POP STARS AND BUZZ BOMBS
Engrossed in a bestselling history of London, I was fascinated by the tide of events, artfully narrated in scholarly yet readable fashion by a man who clearly knew his subject. I was grateful to a friend who had sent it as a Christmas gift, himself an author and one who appreciated the effort and skill involved in assembling such an impressive piece of research.
All the hail Romans! See, here come the Saxons, Normans and all those noblemen, merchants, soldiers, peasants and artisans who expanded the settlement by the Thames. Gripping tales of wars, sieges, revolutions, plagues, fire and intrigues held my imagination. Until we arrived at the modern era and I was impelled to toss aside the book with an oath and curse.
Such was my fury I could no read any further. Why? Well on examining the 20th century, the scholar chose to curtly dismiss the notion of ‘Swinging London’ and claim it barely existed outside the experience of a handful of folk and was an exaggerated phenomenon mainly devised by distant American journalists.
Well that’s odd because I lived through those years and in my experience, for better or worse, the decade of the Sixties was one long party that impinged upon thousands of people from all parts of the globe.
I met a German businessman in France a few years ago who joined me in a holiday resort bar for a drink. He began to reminisce about his student days in London in the Sixties. I was astonished that he knew more about the music, fashion and night club scene than even I could recall.
“Ha ha! What fun we had at Le Kilt Club with Animals in Soho and ach – those nights at the Cromwellian with Rod Stewart! And The Beatles, every night we drank with them at the Ad Lib!’ Actually, he didn’t say ‘ach’ as his English and grammar was flawless and he was able to correct me, pointing out that there’s no ‘e’ in Edgware Road.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that a young German would have headed for London in the Sixties, as it was so much fun and there was so much great music to behold. Apart from students there was continuous stream of young girls in min-skirts arriving from Holland, France, Greece and Spain, all heading for Soho, the West End and Kings Road. I know this because many of them ended up staying at friends’ flats. Despite being penniless the girls enjoyed a diet of champagne and chips largely at the expense of all those roadies and musicians who took them clubbing twice nightly.
It wasn’t just the chips and pop stars. It was the whole cultural experience of a time when creativity boomed in every field of the arts and media.
To say suggest that London wasn’t ‘Swinging’ in the Sixties is patently ridiculous. It would be like saying Roman London was entirely devoid of Romans and that really it was a Celtic enclave largely constructed of mud huts. If an historian can portray such a distorted view of recent events that live large in the collective memories of hordes of survivors, how much faith can we place in his reconstructed view of the more distant past?
Perhaps the much vaunted Norman Conquest was a publicity stunt devised by a handful of French monks and the Middle Ages were unaffected by war, plague or famine. During the Black Death only a handful of peasants caught rather bad colds and the Great Fire of London was confined to a small blaze, quickly extinguished by a fish monger with a bucket of wet eels. Pshaw and phooey, one is tempted to expostulate.
Of course it could be argued that the ‘Swinging’ phenomenon did not touch the rural inhabitants of Wells Next The Sea in North Norfolk and passed entirely unnoticed by peat collectors in the Outer Hebrides. But then you wouldn’t expect New Jersey gas inspectors to have paid much heed to F.Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Jazz Age’ in the 1920s. There are always people living blissfully unaware of the tumultuous whirligig of events crashing around their ears.
A bad tempered baggage handler at LAX airport once curtly informed me (as I stumbled sleepily off an 11 hour flight) that the Flying Bomb attacks on London in 1944 were a myth that never really happened. God knows why he should think it important to raise the subject, when all I wanted was for him to find the bags he’d lost.
I said nothing at the time, but thought about this surreal one way conversation for years afterwards. Maybe I should have told him about the Flying Bomb I saw droning over my parent’s flat in Stratford that we later discovered had completely annihilated half a street and all our local shops. But I guess like most self-appointed historians, he wouldn’t have believed an eyewitness.
But do believe me Swinging London wasn’t a myth. It may now be a blur and a cloud of dust like the aftermath of the buzz bombs, but it really happened. My ears are still ringing.