The World of the Hippies

hippie-caricatureOver the past few days, I have been reading bits and pieces about popular sub-cultures in the 1960’s and 70’s, from teddy boys to the rival gangs of Mods and Rockers in the 60’s. There are other sub-cultures today, usually associated with types of popular music and stereotyped fashions of dress and other visible identifying marks.

Why take an interest in such a subject? Chiefly, I read a traditionalist article Now it’s a Trifecta about the possibility that Pope Francis would allow progressives in the Vatican, religious orders and educational institutions to take the Church back to the 1970’s. I would like to examine some of the fundamental ideas some people have about the 1970’s. It is assumed to be a time when young people became morally degenerate, started doing just what they wanted and – when such a mentality affected the Church, it caused the liturgy to be secularised and banalised and heresy to be taught in the place of sound dogmatic and moral theology. I have a feeling that many of these judgements, caricaturing the attitudes of the pre-war generation (sometimes called “the silents”), the parents of the baby boomers (c.1948 to c. 1962), are made by those of the “X” and “Y” generations. At the end of this article, there was a description of Rolling Stones fans as people who all have grey hair,  are a bit paunchy and are all in their 60s and 70s. In other words, “You old codgers have had your day and a new generation will take over”. That is indeed so as the years pass, and we all take our turn in seeing our hair drop out or go grey, having moments of alarm and embarrassment on the bathroom scales and seeing young people living a different life – or perhaps not so different apart from the technology.

I mused the other day in an article that probably most of the folk reading this blog are boomers. The baby boom came in two phases, according to the cultural referrers of people coming of age in the late sixties or the late seventies. Boomers were born after the war, but were still soaked in the aftermath, knowing parents and grandparents who were in it as children or young adults. Someone born in 1948 came of age (today’s standards – 18) in 1966. I was born in 1959 and was 18 in 1977. The Americans lived that period very differently from we British. I had a sheltered childhood, but I did not miss the signs. In the 1960’s, I heard the music, the Beatles and other groups and saw groups of young men riding motor scooters. My brother, born in 1953, went to university in 1971, in the thick of the youth sub-cultures. By 1968 (aged 9 years) I began to understand that there was a movement challenging the old order.

In 1971, my parents sent me to a school in Yorkshire that was founded during World War II to resettle the kids of the Blitz, founded by a remarkable man, Kenneth Barnes. This establishment was called Wennington School, which when I went there was headed by Brian Hill. This remarkable social and educational experiment is the subject of many reminiscences of aspiring and noble souls. I was only there for two terms, since the “experiment” did not go to my parents’ satisfaction. Ingmanthorpe Hall near Wetherby is a place of many memories in its many uses from being a country house to its use as a school. Naturally, I was fairly well exposed to the changing ways which I did not yet fully understand. Looking back at this experience, I have mixed feelings, having read books like Lord of the Flies, about the best and worst of human nature when freed from the constraints of coercive authority. To this day, my old sympathies with anarchism have never left me, though they have had to be tempered with a dose of “realism”. The sixth form had the privilege of being allowed down to the cellar of this big house. The dominant personality was called Barkis, an eighteen-year old who would have been about a year younger than my brother. His style of dress and manner of talking was entirely hippie. The cellar was painted with psychedelic lettering and images in the style of the time and was to us juniors almost a place of mystery. Of course, drugs like LSD or cannabis were strictly forbidden, as they were (and are) illegal in England.

There seemed to be an extreme expression of the sub-culture in Barkis’ Cellar, and a hint of it in the mainstream of the school. We had no uniform, but there were rules we had to obey. Infringements were sanctioned by “community service”. We called teachers by their Christian names. In keeping with the Quaker philosophy behind the school’s foundation, daily assembly consisted of a poem, a reading of a newspaper article that Mr Hill thought was important for us, and a moment of silent prayer. We could either pray to our God or look at the birds in the trees outside the window! I was away from there by Easter 1972 and prepared for a more classical education.

This experience of mine at this time taught me what the 1970’s were really about. Those years were a kind of transition between the old order, in which people could be extremely bigoted and cruel, and a particular interpretation of the movement. The world would go from that cruel bigotry to new forms of bigotry, fear and discrimination. The 1970’s were also a time of aesthetic brutalism, contempt for the classical and the beautiful. Everything had to be modern. This struck me particularly in the north of England where I lived, the equivalent of our time of the dark satanic mills of William Blake’s Jerusalem. I was brought to yearn for a life in the south of England where I expected to find more liberal attitudes.

I think my experience equips me for an intuitive examination of this sub-culture of so-called hippies – of then and now. My first impression of hippies like Barkis at Wennington was that they are not bad or degenerate people, but immature and extraordinarily naïve. The foundation is noble, and corresponds with many movements in history with which I sympathise, but the appearances were of varying levels of value from the hand-painted Volkswagen campers to long hair, the use of drugs like cannabis, free sex, the kind of popular music they listened and danced to and their rejection of institutional religion. There seems to be two levels – one much more philosophical, akin to (ancient Greek) Cynicism and anarchism, and the other as a childish revolt against authority and the trappings of the sub-culture.

What interests me is the philosophical dimension, the bedrock which can adapt to changing times and fashions. Like my brother, I have always been interested in “saving the planet”, doing everything possible to resist everything man does to lay waste to our environment. We love nature, whether it is on the sea, in the mountains, the forests or the North York Moors, where my brother has taken me for many killing walks of more than fifteen miles! The essence of this kind of philosophy is a simple life rejecting “conventional” desires for things like power, wealth, fame, power and material possessions. It is what we read in the Gospel, the simple life taught by Christ, a kind of archetypical Socialism. Such a notion would condemn sexism, racism, hate speech and discrimination. It would promote our education into a new paradigm, one of the highest level of self-sufficiency and equality between persons and peoples. This is cynicism in the philosophical meaning of the word, and not that of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, to quote Oscar Wilde as he hit out at the modern cynic.

There are several core principles of cynicism which can be found in the world in which I spent my childhood: the purpose of life being the quest for happiness and harmony with nature, a new way of thinking in a positive attitude, freedom from money, power, greed, etc. Self-sufficiency is found in living virtuously and in agreement with nature. Suffering is caused by bad judgements of value, leading to what we Christians would call sin and negative emotions. Money is given too much importance in “the world”.

In their heyday, hippies lived in tents and vehicles, but yet remained close to mainstream society.  I have no idea about whether people of this frame of mind would call themselves hippies. I have many sympathies with this world-view, but I am not a hippie and have never been one. I can’t stand their music. I stopped smoking tobacco in 2006, and only ever shared in with a joint a couple of times in my life. I heeded my father’s warnings never to go anywhere near hard drugs. I was quite fascinated with “tie and dye” tee-shirts when I was at Wennington, but never wore one. I’m sure that hippies went by various political ideologies and more or less assimilated Marxism or a more libertarian economic idea. Others were (and are) closer to the old Cynical ideas and eschew party politics and wanting to impose anything on anyone.

I imagine there are some who would like to revive that way of life that went with revolt of the kind of society that brought about the Second World War and the Depression. I haven’t really looked into it. Some of its “tentacles” came into my own life, though I was too young to be affected profoundly beyond some of the trappings. There are still young people who would like a simple life, but they have other identifiers and references. The hippies came up with the provocative slogan Make Love, Not War. My brother understood much more about the Cold War than I did, but the idea of nuclear holocaust in an all-out war brought me many nightmares. I remain a pacifist to this day, even though I understand the classical explanation of the “just war”.

One of the greatest intuitions of the movement was that peace can only be found when we have inner peace. That is possible both in and outside Christianity and other spiritual traditions. Community life is very difficult and requires a degree of self-discipline and self-denial that perhaps many of those people lacked. Their use of meditation and a vegetarian way of life was no different from strict Catholic monasteries. However, they rejected celibacy / chastity and obedience to authority. The movement was a reaction against conservatism and authoritarianism, and as with many revolutionary movements, it went to the other extreme. Their sexual freedom was a real challenge to the traditional notion of marriage and family, and this remains a controversial theme to this day.

The aspect that is most appealing and influential in our modern life is the hippie’s reaction against consumerism, conformity and drabness. This would be manifested in the highly colourful garments they wore and unconventional fashions. They eschewed fashion trends and the same spirit of conformity as in the past.

The hippie movement was already dying in the 1970’s and I saw the pendulum turning during my life as a student in London from 1978 until 1981, after which I came to France. Life has moved on from the 70’s, and a certain neo-conservatism has prevailed since about the time when John Paul II was elected Pope in 1978. Many ideas are born and die like dreams.

Are we going back to the 60’s and 70’s? No, I don’t think so. There are many indicators of the future, almost in the image of Gattica, the imaginary world in which humans are second-class citizens next to genetically modified supermen. Mainstream culture has been conservative since about 1979 and becomes increasingly conventional, conformist and drab. I almost see a return in some ways to the 1930’s!

What is it that some Cardinals allegedly wish to restore? Perhaps, they should grow their hair, smoke pot and listen to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones! Then I’ll believe they want to go back to the 60’s. What is more likely is that what they hate most is the liturgy, beauty and colour rather than the drabness and conformity of the more totalitarian religious communities like so many clones in a Star Wars film. Perhaps.

I think the 1960’s as a cultural movement was a victim of its superficiality and naïvety. Like John Lennon, we imagined, but were powerless to build. Our expectations were of an impossible utopia and the philosopher’s stone of the anarchical society. We were dreamers, whether we we were schoolboys or men and women in garish attire trying to live the ideal. Yet it is the dreamer who is able to create and find freedom, peace and happiness. I don’t think that is the idea of Curial bureaucrats who seek pledges of conformity to an idea they don’t themselves understand.

Hippiedom is gone, but some of their themes abide. Between the time of the ancient Greeks, I think of the second title of this blog – the Goliards who were marginal clergy who enjoyed life and sought to do good by challenging the established order. St Francis of Assisi did the same thing, as many who were sent to the auto da fé as “heretics”. Many of these themes come through on reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

What goes around comes around.

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6 Responses to The World of the Hippies

  1. ed pacht says:

    I’m a pre-boomer, barely, born in 1941. I was 18 the year you were born. (My brother and two sisters, a little younger than I, all count as Boomers.) I barely preceded the Hippie experience as well, but went to New York to try to assimilate to the last of the Beatniks, a subculture just as strange as, but different enough from emerging hippiedom that many of us failed to fully understand them, and watched from a vantage point close to, but outside their world. I really like what you say above.

    There’s much appealing and much ugly about those worlds (as is true of every cultural milieu), and those of us who have been there can’t help but absorb much of both. Our present day culture is far more affected by the 60s and 70s than most really care to admit. There’s an anarchist thread that runs through most of contemporary Western society — in Libertarians and other anti-government types, in the looseness of sexual morality (even in some of the most conservative circles), and in a general ‘don’t tell me what to do’ attitude. I recognize much of this in myself. There’s also an anti-anarchist thread, reacting out of fear of some of what that leads to, and producing a desire for repressiveness against those we don’t like — often found in the same anarchistic persons.

    We can’t go back to something else, and we can’t remain unchanged. We go on. As Christians we need to understand the world we are in, and find ways to interact with it. However, we need to recognize how much of this world (especially of the parts we tend to like) does not match the message we have heard (or should have heard) and have been entrusted to carry on. We need to seek to be changed, and by example show (not tell) others how they can be changed. I think we do need something much like monasticism, but I also think it needs to be (at least for the most part) a monasticism very firmly in the world. ‘Nuff for now.

    • Stephen K says:

      ed, I always relate to what you say. I was born in 1955, so I’m younger, but my first four sacraments were all under the old dispensation. The outlook I have is born out of growing up in the 60s and 70s. I think I’m actually quite conservative in temperament, but a little contrarian at the same time, which made it equally easy for me to be the odd-one out and be all traditional at the time, and possible for me to change direction when the new generation of uber-catholischers arrived on the scene to rehash and promote sectarian machismo. Of course, it is not simply a matter of temperament. People, books and places all contribute to the evolution of the mind. The important thing is that, whether we become this rather than that, or more rather than less, we all change in one direction or the other.

      But generational influences only go so far. It is not whether one is a pre-War, boomer or X or Y-er, but what you think and feel. When I was young, I imbibed the implicit or subliminal values of the contemporary society that came about as a result of the confluence of the influence of many things, but in some ways many of those values were conservative and less selfish than today’s. Today’s young religious conservatives forget that their traditionalism is a revision and extrinsic to a large degree – like a pasteurised confectionery – and not mother’s milk, and the two taste quite different, if you know what I mean. My own outlook is that there’s little that’s new under the sun, that one age’s problems are no more or less diabolical than another’s and that no religion or political party has all the truth. There’s a part of me that is drawn to the non-materialist life. I have two ideal holidays – one to sit around a pool at a tropical resort just reading books and drinking ice-cold beer; the other, to spend time in both a quiet Cistercian monastery and a Buddhist monastery (the former for depth; the latter for expansion).

      Despite the sometimes very bad fashion tastes, the tendency to throw out babies with the bathwater (religiously as well as in other areas), and other faults one can undoubtedly identify, I often have cause to think that the flaws of the 60s and 70s pale into insignificance compared to today’s.

      • ed pacht says:

        I often have cause to think that the flaws of the 60s and 70s pale into insignificance compared to today’s.

        Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof

        We don’t need to look back and blame the past. We don’t need to look ahead and worry about the future. Perhaps we should see our own time as the worst we’ll ever have to deal with. Why? Because it’s the only time we’ll ever have to deal with – and because the evils of our own time are the evils in which we ourselves are complicit. If we allow God to change us, that will change the world to the maximum degree of which we are capable.

      • Stephen K says:

        True again, ed. What you say sounds right to me.

  2. Neil Hailstone says:

    An Old Codger (1943) writes something short which will take but one short paragraph and therefore will require no careful spacing and presentation.

    One feature I strongly recall about the 60’s was the great sense of optimism which was around across much of society. The 70’s seemed to be a time of strife within society and widespread pessimism. I enjoyed the music of the Rolling Stones in both decades.

    • Welcome back, young friend! Sorry to be a bit of an old square schoolmaster, but it does save work. On the whole, my readers write extremely well, and you’re no exception. I enjoy your contributions, so you mustn’t be put off by my lack of tact! 😉

      I was a small boy in the 60’s and turned 10 in 1969 – the year of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the crowning of Prince Charles. It seemed quite a care-free time, and our schoolmaster told us that anything was possible in life if we worked hard enough. It was in the 70’s when we got the recession and people were constantly talking about money and government spending cuts. I was at Wennington (winter of 1971-72) when we had power cuts all the time, coal mine strikes and protests all round. We stole candles from churches to get a bit of light to read by!

      It was the incumbency of Ted Heath, and then Labour had its innings until Thatcher was elected in 1979. The country was in a mess, and my parents kept talking about having to go easy on the money. What made things worse in the 70’s is that I was a teenager and understood so much more about things.

      I would be more concerned about going towards a totalitarian society than “going back” to the 1970’s. When I look at family photos from the 60’s, our family exuded optimism and joy. My sister had my father’s old Super 8 cine films put on DVD, and I was looking at it a few days ago. We bubbled over when we went on holiday in the mighty Land Rover and caravan – a real sense of fun. I suppose young families still enjoy their holidays, but it’s different.

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