“Hey Jude” – the sound for me of London in the swinging sixties. I’m not sure why that particular song should evoke memories of those carefree days but every time I hear it I can picture myself back there with my flatmates belting out the song with a lot more enthusiasm than tunefulness. Whenever it came on the radio, we would all join in at the tops of our voices and that song was everywhere in 1968.
The lyrics are quite sad and the song was apparently written for John Lennon’s son, Julian, at the time of his parents’ marriage breakup but it only brings back happy memories for me. I was young and in London for the first time and there was a real feeling of excitement in the air. I had come straight from a tiny country place on the other side of the world, a place so small it didn’t even have a shop, and London seemed like a box of chocolates, full of my favourite flavours.
I was flatting for the first time with people from three different countries; there was always a party to go to, a friend to come sightseeing and people my own age with whom to debate all the subjects under the sun. After three years of being a teacher lodging with school families, this was a dream come true.
London offered endless diversions. The shops were open all day on Saturdays, transport was easy and cheap and we had only ourselves to please. Every weekend we caught the tube to the West End to take in the action. Skirts were so short that men used to sit at the bottom of the stairs in double decker buses to watch the girls climb to the upper deck. Minis had became popular, a fashion helped by the invention of tights in place of the awful suspender belts and stockings we used to wear. Shiny hot pants were also a fashion item although I was never brave enough to wear them. At the same time, maxi coats or capes were all the rage for winter and we wore knee-high boots for the first time. I even had a wig with blonde streaks which made me feel very glamorous. Fashion was cheap and disposable, so exciting for we girls who had always had to make our own clothes. We all shopped for underwear at Marks and Spencer’s, commonly known as Marks and Sparks, and even sent parcels of knickers to friends at home.
Mary Quant was the high priestess of fashion and makeup and Twiggy was the model to watch with her stick thin figure and haunting black-lashed eyes. We would spend whole days in Carnaby Street, the world centre of young fashion. It was a riot of colour, each shop vying with its neighbours to present the most eye-catching displays. They had terribly British names like Lady Jane and Lord John, the latter attracting attention with the whole of its shop front painted in a psychedelic mural. Union Jack flags fluttered overhead and loud music boomed out of every doorway. At that time, London was a magnet for all the world’s most creative young artists, musicians, designers and photographers. It was the place to be.
There was a real feeling of optimism in the air. Post-war austerity was over and young people felt a huge sense of freedom. They felt they could change the world and boundaries were being pushed everywhere. The anti-Vietnam musical “Hair” was a smash hit and, for the first time, nudity was shown on a mainstream stage, even if it was for about twenty seconds in dim light. We lined up for standing room tickets at all the shows as they were very cheap. We had to climb hundreds of steps to the Gods and watch from a great height but we were just thrilled to be there. We could not believe that we were actually in those theatres which had been familiar names from childhood – Covent Garden, Haymarket, the London Palladium and the rest.
We stood on the fringes of the anti-Vietnam protest march led by British-Pakistani Tariq Ali and actress Vanessa Redgrave when tens of thousands of people marched through the streets with placards, the biggest and noisiest crowd we had ever seen. The march turned violent when protesters broke into the grounds of the United States embassy and the police were strongly criticised for their heavy-handed approach. In those pre-Internet/social media days, news didn’t reach us back home until quite some time after it had happened and we felt very important to be right in the middle of news as it was made.
These major events were exciting but we found everyday things almost as novel. We used to listen for the sound of a horse and cart clopping down our street with the driver shouting “Rag and Bone” as he collected everyone’s castoffs. We were fascinated by the nippy little milk vans delivering their goods to our front door and we couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw the girls in the flat next door actually cutting their minuscule front lawn with scissors. Cutting the lawns at home had been half a morning’s work. We fell in love with the man roasting chestnuts at our local tube station. He always gave us a few extra and the little bags were ideal for warming our hands as we walked home.
To be young and free in London in 1968 was the most exciting thing in the world. I could not have spent the tail end of the sixties in any better place and, although London is very different now and our hopes and dreams of a brighter future for the world have not quite turned out as we hoped, I still love retuning to London. It is full of happy memories. And, if I can’t visit in person, there is always “Hey Jude” to take me back there.