It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness.
When I first read these lines; the book was prescribed reading in Standard Seven, I sort of blanked out until I got to the last lines: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”
They are all I remember from The Tale of Two Cities. I didn’t get good marks in English that term – or any other term.
But they were the fifties and sixties.
Thinking over the past sixty years, I can see six distinct ages, each lasting ten years. They never start in a “0” year, but seem rather to start in a “3” or “4” year. Like the forties. They didn’t start until the war was over in 1946. There was nothing during the war years. I wasn’t born yet, but my parents spoke about it a lot, mostly to each other. They told us kids how awful it was.
I heard about Lili Marlene, Vera Lyn, Flanagan and Allen, and Victor Sylvester. My parents and their friends didn’t seem to do much. The women sat at home and moaned about shortages and rations. The men fought in battles so that they could make them seem a hundred times worse when they were having hard drinking sessions with their mates years later.
The nearest I came to the war was at Sappersrust, my fathers ex-serviceman’s club near Rustenburg. I was about ten. “Monty” was coming to visit. They were referring to of course Field Marshall Lord Montgomery of Alamein. During the war he was God. After the war, he was someone you could slap on the back, call Monty and bitch behind his back about how incompetent he was.
On that Sunday, at the ceremonial parade, the Field Marshall stopped by me, sat back on his haunches, and asked me if I was proud of my father. I wasn’t sure what it was all about, just that I was supposed to like this “Monty”.
Back in the bar, usually partially drunk ex-servicemen were teasing my father, “Well, your son cannot fail, eh Charlie? He’s been blessed by old fucking Monty.”
Those were the forties. I think the fifties started about 1955. No actually, it was April 12, 1954, the day Bill Haley and his Comets’ Rock around the Clock was recorded. So the Rock n Roll age started in South Africa in 1955. Always behind the times – still is.
That song was something. It knocked the hell out of “Ballad of Davy Crockett” by Tennessee Ernie Ford; “Earth Angel” by The Penguins; “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie” by Somethin’ Smith And The Redheads; and of course Check Berry’s “Maybellene”.
Elvis only broke onto the scene in 1956. By then the fifties had already begun.
The fifties were the decade of suburbia, black velvet (a toxic cocktail of champagne and milk stout), G&T (gin and tonic, otherwise known as Mother’s Milk) and Sunday school. They were the years of the Korean War, Suez and the Cold War. The years of the A-bomb scares and stories about nuclear shelters in the USA.
The fifties were the hey day of Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Johnnie Ray, Kay Starr, Perry Como, Georgia Gibbs, Eddie Fisher, Darin Kerns, Teresa Brewer, Guy Mitchell and vocal groups like The Four Lads, The Four Aces The Chordettes and The Ames Brothers.
At the café bios (or the Plaza, Savoy or Bijou) we could see The Day the Earth Stood Still; Invaders from Mars, Them!, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Thing from Another World, This Island Earth, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. That was high culture.
Religion was portrayed in Jimmy Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. Sex came onto the screen with Gidget in 1959, and of course A Summer Place. We saw all these films. You could if you know the usherettes like Gertie at the Plaza.
But for high romance and fantasy there was Davy Crocket battling it out at the Alamo, High Noon, and of “Bridge over the river Kwai that someone blew up in Commissioner Street.
We don’t mention Marlon Brando in The Wild One, not even to this day. To discuss this is like calling Bernadette at Lourdes a Coke salesgirl.
The fifties meant Springbok Radio. Sundays starting with the Kolynos Show. After that there was a spiritual Afrikaans programme, ’n Rusplek langs die Pad. Simon Swindell followed with From the Bell-Tower.
Then my father would start twiddling the dials, and scrape through all the “eee-yooor” of shortwave interference until he heard the Big Ben chimes (the same incidentally as you hear from the Union Buildings).
Through the haze of hissing disappearing into the background and rising again into the foreground, we would only just hear, “This is London”.
The sixties started in America on November 22nd 1963, when Oswald fired a gun. South Africa was just for once ahead of the rest of the world where the sixties started on March 21, 1960 when we were all ordered home from school because there was “some trouble in Sharpeville”
In 1963 we were 17, and teenagers had done a whole lot of growing up.
By the time January 14, 1967 came, we were 21, and Timothy Leary had told us all to “tune in, turn on and drop out”.
But you can’t glorify the sixties. Someone, lots of people, said, “If you remember the sixties, you weren’t there”. They were an hallucination, a dream that you suspect may just ne a nightmare. They were culture wars more bitter and bloody than Bosnia.
Somehow I don’t think they were all that enjoyable, but this I do know: to have been young person in the sixties was a God-given privilege.
In 1969 in South Africa, cigarettes cost 25c a packet of 20, and petrol was 25c a gallon. A Coke and sticky bun cost 5 cents
So when the Sixties start? When you wanted them to start. They ended when you wanted them to end so that you could enter the 1970s glorious times of “Good Times and Bad Taste”.
For us the seventies started with Easy Rider when we sort of got the idea that acid tripping wasn’t really worth aspiring to.
Besides, we had started working, and having to face something called Income Tax, and rent, and that sort of thing. Also there was Erich Segal’s Love Story in 1970, where we all blubbed with Ali McGraw died.
We also started to be green after the oil crisis of October 1973. We really did start siphoning petrol out of other people’s tanks. That was the year they invented lockable petrol caps.
We all hated the 1978 Grease, because we knew what the fifties were really like.
The 1980’s were shit, especially Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. So the Berlin Wall fell, but that only showed you that the USSR was never really Marxist in the first place, we all agreed. Really – ten years of world civilisation squandered on Dirty Dancing, Chariots of Fire, and ET. Satan took over the world under the nom de plume of Milton Friedman.
The music was shit too. The Hammond organ, which always managed to sound like blowing over the top of a Coke bottle, gave way to the Moog synthesiser, which sounded like blowing over the top of 100 Coke bottles. They also invented a travesty in recorded music called compression where music forgot what “nuance” meant.
I didn’t hear much of it; I going through a rebel stage and listening to classical opera. I imagines myself at Bayreuth or La Scala. Bayreuth, in the wicker seat, watching Wagner’s Ring Cycle, certainly the most boring musical events ever written or staged. Der Ring des Niebelungen. Das Rhinegold; Die Walküre, Siegfried; Götterdämmerung. But Wagner was no fool. Maybe he was like Nostradamus, and could encode his foresight. Maybe he knew what was to happen 100 years later.
• The seventies: Das Rhinegold – dreaming of wealth while we pretended we were there.
• The eighties were the “Birth of the Capitalists”. Die Walküre
• The nineties were the “Rule of the Capitalists”. Siegfried.
Then came Götterdämmerung. The death of the capitalists. Starting with the dotcom bubble, then Enron, then God knows what until the depression that started in 2008.
The Twilight of the Gods. The death of the respectable banker, “Oh, you mean THAT two billion dollars”.
Twilight always seems nice, full of contentment and omnipotence. The end of 2009 was the Death of the Gods. Now this is freaky. One of the few times my father spoke to me (nicely) he had just finished reading The Death of the Gods by Dmitry Mérejkowski. This shows just how weird my father was. This book was written in 1897. Mérejkowski was little read; in fact three people had read his books: his proof-reader, his publisher and my father.
This weirdo book, subtitled Christ and Antichrist sort of said that Nietzsche was great, but Mérejkowski was better. But in the form of a novel all about Julian the Apostate.
There’s a line in it that applies to the last months of 2008. “Unhappy people! If life weighs on you, is it so difficult for you to shorten it for yourselves?”
If you like Superman, you’re going to find Mérejkowski unreadable.
I misquote Dickens now and say, “I do far, far better things that I have ever done; it is a far, far better place that I go to, than I have ever known.”
By that, I mean the future.