The unforgettable 1960s

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Not long ago, I came across an old sketchbook filled with drawings, literary quotations, and conversations that I had noted in 1959, the year I arrived in Paris. Many years had passed, but I had not forgotten that treasured book and the notes I had made in the hope they might provide some guidance on how best to live my life. Leafing through the pages, recollections flooded back in jump cuts, images here and there, snippets from those early years still fresh in my memory.

I mentioned to Cyclops, my friend of those early Paris days that I’d taken up my old sketchbook eager to make one last trip through our joint history, one last attempt to recapture with as much detail as possible those Paris days when we flourished in an atmosphere of undisciplined frolicking, an atmosphere highly favorable to creativity. We have continued to correspond (more recently by email) for over 50 years. Due to his having lost an eye, everyone called him Cyclops – a name he happily espoused in preference to Alfred, a name given to him by his adoptive parents. In later years, after too many startled looks from strangers, he shortened Cyclops to Cy.

Somehow, Parisian Bohemian life suited us; it put us in contact with all sorts of free spirited, artistic people who possessed a special understanding of our differences. Cy seemed intrigued by my suggestion, admitting only that he liked to write answers to my questions. Questions are something we seldom tire of, but that does not mean we are sure to get an answer. Some questions may not be easily answered, like why Cy was expelled from his school or why he hesitated to investigate why his real parents abandoned him. Whenever the latter subject came up he would say dismissively, “I was probably thrown in a garbage bin.” No doubt fantasy is more satisfying than fact. When pushed he would respond with some fanciful scenario as to who his parents might have been. Always a delight to the ear when his imagination took flight.

My formative years, spent as a misfit in an unconventional family in the wilds of Canada, meant I began life more or less as a farmer’s child running wild in utter freedom, which unfitted me for the faintest shadow of restraint. Books were my only true companions and later a book sent me hitchhiking to San Francisco in my third year of art college, and on to an artist’s life in Paris. That book was Kerouac’s On the Road, a story of two troublesome, free-spirited guys zigzagging their way across America. For me, they had no gender; they were rebels doing what I wanted to do. It took a while before I realized I could never be part of that brotherhood nor liberated like those guys. It was a comradeship of men, with Kerouac and the Beatniks swaggering off to the next adventure, leaving their pregnant girlfriends to look after real life. Women remained collateral, just as they had always been, simply possessions of men and disposable. The Beatniks did altered that slightly to ‘the ideal woman no longer belongs to a man she belongs to any man who wants her.’

Cy was born in England before the war years and adopted by a military, ultra-religious, working-class couple, who he claims were both mad as hatters. According to him, he was halfway to being a Surrealist before he was out of the pram. Uprooted at birth and uprooted again from his working-class background by a posh private school education, he was a ready candidate for existentialism. His reading The Outsider by Colin Wilson led to his initiation into the free university of the Beat Hotel in Paris and the end of church rituals with his adoptive family. In 1959, he was the perfect image of the outsider, his long leather coat and black eye patch adding mystery and instant appeal to his handsome features. It wasn’t, however, his physical appearance, attractive as it was, but our mutual love of the written word that fused us in a fraternal bond. In the evenings our favorite entertainment was to drift along to Shakespeare and Co (then known as The Mistral) to browse books or down to the Quai on the nearby Seine to the bookstalls before setting off like The Situationist to explore unfamiliar areas of Paris.

Cy may have guessed it wasn’t just our days in Paris that I wanted to revisit, but the connections that had helped shape our personae and the various influences that had made us who we are. Cy can never stay on a thought for long and instead of responding to my suggestion that we create a manuscript from some of our conversations his mind took off on a tangent. “Starting a new work together at our age, has the advantage of writing from the standpoint of this other self, who we are now. Paris is the touchstone of our inspiration. Old age – post-Proust (who died in his 50s) is where you see everything you’ve ever written as part of a long unfinished book. We might worry about the post-Gutenberg age and how digitalization of information (by Google) has swept away interest in writing and reading, but readers will always be fascinated by books. Just stand around a good bookshop.” Ever the optimist.

Those few years of the 1960s/80s was an optimistic time when it was easy to find jobs and economic abundance allowed enterprising people to develop their individual talents. Young people created films, books shops, publishing companies, music companies, fashion and textile studios, and many new technologies. Those years allowed me, with very little cash and no family help to open a boutique, establish the first textile design studio in London and later in Paris to become a fashion forecaster to the world’s top fashion houses and printers. It still makes me laugh to remember, how after paying for my studies and setting up my design studio on my own it was years before men stopped asking me if I worked for my (nonexistent) husband.

I am thankful times have changed. Thinking critically for and about ourselves in the 1960s did change the rules, especially for women that meant not accepting how patriarchy defined our lives, not accepting that education was wasted on women and not accepting male dominance and oppressive domestic marriage contracts and rules. What I didn’t expect was in the new century we would go into a reversal of the 60s/80s and enter a confining and restrictive period of political correctness where censorship became dogmatic and extreme. People have now become afraid to speak up. Institutions like Yale and Harvard University, having accepted the restrictive rules and have now turned all the books in their library with the possibility of slightly offending vulnerable students, backward, making it impossible to read those titles.

Extract taken from ‘Chasing the Stars and Hoping to Shag the Moon

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