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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part One – The Legacy of a Lost Generation.   Leave a comment

Introduction – Testaments of Torment:

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British sailors march through Whitehall in July 1919 past the temporary cenotaph to commemorate the end of the war.

The main effect of the first world war was a loss on a scale that exceeded the Holocaust, together with the traumas that matched it. As many as nine million combatants from all warring nations were killed in action, at an average of over six thousand on every day of the war’s four-and-a-quarter years’ duration. It was a hell of mud, blood, barbed wire and broken bodies, as vast rows of artillery thundered tons of hot metal on to each already churned-up square metre of earth, tree and human remnant. Spectral memories of the lost men haunted the gleaming white cemeteries, memorials and shrines that sprang up, from Melbourne’s shrine of remembrance to Whitehall’s cenotaph to the battlefield graves and ossuaries at Douaumont and Thiepval. The founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission calculated that if Britain’s war dead were to have marched past Edwin Lutyens’ austere London monument, it would have taken three-and-a-half days before the rearguard trooped by. There were also fifteen million permanently blinded, crippled or maimed, as well as many others whose minds were so damaged they would never recover their equilibrium, and I have written about these survivors elsewhere.

Here I want to concentrate on the psychological torments of parents who lost sons during the conflict, wives who lost husbands, children who lost fathers and sisters who lost brothers. One of those who lost both brothers and lovers was Vera Brittain. Her first world war classic autobiography, Testament of Youth, told the story of the ‘lost generation’ wiped out in the trenches. It was first published in 1933 and remained influential in the late twentieth century, being made into an excellent BBC Television drama in the late seventies. She lost a number of her closest friends as well as her fiancé and brother in the conflict.

Testament of War – Letters of Vera Brittain & Roland Leighton:

003At the heart of Testament of Youth was Vera Brittain’s own anguished love affair with Roland Leighton, the dashing best friend of her brother at Uppingham School. Their letters were published in 1998 and revealed the unbearable poignancy of their relationship. Roland’s first letter to Vera from Uppingham on 15 July 1914 demonstrates just how quickly the plans of young people changed that summer:

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed the two days you were here… You will let me know how you have got on in your exams, won’t you? I suppose I shall not see you again until October at Oxford.

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Roland Leighton

Vera replied from her parents’ home in Buxton (in Derbyshire) that she thought she had failed her Latin exam and so would not be able to go up to Oxford that autumn. On the 29th, Roland wrote back that he would not give up hoping to see her at Oxford that October unless he knew for certain that she had not passed when the results came out at the end of August. But less than a week after he wrote this letter, Britain declared war on Germany. Roland and Vera’s brother, Edward, who had been sent home early from their Officers’ Training Corps summer camp at Aldershot, attempted to find temporary commissions in the army. Roland then wrote to Vera from his mother’s home in Lowestoft on 21 August 1914:

I am feeling very chagrined and disappointed at present. I expected Edward has told you that I have been trying for a temporary commission in the Regulars. On Tuesday it only remained for me to go up for my Medical Exam. I got on very well until they stuck up a board at the end of the room and told me to read off the letters on it. . I had to be able to read at least half, but found I could not see more than the first line of large letters. The Medical Officer was extremely nice about it, … but it was of no use … PS: You may be amused to hear that I am engaged in cultivating a moustache – as an experiment.

Vera wrote back immediately to express her sympathy with him over this rejection, but felt it was for the best as he could now exercise his ‘intellectual qualities’ at Oxford; they would be of little use to him in gaining promotion in the Army. Two days later, on 27 August, she wrote again to inform him that she had, after all, passed her Latin. She was much relieved at this, as she didn’t know how she could have endured the thought of you and Edward enjoying Oxford life and myself cut out of it for another year. Roland confirmed that he was now expecting to go up so that all three of them would be at Oxford together. But on 28 September, with just ten days to go before the start of term, he wrote to tell Vera that he could no longer say confidently that he would be at Oxford after all. He stood a good chance of being accepted into the 4th Norfolks and would know definitely within the week. He wrote that:

Anyhow, I don’t think in the circumstances I could easily bring myself to endure a secluded life of scholastic vegetation. It would seem a somewhat cowardly shirking of my obvious duty. In fact if I do not get to Oxford at all, as seems possible, I shall not much regret it – except that perhaps in that I shall miss the incidental pleasure of seeing you there. Of course, all being well, I could go up after everything is over. I feel, that I am meant to take some active part in this war. It is to me a very fascinating thing – something, if often horrible, yet very enobling and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the reach of all cold theorising. You will call me a militarist. You may be right.

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Vera Brittain

Vera replied, on 1 October, that she never expected him to want to go to Oxford; conditions were now very different from those of a month previously. She didn’t know whether his feelings about war were those of a ‘militarist’ or not: She had always called herself a non-militarist, yet the raging of these elemental forces fascinated her, horribly but powerfully, as it did him. Her mixed feelings about war were complicated by her being a woman:

… whether it is noble or barbarous I am quite sure that had I been a boy I should have gone off to take part in it long ago; indeed I have wasted many moments regretting that I am a girl. Women get all the dreariness of war & none of its exhilaration.

A week later, Roland was informed that he had been approved for a commission. In her next letter to him in mid-October, Vera wrote from Somerville College that he had been right in thinking that life at Oxford would have been difficult for him as an undergraduate in war-time. She didn’t know how those there could endure not to be in khaki. Roland’s mother took rooms in London at Christmas and Vera was invited to visit before New Year. On 1 January 1915, he wrote to her, thanking her for her visit:

It has been such a delight to be with you these past two days. I think I shall  always remember them in their wonderful incompleteness and unreality. When I left you I stood by the fountain in the middle of Piccadilly circus to see the New Year in. It was a glorious night, with a full moon so brightly white as to seem blue slung like an arc-lamp directly overhead. I had the feeling of extreme loneliness one is so often conscious of in a large crowd. There was very little demonstration: two Frenchmen standing up in a cab singing the Marseillaise: a few women and some soldiers behind me holding hands and softly humming ‘Auld Lang Syne’. When twelve ‘o’ clock struck there was only a little shudder among the crowd and a distant muffled cheer, and then everyone seemed to melt away again leaving me standing there with tears in my eyes and feeling absolutely wretched.

At the ‘Ides of March’, Roland went to Buxton to say his farewells. Early on the wintry morning of 19 March, Vera said goodbye to him on Buxton Station as he left on the first stage of the journey, with his regiment, to France. After crossing the Channel on 1 April, the regiment’s only immediate sign of war was a sudden flare of light along the road at night and a glimpse of a French military car rushing past, together with an occasional patrol of blue-coated cavalry. Although they could hear the distant sound of heavy artillery fire, for the time being, they were out of the danger zone.

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A Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse tends to a wounded soldier

On 5 April, Vera wrote from Buxton to tell Roland that she was volunteering to help in a large hospital nearby which had been extended to admit the wounded. The Matron said that they had more work than they could manage satisfactorily so that she was glad to accept Vera’s offer. She was to serve as a voluntary aid detachment (VAD) nurse for the rest of the war. By the 11th, she had heard that they were expecting a great many wounded in the summer and would probably want all the extra nurses they could get. They would be almost sure to need her, not merely to darn socks as she had been doing, but to do the usual probationer’s work. Joking, she wrote that if he ‘must get wounded’ he should try to postpone it ’till about August’ by which time she hoped to be efficient enough to be able to look after him. By 12 April, Roland was in the trenches but wrote that there was not really much to do, just that the officers…

…have to go round now and again to see that the men are in their right places and the sentries looking out (in the daytime through periscopes). They go round every three hours or so at night as well and so don’t get much sleep. No one is allowed to take his clothes off, and so you have to scrape as much mud as possible off your boots with a bayonet, tie up each foot in a small sack to keep the mud out of your sleeping bag, and get in boots and all. You rarely have much opportunity to shave or wash properly. It is just getting dusk and the ration parties will be coming in to take the letters back with them. This letter will have been carried under fire by the time it reaches you. Good night, dear, and do not worry on my account…

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May 1915 in the trenches

On 19 April, the Norfolks’ trenches in the middle of a ‘vast wood’ were shelled for some time, and they had their first man killed, shot through the head. But sitting in the sunlight while writing, facing a bank of primroses, Roland was struck by the grim contrast between the danger of war and death and thoughts of the beauty of life and love. The previous morning he had gone up to his fire trench through the sunlit wood and found the body of a dead British soldier hidden in the undergrowth a few yards from the path:

He must have been shot there during the wood fighting in the early part of the war and lain forgotten all of this time … You do not mind my telling you these gruesome things, do you? You asked me to tell you everything. It is of such things that my new life is made.

Vera wrote back affirming that she did want to be told all the gruesome things since she knew that even war would not blunt his sensibilities. She wanted his ‘new life’ to be hers to as great an extent as possible. Her now more conscious ‘feminism’ is evident in the rationale she gave for this:

Women are no longer the sheltered and protected darlings of man’s playtime, fit only for the nursery and the drawing-room – at least, no woman that you are interested in could ever be just that. Somehow I feel it makes me stronger to realise what horrors there are … Now you are in the midst of it all, do you still feel you will come through to the end? 

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On 29th, Roland wrote his letter just after dawn, when everything was very still. Again, he was struck by the contrast between his natural surroundings and the accompanying reminders, sometimes in dramatic interruptions, of the reality of war:

From where I am sitting I can see the sun on the clover field just behind the trenches and a stretch of white road beyond. There are birds singing in the wood on our left, and small curls of blue wood smoke from the men’s fires climbing up through the trees. One of our Machine Guns has been firing single shots every few minutes with a cold and lazy regularity that seems singularly in harmony. Everyone else except the sentries is asleep. … 7.30 am: A French biplane went up a few minutes ago and is circling round and round over the German lines. They have got two anti-aircraft guns and a Maxim trying to hit him. It is a marvellous sight. Every minute there is a rapid report like the pop of a drawn cork magnified, and a fluffy ball of cotton wool appears suddenly in the air beside him. He is turning again now, the white balls floating all around him. You think how pretty it all is – white bird, white puffs of smoke, and the brilliant blue of the sky. It is hard to realise that there is danger up there, and daring, and the calculated courage that is true heroism…

The ‘colour’ in this description also contrasts sharply with our popular images of a war fought in sepia or black-and-white. Meanwhile, on May Day morning in Oxford, Vera was up at dawn for the famous celebrations at the Magdalen tower, the choristers singing the traditional Latin hymn while turning slowly to the sun. Again, her feelings were a mixture of the appreciation of beauty and the pain of thinking how different their lives were now from what they had pictured the previous July, with both of them there enjoying the celebrations together. A week later, she wrote that her greatest object was to get this term over. She didn’t think that another term while the war was in its present condition (and you in yours) would be tolerable. 

Two days later, the first man in Roland’s battalion was killed. He described to Vera the way he had been taking things out of his pockets and tying them round in his handkerchief to be sent back somewhere to someone who would see more than a torn letter, and a pencil, and a knife and a piece of shell. Soon after, Vera received a letter from one of her school friends whose brother was wounded and was then in a hospital in London. Vera’s friend wrote that there were only three officers surviving, including her brother, out of his battalion, and 159 men out of five thousand. They had had to hold their trenches while under shell fire without a single gun to help them and had watched the Germans forming up to attack them without being able to do anything. Their trenches had been taken and as he had been lying wounded he saw the Germans bayoneting his men, including several of his friends, who had also been lying wounded. Vera wondered how he would be affected by this experience.

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On 21 May, Vera wrote that she had never read anything quite so terrible as the official report of the German outrages in Belgium, especially their treatment of the women and children. As a signal of how her attitudes were hardening, like those of many others in response to what we now know was anti-German propaganda, she wrote that she didn’t know how any man could read it and then not enlist, and urged Roland and everyone at the front she knew, “Once you get hold of them, do your very worst.”  She also felt increasingly hostile towards some of the young men among the Whitsuntide trippers whom she witnessed ‘lounging down’ the streets of Oxford…

 … smoking cigarettes with a vacant expression … and a self-satisfied smile on their faces, twirling Japanese umbrellas… and poking them at the passers-by … I can scarcely bear to look at them and think that you and such as you are enduring toil and weariness and risking death that they may remain safe, and that your task is made is made all the harder and heavier because the hero of the Japanese umbrella refrains from relinquishing it for a bayonet. No one has the right to lounge these days, not even an American…

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Above & below, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War

A week later, at the end of May, Vera wrote to Roland of the more than usually heated conflict… going on in the papers about the war in general and conscription in particular. Lord Northcliffe’s papers seemed to be attacking everyone in authority, especially Lord Kitchener, and the rest of the press was attacking Lord Northcliffe. It seemed…

… a dreadful state of affairs that the authorities are quarrelling among themselves at home while men who are in their hands are dying for them abroad. One begins to doubt the advisability even of the freedom of the Press.

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At the beginning of June, Roland wrote to Vera of his growing disillusionment with the war after two months at the front:

I wonder if I shall still be Somewhere in Flanders when July comes, and memories of Speech Day 1914, and all that I had hoped of Oxford … It all seems so very far away now, I sometimes think that I must have exchanged my life for someone else’s.

On 6 June, he wrote again of the possibility of his getting six days’ leave in the near future. Vera wrote back that sometimes she felt that she couldn’t bear to see him again until the war was over, that the only thing she could not endure living over again the morning of March 19th on Buxton railway station, when they had said goodbye. But she knew that even a short visit from him would be worthwhile and that she was willing to pay the bitterness of death for the sweetness of life. Roland, inexplicably, ‘fell silent’ during July, and at the end of the month, Vera heard that there was a ‘faint chance’ of her getting into a large London hospital as a VAD (auxiliary nurse). The hospital was an ‘immense place’ at Camberwell (No 1 London General), established at the beginning of the war but recently extended, containing over a thousand beds. The hospital administration needed to make an increase in nursing staff as a result and to recruit more VAD staff like Vera. She was keen to transfer there as the hospital got all the wounded straight from the trenches and the VADs were needed to do all the minor dressings.

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Wounded soldiers recovering in an English hospital

On 29 July, she sent Roland a volume of the poems of Rupert Brooke, whom she had regarded as the most promising poet of the younger generation. Brooke was a well-known poet before 1914 who had had his poem The Old Vicarage included in a 1912 volume of Georgian Poetry. He had enlisted in the Navy when the war broke out and fought in the unsuccessful defence of Antwerp, where the naval brigade fought as if they were soldiers. He wrote his five famous war sonnets at Rugby School during the last months of 1914 when he was home on leave. He served in the fleet that was attacking the Turkish positions in the Dardanelles, but on 23 April  1915, he died of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship of the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. He was buried on top of a high hill on the Greek island of Skyros; among the burial party was Arthur Asquith, son of the Prime Minister. Brooke had not been dead long, however, before the more clear-sighted of his fellow-poets saw the limitations of the poetry that he typified. Charles Sorley expressed in one of his letters his conviction that Brooke’s sonnets had been overpraised:

He is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances.

Arthur Graeme West, who was killed in 1917, expressed his contempt of poets who wrote such lines as ‘O happy to have lived these epic days’ and ignored the revolting appearance of the dead and dying in actual warfare. One of his own poems began with a direct attack on Brooke and his imitators:

God! how I hate you, you young cheerful men,

Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves

As soon as you are in them.

From a literary perspective, the critic F. R. Leavis wrote that Brooke’s verse exhibited a genuine sensuousness rather like Keats’s … and something… rather like Keats’s vulgarity with a Public School accent.  On the other hand, Robert Nichols, a leading Georgian poet and friend both of Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon from before 1914, was still insisting in 1943 that:

Rupert Brooke’s sonnets are full of that sensation of being gathered up. They are wonderful works of art and it is sad that they have come to be regarded by many with suspicion.

But the latter half of the war produced a second generation of young soldiers who produced very different kinds of war poetry from that of  Brooke or Nichols. At the time Vera sent them to Roland she thought he would love them all … not the War Sonnets only, though they are perhaps the most beautiful. She was right, as on receiving the volume, he read it straight through. He wrote of how it made him feel that he wanted to sit down and write things himself instead of doing what he had to do as an officer there, and of how…

It stirs up all the old forgotten things, and makes me so, so angry and impatient with most of the soulless nonentities one finds around one here. I used to talk of the Beauty of War; but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful. Modern warfare is merely a trade, and it is only a matter of taste whether one is a soldier or a greengrocer, as far as I can see. Sometimes by dint of an opportunity a single man may rise from the sordidness to a deed of beauty; but that is all.

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‘No road this way’: the Germans made access very difficult for the advancing Allies.

On 15 August, Roland wrote to let Vera know that he was coming home on leave in three days’ time. He then sent a telegram arranging to meet her at St Pancras’ first-class ladies’ waiting room as soon as he could get across there from Liverpool Street Station. Roland’s leave lasted for just under a week, during which he and Vera agreed to become unofficially engaged “for three years or the duration of the War”. After spending the first night at Buxton, they travelled to Lowestoft to be with his family. As they sat alone on a cliff path, the afternoon before their departure, Roland rested his head on Vera’s shoulder for a while, and then kissed her. As she had to return to report for nursing duty in Buxton and Roland was not returning to France until the end of the week, he saw her off at St Pancras on 23 August. He kissed her goodbye and then, almost furtively, wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. Later that day, Vera wrote in her diary, I hadn’t realised until then that this quiet & self-contained person was suffering so much.

Return of the dead officer’s kit:

As the train began to move she had time to kiss him and murmur “Goodbye”. She stood by the door and watched him walk back through the crowd, not turning around. What she could see of his face was ‘set and pale’. That was the last Vera saw of Roland. His next leave was due to be at Christmas 1915, but he died on 23 December of wounds received during a night-time wire inspection a day earlier. Instead of receiving him home in person, his family were sent his ‘personal effects’ in the New Year. What follows here is are extracts from a letter written by Vera to her brother Edward on 14 January 1916 from the London hospital where she was working as a nurse. She had travelled to Brighton to visit Roland’s family:

I arrived at a very opportune, though very awful, moment. All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them  and they were all lying on the floor. I had no idea before of the results of an officer’s death, or what the returned kit, of which so much has been written in the papers, really meant. It was terrible. Mrs Leighton and Clare were both crying as bitterly as on the day we heard of the his death, and Mr Leighton with his usual instinct was taking all the things everybody else wanted and putting them where nobody could ever find them…

These were his clothes – the clothes in which he came home from the front last time. Everything was damp and worn and simply raked with mud. And I was glad that neither of you, nor Victor, nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn those things when he was living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards and the dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes. I know now what he meant when he used to write of “this refuse heap of a country’ or “a trench that is nothing but a charnel-house’. 

And the wonder is, not that he temporarily lost the extremest refinements of his personality as Mrs Leighton says he did, but that he ever kept any of it at all – let alone nearly the whole. He was more marvellous than even I dreamed. There was his cap, bent in and shapeless out of recognition – the soft cap he wore rakishly on the back of his head – with the badge coated thickly with mud. He must have fallen on top of it, or perhaps one of the people who fetched him trampled on it …

We discovered that the bullet was an expanding one. The hole where it went in in front – well below where the belt would have been, just below the right-hand bottom pocket of the tunic – was almost microscopic, but at the back almost exactly where his back bone would have been, there was quite a large rent. The under things he was wearing at the time have evidently had to be destroyed, but they sent back a khaki waistcoat or vest … which was dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of khaki breeches also in the same state, which had been slit open at the top by someone in a great hurry – probably the doctor in haste to get at the wound, or perhaps even by one of the men. Even the tabs of his braces were blood-stained. He must have fallen on his back, as in every case the back of his clothes was much more stained and muddy than the front.

The charnel-house smell seemed to grow stronger and stronger till it pervaded the room and obliterated everything else. Mrs Leighton said,

“Robert, take those clothes away into the kitchen, and don’t let me see them again; I must either burn or bury them. They smell of death; they are not Roland, they seem to detract from his memory and spoil his glamour”.

And indeed one could never imagine those things the same as those in which he had lived and walked. One couldn’t believe anyone alive had been in them at all. No, they were not him. After the clothes had gone we opened the window wide and felt better, but it was a long time before the smell and even the taste of them went away.

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On 1 July 1916, Vera also lost her brother Edward to whom she wrote a poem in 1918 (right). In Testament of Youth, published in 1933, Vera wrote of how she felt on Armistice Day in 1918, having lost Roland, Edward and two other friends. She felt that she was already living in a different world from the one that she had known during the past four years. This new world was one in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. She would have no part in that alien world because she had no-one to share it with; all those with whom she had been intimate had gone. For the first time, she realised how completely everything that had hitherto made up her life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey:

The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.

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Testament of the Disillusioned Peace:

The First World War was a deep shock to every individual who experienced it personally, from poets to politicians, either directly or indirectly. It often left a lasting sense of loss with them. The war poets, like Wilfred Owen, who was killed just a week before the Armistice was signed, and Siegfried Sassoon, who survived, produced brilliant, often pathetic or vituperative, but always compelling pieces of literature on the nature of trench warfare on the western front. I have written extensively about Owen’s life, tragic death and his poetry elsewhere on this site. Sassoon (1886-1967) began the war as a patriot. Already enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry, he broke his arm when falling from his horse; consequently, he did not go to the Front till November 1915 and until then his poetry showed much the same attitude as Brooke’s did. He joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a commissioned officer, and early in 1916 was sent to the First Battalion in France. He showed remarkable and rather eccentric courage. His heroic episodes in bringing back wounded from no man’s land and in capturing a trench full of Germans single-handed won him the Military Cross; these episodes were described by Robert Graves, an officer in the same regiment, in Goodbye to All That.

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The war radically changed Sassoon’s approach to poetry, the romanticism of his early works replaced by muddy death, blood, cowardice and suicide. In July 1916 he was invalided home; on leave, he became a virtual pacifist. He had lost faith in the ethical cause for which the Allies were fighting, and in the strategy and tactics used by Allied generals on the Western Front. He was, therefore, the first poet to publish poetry that was openly critical of the Allies’ motives and methods in waging the war. By the spring of 1917, he was back in the front line at the Battle of Arras and was wounded in the neck. Invalided home again he adopted more dramatic methods of showing his opposition to the war. Graves persuaded Sassoon to appear before an army medical board, which sent him to a hospital for neurasthenia at Craiglockart in Scotland, where he was treated by a well-known psychiatrist, Dr W. H. R. Rivers, and where he encouraged his fellow-patient, Wilfred Owen, in writing poetry.

As the historian Henry Pelling pointed out, in 1914 the country had not been psychologically prepared for the trials it had to undergo, the appalling suffering of the trenches and the rate of casualties never previously experienced. Britain and its Empire had lost almost a million men, with twice as many wounded; this placed them fifth behind Russia, Germany, France and Austria-Hungary in a war that claimed more than thirty-five million civilian and military casualties around the world. Technology had given these powers the artillery gun and the machine-gun, and their leaders elected to kill more than sixteen million people with these weapons. In the immediate aftermath, there was a reluctance to get to grips with what had happened. In some ways, this was surprising because, for the first time ever, the ranks were filled with natural reporters. The troops who went into action at the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 were mostly volunteers who had answered the appeal of Lord Kitchener. They came from every stratum of society, from the unemployed to factory hands, clerks and office workers, and on through to lawyers, doctors and landed gentry.

As John Buchan wrote in 1935, a war solves no problem but the one – which side is the stronger. In November 1918 the Allies felt that they had overthrown a great menace and arrogance. But what was to come next? It was an old assumption that some spiritual profit was assured by material loss and bodily suffering, but it was certain that the moral disorder was at least as conspicuous as the moral gain. He went on:

The passions of many millions cannot be stirred for years without leaving a hideous legacy. Human life has been shorn of its sacredness; death and misery and torture have become too familiar, the old decorums and sanctions have lost something of their power. The crust of civilisation has worn thin, and beneath can be heard the muttering of the primordial fires. … Principles, which seemed fundamental, are… weakened, and men are inclined to question the cardinal articles of their faith. …

But the chief consequence of so great a war as this was the mental and moral fatigue. Minds were relaxed and surfeited, when they were not disillusioned. They had had enough of the heroic. After the strain of the distant vision they were apt to seek the immediate advantage; after so much altruism they asked leave to attend to private interests; after their unremitting labours they claimed the right of apathy. The conundrums of peace had to be faced not only by jaded statesmen, but by listless, confused peoples. Mr Lloyd George found the right word for the malady when he described it as a “fever of anaemia.”

The situation was the more dangerous for the Allies, because the intricate business of peace should have been the work of the peoples, as they had been the architects of victory. The war was not won by the genius of the few but by the faithfulness of the many. It had been a vindication of the essential greatness of our common nature. … But the peoples seemed to stand aside, and cast the whole burden of settlement on statesmen whose shoulders were already weary. Nothing was more striking than the popular apathy about the business of peacemaking. …

Britain caught the same infection as the rest of the world. … As for youth, it shut its ears for a little to every call except the piping of pleasure. … The War was a memory to be buried. Young men back from the trenches tried to make up for the four years of natural amusement of which they had been cheated; girls, starved for years of their rights, came from dull war-work and shadowed schoolrooms determined to win back something. …

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The soldiers had returned, both male and female, as the picture above of them sitting on Brighton beach in 1919 reveals. The well-known blue uniform was seen about the streets. The wounded looked cheerful in the second picture below, presumably, simply because they were alive.

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The newspaper reporting of the time was factual but restrained and relatively free of ‘comment’ apart from the editorials; “morale” was all-important. The poetry of Siegfried Sassoon supplied a tiny audience what was missing from the reportage. He continued to show his distrust of England’s ‘ruling classes’ in several ways, writing Aftermath in 1920:

Have you forgotten yet? …

For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,

Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways:

And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow

Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,

Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same – and war’s a bloody game …

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look down , and swear by the dead of the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –

The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack

And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then

As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey

Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

There were some undistinguished novels in the 1920s, but it was ten years before Robert Graves and Sassoon felt able to release their officer-class memoirs and before R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End was first performed. Sassoon became the first literary editor of the Daily Herald, the new Socialist newspaper, and his prose books such as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer implied considerable criticism of the class system. The experience scarred many, on all fronts, including the home front, in deep psychological ways.

(to be continued…)

British Society and Popular Culture, 1963-68: Part Two – Beatlemania & the Cultural Revolution.   Leave a comment

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Sexual Freedom & Women’s Liberation:

The ‘cultural revolution’ had a profound effect on sexual behaviour in general, and on women in particular. Sex before marriage became less taboo (one-third of young women were pregnant when they married), and there was a general feeling of increasing sexual freedom at various levels in society, which was made a reality through the advent and growing availability of the contraceptive pill from 1962. Women’s liberation also took off, leading to the victory of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. Until that, equal rights and feminism only really touched the surface. There was still a long road to travel on this, however. Too many workplaces were utterly unwelcoming of women wanting work. Too many memoirs recount the gross sexism of the new rock stars, not to mention the abuse of young women and children by a small number of prominent pop celebrities, more recently uncovered in police investigations. ‘The Pill’ might have arrived, and the Abortion Act became law in 1967, but this was still a time of ‘unwanted’ pregnancies, ‘unmarried’ mothers and gross domestic violence being administered by drunken men. Yet the philosophical principles of egalitarianism were gradually weaving their way into social change. Traditions of submission and obedience, together with hierarchies of class and gender based on medieval property rights, industrial capital and imperial administration, began to wobble and dissolve into a society which was more dilute and porous. This was not so much because ‘revolutionaries’ ushered in an age of personal freedom, but more generally because it suited a new economic system based on consumer choices.

In domestic life, two-thirds of families acquired labour-saving devices such as refrigerators and washing-machines. There was a growing ‘snappiness’ and lightness of design, in everything from the cut of clothing to the shape of cars, an aesthetic escape from the gravitas of the post-war period of austerity. But among the population as a whole this was a gradual transformation, experienced in a continuum, not as a revolution. The process was somewhat accelerated among the younger generation.  The real earnings of young manual workers had grown rapidly in the early sixties, creating a generation who had money to spend on leisure and ‘luxury’ goods. The average British teenager was spending eight pounds a week on clothes, cosmetics, records and cigarettes. In London, King’s Road and Carnaby Street became the haunts of this generation. Their attitude is summed up by the designer Mary Quant, whose shop Bazaar in King’s Road, provided clothes…

… that allowed people to run, to jump, to leap, to retain their precious freedom. 

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Quant had been cutting up lengths of cloth bought over the counter and selling them at Bazaar since the mid-fifties. Her iconoclastic style involved drawing, slicing and sewing up a uniform that parodied the pleated, padded, extravagant clothes of the Old New Look designers. In doing so, she was taking on the fashion industry of Paris and the West End from her bedsit and tiny shop. Quant’s shockingly short mini-skirts, named after the car she loved, were offensive enough for the occasional brick to be lobbed at her window. She always claimed that she was trying to free women to be able to run for a bus. But it was the sexual allure that shocked. Michael Caine later recalled taking his mother down the King’s Road to see what all the fuss was about:

I said, “here’s one now”, and this girl walks by with a mini up to here. She goes by and my mother looked at her. So, we walk on a bit. She never said a word. So I said, what do you think, mum? She said: “If it’s not for sale, you shouldn’t put it in the window.”

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Clothes became the outward symbols of the ‘Chelsea Set’ of which Caine was a fully paid-up member, as was Quant. But Quant’s fashions were as exclusively priced as the ‘Set’ itself. ‘Biba’, an iconic symbol, promised liberation for women and girls, but liberation through spending. Its founder, Barbara Hulanicki was a girl from an exiled family, born before the war, brought up in British-controlled Palestine and then raised by a ‘bohemian’ aunt in Brighton, before going to art school. She then launched a mail order company with her husband. Biba, named after her younger sister, aimed to offer glamorous clothing at cheap prices. She had been mesmerised by Audrey Hepburn (above and below), her shape; long neck, small head, practically jointless, and her first top-selling design was a pink gingham dress like the one worn by Brigitte Bardot at her wedding.

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Her succession of boutiques were dark, chaotic spaces in which customers could lose themselves, pick up and try on, discard and collect, and sometimes steal, a great gush of new designs which seemed to change every week. The clothes were run up at high-speed in the East End and ferried to the boutique (below) several times a week. Turnover was spectacular and soon celebrities were beating a path its door, mixing with shorthand typists and schoolgirls to buy Biba designs – Mia Farrow, Yoko Ono, Princess Anne, Raquel Welch and even Bardot herself. As one Biba admirer said, it was helping to create the concept of shopping as an experience, a leisure activity for the young. George Melley, jazz singer, writer and professional flamboyant called it a democratic version of Mary Quant. Hulancki herself said that she always wanted to get prices down, down, down, to the bare minimum. The cheapness and disposability of the clothes was shocking to an older Britain in which millions of families had been used to make do and mend, followed by making their own clothes, buying patterns from Woolworth’s and sewing them by hand, or using a new electric sewing machine, or knitting woollen dresses and jerseys. Biba was the beginning of the throw-away consumer culture applied to clothing, and though it would present moral dilemma later, in the sixties it simply provided freedom for millions of young single women, career girls about town, who, as yet, had not been shaped by motherhood.

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Pop Music and Popular Culture:

Another symbol was popular music. Before ‘pop’ the dominant popular music styles produced low profits. Most public music was live; piano and banjo players on music-hall stages, the star singers and then eventually the big bands of the dance halls and the smoky subculture of ‘jazz’. Sheet-music made big money for talented composers like Ivor Novello and stage stars like Harry Lauder. Gramophone record sales had kicked off with recordings of early twentieth-century opera stars but the invention of the modern microphone in the twenties had then changed popular singing, allowing intimacy and variety of a new kind. The recording industry brought Louis Armstrong, the Ink Spots, Vera Lynn and the crooners of many West End musicals to millions of homes before pop. By the end of the fifties there were four major British recording companies: EMI, Decca, Pye and Philips. Most of their profits came from classical music or comic recordings, like those of Flanders and Swann. It was with the spread of seven-inch forty-fives that records had become something that teenagers could afford to buy. Though first produced in the US as early as 1948, for working-class British youngsters they were still formidably expensive by the late fifties.

The other essential technological changes arrived at around the same time. First, loud electric guitars, invented by radio repairman Leo Fender in 1948. Then transistor radios, originally invented in the mid-fifties to help Americans keep in touch after the coming nuclear war with Russia, and becoming popular for other purposes at the end of the decade. Without the mike, the electric guitar and the seventh-inch record, rock and pop would not have happened. Without the radio, the vital cross-cultural currents would have been unheard. The post-austerity economic boom was putting money in the pockets of teenagers and young workers, and the post-war baby-boom had increased their numbers. Better nutrition meant that they reached puberty earlier, and the mechanisms for the mass-marketing were already in place. By the early sixties, all the essential ingredients of the new market for this were also in place.

Most histories of golden-age sixties rock groups begin with a similar narrative, with the kids discovering Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley under their bedclothes, covertly listening on frequency 208 on their transistor radio to Radio Luxembourg, which broadcast to the UK from 7.00 p.m. onwards every night. They then go on to describe the formation of a ‘skiffle’ band, like that of Lonnie Donegan, using simple chords and home-made instruments like washboards or slatted wardrobe doors, mouth organs and ‘kazoos’. Then the coffee bar or burger bar would make an appearance, a place where teenagers could go to socialize and listen to jukeboxes. The local art college would also, often, be part of this formative, group experience. Many of these were associated with local technical colleges, which before the university expansion of the seventies was where bright, imaginative and often rebellious teenagers would end up after leaving ‘academia’ behind at fifteen. The art schools were the true factories of popular culture, for musicians, painters and sculptors.

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By the later fifties, art students were not only listening to skiffle, but the US rock ‘n’ roll stars, and also to British ‘Elvis copies’ like first Tommy Steel, then Harry Webb, ‘reincarnated’ as Cliff Richard, then Tom Jones. John Lennon went to Liverpool Art College, while Ray Davies, who formed The Kinks attended Hornsey, Keith Richard of The Rolling Stones went to Sidcup, and Pete Townsend of The Who went to Ealing Art College. The RAF-style roundels and bold black arrows which appeared on the band’s clothes and became part of the Mods’ insignia, had been swiped from graphic designers and pop painters. Of course, no band was more important in the sixties, and arguably since, than The Beatles. They expressed both youthful rebellion and commercialism, providing British teenagers with an identity that cut across the barriers of class, accent and region. The Beatles had been formed, originally as The Quarrymen, in July 1957 and in 1962 Love Me Do reached #17 in the charts. But it wasn’t until April 1963, that From Me to You became their first number one hit single.

‘Beatlemania’ & the Radio Revolution:

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The key to their initial breakthrough, and their continued success, was not studio recordings, but radio performances. Between 1957 and 1970 they performed live in eighty-four different venues in England, fifteen in Scotland, six in Wales and two in Ireland. Many people in the establishment regarded ‘pop’ music with disdain. The BBC held a monopoly over the radio waves and, in a deal with the Musicians’ Union and record manufacturers, ensured that popular music was not given airtime. The Beatles, however, were too popular for the BBC to resist, and between March 1962 and June 1965, no fewer than 275 unique musical performances were recorded in their studios and broadcast throughout the UK. The group played eighty-eight different songs on national radio, some recorded many times. As well as their own songs, these recordings also included rock ‘n’ roll numbers by Chuck Berry and Little Richard. They worked like dogs, once recording eighteen songs in one day on 16 July 1963. Derek Taylor has written about how …

… they became our cheeky chappies, our Elvis, took up residence on the front page, and in the zeitgeist of the age, helped to establish the booming creative potential of provincial England.

The Beatles gave us a continuing soundtrack of unparalleled charm and reassurance. As long as they kept on delivering fresh songs along with the morning milk, everything was right in our optimistic world. Quite quickly, the Beatles became an institution all of their own, with all sorts of attendants – fanatics and detractors, revisionists and archivists, accountants and lawyers, scribes and Pharisees.

That the Beatles were woven into the fabric of British life was due in large part to the regularity of their attention to good habits – the Christmas message to the fans, the package tours, the visits home to Liverpool families, an honest paying of all the expected dues and in no small measure to the BBC, who provided that unparalleled broadcasting expertise to keep the nation in touch with ‘the boys’ through fifty-three broadcasts. Radio allowed them to ‘be themselves’ and that was always enough for the Beatles and their followers.

The Beatles’ frequent access to the BBC’s studios and airwaves was the consequence of an age of wireless innocence. Although millions were hungry for rock ‘n’ roll, on the radio it was severely rationed. When you tuned in during the day, there was only the choice of the BBC’s three national networks and, of those, only the Light Programme might occasionally allow Elvis or Buddy Holly into your house. There was no local radio or commercial radio. The only alternative was a crackling, phasing Radio Luxembourg beamed across Europe at night. When ‘the Light’ did feature ‘pop’, due to the Musicians’ Union restriction, records were frequently side-lined by emasculated renditions of hits from dance orchestras. But without competition, BBC radio programmes were guaranteed huge audiences. The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, had understood this opportunity and sent an application for a radio audition to the BBC’s Manchester outpost early in 1962. Producer Peter Pilbeam had auditioned them and, despite his note on his report about the singers – John Lennon, yes; Paul McCartney, no – both had featured on their BBC debut in front of an audience at Manchester Playhouse in March 1962. This regional radio breakthrough had come seven months before the release of their first single on ‘Parlophone’, Love Me Do, and no recording exists of the concert or any of their other three broadcasts of 1962. It remains ‘pre-history’ in terms of the Beatlemania years, especially when compared to their ‘meteoric’ rise to fame in 1963.

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At the beginning of 1963, Britain was experiencing its worst winter weather since 1947. The country shivered through freezing temperatures at a time when few houses had the luxury of central heating. Most of the land was covered in deep snow making transport difficult. Undaunted, The Beatles spent many hours during those cold early months of 1963 in a van driven by a friend, journeying up and down the country to appear onstage at theatres and ballrooms and to perform in radio and TV studios. Before this breakthrough year, the group had worked hard at their craft, including hundreds of hours spent entertaining the rowdy clientele of a Hamburg nightclub and the friendly regulars at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, enabling the development of an extensive and varied repertoire. Their musical expertise combined with discipline and stamina proved to be an unbeatable formula.

Though the stories of British rock and pop bands follow a predictable trajectory, the stories of the earlier bands are more interesting simply because the story had not occurred before. Though pop was a business it was also narrative about class and morality; almost every band’s story described the tension between the marketing of the music and the attempt by the band to stay in some way ‘authentic’, true to themselves. Many never tried to be authentic in the first place, but the groundbreaking ones did but didn’t find it easy. The Kinks were four north London boys who affected a camp look and played rough, hard pop were put into the most extraordinary pink hunting jackets, ruffs and thigh-high suede boots. The Beatles were bullied and cajoled by Epstein into ditching the rough jeans and leather Luftwaffe jackets they had learned in Hamburg. To get their first recording contract with EMI, the Beatles were told to stop smoking on stage, stop swearing, turning up late, and making spontaneous decisions about which songs they would play at their gigs. They also had to learn to bow smartly to the audience, all together, after every song. They agreed. It was only later in their successful sixties that they felt they could tell their managers where to get off.

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The BBC’s Saturday Club presenter, Brian Matthew (above), commented, following their appearance on his show on 26th January 1963:

At the moment, the majority of ‘The Beatles’ fans are in their home town of Liverpool and I have a very strong suspicion it won’t be long before they’re all over the country.

Brian Matthew’s belief was quickly confirmed. From ten o’clock to twelve noon every Saturday, the show reached an enormous audience of around ten to twelve million. The Beatles were featured ten times on the programme and quickly established a rapport with Matthew and producer Bernie Andrews, who supervised the music sessions.  Six numbers were recorded in sessions lasting no more than three and a half hours; sometimes as short as ninety minutes. Throughout 1963 number one records followed in quick succession: Please Please Me, From me to You, She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand. The debut album, Please Please Me, the Twist and Shout EP, and the With the Beatles LP were also released within that year. While those releases kept them high in the charts, the pressure of The Beatles schedule never eased for a moment, but they were match-fit. They performed music in thirty-nine radio shows in 1963 and, most importantly, fifteen of those programmes were editions of their own radio series Pop Go the Beatles which the BBC invited them to host during the summer of 1963. Tuesday evening became an essential date with the radio for millions of fans. They were encouraged by the presenter to let their humour shine between the songs, and producer Terry Henebery remembers this ‘zaniness’ not being confined to the recorded speech links:

They’d come to the studio and horse about. You had to crack the whip and get on the loudspeaker talk-back key quite a lot and say “Come on, chaps!” They’d be lying all over the floor, giggling. And I can remember afternoons down at the Paris Cinema studio, where you were just looking at the clock, throwing your hands up in horror and thinking, ‘will they ever settle down?’ I mean, people would go and get locked in the toilets and fool about. But you were, at the end of the day, getting some nice material out of them.

No one would have predicted it in 1963, but the songs The Beatles chose to perform for their radio series constitute the most fascinating aspect of their music sessions for the BBC. The New Musical Express reported that R-and-B material will be strongly featured. The shows certainly lived up to that promise. Required to record six songs for every show, to avoid undue repetition, the group would often romp through an old favourite or work on a new number. As Ringo observed:

It was fine when doing the repertoire we knew, but some weeks it’d be real hard. We’d rehearse two or three songs in the lunch break and then go and record them in the afternoon.

For some groups, a series that demanded six new recordings every weeknight might have been daunting; but it allowed The Beatles to air their influences and try out some new favourites. They performed fifty-six new songs in all, twenty-five of which had not and would not be released on any of their records. The choice of material in these and other programmes clearly reveals the artists who had inspired the group. They recorded nine cover versions of Chuck Berry songs which, except for Roll Over Beethoven were all belted out by John. In addition, they covered six Carl Perkins and four Elvis Presley songs, while the four Little Richard rockers were the exclusive vocal property of Paul and his throat-ripping ‘whoops’ and ‘hollers’. In gentler moments, Paul sang A Taste of Honey and Till There Was You, but his most unusual ballad was The Honeymoon Song. John produced a real gem in Ann-Margret’s I Just Don’t Understand. The four were adept at digging out unusual material, often beating rival Liverpool groups to sought-after American records and learning the B-side. As Paul commented in 2013,

You will find stuff in our repertoire that came off little odd-ball records. We had started off going onstage and playing songs that we liked, but then we would find that on the same bill as us in the Liverpool clubs, there might be another band that would play exactly the same songs. If they were on before us, it made us look a bit silly. We started to look further afield, study the American charts and see what was there. We’d listen to radio a lot and find out if there was anything up and coming. We would also flip records and listen to the B-sides; see if we could find anything that way. In fact, that’s what started John and I writing, because this was the only foolproof way that other bands couldn’t have our songs. There was no great artistic muse that came out of the heavens and said, ‘Ye shall be a songwriting partnership!’ It was really just we had better do this or everyone is going to have our act. …

In addition to the night-time broadcasts of Radio Luxembourg, the other sources for rock ‘n’ roll music on discs were coffee-bar jukeboxes, fairgrounds and record shops. Fortunately, this era was a golden era for record stores. Hundreds of family-run concerns, like Brian Epstein’s NEMS in Liverpool, would take pride in stocking at least one copy of everything released. Many Liverpool musicians spent hours in listening booths at NEMS while records were played to them. Occasionally, they might even buy one! At the time of their BBC sessions, The Beatles were seeking out the latest Rhythm and Blues records from the States. Although many of these by groups such as The Miracles did not, at first, make the British charts, they were a key influence on The Beatles. Again, Paul McCartney explains:

With our manager Brian Epstein having a record shop – NEMS – we did have the opportunity to look around a bit more than the casual buyer. …

Ringo would get stuff from the sailors. … he happened to have a few mates who’d been to New Orleans or New York and had picked up some nice blues or country and western. … But it was really a question of looking harder than the next guy. We made it our full-time job to research all these things; to go for the road less travelled.

These records, and those by The Shirelles, who did have some UK hits, had sophisticated vocal, string and horn parts. Rearranging them for a four-piece line-up helped to create the Beatle sound just as much as the earlier singles by the rock ‘n’ roll pioneers. Current R&B records were not easy to get hold of or hear in Britain. But in 1963, records released on the Tamla and Motown labels were distributed in the UK by Oriole. Radio Luxembourg also featured the latest records by Mary Wells, The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas and Little Stevie Wonder. Although none of them was a hit at the time, The Beatles’ love of the records from Detroit was demonstrated when they included three Motown songs on With the Beatles. Their devotion to black soul music proved crucial to its wider acceptance.

The significance of The Beatles’ BBC radio sessions also stems from the way the sound of the group was captured for their broadcasts. At that time, artists were not given large amounts of studio time. At EMI studios, on 11th February 1963, The Beatles had to record ten songs for their debut album, Please Please Me. The fact that this was achieved in under ten hours subsequently became regarded as a remarkable achievement. This was seen as especially true when the quality of the tracks was considered. It was common practice in 1963 to complete a minimum of two songs in a standard three-hour session. As Paul has pointed out,

It was just the rate people worked at. … Looking at it now, it seems so fast, but then it seemed very sensible.

At the BBC, the work-rate was even higher. Apart from when they were performing in front of an audience for a broadcast, The Beatles had to record five or six songs in a short session so they were not fazed by this requirement. The recordings were made onto a four-track tape machine at EMI in October 1963, but multi-tracking did not begin at the BBC until a decade later. This meant that the mono recordings could not be edited, except by editing different takes of a song onto the same tape. Otherwise, there was the option to ‘overdub’ by copying the first recording to another tape, while at the same time adding more instruments or vocals. Both of these processes could be very time-consuming, so what we hear on the BBC tapes is the sound of the group performing ‘live’, direct to tape, as if to an immediate audience, but without the noisy hysteria which accompanied their public concerts. The pop songs of the early Beatles were not neatly produced commodities as all pop songs later became. You can hear the fun involved in their creation.

When Pop Go The Beatles finished its run, they were once more at the top of the charts with She Loves You. From that point on, things went crazy and pretty much stayed that way. Their unassailable popularity was reflected by the press who applied the epithet Beatlemania to the hysteria that surrounded their every move. In February 1964, the States surrendered to the magic and Brian Epstein’s bold boast that his group would be ‘bigger than Elvis’ proved to be true. Having ‘hit the business jackpot’, as Brian Matthew expressed it in Saturday Club, the number of times The Beatles came to the BBC was greatly reduced; compared to the thirty-four programmes recorded in 1963, from October 1963 to June 1965 there were just fifteen specially recorded sessions. Having once been prepared to rush from one end of the country to the other for a radio show, global success now made the group less available. Their last BBC radio performance was the solitary one of 1965, on Whit Monday, entitled The Beatles Invite You to Take a Ticket to Ride. It was understandable that they now had real need of this particular kind of radio exposure. But most of the sessions at the BBC had been exciting and fun. DJ Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman worked with the Beatles in 1964. He remembered that:

Their music and persona freed me from middle age … because the things that were coming from The Beatles made me feel like a ten-year-old! They made us all feel tremendously happy.

Just before The Beatles made their last BBC recording, at Easter 1964 the first illegal ‘pirate’ radio station, Radio Caroline, began broadcasting from a ship just off the Sussex coast. Within months, millions of young people were listening to Radio Caroline North and Radio Caroline South, Radio London and other pirate stations that sprung up. Not only did they broadcast popular music records, but they also reminded their listeners that any attempt to silence them would constitute a direct ‘attack on youth’. With the advent of these radio stations, the BBC monopoly on airtime was broken, and bands were able to get heard beyond their concerts. Eventually, the Government acted to bring an end to its cold war with the British record industry. The BBC set up Radio One to broadcast popular records and in August 1967, the Marine Offences Act outlawed the pirate ships.

The Rock Generation:

In the early days of pop and rock, it was not always quite as obvious that money would always trump vitality. There were still battles to be fought between the two. The Who (pictured below) were a west London band which had, like so many others, emerged from skiffle, and had been kick-started by the early successes of The Beatles. They were encouraged by their manager, Peter Meadon, to dress stylishly and address themselves to the new audience of ‘Mods’. Their first single, I Can’t Explain was self-consciously derivative of The Kinks, and was released in January 1965. It made it to #8 in the charts, but it was their second single, My Generation which really caught the mood of the times and the imaginations of pop fans, later became the first British rock ‘anthem’. It was recorded at the Pye Studios in London in October 1965 and released as a single on 5th November. Just before its release, Roger Daltry was fired from the band for fighting with the other members, but he was quickly reinstated when it reached #2. The fighting and onstage antics continued throughout their early career, though, including the smashing up of guitars by the band’s leader, Pete Townsend. While delighting their live audiences, their guitar-smashing kept them away from mainstream venues.

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A string of top ten hits followed in 1965-67, from Substitute to Pictures of Lily and I Can See for Miles. Pete was disappointed that the last of these only reached #10 in the UK charts compared with #9 in the US, commenting shortly afterwards that to him, that was the ultimate Who record yet it didn’t sell and I spat on the British record buyer. Throughout a stellar career during which some think, with their concept albums, eclipsed The Beatles after the break-up of the ‘fab four’, The Who, though, far from revolutionary in politics, were never properly ‘tamed’.  Nor were The Kinks, whose song-writing genius Ray Davies became involved in a punch-up with an American television union official who had called them a bunch of commie wimps. That altercation got them banned from the States for four crucial years.

The big battle lines, however, were drawn over the content of the songs, which quickly moved beyond the easy American boy-meets-girl themes of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. By 1968, rock was beginning to escape from the urban and suburban Britain of its young consumers. For most of them, their teenage years would end in a more conventional working life and marriage, which was (perhaps somewhat conversely) more popular than ever in the late sixties, with marriage rates peaking in 1972. But drugs, mysticism, gangs and sexual experimentation were some of the alternatives celebrated by pop culture, much to the discomfort of record companies, the BBC, politicians and the newspapers. Songs such as Lola by The Kinks and I’m a Boy by The Who challenged existing sexual stereotypes, and there was a ‘libertine’ element in The Rolling Stones songs which shocked those parents who could follow the lyrics.

Above all, the rate of experimentation and change in sixties pop itself was astonishing, as a new sound, instrument, length of song and sexually explicit album cover image seemed to come along every few weeks in 1966-68. It was a classic, market-driven competition between the top bands and artists, measured by sales of records. Lennon and McCartney remained at the forefront of this experimentation, feeding back discoveries about tape loops, modern composers and Bach into the music of The Beatles, retreating more and more into their Abbey Road studio to produce more complex sounds. The Stones’ blues-rock challenged the ‘Mersey Beat’ and the ‘Mods’ began to produce early versions of the ‘heavy metal’ genre, followed by Led Zeppelin at the end of 1968, who made it their own. But, at this stage, The Beatles were still seen as the pioneers, the first big stars to fall for Indian mysticism, sitars, or the next drug craze, and the first to break up under the strain. Their trajectory, like their output, seemed impossible to beat. As Andrew Marr concludes,

A band’s success was based on its members’ skills but also on their authentic claim to be the kids from the streets whose anger, enthusiasm, boredom and wit reflected the actual Britain all around them, the lives of the people who would save up and buy their songs. Pop was music from below or it was nothing. Yet the successful musicians would be cut off from the world they came from by the money and the security needed to keep fans at bay until they were fated to sound introspective and irrelevant.  

By 1968, other forms of music were receding before the ear-splitting tidal advance of rock and pop, driven by radio. In painting, pop art and the pleasure principle were on the attack. Simpler and more digestible art forms, suitable for mass market consumption, were replacing élite art which assumed an educated and concentrated viewer, listener or reader. Throughout these years there were self-conscious moves to create new élites, to keep the masses out. They came from the portentous theories of modern art or the avowedly difficult atonal Classical music arriving from France and America, but these were eddies against the main cultural current.  Similarly, when Mary Quant set up her shop she was a rotten businesswoman. The fun was in the clothes. No business with so little grasp of cash could afford to be cynical. Of course, the King’s Road was a foreign country to most Britons in the mid-sixties. The majority of those who lived through that period have personal memories of rather conventional and suburban lives. Most working-class people were still living in Edwardian and Victorian red-brick terraces in the English and Welsh industrial cities, and in tenements in Glasgow, Dundee and other Scottish towns.

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For this vast majority, the early sixties were experienced as a continuation of the fifties, not as a break with that decade. Britain remained an industrial society, though more prosperous, whose future was believed still to depend on factories producing cars, engines, washing machines and electrical goods, both for the ‘domestic’ market and for export. The older generation of authority figures – teachers, judges and above all parents – still derived their clothes and morality from their wartime experience, and were the butt of widespread mockery, especially by the cartoonist Giles of The Daily Express (commemorated by the statue shown above, located in Ipswich town centre) and on TV by David Frost. Television also gave further mass exposure to the pop industry, with regular editions of  ‘Jukebox Jury’, ‘Ready, Steady, Go’, and ‘Top of the Pops’ attracting huge young audiences. The radio, TV and magazine publicity machine was up and going. The equipment was in every second home, radios and record players turned out by Britain’s booming electronics industry. But the men with moustaches and ‘short back and sides’ haircuts were visibly still in power. As Andrew Marr has written,

The Britain which proudly displayed volumes of Churchill’s war memoirs on bookshelves, and stood up in cinemas for the national anthem, did not disappear when Ringo Starr grew his first luxuriant moustache.   

Swinging London and its New Celebrities:

The new culture was far from elitist; it was meritocratic, but it could be just as exclusive as the older forms. It was shaped by upper-working-class and lower-middle-class people who had never enjoyed this level of cultural influence before. The northern cities of England, especially Liverpool, but also Newcastle and Manchester, that were sending their sons and daughters south to conquer, even if it was only on radio and television shows. The older Britain with its regimental traditions, its racism and clear divisions in terms of class, geography and dialect. The ‘scouse’ voices of The Beatles and the ‘Geordie’ accents of the Animals had been rarely heard on the radio before 1963, and for many metropolitan and Home Counties listeners, they came as something of a shock. By the summer of 1965, however, what was called Swinging London, or the Scene, was a small number of restaurants, shops and clubs where a small number of people were repeatedly photographed and written about. In Chelsea, Biba, ‘Granny Takes a Trip’, ‘Bazaar’ and ‘Hung on You’ were honeypots for the fashionable. They spent their evenings and nights at clubs like ‘Annabel’s’, ‘Showboat’ and ‘Talk of the Town’.

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There were perhaps no more than twenty ‘celebrities’ at the heart of Swinging London. They included The Beatles and Mick Jagger, among eight pop singers, the model Jean Shrimpton, the designer Mary Quant, painter David Hockney, actors Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, and photographers Lord Snowdon, David Bailey and Terence Donovan. The ‘list’ compiled and published by Private Eye journalist Christopher Booker in 1969, also included an interior decorator, a creative advertiser, a film producer, a discotheque manager, a ballet dancer and the Kray brothers from the East End who could only be described as connected with the underworld. These New Aristocrats, as Christopher Booker called them, were all concerned with the creation of images. Following the Profumo affair of a few years earlier, old money, big business, the traditional arts and politics were being marginalised and replaced by working-class ‘upstarts’. Among the photographers, Bailey was a tailor’s son and Donovan a lorry driver’s son, both from the East End. Michael Caine was a Billingsgate fish porter’s son and Stamp the son of a tug-boat captain. The female aristocrats included Lesley Hornby of Neasden, better known as ‘Twiggy’, a carpenter’s daughter, and Priscilla White, better known as ‘Cilla Black’, another (originally) ‘scruffy Scouser’. A few were there entirely because of their looks, like ‘supermodel’ Jean Shrimpton, a description first used in 1968. Very few of these men and women would have made it in the London of previous decades. The intertwining of this aristocracy of pop was as sinuous as the old Tory cliques of the fifties. But their significance was that they represented the increased mobility of talented people from working-class backgrounds.

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006These ‘celebrities’ were joined by footballers, who in 1966-68 were raised from tradesmen and servants to the level of golden gods, sometimes behaving badly too. England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup, with its dramatic finale at Wembley and the team’s 4-2 defeat of West Germany was the stuff that dreams are made of, leading to ritual disappointed expectations every four years ever since. Despite reaching the semi-finals on two occasions since, in 1990 and 2018, the nation has not yet been able to repeat the dressing up and dancing in the streets that went on then, with every English man, woman and child joining in. Alf Ramsey, the English team manager, had been part of the team who had lost 3-6 to Hungary at Wembley in 1953. Now he and his lions had brought football home at last. The three ‘Eastenders’, West Ham’s Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst outshone the Charlton brothers on this occasion, but Bobby Charlton was himself part of Manchester United’s ‘home’ international trio together with George Best and Denis Law who won the European Cup, beating Eusebio and Benfica 4-1 in 1968. This was a remarkable achievement, coming just a decade after Busby’s ‘babes’ were all but wiped out in the Munich air disaster of 1958. Glasgow Celtic had been the first British team to win the European Cup in the previous year, under the management of Jock Stein in 1967. Some of these soccer celebrities, like George Best, were later to struggle with the limelight, but for now they could do no wrong as far as the British public were concerned. The articles and photos below are from a facsimile of the Sunday Mirror from 31 July 1966:

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The new celebrities were not just fascinated by images, but quickly colonised the entire new media of pop music, radio, television, fashion, advertising, colour magazines, and hairdressing. These were not the property of the City or of old money. Linguistic diversity was as important as imagery in this democratisation of society and culture. It was the breakthrough lead given by Lennon and McCartney in singing their own material that persuaded scores of other British bands to follow suit. Others chose to mimic the accents and vocabulary of the American rockers who had inspired them, even when producing their own compositions. There are few songs in the ‘transatlantic’ repertoire of The Rolling Stones which sound particularly English, unlike those of other iconic London bands such as The Kinks and The Who. Banned from the US while others were breaking into the American market, Ray Davies turned back to local subjects. He had always written pop songs about everything from the death of the dance-halls to the joys of an autumn sunset over Waterloo Bridge, but The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society of 1968 was on an entirely different scale. As Ray Davies commented himself:

While everybody else thought the hip thing to do was to drop acid, take as many drugs as possible and listen to music in a coma, the Kinks were singing songs about lost friends, draught beer, motorbike riders, wicked witches and flying cats.

The title song of their album calls for the ‘preservation’ of Desperate Dan, strawberry jam, the George Cross, the ‘Sherlock Holmes English-speaking vernacular’, little shops, china cups, virginity, Tudor houses and antique tables while attacking the new skyscrapers and office blocks. The album, which sold in tiny numbers compared with Sergeant Pepper, with its equally nostalgic Liverpudlian and Lancastrian-themed lyrics, confused contemporary critics who could not decide whether the group were being serious or satirical. The simple answer, with the benefit of a critical hindsight which regards the disc as one of the greatest achievements of British pop in the sixties, “both”. The band showed that it was possible to write inspiring rock music about what was around you, rather than posturing as a boy from Alabama or pretending to be an Afro-American. On the other hand, in listening to Dusty Springfield, who had one of the ‘purest’, most spell-binding voices of the decade, you could be forgiven for thinking she was from Detroit or Paris. Few of the songs she sang, if any, had British themes and British English vocabulary. But then, ‘son of a preacher man’ scans better! The English folk-song revival of the early sixties also played into this democratic, eclectic mix, with the founding of Fairport Convention in 1967, named after the house in which they practised in North London. Their folk-rock genre took themes and dialects from all parts of the British Isles. By 1968, regional accents had become commonplace in radio and television programmes, especially the perennial ‘soap operas’, though it took much longer for the provincial presenters of news, views and features to be accepted onto the national broadcasts of the BBC, not to mention those from ethnic minorities. This reflected the slow progress in British society in general towards genuine devolution, diversity and gender equality.

Despite the dramatic increase in wealth, coupled with the emergence of distinctive subcultures, technological advances (including television) and unprecedented shifts in popular culture, by the end of the sixties, there was a general sense of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with society and politics in Britain. In the early seventies, when John Lennon was asked to assess the impact of The Beatles by Rolling Stone magazine, he commented that…

Nothing happened, except we all dressed up. The same bastards are in control, the same people are running everything, it’s exactly the same.

Conclusion: A Real Counter-cultural Revolution?

The counter-cultural ‘revolution’ in Britain had no organisation and no practical agenda. It was largely middle class in its amorphous leadership, without any real or effective links to the working-class socialists who wanted higher wages and perhaps even workers’ cooperatives, but were less keen on long-haired students taking drugs, or indeed on angry black people. The counter-cultural currents influenced pop and rock music, but it did not immediately create an indigenous, autonomous British movement. It was dependent on passing American fads and voices, like that of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Like both Dylan and John Lennon in the early seventies, The Who questioned revolutionary values and violent methods in their second great ‘anthem’, Won’t Get Fooled Again, written by Pete Townsend in 1970 and recorded and released the next year. It ends with the line, Meet the new boss; he’s the same as the old boss! Townsend wrote,

It’s really a bit of a weird song. The first verse sounds like a revolution song and the second like somebody getting tired of it. It’s an anti-establishment song. It’s ‘anti’ people who are negative. A song against the revolution because … a revolution is not going to change anything at all in the long run, and a lot of people are going to get hurt.

Symbolically, perhaps, the group has usually played the full eight-and-a-half minute version of the song at the end of its concert. More than any other song, it sums up the relationship between pop music and sixties’ counter-culture.

Sources:

Joanna Bourke, Shompa Lahiri, et. al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. London: Macmillan.

Kevin Howlett (2014), The Beatles: The BBC Archives, 1962-1970.

 

Posted July 18, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, BBC, Britain, British history, Britons, Cartoons, Commemoration, Domesticity, Fertility, History, homosexuality, Journalism, Marriage, Maternity, Midlands, Migration, morality, Music, Mysticism, Mythology, Narrative, Proletariat, Respectability, Satire, Second World War, Suffolk, Uncategorized, USA, West Midlands, Women's History

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