1968: Those were the days Brian Williams, 2017, ISBN 978 0 7509 8430 0, The History Press, 190pp
Every year is the fiftieth anniversary of some previous year. I have a lovely book by Jon Savage called ”1966: The Year the Decade Exploded” which claims that 1966 was the best year ever for popular music. It was published in 2016, 50 years later. David Hepworth’s equally wonderful ”1971: Never a dull moment” breaks the mould having been published in 2016. According to the Elisabeth Åsbrink’s recently published (in translation) ”1947 : when now begins”, 1947 was the year when it all happened. I have to admit that 1947 has a pretty good claim to be The Year: the war has ended but reconstruction is not quite underway and it was allegedly the year in which the first computer bug was discovered (though what that means is that it was first time that the term “bug” was used (by Grace Hopper) to refer to a computer glitch). But 1968 is a year that is significant for me and that is why Brian Williams’ little book ”1968: Those were the days” made its way into my hands a few weeks ago. It was the year I turned 18 and went to university. It was not, interestingly, the year that I “came of age.” In 1968 in the UK the age of majority was still 21. It was lowered to 18 in 1970. We were, of course, able to drink legally in a public bar at the age of 18. Australia did not lower the minimum voting age to 18 until 1973. The history of the legal alcohol drinking age in Australia varied from state to state. It has been 18 in NSW since 1905 but in Tasmania and Queenland it was 20 and 21 respectively until 1974. ”1968: Those were the days” is not the first book to celebrate 1968. It joins on my bookshelves Mark Kurlansky’s ”1968: The year that rocked the world” which I had read when it was published in 1968. Of the two books, Kurlansky’s is the more scholarly but each is worth reading. Perhaps if I re-read Kurlansky’s book I should find it dated but I should still enjoy reading it.
Francis Bacon said that “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Kurlansky’s book needs to be chewed and digested whereas Williams’ book is one to be tasted. It is a book that you can dip into and for that reason it spent some time in the smallest room where it was perused regularly but not at one great length. It is a book that you might safely give as a present to someone who likes reading but is not a great reader. Be all that as it may be, as I read I kept saying to myself, as is the habit I think of all of as we age, “Good Heavens, did that happen in 1968?” Perhaps it is my distorted view of the significance of the times when I grew up but I tend to agree with both Williams’ subtitle “those were the days” and Kurlansky’s “the year that rocked the world.” This was the year in which Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, the Prague Spring, the rising anti-war movement and the Tet offensive and the student riots in Paris. Perhaps more poetically, it was the year that the last steam train service ran in Britain, it was the year that The Beatles founded Apple Corps and it was the year that the Boeing 747 came into service. In Australia the year began with the search for Harold Holt being called off. It was the year that fluoridation of Sydney's water supply began and, my elder son would expect me to say, it was the year that the South Sydney Rabbitohs defeated Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles in the NSWRL Grand Final at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It has to be said that Williams’ book has little to say about Australia. It is a book written by a Brit for Brits. I lived in the UK for the first 40 odd years of my life and I grew up with the antics of Harold Wilson, I remember hearing of Tony Hancock’s suicide in Sydney and I remember the introduction of the 1st class post. If you remember these things then Williams’ little book will keep you amused. If, on the other hand, you are a genuine Australian, as is my wife, then there will be thin pickings for you. But then you won’t find much in Kurlansky’s book either which focusses on the western half of the northern hemisphere. Having said that, I am pleased to have and to have read both books. And 1968 was one hell of a year … I think. Postcript: There is also a series of 6 short clips on Youtube called ”1968: the year that shaped a generation.” It’s US-centric but there are some amazingly evocative images that, if you were around, you will remember.