‘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.