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1967: the summer of possibilities

There was more to the ‘summer of love’ than zoning out, says a writer who spent it reading the NME and fumbling with girls.

Andrew Calcutt

Topics Politics

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When it comes to 1967, the summer of love, you probably should believe the hype.

Yes, scepticism is a necessary defence against suckerdom. Even cynicism is sometimes healthier than a dose of naivety. But 1967 is the year this advice does not apply to. You either take it as it is cracked up to be, or you better move on.

This month is the fortieth anniversary of the summer of love. The hippies and the dropouts are all grown up and are writing about their long-gone formative summer in the national press.

It was the summer I bought my first copy of the New Musical Express. I read and re-read it backstage at the Coventry Mystery Plays (popular outdoor re-enactments of Christian stories from the Old and New Testaments) in between the mildest of sex games with an older and wiser girl. I also had the skimpiest of onstage appearances; the girl and I had fleeting roles as the siblings of Holy Innocents – innocence I was increasingly desperate to lose.

The pages of what only later was abbreviated to NME were taut with a chain of possibilities. The paper’s reports and reviews convinced me of a link between schoolboy-me and the wider world of adolescence. And, wider still, the NME hinted at a connection between the external world of post-Second World War reconstruction and the inner-world of drug-fuelled self-exploration, which had its early audio and video tracks in Scott Mackenzie’s song ‘San Francisco’ and the accompanying film of Haight-Ashbury, a suburb in San Francisco, on BBC’s Top of the Pops.

As yet, the chain remained unbroken, certainly in Coventry, England. There was still a continuum between: mass-produced cars and the pedestrianised spaces (‘the Precinct’) of reconstructed Coventry (including new and old cathedral precincts where the cycle of home-grown Mystery plays was staged), and high-performance cars and other white-hot technologies as introduced to us by Formula 1 commentator and Tomorrow’s World presenter Raymond Baxter, and, as the chain stretched near to breaking point, the high-style of pop groups (‘band’ was unthinkable) and their increasingly consumption-oriented public. Not that the chain was ever unravelled in quite this way; nevertheless it lay there, all coiled up inside the shared national experience of television (still black-and-white, of course).

All of which is to say that in that place at that one time, one thing led to another, one thing was immanent with others. The summer of love, certainly as I experienced it in Coventry, was not about dropping out and giving up; it was about the links between things, between our lives and the world around us, and it was about recognising that there was a world of possibilities for expansion – both expansion of our leisure time and our minds.

Even the alienation of working on the line producing cars – ‘Put your hand up if you want to go to the toilet!’ – was identified with bulging wage packets and thus expanded, intensified leisure time. And this wage-enabled leisure in turn was connected to civic places, such as the newly-consecrated cathedral with coffee-coloured vestments, hessian hangings like Habitat wallpaper and transcendental concerts by Ravi Shankar, and The Belgrade, Coventry’s new ‘civic theatre’ which featured experimental drama alongside Charley’s Aunt. There was a link, too, between work and leisure and various public institutions: a nearly-completed new hospital and university, and a new ‘polytechnic’ which superseded the nightschool. How were these things tied together? Well, for one, the first of them (the new hospital) provided psycho-social security for the experimentation that was taking place in the other two (the uni and poly).

It took a few years before these live experiments were codified into the predictably profane trinity of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll. But in 1967 none of this was prosaic; or even static. You only had to look into the new architecture of the external world (from city centre to individual buildings to interior design to clothes) to see the expanding possibility of mind expansion. In the summer of love as I lived it, we did not withdraw from the world into dull introspection; instead we felt connected, through work and wage and playtime, to what was all around us.

However, in San Francisco itself, and in Haight-Ashbury where they started wearing flowers in their hair, I guess the chain was already broken. This might explain the melancholy tone of Scott Mackenzie’s anthem (listen to it again to hear how sad it sounds), as if something were lost even as we found out about it. In the US, a faltering answer to the race question, the mounting question of Vietnam, and the operations mounted against longhairs and drug-users, must all have served to stretch any postwar consensus past breaking point. The USA was fast-forwarding to riots, the draft and a youth culture (now middle-aged) which was trying to counter all that. But light years closer to my home in Middle England – the geographical centre of England being just a few miles away from where I lived – the conjuncture was still elastic enough to encompass new cultural developments and celebrate them. That’s what we would have meant by ‘social inclusion’.

Perhaps this description of social development is too heavily coloured by my own lack of the same. A few months later, when sex really kicked in to my personal life, the sense of limitless possibilities actually came to an abrupt end. For some considerable time (more time than I care to remember), all human life seemed to be grounded in the groin. Or maybe in those months following I, too, was feeling the earth move, and thus ended up shifting along with everyone else from ‘spiritual revolution’ to ‘sexual revolution’, as reported by Mick Jagger to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In any case, the spirit of summer ’67 seemed very much alive, innovative and interconnected – and to be young at that time was temporary heaven.

Andrew Calcutt is a lecturer and writer. He will be 52 next month.

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Topics Politics

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