Carla Carlisle on 1968

It took me a couple of weeks to get into the habit of turning on the radio in time to listen to the four-minute slots just before the news at 5pm, but now I’m hooked. This daily journey down memory lane 1968: Day by Day is a remarkable achievement by Radio 4. It’s like a vast tapestry of that year, woven with sound archives, music, interviews. In the words of Sir John Tusa, who presents it, 1968 was a year with-out precedent, a ‘year of revolutions’. Last week, the programmes dwelt on Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech and its aftermath.

I hadn’t realised that Heath sacked Powell within hours of his delivering it. I certainly never knew that steelworkers and Smithfield meat porters signed petitions in Powell’s support. What was most chilling about the archive recordings covering the legacy of Powell’s controversial and still powerful words is the feeling that now no politician with a sense of his political future dares to challenge immigration policy.

Each afternoon, as the events of 40 years ago unfold, I experience a feeling described by Mark Twain: ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.’ Weaving through the events in London, Paris, Ireland, Prague and America, against a backdrop of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin, I keep getting caught up in the many parallels between 1968 and 2008. Forty years on, America is mired in another traumatic war. Unlike the Vietnam war, which Britain wisely refused to back, the two countries are together in this war that we can no more win than we can win an earthquake.

The parallels don’t end there. Just when it seems as if the bottom has dropped out of idealism, something happens. As in 1968, America is facing a presidential election that holds out the promise of real change. A generation that rejected the ballot box became caught up in the dream of hope and change in the candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.

Kennedy’s words gave my generation energy and daring ‘The road is strewn with many dangers… First is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills’ and his assassination, so soon after that of Martin Luther King, was devastating to that generation. Suddenly, the war wasn’t the worst thing it was the sense of having lost our way in the universe.

I’ve always been irritated by that uppity little line ‘If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.’ There were many ways to be a part of the 1960s that didn’t included getting stoned. The problem now, of course, is that, 40 years on, we can’t remember anything with the sharpness we’d like. That’s why listening to these daily accounts is like walking back into a house where you lived long ago and finding all the same furniture. Comforting and amazing.

The sound cameos make me think that the spontaneous combustion of rebellion in 1968 did more than we ever dreamt of. It paved the way for the fall of the Soviet empire. It brought about (seven years later) the end of the Vietnam war. It led to the collapse of the rigid class system that had suffocated society for too long. Some days, as 1968 ends and PM 2008 begins, I think of something Ezra Pound wrote in 1934: ‘One of the pleasures of middle age is to find out that one was right, and that one was much righter than one knew at say 17 or 23.’