HUER’S CALL BY MIKE SAGAR-FENTON: They're so far out they're irrelevant to today's issues
Well I finally made it – I've been to Glastonbury. No, not the festival, I'm talking about Glastonbury itself, the place. Nothing I might have seen at Worthy Farm could be stranger or more affecting than a stroll through this ancient market town on a Sunday afternoon. Many towns have a singular characteristic, a geographical feature, an industry, a cathedral, a university, something which distinguishes it from the samey soullessness modern towns endure. But Glastonbury is a completely homogenous alternative universe.
I did spot in its graceful streets and market square a couple of banks and a bakery or two much as you'd find anywhere else. But the rest of the shopping centre is – you know the little shop in a secondary position in your town staffed by dreamy ecologists offering loose colourful clothes, incense sticks, bongs, woolly hats, meditational CDs, books on alternative therapies, earth mysteries, goddesses and fairies? Nice, good to see them as an antidote to normal commercial ventures, a special place for those who like that sort of thing to find that sort of thing? But in Glastonbury that describes virtually every shop on the high street. Scores of them. So many therapists they must practise on each other. So many books with swirly covers. So many winged ornaments. An inevitable flute-playing busker and a hairy man selling kites. Passers-by dressed in clothes straight out of Lord of the Rings. Oh my God(dess)! What have we done?
You see, to fess up, the ancient face you see at the top of this column was once a proper-job 1960s hippy. We dreamed all this stuff up. It's our fault.
Blaming the Sixties has been a favourite game of right-wing thinkers for many years. They cite the drop in educational standards due to the belief that children learned more effectively with less structure or discipline. They indict the mindless embrace of a drug culture. They trace wholesale sexual promiscuity to those sunny summers. They deplore the more relaxed attitude to the necessity of work. They mourn the loss of respect for anything resembling authority, not to mention the active pacifism which opposed all military activity. They hated the inception of mass protests like the current fracking clash. They look back with longing to the Fifties when England was England and everyone knew where they stood.
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The accusations are hard to counter. Of course children are lost and miserable without structure and discipline. Of course the euphoric fun of the first few joints deteriorated into a commercial sub-culture selling addiction and death. Of course the casual status of sexual encounters has led to much sadness, from VD to the breakdown of the family unit. The idea of a work-free life infuriates the vast majority who don't have the private income to live that way. The Revolution never really engaged with the necessity of the welfare state, health services, all the infrastructure – even military security – of the privileged country they inherited.
But there's a case for the defence, known only to those who experienced that 1950s fantasy. The Establishment – now mostly a paper tiger – then held England in its iron grip. The hierarchy of the old school carried on through life. Children should be seen and not heard. Curious pupils were told not to think but to learn. England was always right, in the history books and on the news. Those in authority could simply not be questioned, though as we now know this gave cover to the police for easy corruption, teachers and priests for widespread sexual abuse, politicians for every kind of oppressive class-conscious discrimination. Women were meant to be satisfied with life indoors, however hellish. Homosexual men could be jailed. Racial abuse was legal and commonplace. Vegetarians were plain weird. The world was uniform and grey.
What hippies helped bring in was not just decent music and a sense of wonder, curiosity, colour, fun, and justice. It was the courage to crack open England's starchy walls, to make a stand for light and love and a kindlier relationship with each other, the power behind the flower. Like many social movements it was only a few steps from its own downside, but it had real purpose, genuine battles to fight, serious achievements, and casualties too. It still has, and these gross supermarkets of gnomes, fairies, elves and earth spirits couldn't be less relevant.