Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: November 2022

Dusty Springfield: the Dark Side of the Sixties

I suspect that in every generation sexagenarians glance  wistfully over their shoulders and peer through their rose-coloured spectacles, bringing into fuzzy focus the years of their youth, inevitably a time of hope and optimism, when everything was lighter, brighter, and more exciting. But surely this temptation has never been greater than for those of us  who grew up in the Swinging Sixties. The soubriquet was not some post hoc addition, for even at the time it was in use, applied especially to Swinging London with its psychedelic fashions, Carnaby Street and Biba, and the London Sound: The Rolling Stones; The Who; The Kinks. London swung, it led the world – effortlessly.

Even in the provinces the glamour rubbed off. As I walked through the town to school each day, it was as though I were walking through a theatre with spotlights being switched on all around me. The grey-drab fifties were receding before an onslaught of colour. No more  the dirty yellow smog, no more soot-stained buildings, no more bomb sites and derelict houses. Every day  brought change: bomb sites were cleared, skips appeared outside empty houses, fresh paint brought shop fronts to life and boutiques mushroomed throughout the town. My previously monochrome world was transformed into a glorious technicolour environment.

 After school we headed to Granny’s Garden, our favourite boutique, where the young shop assistants perused the rails of mini-skirts, skinny ribbed jumpers, lace blouses, feather boas, ponchos, PVC raincoats and velvet jackets as eagerly as we did, and no one minded how many outfits we tried on in the communal changing rooms. We would emerge in our finery and bop around the shop, casting covert glances at ourselves in the many mirrors, as the latest pop music pulsated through the building. And no one seemed to care if, as was commonly the case, we left without making any purchases.

A far cry this from the two prim department stores which had previously held a monopoly as purveyors of frocks. Their air may have been headily scented, but such a pall of silence prevailed that we  had automatically lowered our voices to a whisper on entering. Middle-aged assistants guarded goods behind counters and clothes from the few racks were surrendered reluctantly with a careful counting of hangers.

Discos replaced dances: you could tell the difference because the music was louder and faster, a disco ball reflected the lights, and the over thirties gave us a wide berth.

No pop star epitomised this emergence from the chrysalis of the fifties as vibrantly as Dusty Springfield. With her abundant blond bouffant;  panda-eyed with heavy  black eye liner, eyeshadow, and mascara; her makeup completed with a pale pink lipstick; and all this sitting atop glittery, sparkly, frilly dresses, she was the Swinging Sixties, the glamorous girl we all aspired, hopelessly, to be. With a breathy sensuality which struck envy into our hearts,  her songs accompanied us through the sixties: “ I Only Want To Be With You;” “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me;” “Son of a Preacher Man.”

And yet, and yet, if I remove my pink spectacles and turn to face the sixties head on, was it all  quite so bright and shiny?

Even before Kate Millett took us by the hand in 1970 (the year of the publication of Sexual Politics) and guided us towards an understanding of Modern Patriarchy, articulating the need for a Second Wave of Feminism, jarring notes were already penetrating our consciousness.

Casual sexism labelled  young women “dolly birds” or just “ birds.” Infantalising and undermining, the derogatory terms implied  that an interest in clothes and makeup was incompatible with intellect. Meanwhile, even in academic schools, it was not unusual for a cohort of girls to leave at sixteen to go to secretarial college. One of my friends took this route and subsequently hosted a party peopled mainly by her new college friends and their soul mates, The Young Farmers. After one of the latter had tried, unsuccessfully, to stick his tongue down my throat, he informed me: “It’s not very attractive for a girl to have too many O-levels. Girls should concentrate on looking attractive, getting married  and entertaining for their husbands.” Too my shame I was left speechless. A short-lived boyfriend, with the air of one who considers himself emancipated, opined “I approve of women working…except when the children are young of course.” A friend’s father eyeing his daughter and me ruefully, expostulated: “But what will you girls do if you meet millionaires on the tube tomorrow, and they ask you to marry them, and you have to admit that you can’t cook?” We rolled our eyes at each other: there were just too many non sequiturs there for us to engage with the question at all.

Even after the 1967 Family Planning Act, GPs were often reluctant to prescribe the pill for unmarried women. In the last weeks of school, a GP was called in to give us The Talk: oozing with self-importance, he left us in no doubt that it was our responsibility not to enflame the passions of young men who might not be able to control themselves, and concluded with pompous self-satisfaction that he had never prescribed the pill for any unmarried girl without insisting that she first return in the company of boyfriend and parents to discuss whether this course of action was wise. I wondered even then how many unwanted pregnancies his sanctimonious attitude had facilitated.

And when the Abortion Act, making abortion legal up to the point of twenty eight weeks gestation, came into effect in April 1968, there were still a lot of hoops to be jumped through and care was needed to give the right answers to the two doctors and the counsellor who had to be convinced that this course of action was strictly necessary.

Barbara Castle, then one of only twenty-four women in Parliament, was not able to get the Equal Pay Act passed until 1970, and  then its implementation was delayed for  a further five years.

Not so rosy then, life for women and girls in the sixties.

Nor for other minority groups: the Race Relations Act of 1965 failed to address issues of discrimination in housing and unemployment,  and while the follow up legislation of 1968 may have prohibited overt racism, racist violence by far-right groups continued and casual prejudice against those with darker skins was widespread.

Similarly, it was not until 1967 that the Sexual Offences Act legalised homosexual practices between men over the age of twenty-one. For much of the sixties loving the wrong person  could make you a criminal. Even after the act was passed  widespread homophobia remained, breeding and cultivating  a fear of coming out and facing discrimination in the workplace, bullying, and hate crime. And although lesbianism had never been illegal, the same prejudices prevailed against gay women.

And  Dusty Springfield? When I discovered her grave in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin in Henley it seemed a strange resting place for the sixties icon. For if anywhere in England was untouched by the Swinging Sixties surely it was Henley. As the bright comet of the sixties flashed briefly across the twentieth century sky, this compact little town with its smart shops, elegant houses, cosy old pubs facing the river, and famous regatta held annually since 1893, looked a prime candidate for being the one to conform to older, more staid and sober ways.

Grave of Dusty Springfield, St. Mary the Virgin, Henley
In an unusual tribute someone has left a selection of press cuttings

But if there is a marked disparity between Dusty Springfield, the  embodiment of the Swinging Sixties, and the town where she rests, far more disturbing is the realisation that beneath the froth, fun, and frivolity of the sixties the dark evils of sexism, racism, and homophobia were still firmly rooted. Dusty Springfield, talented, beautiful, successful, and admired,  felt obliged to conceal her sexuality, keeping her relationship with the singer-songwriter Norma Tanega quiet, and living a reclusive life for a time to avoid the scrutiny of the British tabloids. She feared the prurient media attention that would lead to loss of contracts, and her authorised biography Dancing with Demons recounts her tortured fear  that it could end her career if she were exposed as a lesbian. Sadness and despair emanate from the pages of the book.

And so, despite the temptation in these gloomy days, to gaze back nostalgically at the sixties, I am resisting their lure. And if the present days lack the joyous optimism of those times, still much of the bigotry and prejudice which also characterised them, though by no means eliminated, have unquestionably declined. Swinging those years may have been, but  a certain darkness lay beneath their technicolour surface.

Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, Doubleday, 1970

Penny Valentine and Vicki Wickham, Dancing with Demons:The Authorised Biography of Dusty Springfield, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2001.

“Too many died. War isn’t worth one life.”

My grandfather, Harry Manley, was the gentlest of men, and I cannot imagine what emotions he confronted and endured when, somewhere on the Western Front, he faced the prospect of killing other men. Like many of his generation he never spoke of the war. He always attended church on Sundays, so he must have attended Remembrance Services. He probably wore a red poppy, but I have no memory of it. All that I knew as a child was that the reason he walked with a limp was because he had been wounded in a long-ago event,  referred to by adults, who clearly had neither the inclination nor the intention to discuss it further, as “ the war.” This was strange because “The Second War” was a frequent subject of conversation and featured regularly in heroic films and novels.

The First World War only gradually took shape in my consciousness through History lessons, and English Literature classes where a passionate teacher  introduced us to the poems of Wilfred Owen.

Only in her own last years, when she began to talk a lot about her parents and childhood, did my mother share her own limited knowledge of her father’s experience. Somewhere in France or Belgium he had been wounded and was lying in a shell-hole, unable to move, when a field ambulance arrived. The ambulance was  full, and from what I have read of World War I, I would take that description literally. The  driver assured my grandfather that he had noted his position and would come back for him. This must have seemed a well-meant but unlikely promise: how would anyone locate one shell hole on a chaotic battlefield; fighting might resume at any time; the ambulance might be blown up and the driver himself killed. But  return he did, and my grandfather was duly transferred from a field hospital to a London one. My grandmother was summoned to nurse him: staff shortages or because he was not expected to survive? Either way she arrived with determination, and skills learned in the Cottage Hospital in Ellesmere Port.

My grandfather became one of the lucky ones who not only came home but retained his calm, gentle nature. He resumed his job as a brick layer and my mother was born in 1920. But frequently throughout her childhood, she told me, bits of shrapnel would rise to the surface of my grandfather’s wound and a terrible stench would fill the house. My grandmother, ever stoical, practical, and capable, would calmly remove the offending fragments and clean away the foul stinking pus.

My grandfather, Harry Manley
My grandmother, Sarah Ellen Manley
A postcard my grandfather sent home to his wife
Message written in pencil on the back
A postcard sent from my grandfather to his son

My grandfather died in the 1960s, but another Harry, Harry Patch,  lived until 2009, dying at 111, by which time he had found fame as “The Last Fighting Tommy.” Harry Patch refused to speak of the war for eighty years, but in 1998  he broke his silence to recall the terrible loss of so many lives and to assert the futility of war. Five years later he returned to Belgium, for the first time since the war, to lay a wreath in memory of  dead friends at the spot where he was wounded, and they were killed. In 2007, his book The Last Fighting Tommy, based on interviews conducted by Richard van Emden, was published.

Harry Patch left no doubt of his reluctance to go to war: “I didn’t want to go and fight anyone, but it was a case of having to…why should I go out and kill somebody I never knew, and for what reason?”1 I could never understand why my country could call me from a peacetime job and train me to go to France and try to kill a man I never knew.”2

Nor was he in any doubt of the consequences of non-participation: “(The officer) had his drawn revolver and I got the distinct impression… that anybody who didn’t “go over” would be shot for cowardice where they stood.”3

He drew a raw picture of  the trenches: “the noise, the filth, the uncertainty and the calls for stretcher bearers.”4 “There was no sanitation at all and the place used to stink like hell.”5 “We lived with rats… When you went to sleep you would cover your face with a blanket and feel the damn things run over you.”6 “We were sitting in a sea of shell holes…They were half full of water and one,…well, the stench was terrible, a half-rotting body was in there.”7 “The bodies of wounded men who were dying… would sink out of sight in the morass. They would never be buried.”8 “A lad was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist, and lying in a pool of blood…he looked at us and said “shoot me.””9  “I saw one German… a shell had hit him and all his side and his back were ripped up, and his stomach was out on the floor.”10

Harry and the other members of his Lewis gun team had a pact; “We wouldn’t kill, not if we could help it… We fire short, have them in the legs, or fire over their heads, but not to kill, not unless it’s them or us.”11

On 22nd September 2017 Harry was wounded, the others in his team were killed. Harry wrote, “That day, the day I lost my pals, 22 September 1917 – that is my Remembrance Day, not Armistice Day.”12

Harry’s visceral loathing of  the war he was forced to fight resounds from the pages of his book: “At the end of the war , the peace was settled round a table, so why the hell couldn’t they do that at the start, without losing millions of men?”13 “The politicians who took us into the war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalised mass murder.”14 “War,” he averred, “ is a calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings,” and affirmed, “Too many died. War isn’t worth one life.15

Of Remembrance Day, Harry wrote, “For me 11 November is just show business… the Armistice Day celebrations on television…it is nothing but a show of military force…I don’t think there is any actual remembrance except for those who have actually lost somebody they really cared for in either war.”16

Harry Patch was determined not to have a state funeral but, as the last veteran of any nationality who had served in the trenches, he agreed to a public one. His funeral was held in Wells Cathedral with a theme of peace and reconciliation, and, in accordance with his instructions, the soldiers from Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom who accompanied his coffin were not allowed to carry their ceremonial weapons. A memorial stone beside the Cathedral Green commemorates his life.

Memorial to Harry Patch beside Cathedral Green, Wells

But Harry Patch chose to be buried at a private ceremony near the graves of his parents and brothers, in St. Michael’s churchyard in Monkton Combe.

Harry Patch’s grave, Monkton Combe
Harry Patch’s grave is the one bearing red poppies
Harry Patch’s grave is the one bearing red poppies

And that is a where I go to remember: Harry Patch; my grandfather, Harry Manley; the other men who came home to live ordinary lives;  the millions, mostly young, who lost their lives or health in that pointless war; and their wives, lovers, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, and friends  whose lives were forever diminished by their loss.

  1. Harry Patch with Richard van Emden, The Last Fighting Tommy, Bloomsbury, 2018, p.59.
  2. Ibid., p.137
  3. Ibid., p.91
  4. Ibid., p.74
  5. Ibid., p.77
  6. Ibid., pp.104-5
  7. Ibid., pp 98-9.
  8. Ibid., p.99
  9. Ibid., p.94
  10. Ibid., p.93
  11. Ibid., p.71
  12. Ibid., p.203
  13. Ibid., p.137
  14. Ibid., pp.188-9
  15.  Veteran, 109, revisits WW I trench.
  16. Patch, The Last Fighting Tommy, p. 20 The Peace Pledge Union produces white poppies to reassert the original message of remembrance: “never again.” They are a symbol of remembrance of all victims of war, of a to challenge militarism, and of a commitment to peace. War Resisters International is a global network of grassroots antimilitarist and pacifist groups working for a world without war.

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