Most of my memory of my teenage years is firmly locked and sealed. Sometimes a long-forgotten smell, the most evocative of all the senses in this deodorized world, will open it a crack. But in general it is a series of long gray tunnels with occasional vivid glimpses of daylight, which are probably wrong. I have kept no diaries or letters, and almost all those who populated my childhood and adolescence are dead or otherwise lost to me.
Yet for the past few weeks I have been confined by state-sponsored panic to my hometown, for day after brilliantly sunny day. I cannot recall spring weather as good as this since the late 1960s. And that is one reason why these times have become an endless encounter with my own past. I live in the same physical city as the one I dwelt in at the end of the 1960s. The place I knew then has gone. The manners and social relations, the way we talked, our tastes and clothes and jokes, would be in a museum if they were solid things. People would deride them or recoil from them. If by some terrible twist I was taken back there, knowing what I know now, I should hate it.
Yet ghosts of that time still linger behind a dozen front doors, all still standing. At one I received the only telegram I have ever been sent in my life, delivered by a smart messenger on a red motorcycle. There too, exhausted by the hard physical work and early hours of a summer laboring job, I learned the interesting lesson that if I was exhausted enough, I could watch literally anything on the TV, and not mind.
In that street there were difficulties with girls. In this one, there was underage drinking. I still shudder at awakened recollections of foolish or nasty actions, now as far in the past as the First World War was at the time. I never understood then that my parents and teachers remembered as far back as that. But they must have done. The whole era now lurks just on the edge of my vision, slipping out of sight the moment I try to focus on it.
Forced to stay away from my office in London, and so spared hours of commuting each day, I have given interest to my daily exercise by bicycling deep into the far-off quarters of the city, known to me long ago but since neglected. I have also been forced back into the shapeless days and nights of the teenager I then was, far too free to wander down long-ignored turnings, which I have been too busy to take for half a century. As a result, I am newly haunted by hints and clues of my own history, but never able to recover it properly. This haunting began at the end of March when I was in the town’s Far East, once a grubby metal-bashing quarter perfumed with oil and a smell that someone once brilliantly described as “burnt electricity.” I used to go there early on summer mornings, to hand out bundles of Trotskyist leaflets to puzzled production line workers. Afterward, my comrades and I would retire for mugs of strong mud-colored tea and marvelous bacon sandwiches (the best I ever had) at a dark and rudimentary café. All that has vanished now, along with the tall chimneys, still clearly marked with the camouflage patterns painted on them during World War Two, which used to loom over the district.
But an old iron railroad bridge still stands exactly where it always did. And the virus crisis has obviously interrupted a scheme to rub it down and repaint it. For the ancient and rather odd words “UP CZECHS,” obviously dating from the crushing of the Prague Spring of 1968, have reappeared there 52 years after they were blotted out. I think I can remember them being there when they were new. I suspect they were the work of Trotskyist friends of mine, trying to make sense of a year in which the young, in a strange spasm, rose up simultaneously against Charles De Gaulle and Leonid Brezhnev. Generally we were more used to slogans which began “DOWN WITH . . .” or ended with “. . . OUT!” We had little practice in expressing approval, hence the rather odd formula of “UP CZECHS.” And we were inhibited by confusion and doubt. The crowds in Prague that summer were protesting a regime of the Left. As Trotskyists, we knew in theory that this could possibly be a good thing. But in practice it went against something deep to find ourselves on the same side as so many conservatives. In some profound part of our minds, we knew Prague’s rising against the U.S.S.R. was the same cause as the one pursued by the students of Paris in May that same year, and not really conservative at all. In this we were in fact right. But almost none of us, including me, could have explained why at the time. I can explain it now, but it has taken me half a century to work it out.
For it is not all about hard politics. It is about the series of cultural and moral revolutions which came in waves from that time onward, and are still washing away the last traces of the old rules. Sex, the point at which personal liberation and morality confront each other, had a lot to do with it. Rambling vaguely down one long-unfrequented road I had my only proper Proustian moment. There before me was an oddly misshapen concrete gatepost, its strange crooked lines powerfully familiar. It was by that post, outside a certain front door, that I must have spent hours locked in teenage kisses in the summer dark. Back it came, the intense evenings staying clear of each other’s homes and families, the long goodbye at the gate, the endless walk home, farther still if I lingered too late and missed the last sixpenny ferry across the river. If that happened, I had to walk miles round. Once, on one of those late trudges, I was even stopped and questioned by the police—who in those days regarded any young man out late with suspicion. I did not mind at all. There is a bridge now where the ferry was, and many other things that make life more convenient, but I would not have missed that adventure and its inconveniences for the world.
For I, like so many in my time, had been enchanted by the spirit of the age, by an onrush of color and pleasure and noise, by a softening of boundaries that made almost anything seem possible. As Alice said as she slipped through the Looking Glass,
“Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through—” She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.
I used to joke that they had put something in the water in the late 1960s, but in fact they had put something in the air. We were sure that the world as we had known it was coming to an end. We wanted a share in whatever was coming, and confidently expected to get one. I still think Robert Browning got it best when he wrote about the Pied Piper’s sweet soft notes which filled the enraptured air. They promised a utopia of wonders to all who heard them—provided they were young:
He led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And every thing was strange and new;
The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
And their dogs outran our fallow deer,
And honey-bees had lost their stings,
And horses were born with eagles’ wings.
Well, yes, it was something like that, the thrilling age of pleasures which we thought was coming, so off we hurried to our collective doom. The urgings to take the primrose path poured endlessly from the small cream plastic transistor radio that my brother and I each claimed to own. It came also from the rudimentary record player we possessed. It was terribly weak and patchy, nothing remotely like the blanket of media which now assail the ear and the mind. Perhaps that is why it seduced us so. We had never seen anything like it.
I have often wished since that I knew something of musicology, of the strange power of certain arrangements of sound to bewitch the mind. From that great storm of noise, it is odd what still survives in the memory, or what comes sliding back unbidden. As for the words, we should have paid more attention to them too. The Mamas and the Papas singing “You gotta go where you want to go, do what you want to do, with whoever you want to do it with” and somebody else whose name I can’t even remember yelling “It’s my life and I’ll do what I want! It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want!”—these words subverted minds like mine, which had been brought up on Hymns Ancient and Modern. How very different from “Father, hear the prayer we offer, not for ease that prayer shall be, but for strength, that we may ever live our lives courageously.”
Yet we did often think we were courageous as we hurried off callously to our new lives. How well I recall that pride. As for the profane anthem “Gloria,” you could tell without hearing the words that it was not urging restraint on us, and that the singer knew that there was another glory altogether, which he was definitely not praising. I know exactly where I was when I first heard it, though perhaps fortunately for everyone, the unlovely place has long since been demolished. But plenty of those locations still stand, especially the pubs (one of them was actually called “The Rat Hole”) where I drank thin, foul beer and ate pies probably made from mechanically recovered meat, and praised myself for my adventurousness. And on a soft, pretty bend in one particular country lane is the place where, in a red and yellow explosion of pain and noise, I crashed my motorcycle into a truck delivering pork pies, and so began the long, slow journey toward wisdom, on which I have been embarked ever since, still hoping one day to reach the end.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.