The year began noisily. In January, students were revolting in the ancient city of Edinburgh, tearing up chunks of tradition. We deposed the man we had elected as rector to represent us at the university court. One cold, wet morning he delivered his resignation from the pulpit of St Giles’ Cathedral, denouncing us as sex fiends and junkies. Malcolm Muggeridge was the name. He’d been a rebel himself, but had converted to old fogeyism, taking his student electorate by surprise.
We wanted the newly available contraceptive pill to be on prescription at the student health centre. And we wanted our elected representative to make our case for us. When “Saint Mugg” refused, we determined to change the rules and have a student do the job instead. Four years later, Gordon Brown was elected Edinburgh’s student rector. A result of sorts.
I was editor of the student newspaper at the time of our showdown with the rector. Student was the chief instrument of revolt. I was carpeted by the principal, narrowly escaped expulsion, finished my degree and went to work for the Observer as a cub writer on the newly invented consumer pages. In my first months there, as Russian tanks rolled in to Prague, I delivered a fearless exposé of the new shape of the Heinz tomato ketchup jar, and uncovered the secret of where to get pine furniture stripped.
I knew that students, workers and other left- wing dissidents were marching, rioting, sitting in and setting fire to things in Paris, London, Chicago and other cities around the world, that new laws on abortion and race relations had come into force in Britain, and that Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. I knew I was in the Swinging Sixties and that the King’s Road was the trendy place to shop. I knew that last year was 1967. But in this, the year of my 21st birthday and my first blissful employment, I didn’t realise it was 1968.
No one did. I have here on my desk a deeply yellowed copy of the Times for Tuesday 31 December 1968. It includes the “Times Review of the Year”. All the apocalyptic events are there, but they are sandwiched inconspicuously between news of the UK trade balance, arrival of decimal coins, the resignation of George Brown, the trial of the Kray brothers . . . Even the Times didn’t know what a year it was.
This summer, 40 years on, my daughter will graduate from university. I’m glad she doesn’t want to be a journalist, but if she did she’d have less chance of landing a job on a national newspaper than getting hired by Alan Sugar. And here’s the thing: in 1968 it seemed to us gilded baby boomers that anything was possible. We could make it happen if we wanted. For ourselves, other people, the world. We may have had an inflated sense of our potential, we may have been blind to its significance, but we felt it and we weren’t entirely wrong.
And it wasn’t just youthful innocence that fostered these illusions. Weathered trade unionists, venerable intellectuals, senior politicians: we weren’t all going in the same direction, not by any means, but we were all moving away from the same conventions and certainties.
Probably the most useful thing I learned in 1968 was thanks to a fellow student at Edinburgh, who picked up a book I was reading for my final-year coursework, turned it over curiously and demanded to know “who the fuck” the author thought he was. It hadn’t occurred to me to question the authority of the printed word. I remember the heady alarm as it dawned on me that I was allowed to think for myself.
I was an insouciant young thing who stumbled into some pretty parochial student politics and landed with her bum in Fleet Street’s bounteous butter. There are pictures of me with lots of leg and eyeliner and long, blond hair. Strictly pre-feminist. None of the women I knew was even aware of what would soon be called “the women’s liberation movement”. Sixty-eight, the actual year, was a boys’ year. They led the demos and the riots. But we women caught the mood of it. And in a year or two, we were on the march ourselves. Anything seemed possible, including challenging the authority of the male Establishment for equal rights, a voice of our own and a politics that reflected our personal experience.
Some of us had been radicalised by confinement to the margins of “revolution”: making tea, looking tasty, keeping mum. Some were inspired by the struggle to overturn cultural and sexual norms: say whatever you like, be whoever you choose to be, do whatever you want. The old ways were no longer the right ways and the right ways were, well, what turned you on.
Briefly, perhaps, 1968 brought together two quite disparate tendencies: political challenge and social tolerance. In politics, an appetite for disrupting authority wherever it was constraining or oppressive; in society, an appetite for difference, coupled with an urge to experiment in seemingly infinite ways. Was it a helpful conjunction? Did it make things better or worse in the longer run?
I could offer an opinion, but – as my Edinburgh friend might ask – who the fuck am I to say?