Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Friday 22 August 2008

Içi on spontane

It's been pouring with rain all day, but with only two days left, staying in wasn't really an option. Instead, another chance discovery beckoned - an exhibition (free!) at the Mitterrand library of documents and images from May 1968. It was basically a series of wall displays and a handful of fliers and photos in cabinets; I noticed a number of my contemporaries there, looking shyly excited and nostalgic, like my parents' generation looking at old gas-masks and ration books.

I don't know what's stranger: revisiting the near-hysteria of that time, or doing so in the context of this over-slickly technological new library, named for the sly survivor of the old politics (who appeared to make a complete ass of himself at the time, but still outlived and out-smarted his rivals to the left, the right and in the centre - and I'm not sure we yet know who he really was).

They say if you can remember the 60s, you weren't there; but we bystanders get the best of the view, you know, and keep our memories into the bargain. I was in Paris in June 1968 with a friend - the Right had just won the general election and the strikes and disturbances were collapsing. Somewhere in a cupboard there's one of the last posters still then available at the Sorbonne (but a hole was rubbed through it by a bit of the tandem we were travelling on - don't ask).
Even then, there was some scepticism about it all: at the time Private Eye referred to a lot of mad Frogs charging about as usual, and heaven knows, if you were looking for examples of "infantile Leftism", my contemporaries could give you a few. There was one particularly bad incident of vandalism in my college; but what took the biscuit was the time a student occupation of the central administration at Cambridge took the decision that various ancient railings should be cut down as a symbolic liberation. "We need hacksaws!" was the cry (hacksaws - to cut through several inches of wrought iron!), so a collection was taken up with great enthusiasm, and a delegation sent to buy hacksaws: only to return with the news that it was early closing day - end of revolution. As the Prime Minister of the day remarked, this was the kind of Left that was more gauche than sinister.

Of course, it's hard to imagine now that democracy itself couldn't be taken for granted. France had faced more than one serious prospect of a Greek-style military coup d'état more than once in recent memory, and Franco still ruled on its southern borders. Perhaps, too, there was some prescient sense that the surge in prosperity over the 1950s and 60s wasn't sustainable, as events were to show in the next few years.

But even then, I found the dogmatism hard to take: even more so now that, in the UK and US, there are people who have retained the fundamentalist approach but use it to pursue the neocon agenda.

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