I was talking to my eldest daughter about last week’s post and my South American travels. The conversation moved on to the 60s and 70s in general, and the music in particular.
Sophie is 31 and the mother of my first and so far only grandchild. She’s done her fair share of travelling, mainly in India and Southeast Asia, so she knows the score. She lives in the depths of rural Wales with her homeopath husband, and their musical tastes are fairly eclectic. Mainstream she is not.
Even so, in her eyes I think my journey seemed somehow different, perhaps almost mythical, because of the era in which I made it. “I know so many people of my generation who have a real nostalgia for that time, for the 60s and 70s,” she said, “although of course it can’t be nostalgia can it, because we weren’t actually there.”
Strictly speaking, no. But I know what she means. We’ve all experienced a longing for something past, a perceived age of innocence, a Camelot, a temps perdu – whether or not we’ve actually experienced it.
But did we really have it easier in those days? I honestly don’t know. It was easier to get jobs. The music was new and inventive and thrilling. The clothes – well they were simply ridiculous. You could still go to places where not many others had been before. There was a general sense of optimism. But the freedom…
Personally, much as I revelled in it, I also found it confusing, perhaps even rather frightening. How was one to know what to do with one’s life when the only two certainties were that one was not going to do what one’s parents had done, and that it was now possible to do practically anything else that took one’s fancy?
My Latin American journey was a profoundly formative experience, but it was also profoundly unsettling and six months after returning I had a nervous breakdown. There were other contributing factors, difficult family circumstances chief among them, but I think more than anything else I was overwhelmed by possibility.
This was not a problem faced by my mother, now 83, whose house this weekend I’m clearing with my brother and sister; or others of her generation for that matter. Slated for Oxford in the late 40s, she had to give way to the older women returning from the war and settled for teacher’s training instead, followed shortly by marriage. I was born four months after her 21st birthday.
At the same age as I was setting off for South America, she was settling down in Edinburgh with her recently qualified and impoverished advocate husband, a two year-old child, the tail end of post-war rationing still in place, and that grim decade, the 1950s, ahead of her.
It’s not an era for which I harbour any nostalgia, actual or imagined. And yet, as I open yet another box of papers or books, and find a diary entry here, a newspaper cutting there, my curiosity is kindled. I want to know what it was like. I want to flesh out the stories of which these snippets offer such tantalising glimpses.
That’s really what forges our connection with the past, I realise. Our constant and endless craving for stories. They’re part of the glue that hold families together and give us a sense of continuity. Without them we become isolated, cast adrift.