Sunday, 11 May 2008

Nostalgia, squatting and 1968

Nostalgia was the order of the day at the ‘1968 and all that’ conference at London’s Conway Hall yesterday. Not so much ‘the fire next time’ as slippers by the fire. Here was some of the radical cream of ’68 reminiscing for the grandchildren with not much sense of a movement going anywhere in the present day.

Piers Corbyn’s talk on ‘Squatting and 1968’ caught the mood. ‘I was sent to assassinate you in 1975,’ one unreconstructed and oddly youthful-looking anarchist told him ‘in a spirit of friendship and joviality’ (it may have been ‘solidarity’ – it was too hot to hear properly). Piers, then in the International Marxist Group, used to polarise squatter opinion in much the way that Socialist Workers Party activists polarise people today. But his old talk of transitional demands and the international proletariat now just seems an anachronism - and he knows it. Piers kept to the reminiscences and the anecdotes (the police spies who were set to work collecting corrugate iron for barricades, pouring a bucket of water over the sheriff of London, cutting a deal with Ken Livingstone when he was first elected to the GLC). He said himself that the younger people in his audience – a good third of whom hadn’t even been born in 1968 – must feel as he used to when he was listening to his dad talking about the second world war.

Some of the ex-squatters who turned up sounded even more like that war generation. One woman spoke of how there used to be a saying among squatters that you were never more than two streets away from friends (i.e. another squat) in London. ‘I would walk down Commercial Road in east London in those days,’ she said, ‘wearing a thin summer dress and very little else, and I would feel completely safe.’ She didn’t add how the squatters always used to leave their back doors open and pop in and out of each other’s houses all day long borrowing cups of sugar when they needed them, but you get the picture.

What she was talking about, of course, was a sense of common cause and community. People were brought together in adversity through squatting, and through the struggles that have come to be identified with 1968, in the same way that an earlier generation of people were brought together, in greater adversity, during the 1939-45 war. It is one of the great tragedies of recent history – and one of the great failings of ’68 – that those different generations were too often so painfully divided from each other.


Fiona said...

'Solidarity', definitely said solidarity, though it was said in a jovial tone. I'm not sure why the point was made about being able to walk down Commercial Road in just a summer dress as if these days you'd need full body armour to fend off the latte and pinot grigio sellers.

pauline said...

I walked from the Pier Head to the cathedral and back today dressed in only a summer dress and not even the priest said anything when he gave me the sacraments. Must be a London thing; didn't realise it had got so bad down there.

a very public sociologist said...

I'm due to attend a speaking tour organised by the Socialist Party fairly soon. It features a couple of speakers who were there and participated in the events. I do hope it will be better than 'in my day' style reminiscences.