It was eighteen years old for the first six weeks of 1968; the year began with me going to Guernsey, driving down to Weymouth in the snow with my father. Dad took the mailboat back to England after a few days, but I remained on the island with sister Tiggy. She was returning to work as a teacher at Elizabeth College; this was a boys’ school, and she was the only female member of staff in the Prep School. I believe she was quite cosseted. I was meant to be improving my Latin, and to that end I had a number of tutorials with the classics master at the school. I had been informed by Eric Smith, who was to be one of my history tutors at St Peter’s, that my Latin needed improvement; hence (in theory) my stay on Guernsey. I remember a lot of things about that spring on the Channel Islands, but I cannot believe that I did much studying. However, at the end of the year I passed my prelims, which included a paper on Bede, requiring not only reading large chunks of Latin, but also (I seem to recall) involved answering some questions in the language; so perhaps I did more than I now remember.
What was more entertaining was exploring the coast of Guernsey. This included the cliffs of the South Coast and the more gentle sandy beaches to the north. All along the coast were the German defences, then not much more than twenty years old. The bunkers and lookout towers were built with much more architectural integrity than the utilitarian British pill boxes that I knew back in England, but the fact that they were Nazi buildings constructed by slave labour gave them a sinister quality that they retain to this day.
I returned to England to spend the summer on daily walks with our old dog Jet, just a few steps up the lane with him before he turned round to go home. In July I flew out to Basle from Manchester Airport with my friend Bill. This was the first jet I had flown in, and it was a BAC 1111. In it we sat facing the rear of the plane. This is a sensible arrangement from a safety point of view, but it is unpopular with the customers; the only other aircraft I have flown in that used this seating plan was a VC 10 belonging to the RAF. We went by coach across Switzerland to holiday in Rimini on the Adriatic. Some of you may have read my account of this trip in an earlier post in my blog. In August I spent some time out in Sole Bay off Southwold in my canoe, but without my sister Tig who had flown out to Edmonton Alberta to see our elder sister Chris. You may have realised already that hardly any of what I have to say about 1968 relates to Norfolk.
I arrived in Oxford as a new undergraduate in the autumn of 1968, and was thrown immediately into the student protest movement. A lot of research has been published recently on this topic, and although what I am about to write has no pretensions to academic respectability, at least I was there in person, unlike the dutiful writers in the learned journals and university tomes. Reading something of the protests of the late sixties, I now realise how diverse the things we protested about were. What exercised us the most, and what we really wanted to protest about (like our American cousins) was the Vietnam war, but as our government was not involved in South East Asia, there was nothing relevant that we could protest about. As a consequence the students at different universities found different things to complain about; at some the causes were more contentious than at others, but in all cases it was the desire to protest, rather than the now utterly forgotten issues that mattered.
At Oxford we occupied the Clarendon Building in protest at the keeping of secret files on students. That at least is my memory of the event, but it is quite possible that others remember it differently, and press reports may tell another story entirely. As I have pointed out, it was the protest itself that was important, not the matter in question. It is slightly depressing that the best minds in the country had such a shallow view of life, but that is to be young and foolish. We were certainly that.
In that Autumn of Discontent, the most pampered young men and women of their generation were busy charging around the venerable university town pretending to be Bolshevik firebrands. For me, the most memorable protest was against Enoch Powell. He had made his inflammatory Rivers of Blood speech in April of that year, so he was the perfect subject for a huge protest. In October or November 1968 he came down to speak at Oxford Town Hall, and a crowd gathered after dark in St Aldate’s, ostensibly to prevent him speaking. As you can see, the idea of providing ‘no platform’ to ideas you disagree with is not a recent phenomenon – only the terminology is new. Of course both he and his audience were ushered in by a back way, leaving the angry students with nothing to do but attack the police.
This was a rather dangerous development. Normally the student protests involved the Proctors not the police, and in their quaint bowler hats they were in fact quite benign. The police (even the unarmed British Bobbies) were a different matter. Nevertheless we began to attack the Police Station, which was next door to the Town Hall. The police shut the large door to keep us out, but a wooden door was no match for the pressure of hundreds of young men. It creaked and swayed, and within a moment it would have given way. Did we really want to invade the police station? Of course we didn’t; that would have meant a serious breach of the peace, so the crowd immediately melted away. I had been a fervent protester up until then, but it was the turning point for me. I had seen that the student protest movement for what it was; merely the upper middle class youth having a bit of fun while pursuing their studies. When the possibility of revolution became too real these soi-disant radicals went off to the pub.
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