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I think Christine Keeler’s passing makes us all miss 1963 all the more. Ever those of us who weren’t there.

December 6, 2017

CKeeler1

 

I really do.  And doesn’t she look so very thoughtful, so mysterious and so very very naked sitting the wrong way on this chair?  She’s the shape of things to come.

1963 was Philip Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis” of course, as he overindulged his “grumpy old man bemused by the freedoms of youth” persona.  (Many sad old gits have pretended to have complex and interesting romantic lives – Larkin had a complex and interesting romantic life while pretending to be a sad old git.)   Larkin’s memorable lines mock the clichés of an over-hyped zeitgeist even as they celebrate them.

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(which was rather late for me) –

Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban

And the Beatles first LP.

 

Up to then there’d only been

A sort of bargaining.

A wrangle for the ring.

A shame that started at sixteen

And spread to everything.

 

Then all at once the quarrel sank:

Everyone felt the same

And every life became

A brilliant breaking of the bank,

A quite unloseable game.

 

So life was never better than

In nineteen sixty-three

(Though just too late for me) –

Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.

 

Sexual intercourse did not “begin” in 1963 – as many people born before 1964 will testify.  However, a delicious sense that its terms and conditions had somehow evaporated in a fit of giggles at some ludicrously specific historical moment is a fantasy too delightful to die.

This same year that was too late for Philip Larkin was perhaps slightly early for Paul Muldoon, in his coming of age poem that explicitly evokes the world of Christine Keeler.

PROFUMO

My mother had slapped a month-long news embargo
on his very name. The inhalation
of my first, damp
menthol fag behind the Junior Common Room.

The violet-scented Thirteenth Birthday card
to which I would affix a stamp
with the Queen’s head upside down, swalk,
and post to Frances Hagan.

The spontaneously-combustible News of the World
under my mother’s cushion
as she shifted from ham to snobbish ham;

‘Haven’t I told you, time and time again,
that you and she are chalk
and cheese? Away and read Masefield’s “Cargoes.”’

 

In this loosely conceived sonnet, Muldoon manages to squeeze sexual awakening with the political division and frustration.  Frances Hagan’s family, one imagines, are used to putting stamps on letters the right way up.  Incidentally, even when I was a child, Masefield’s “Cargoes” was just about the most anthologised poem there was and schools were full of battered poetry books that announced it.  It was the first poem most children learned to chant – the alpha and omega of many folks’ lyrical experience.

The narrator’s mother literally sits on the Profumo story, trying to smother it – not unlike the British establishment.  This kind of repression is (as Foucauld would say) productive – generating fresh discourses of sex within an admonitory idiom.

What I think we love about 1963 (though a bit too early for me) is a sense of the 1960s in bud rather than in bloom – the sense of a repressive old order that is less terrifying than comic and inefficient.  What we miss from 1963 is not the Age of Aquarius but a sort of Age of Innocence, in which even satire was young and fresh faced.

At the cemetery gates of 1963, it is not Keats and Yeats who are on your side but a team consisting of Lady Chatterley, Christine Keeler, Doctor Who, and John Lennon – who tells the Royal Variety Performance audience to “rattle their jewelry” along with “Twist and Shout”.  And, incidentally, wouldn’t that be the greatest ensemble super hero movie cast of all time?

The year is so well preserved and documented that even those of us who weren’t born feel we were there and have a right to feel nostalgic for it.  Perhaps we’re not nostalgic just for that zeitgeist, but for zeitgests in general – and we’re somehow aware that perhaps the twenty-first century is too complex, too eclectic, too cynical and too cruel to permit the indulgence of any more “all at once”s – any more “unloseable game”s.

Oh, and this nostalgic feeling I get when I see the Christine Keeler picture reminds me of feeling desperate for Billy Liar (Tom Courtney)  to get on that train.

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