1968 Miscellany

by John Boland

I was in UCD in May 1968 but I was no college radical. For one thing, I was far too busy belatedly cramming for my finals in English language and literature to bother my barney about the state of the world or the nation or even the academic injustices that were so exercising my fellow undergraduates in the self-styled Students for Democratic Action, otherwise known as the SDA – protesters love acronyms.

Anyway, temperamentally I wasn’t suited to the physical and psychological rigours of student protest – all that marching, all that shouting, all that self-righteousness. Or as the horrified aristocrat said when he arrived in the trenches: The noise! The people! Of course I was aware of what was happening beyond the pampered purlieus of Earlsfort Terrace. Martin Luther King had been assassinated a few weeks earlier (Robert Kennedy was to be murdered a few weeks later) and Paris was in uproar.

But what struck me most about events in that city I hadn’t yet visited and thus hadn’t yet fallen in love with were the protests over the attempted sacking by French culture minister Andre Malraux of Henri Langlois, legendary director of the Cinematheque Francaise and revered mentor to such dazzling New Wave directors as Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, who were men I revered.

So my response to 1968 was almost entirely cultural and when I look back on it now, what I recall most are the books of the year, the movies I was seeing and the music I was hearing. Not so much the books, perhaps, because I still had those bloody finals to do and was frantically ploughing my way through King Lear, Paradise Lost, the Metaphysical poets, the Augustans, the Victorians and late Yeats.

But it was about that time that I came upon Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the second book of movie reviews by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael and became hooked on her writings (Hooked, in fact, was the name of a later collection by her). I thought her the most sassy and provocative of critics, with none of the solemnity of most other critics, and I didn’t notice then the hectoring and bullying tone that later began to weary me somewhat in her writings.

I read, too, Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, a terrific piece of extended reportage about unrest in America over the Vietnam War – and still, I think, one of Mailer’s least flabby and self-indulgent efforts. But the book that has stayed with me longest from that year is Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of wonderfully observed and beautifully written essays about the fag-end of the hippie era in San Francisco, about sad marriages and silly self-awareness groups, about all those dreamers of the golden dream and also about her meeting with one of her oddest heroes, John Wayne, a film star she had adored from childhood. I thought her book a classic even then and I think so even more now.


Then there were the movies of the year – not a vintage year, actually, but we did get to marvel at that sardonic sultan of cool, Steve McQueen, as he fought political corruption and criminal villainy in Bullitt. Everyone loved the bouncing cars in that famous chase scene, but I thought the airport ending the real bee’s knees, both thrilling and somehow existential as McQueen did what he had to do, then shrugglingly walked away.


Elsewhere, I wasn’t as wowed by Mel Brooks’s The Producers as all my fellow students seemed to be (it just wasn’t that funny, I thought), while I was left entirely cold by 2001: A Space Odyssey, the ponderous and interminably slow movie in which Stanley Kubrick first decided he was a Serious Artist, with a capital S and a capital A. It was downhill all the way from there.


But it’s the music that, forty years later, most evokes the year for me, and if you need convincing that those twelve months marked a vintage time, all I really have to do is list the albums – John Wesley Harding by Dylan, Beggars’ Banquet by the Stones, Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company, Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix, Sweetheart of the Rodeo by the Byrds, Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel, the white album by the Beatles, Dusty in Memphis, Wheels of Fire by Cream, Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets, Music from Big Pink by the Band and last, though certainly not least, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. They don’t make them like these anymore.


But forget about the albums – how about the singles? Hey Jude, Lady Madonna, Hello Goodbye, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, The Weight, Piece of My Heart, Do You Know the Way to San Jose, All Along the Watchtower, Dock of the Bay, Young Girl and, of course, I Heard It Through the Grapevine. There you had it – the world was in turmoil, but Marvin couldn’t get over the fact that his girlfriend was cheating with some other guy and was making him blue. That’s called getting your priorities right…

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