In the late 60s we heard about a youth movement in the States – young people
living together and having sex with each other and being part of a
“family” and never being alone. Meanwhile in London "hippy beads" were sold from stalls in
Oxford Street, and one cheap necklace didn’t conjure up
the whole sunlit lifestyle. We knew it existed, we’d been to Hair.
It was over by the end of the first summer and people repainted their
slogan-covered vans – it's hard to imagine how rebellious they seemed at the time.
My train home stopped somewhere like Reading. A long-haired individual in beads and bell-bottomed trousers got out and trudged along the platform in the drizzle. A girl near me said: “Well, it’s all right in ’aigh’ Ashbury.” (Haight Ashbury, California, where the movement flourished and died.) Meaning that in Reading in the rain it just looks silly. She was right.
But we were promised such a lot. We were about to enter another world, or true reality, or bliss, or trance, or altered states of consciousness, or something. A paperback called Ecstasy was popular. We could live out a fantasy forever, camping out in an autumnal wood with other beautiful young people dressed in medieval clothes and subsisting on berries round a fire, playing the penny whistle. No need to worry about a job, a home, meals, washing your clothes. And then you have to go to secretarial school – which actually is much more fun. Psychedelia was just a music genre. It was just people cashing in on a mood. Just play-acting. But the hippies and musicians seemed for a couple of seconds to be living that life. They were such bad role models. And what if you attained “bliss” but were still a wallflower at parties?
People didn't have characteristics, they were interchangeable, as long as they were "chilled". Everyone was accepted. People "did their thing" – what it was didn't matter. If a girl fancied a man she "crashed" at his place (living rent-free and eating his food), hoping he’d make a move. It was not "right on" to ask "Exactly how long do you plan to stay?".
No wonder the book Alternative London was so appealing – it claimed you only needed the bare minimum. Live in a squat. Eat (cheap) dried beans. Sleep on the floor. Hippies never bought anything much because possessions just weigh you down. You never needed to do anything square like go and see a film or get a hamburger. Yes, that lasted.
“Bliss” was actually achieved through drugs, which meant that nobody wanted to go for a walk or have a conversation. You had to “be here now” and were not allowed to plan even the next few hours. A friend was jeered at for saying “And then we’ll play Scrabble”. You took care not to show surprise or enthusiasm, responding to everything with a murmured "Far out" or "You're beautiful". We suffered from hippy guilt – we were never quite cool enough.
And meanwhile those hippies drew the dole, worked the system, dealt in drugs and sold sandwiches at festivals. They hung out in “this old farmhouse”. It was probably full of people who turned up and stayed because everybody was too inert to throw them out. In other decades we'd have called them "spongers" or "freeloaders".
Pop singles by the Incredible String Band were just that – pop singles. They went up or down the charts, you could buy the record, the band made money. What did I think the songs were? Spiritual experiences? That was rather how they were sold.
A New Zealand flatmate lived on mounds of vegan mush and handfuls of “supplements”. She sang her own rather dull songs. She had a boyfriend with long dyed magenta hair who never spoke, and this was perfectly OK. (He was called Scorpio.) She wanted to live in the West Country because she’d fallen in love with England after reading Rupert the Bear annuals.
The mysticism was just late-flowering Madame Blavatsky. The hippies were Beatniks in different clothes. They even used the same slang. The hippy movement started in the early 60s. Beatniks were taking LSD in 1964. On the Greek island of Hydra everyone thought they were brilliant. It was an idyllic life – but everybody drank, took drugs and had affairs and the children were casualties. Plus you could only live like this if you had money.
Leonard Cohen lived off his girlfriend, Marianne, who received maintenance from her child's father.
She eventually went back to Sweden, got a job in the personnel department of a company that built offshore oil platforms, and married an engineer.
And suddenly it was over. That hippie code of manners where you could just "hang out" in someone else’s house changed sharply, and everybody was very territorial (which had been utterly “bourgeois”). Individuality came back – even privacy. People still lived on the dole in the 80s but they didn’t think there was anything spiritual about it.
Behold we make all things new – but not THAT new, and then they change back again.
More about the Good Old Days here, and links to the rest.
I wrote about hippies in my first novel, Witch Way To...?
What I don't miss about the late 60s
men with long hair and beards
being kissed by men with long hair and beards
smelly Afghan coats
The abandonment of any kind of formality so that nobody asked you out or had anything so uncool as a girlfriend.
The disappearance of dance steps so that you just had to jig about while wondering if you were doing it right.
The silly idea that you had to live in the moment and could only act on impulse.
People saying "You had to be stoned".
People at parties strumming guitars and singing endless self-penned folksongs.
An unspoken social code that meant you never learned "straight" social skills.
Half the time it was not cool to speak at all. (Rob Chapman, All I Want Is Out Of Here. He points out that the hippie dream was flawed. You can’t just “drop out” when there’s nothing to catch you. “You just keep on dropping.” You needed money. It only worked if you were rich. I think I worked that out in the end.)