1968: The year of the posturing rebel
The student unrest in Paris and London 40 years ago filled our writer with revulsion. The protesters enjoyed enviable freedom and had no idea how lucky they were
In 1968 I was living the good life with my first wife and first baby in our first house on the swell of my first play and was beginning to be noted by my peers as someone who was politically dubious.
It was to be some years before a well known left-wing director, asked to typify a “Royal Court play”, replied that it was a play not written by Tom Stoppard, but I was already conscious of a feeling in myself which detached me from the prevailing spirit of rebellion when bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but to be young was to be where it’s at.
The feeling I refer to was embarrassment. I was embarrassed by the slogans and postures of rebellion in a society which, in London as in Paris, had moved on since Wordsworth was young and which seemed to me to be the least worst system into which one might have been born – the open liberal democracy whose very essence was the toleration of dissent.
I had not been born into it. You don’t need to be a qualified psychologist to work out that in England in 1968, 22 years after I arrived, I was much more disposed to champion my adoptive country than to find fault with it. For all I knew to the contrary, if my father had survived the war (he was killed in the Far East) he would have taken his family back to my birthplace in Czechoslovakia in 1946 and I would have grown up under the communist dictatorship which followed two years later.
I was as aware as most people were that not everything in the gardens of the West was lovely and of course we didn’t know – one never knows – the half of it. But when in August 1968 the armies of the Warsaw Pact invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, an act which was simply the ongoing occupation of eastern Europe writ bold, my embarrassment at our agit-prop mummers’ “revolution” turned to revulsion.
What repelled me was the implied conflation of two categorically different cases. The “free West”, God knew, was all too often disfigured by corruption and injustice but the abuses represented, and were acknowledged to represent, a failure of the model. In the East, though, the abuses represented the model in full working order.
A small incident which must have confirmed some people’s worst suspicions about me occurred when I was asked to sign a protest against “censorship” after a newspaper declined to publish somebody’s manifesto. “But that isn’t censorship,” I said. “That’s editing. In Russia you go to prison for possessing a copy of Animal Farm. That’s censorship.”
Communism’s “normality” relied on the distortion of language and my new hero, George Orwell, had long since diagnosed the disease in his own society, so I took this kind of thing very much to heart.
And in 1968 there was Paris, too. By August the smoke of May in Paris had cleared. There had been pitched battles between thousands of students and riot police, followed by a five-week occupation of the Sorbonne and a general strike. These were immense events, not much diminished – from my viewpoint in a thatched cottage off the M4 – by the coat-tails attachment of famous philosophers, actors and other luminaries of a generous state culture.
Even at this 40-year distance les événements of 1968 still give, by association, our more constrained English version a resonance for people who are vague about what happened in Prague or why. But I look back on our “revolution” – the occupation of the London School of Economics, Horn-sey College of Art and all the excitements of those heady days – as little more than a saturnalia.
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