • Hi Valerie, I was born late 1954 into a very religious household. We didn’t have radio or tv for many years and so I missed the early and middle years of the 60’s. But I loved ‘those were the days’ [among many others]. Mary Hopkin was born in S Wales. The song was produced by Paul Mc Cartney and released in the UK in August 1968 and went to number 1 in the UK singles charts. [just looked it up on Wikipedia]
        I noticed the messages on Russel’s site, too. Everyone is entitled to their opinions of course, but I didn’t feel the need to reply. I had already given
        out my heart’s message – mission accomplished. Lovely to know we share similar belief systems. Blessings.


      • HI Lizziejoy, thank you for replying.. I didn’t realise that Paul McCartney had done ..’ Those were the days’… it’s Mary Hopkins for me… such an evocative song… have you heard the original yearning Russian version with balalaikas? It’s on Youtube…
        Yes, I had picked up your philosophy from your blog… it shines out.. XXX


      • Yes, I did watch that version this morning. I still prefer Mary Hopkins. I also came across the Leningrad Cowboys and the Russian Red Army singing the song too on You tube. Say no more!!


      • Wow – we’re on a roll !!!!


  2. Fantastic post! Brought back lots of memories…


  3. I was a child then and the world was exciting and bewildering. The world of my parents was changing and mine was forming. As a child, Vietnam was a struggle to keep the dreaded communists at bay; as a young adult it was a crime against humanity; today, it seems to be a lesson not learned and doomed to be repeated. The caring, however, is what has endured. Amid all the callousness, there is a foundation of caring that persists. Thanks, Valerie! xoM


  4. Thank you Margarita, what a perfect summing up of Vietnam… Trying to look on the bright side of things ! –
    maybe we are beginning to learn the lesson when you think back to the world-wide protests against war when Bush decided to go into Afghanistan and then Iraq. We have to change the mind-set of power…..that’s the hard nut to crack!


  5. Amy

    It was a chaotic times… So true–those people are still committed to their beliefs. Great post. Thank you, Valerie!


  6. I was there. I remember when Kennedy was shot. I was sitting in a high school classroom and someone came in and told the teacher. He started to cry. It was frightening. After that … all the turbulence! I participated in many college sit-ins, walk-outs, arm-band wearing protests. I was on my way, on the road to Woodstock ….. but that’s a story for another day! 🙂


    • I shall look forward to reading that story good friend,. How moving in your classroom, and yet I was always glad that people cared so much. I remember too – a few months pregnant and my new husband coming home at 7’15, and putting the wireless on saying that Kennedy had been shot, It was during the famous daily serial ‘ The Archers’, which no-one ever interrupted.. and I said don’t worry, look at all that fuss about De Gaulle being shot a few weeks ago, and it turned out to be very really exaggerated. And as I finished the sentence, they broke into the programme…


  7. my heart deeply touched by this and found that I let out a deep long sigh as I finished reading…yes, we all live on, each affected and in our own ways, we interpret and manifest the vision that so magnificently appeared in our youth. I believe it a glimpse of the Power of Love which then flowed down and became interpreted by a prism of minds and intellects thirsty for Peace and a revolution of Life…and Ideals….what brilliance in the making….perhaps it will come round in a new way some day again!


    • Linda- lovely thoughts from you – I think you are right about that infusion of Love and I think we all bear the marks of having been alive in that amazing time…God wastes nothing, and I think we were so blessed to have been able to enjoy those times and feel them so deeply.. And I know that the New Children being born now, already know what we learned then, Love, Valerie


  8. Wonderful post Valerie! Those were the days. I remember them well. The music, flowers, tie dye clothes, bell bottoms, love beads, peace signs. Believe it or not, I still have some clothes from those days and lots of music.

    Here in America we’ve never learned about sending people off to war and staying out of other countries affairs. It’s probably something we will never grasp. I lost several friends in the Vietnam war. It sure would be nice to live in peace and harmony with each other.



    • Hello Sunni – lovely comments thank you… Peace, man peace… remember… The music was the great thing abut that decade wasn’t – there’s never been another decade so clearly defined by its music…
      Yes, all countries are on a learning curve when it comes to war, most people don’t want it, but politicians who don’t have to go to war, never hesitate…


  9. What a wonderful post. I grew up in the sixties, came of age during this tumultuous time. My world view formed from watching Vietnam and Civil Rights on the nightly news and listening to my parents.

    You captured it so well.


    • Valentine, thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed the blog…so you were there – good to know that those who were there recognise the same things that i saw… as Lizzie joy says, “those were the days,my love, we thought they;d never end.”..


  10. Wonderful post Valerie and timely as my two eldest daughters head off for a holiday to Vietnam at the end of this week. I hope they have a sense of the history of the place, rather than how they now find it. I must share this post with them. thanks


    • Hello Leanne, good to hear from you … it’ll be interesting to know how your daughters find Vietnam.. I know someone who works in Hanoi – the forbidden city – teaching English, and she loves it, completely unconscious of the past…


  11. I was there in spirit and know all the songs. What a great era that was. I think we need another one of those to wake some people up. I’m reading your book at the moment and enjoying it very much.


  12. WHEW! You summed it all up in a great post! I had chills as I read it and I am still lost in memory! Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart!



    • Oh Linda, thank you for your lovely comments… memories of the sixties are very potent, aren’t they…the times they were a-changing them, and I think we all bear the marks if we were there….


  13. Military/Industrial Genius

    We had the greatest military ever walked the earth
    The best equipped
    The best moral
    The Bomb!
    . . . In 1945.
    And then we sent them to Korea
    Then to Vietnam
    Never a chance of winning
    Even peace
    Only an endless need of weaponry.
    Bullets are cheapest
    Just six dollars for a single round of 50 cal.
    Those twelve or twenty rounds so common
    Cost eighty or a hundred twenty bucks
    Perhaps a life or two . . . or more
    Unless you have to be there
    Located on side or the other
    Older men stay home
    . . . Get rich
    The young
    . . . Get dead.
    Published in Blue Collar Review Summer 2012
    Bruce Louis Dodson


  14. The 1960’s was a decade of radical change brought about by a generation ready to take on the inequities that have been with humanity since the dawn of time. We believed that we could make a difference. I remember the day that JFK was assassinated, MLK’s “I have a dream” speech, Kent State, the Vietnam marches and the struggle for women’s liberation. Those years gave me the courage to look at issues without the personal attacks. Now, a new generation has taken over when the stakes are higher than ever before. I know that they will lift up the banner with courage and grace. May they remember these years with the same joy as we do looking back at the 1960’s.


  15. And i missed all of it! I would have been a perfect flower child. But seriously, .reading your synopsis of this period just brings home to me how very violent and dreadful this time was.. as free speech and free thought was stamped on and sometimes stamped out,… in fact the america we see now is a symptom of this bloody period.. people forget that. c


    • Celi, you would certainly have been the loveliest and most perfect flower child… I can’t believe that you chose to miss it… but maybe we all needed a reminder a few years later, and you were the perfect last flower child….’And joking apart, a very accurate and perceptive analysis of the tragedy that we see now…We just have to hope the Indigo Children and the other New Children can sort us out….and I think the time is coming…


  16. Wow….while I was born in 1960 and was just a young-un during much of this….it was a huge influence on my life…..music, clothing, attitude. I think I recall more than anything practicing our “bomb” drills and getting under our desks. How can this be explained to a little one without scaring them to death???? The positive? At the time it was the same drill for a tornado. And in Okla….there was no need for explanation of that. 🙂 Thanks for taking us back…..


    • I’ve only just discovered your comment, apologies for my tardiness, I’m not a very organised blogger. I loved reading what you said…you never know how things seem to others…
      Fancy you practising for tornadoes as long ago as that… our school children and even toddlers practise for earthquakes here in NZ.
      So good to hear from you


      • We experienced our first earthquakes that were large enough to actually “feel” this past spring. Strong enough to loosen some tile…and crook the pics on the wall. When it first happened, we just looked at each other…and then it was over. We were CLUELESS! lol! But tornadoes…..we grab our cameras and head outside until the rain begins…then we take cover when necessary. Sad that it is such a part of life.

        I always enjoy reading your blog! Keep up the terrific job! 🙂 paula


  17. Yaz

    Wow, what a trip into the past…I was born in 1960, so was too young to participate in the life you talk about, but I love to re-visit with all the movies and especially the music. I caught the end of the hippie era and felt I missed out on something special.

    I love your writing Valerie. You are interesting and full of life.


  18. Karen

    A friend told me about your blog and I have read a few with great interest. After reading ‘Were you there? ‘ I instantly became a follower. This impressive piece of writing took me back to my childhood. Although only at primary school I remember the war coming into our home each night on the TV and the sound track of our lives with the music and the memories of the clothes we wore: bright kaftans lovingly sewed by mum. I thought you must have worked as a writer. What an interesting life you have led! You took me on a journey and I am looking forward to readi g many more. Karen


    • Karen, Thank you so much for your comments, I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog, it’s a wonderful way to reach people who enjoy reading and writing. Your memories of the sixties sound very sweet.. so good to hear from you, and thank you for taking the time to comment…


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