Friday, October 28, 2011

John Mortimer Remembers the Sixties


I was reading John Mortimer's memoir, Clinging to the Wreckage the other day, and right there near the beginning I ran into the following passage:

The end of the sixties, Flower Power and Children's LIb, the Underground Press and the Alternative Society seem as remote as the Middle Ages; 'Make Love Not War' as dusty an apothegm as some saying of the Early Fathers of the Church.  Childhood requires no effort of memory, but it is hard work to recapture the feeling of 1971, a year when Richard Neville, a young Australian writer, asked some vaguely liberated children to help him produce a 'Schoolkids' number of his magazine Oz, thereby promoting an obscenity trial which lasted for six hot weeks of that summer at the Old Bailey.  As the trial started the children demonstrated in the street, carrying, as I remember it, banners bearing the legend 'An Orgasm A Day Keeps the Doctor Away'.  The front row of the public gallery contained girls whose T-shirts were decorated with a portrait of the Inspector in Charge of the case.  He stared up from his position of power in the well of the Court at a repeated view of his own flushed features strained between the small breasts of teenaged girls.  The adult editors of Oz, Richard Neville, Jim Anderson, and Felix Dennis, wore, for their first day in the dock, gym-slips and long blonde wigs, treating the proceedings with an apparent levity far removed from the respectful stance and deferential silence of the more acceptable prisoners at the bar.  Among the witnesses called was the comedian Marty Feldman, and I remember him whispering to me, on his way to the witness-box, 'Great to be working with you at last.'
     What, I now wonder, did everyone think was going on?  A children's revolution, the dawn of a new world when long-haired headmasters would chant Bob Dylan songs at assembly and an adolescent House of Commons would rap away in perfect love enveloped in a pungent smell like slow-burning Turkish carpets; and war, shamed by a poem of Allen Ginsberg's, would vanish from the face of the earth?  The dream, whatever it was, has faded more rapidly than most, and the schoolkids of the Oz age are no doubt now paying their mortgages and driving their Ford Cortinas with a nodding dog in the back window, and holding down tough jobs as chartered accountants.  Even the trial became calmer after its dramatic beginning, and the great majesty of the Criminal Law of England bent itself to a careful consideration of, among other things, Rupert the Bear, an animal long beloved for his docility and innocence, who was unusually portrayed, in Oz magazine, with a gigantic erection.

Which is the best summation of the Sixties I've ever come across.  When the old-timers joke that "If you can remember the Sixties, you weren't there," we're not implying that you were doing massive amounts of drugs -- though you almost certainly were -- but that the reality of what we were doing and the subjectivity of what we thought we were doing were so strange as to be almost unfathomable today.

What were we thinking?  I despair of coming up with a logical answer to that question.

And incidentally . . .

Did you notice how well-written that passage was?  How every sentence was inherently interesting and how smoothly it all read?  That's very fine indeed.  John Mortimer has received oodles of praise for his writing.  But, honestly, he hasn't received a fraction of his due.

And you may remember . . .

I was on a panel about Ursula K. Le Guin at the Center for Fiction in NYC recently.  It was a good panel -- everybody participated equally and we all had intelligent and interesting things to say.  But what struck me most was the crowd.  It was a more "mainstream" group than I usually speak in front of, so a great deal of this information was new to them and they were really interested.  It's not hard to do a good job in front of an audience like that.

In the crowd, as it turned out, was Ryan Britt, who wrote an account of the panel for

You can read what he had to say about the panel here.



Anonymous said...

Splenid post on J. Mortimer. I'd sure like to see what's on his bookshelves.

(An invasive habit of mine; I do like to examine the library in any new home I visit...the sooner the better!)

Anonymous said...

...and a good day to (re)read Mr. Swanwick's 'October Leaves'.