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1968 and all that.


COMRADES! REVOLUTIONARIES! Let us celebrate! It is 50 years since the évènements of ’68 in Paris. Long live the spirit of the barricades! Remember what bliss it was to be alive then, what heaven it was to be young?

No, me neither. There was little bliss available in the rather dour, parochial environs of the ancient country town in North Yorkshire as I entered my fourteenth year. The political pronouncements of boss-eyed philosophe Sartre, the cobble-throwing students, the smart-arsed conundrums of the Situationists, these meant nothing to me or my contemporaries and barely even seemed to impinge on the consciousness of our parents who were more concerned by the fact that we had grown our hair long, dressed like scarecrows and listened to terribly loud music. To give them their due, though, they didn’t complain about us trying pass ourselves off as 18 in the local pubs (and sometimes succeeding) so we could get our hands on pints of cold, fizzy beer.

So the political shenanigans of the Parisian élites passed us by. Who the hell was Daniel Cohn-Bendit? And who cared about the French anyway? Certainly not my parents or my grandparents. What had penetrated our world was the popular music of the time, and the occasional news clips of the war in Vietnam, which The Boss at school sometimes pontificated about in morning assembly, pronouncing it V8narm. About which we also cared nothing. We were such heartless beasts. The current generation could learn a lot from us.

All very disappointing, then, for those who were excited at the time and who now look back with fond nostalgia. I wouldn’t have thought about it myself if I hadn’t stumbled over documentary on BBC4, Vive La Revolution!, presented by Joan Bakewell. Ms Bakewell in those days had earned the soubriquet of “the thinking man’s crumpet” because she was very attractive, but that was in the benighted days of male chauvinist piggery, whereas now that we’re more enlightened we wouldn’t say either of those things, and Joan is a Lady in the Lords. Vive la Revolution.

In 1968 …‘ one demonstrator said the occupation of the famous Odeon theatre was justified because it was “an institution…a machine…a gun for De Gaulle to oppress people”’.

The documentary certainly gave her the opportunity to look back with unconcealed fondness for the outpouring of youthful revolt against what she repeatedly called the authoritarian and autocratic Old Guard in France. The footage was excellent, featuring scenes of marches, Gallic street fighting, students sitting in occupation in the Sorbonne, students getting their heads broken by the police, and various serious, Gaulois-smoking intellectuals explaining what this was all about. Except they didn’t tell us anything at all sensible about what inspired them. It was the same mumbled nonsense about the bourgeoisie (ah, happy memories — whatever happened to the bourgeoisie?), consumerism, capitalism and consumer capitalism. One demonstrator said the occupation of the famous Odeon theatre was justified because it was “an institution…a machine…a gun for De Gaulle to oppress people”.

The young Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was at the centre of the unrest, cleverly positioned himself as against the both capitalism and the “Russian” style of government, ie, communism, at the same time. True to his professional leftism he eventually parked his revolutionary backside squarely in the centre of the European bourgeois establishment, ie, the EU. Apart from their opposition to the Vietnam war I think the only things the students were complaining about that were related to reality were the old-fashioned methods of teaching at universities and the fact that living accommodation was segregated between men and women. Not exactly revolution fodder.

The best personal riposte to all this leftist flummery was a middle aged woman who was interviewed for her responses to the rioting going on around her. “We want freedom, not anarchy, “ she said, “…we do not want young people to teach us, after two wars, what to do…because we have suffered too…we had to work, and you have to work…you haven’t done anything for the society yet…” It was a riposte soon backed up by the vote of the electorate against the students and for the old-fashioned Gaullists just weeks later.

But neither the revolutionaries nor Joan Bakewell need have worried. Fifty years later their long march through the institutions of the culture has been achieved. Like Danny “le Rouge” Cohn-Bendit those middle-class revolutionaries are now the establishment, running politics, education, the judiciary and the media. Danny has become “le Vert” and Joan is a Dame. All that cobble-throwing and pretentious sloganeering paid off, after all. Maybe it’s time for another revolution.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.

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