I was born in England in 1948, late enough to avoid conscription by a few years, but in time for the Beatles: I was fourteen when they came out with “Love Me Do.” Three years later the first miniskirts appeared: I was old enough to appreciate their virtues, young enough to take advantage of them. I grew up in an age of prosperity, security, and comfort—and therefore, turning twenty in 1968, I rebelled. Like so many baby boomers, I conformed in my nonconformity.
Without question, the 1960s were a good time to be young. Everything appeared to be changing at unprecedented speed and the world seemed to be dominated by young people (a statistically verifiable observation). On the other hand, at least in England, change could be deceptive. As students we vociferously opposed the Labour government’s support for Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam. I recall at least one such protest in Cambridge, following a talk there by Denis Healey, the defense minister of the time. We chased his car out of the town—a friend of mine, now married to the EU high commissioner for foreign affairs, leaped onto the hood and hammered furiously at the windows.
It was only as Healey sped away that we realized how late it was—college dinner would start in a few minutes and we did not want to miss it. Heading back into town, I found myself trotting alongside a uniformed policeman assigned to monitor the crowd. We looked at each other. “How do you think the demonstration went?” I asked him. Taking the question in stride—finding in it nothing extraordinary—he replied: “Oh I think it went quite well, Sir.”
Cambridge, clearly, was not ripe for revolution. Nor was London: at the notorious Grosvenor Square demonstration outside the American embassy (once again about Vietnam—like so many of my contemporaries I was most readily mobilized against injustice committed many thousands of miles away), squeezed between a bored police horse and some park railings, I felt a warm, wet sensation down my leg. Incontinence? A bloody wound? No such luck. A red paint bomb that I had intended to throw in the direction of the embassy had burst in my pocket.
That same evening I was to dine with my future mother-in-law, a German lady of impeccably conservative instincts. I doubt if it improved her skeptical view of me when I arrived at her door covered from waist to ankle in a sticky red substance—she was already alarmed to discover that her daughter was dating one of those scruffy lefties chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” whom she had been watching with some distaste on television that afternoon. I, of course, was only sorry that it was paint and not blood. Oh to épater la bourgeoisie.
For real revolution, of course, you went to Paris. Like so many of my friends and contemporaries I traveled there in the spring of 1968 to observe—to inhale—the genuine item …