Friday, 10 May 2013

‘The door wherein I went’: 1963 and me

‘Was 1963 the start of modern life?’ asked the Guardian newspaper this week in a special issue entitled Pop, Sex and Civil Rights and marking the fiftieth anniversary of what Philip Larkin called scathingly Annus Mirabilis. But there was nothing scathing about the Guardian’s approach to perhaps the most hyped twelve months of the twentieth century. Its aim was to bring historical perspective to bear on a single year mythologized in a way usually reserved for whole decades: the naughty nineties, the roaring twenties or that ‘low, dishonest decade’ the 1930s. Perhaps only MCMXIV (to quote the title of another Larkin poem) challenges 1963 as the defining, world-changing year of the last century.

The Guardian offered a helpful timeline – from the death of Hugh Gaitskell to independence for Kenya – and, after an introduction by Tariq Ali (who didn’t make headlines himself until 1968), had essays on Sex, Civil Rights, Pop and Feminism. I’ve read this special issue avidly: Profumo and Macmillan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King, all present and correct. How many of the Guardian’s readers, I wonder, actually experienced that year, or could answer truthfully the question, ‘Do you remember where you were when you heard Kennedy had been assassinated?’

‘I remember, I remember’ (quoting a Larkin title for the third and last time). As it happens, 1963 was a life-changing year for me too. In January, in the coldest winter since 1947 (which I don’t remember) I left my beloved home in the Fens – the huge, beautiful and freezing rectory of Tydd St. Mary – for the last time. I have written about Tydd before, but it’s only now I realize how strange it was to be leaving one home, spending a term away at boarding school and coming home again, but to a new home – Windlesham in Betjemanesque Surrey. Such translations can be instances of what Robert Herrick called ‘Times trans-shifting’, and this one was.

The Summer of ’63 was hot and steamy. The Profumo Affair was headline news, and reading the papers I stumbled through a lexical field full of strange terms: compromising positions, reefers, call girls, Rachmanism. I learned to laugh at the gentle satire of Flanders and Swann: ‘Nil combustibus profumo’: ‘no smoke without fire’;  ‘O tempora, o mores!’ ‘O Times, O Daily Mirror!’  The sharper satire of That Was The Week That Was was as yet beyond me – and after my bedtime, anyway.

But what makes 1963 a decisive year in my life was changing school. I was by then just 14. I would already have said English was my favourite subject, but within weeks, even days, my experience of reading and writing was changed utterly. At prep school, the poet we were invited to use as a model for our own versifying was John Drinkwater, and indeed for us modern poetry had ended somewhere just before the Georgians: ‘Sea Fever’, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and ‘The Golden Road to Samarkand’ marked the limit of my poetic landscape. (I had, it’s true, learned ‘Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat’ when I was eight, but six years later I still had no idea who TS Eliot was, or what else he had written. Yet after three weeks at St. John’s Leatherhead, I already had a part (as I’ve previously explained) in the school play Murder in the Cathedral.

And in our English lessons, a new world beckoned. One of the first poems I encountered was Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. I already knew Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus – it had hung in a classroom of my prep school – but the idea that in a poem you could write about an executioner’s horse scratching its innocent behind, and about a ‘dog going on with its doggy life’ was a revelation. Suddenly, too, I ‘got’ what Auden meant by

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen….

Excitedly, clumsily, compulsively, I started trying to write poems myself. I was urged on by my teacher – and by Ted Hughes. Every week we listened to Hughes talking on the BBC about ‘Poetry in the Making’ , programmes later published by Faber, in 1967.  With ‘The Thought Fox’ and ‘Pike’, those two still-extraordinary poems, Hughes explained the patience needed to let a poem fill the page. I didn’t know then, of course, that it was only a few months since Sylvia Plath had made supper for her children and then placed her head in the kitchen oven (an event recorded in the Guardian’s timeline). I’ve wondered since if making these programmes, sometimes using Plath’s poetry to illustrate a point, was therapy or purgatory for Hughes. Both, perhaps.

It wasn’t only poetry that defined how my world changed in 1963. Before the end of my first term, I had started to read novels from the school library that would have scandalized my father but which helped me to understand how fiction works. Of these, the most powerful was John Fowles’ The Collector, itself published in 1963 (so a brave purchase by the librarian). I still believe that this novel was as disturbing in its way as Look Back in Anger had been in the theatre seven years earlier. I learned much about fiction and about life from Fowles’ story of Miranda, a young art student in love with her teacher but abducted and imprisoned by a man she comes to think of as Caliban. I was reading it in bed one evening in November, hoping the prefect would be late turning out our dormitory lights. But he wasn’t. He came most prompt upon his hour, stood in the doorway with his hand on the light switch, said cheerily, ‘Goodnight, all!’ then paused, called over his shoulder, ‘By the way, someone’s just shot Kennedy’ – and turned out the light.

 Adrian Barlow


  1. I can answer that Guardian question very precisely: I was on my way to Cub Scouts held in one of the two Nissen huts on Cavendish Street and to get there we had to walk up The Croft which was an unmade road where the Arnold Wakes were held once a year. The area was derelict as some old houses were being pulled down to make way for a new doctors' surgery. I don't remember precisely who told us but we were shocked. I had just turned eleven and was in my final year of primary school, following remedial reading classes as my parents' constant moving from one area to another had meant that I was behind with learning to read. This was to prove a handicap as I failed my Eleven+ that school year and was sent to the local Secondary Modern School for Boys where, it is true, I was encouraged by the English teacher to write, but only really started reading towards my sixteenth birthday. The biggest challenge at that time was to get through Arthur Ransome's 'Swallows and Amazons', a story I loved, in spite of the hard words. I didn't discover the Beatles in 1963 but when I did a year or two later I became an ardent fan. In fact their music filled my teenage years and beyond my school-leaving year, 1969. That was to go into an apprenticeship in the printing industry. Another step into the world of books.

  2. An excellent blog, Adrian — with a perfect last line! I certainly remember where I was when I heard that Kennedy had been assassinated: on a train at Robertsbridge. There had been a diversion by bus from Etchingham, and I found myself in a carriage with someone who (somehow) already knew. I remember feeling a distinct chill. We were already of course deep into the Cold War: who now was capable of dealing with Russia? (By the way, I also remember where I was when I heard that Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated.)

    I was 19 in ’63, and well remember ‘That Was The Week That Was’. Nothing since has matched the excitement of that programme. It wasn’t just seeing the insufferably conceited Bernard Levin being punched in the face, or the arch–hypocrite Malcolm Muggeridge spouting his views — great fun though all that was! But the programme had real edge — and who could ever forget the wonderful Millicent Martin! No one then would have even dreamt that David Frost would eventually become an establishment figure...

    I didn’t read Fowles until the 70s. I finished reading ‘The Magus’ during an afternoon tea break at Dillons, Gower Street. I told my manager, and he said, ‘I expect you’d like to go home now.’! Does any book have a more depressing ending?

  3. Adrian - so the lines from Musee des Beaux Arts that you cite. I, too, I think I get what Auden means, but I will say it's one of the sections of that first stanza that continues to tease the reader a little.
    Are you willing to show your hand on this one?!

  4. Well – shall we say that life is not always so wonderful, and that excessive joy over the birth of a baby is misplaced: for who knows what the future may hold for it? (This does not represent a 'half–empty glass' approach to life; just a suggestion that our emotions are far too often a form of 'disorder', what Zeno of Citium described as, '...agitation[s] of the soul alien from right reason and contrary to nature.'

    How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
    For the miraculous birth, there always must be
    Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
    On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot
    That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
    Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
    Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
    Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

  5. An interesting read, cousin Adrian! (Well, you may be - who knows?) I came across your little essay when Googling my own little blog-essay about the summer of '63 - called, rather poetically, "The Summer of '63". Mine was a bit different from yours: I was ten years older than you, and my summer was spent backpacking around the first foreign countries I'd ever visited, besides England. I have fond memories, though no significant ones. It marked no turning point of my life; that came two years later.

    I well recall hearing the report of JFK's assassination, when I was back in civilisation working in the City of London. I was on my way home in the dark, watching the news on a pub TV. It shook me rigid. He was a hero to my generation, at the time.