The Sticking Place

How the Mythology of 1960s Was Exploited to Sell Tony Blair

Last week, despite a parliamentary rebellion by ninety-five of his own MPs, Prime Minister Tony Blair committed Britain to the updating of its US-controlled Trident nuclear weapons system. Preoccupied with his legacy, Blair can at least feel confident that he is leaving office without having compromised his credentials as a warrior politician.

It is curious to recall how Blair once missed no opportunity to signal that he was a child of the 1960s who had been in a rock band and dreamed the 60s dream of a better world. Once in power, he lost no time in inviting pop stars to Downing Street. Britain’s new leader was eager to demonstrate that – unlike the stuffy Conservative prime ministers of the 1980s and 1990s, Margaret Thatcher and John Major – he was a cool, 60s kind of guy.

Blair’s association of himself with 60s culture, with the days when London was alleged to be swinging and British pop music ruled the world, contributed much to his electoral appeal. The architect of ‘New Labour’ was sold as a politician who had grasped that, while the right might have won the economic argument, it was the left that had won the cultural argument, with all that this implied by way of the triumph of 1960s libertarianism. The subliminal message was that not only was Britain now under efficient new technocratic management but that it had found a leader who was reviving the good times, rekindling the spirit of an era when the British capital, if not Britain at large, brimmed with youthful energy and optimism.

It’s worth asking what lay behind the hype, the image of ‘cool Britannia’ and of ‘Blairism’ that was projected round the world in the late 1990s. It was, to be sure, in large measure a marketing ploy, a piece of politico-cultural propaganda, which, with Time magazine as its pre-eminent source, owed much if not everything to American influence. In many ways, it was a calculated attempt to recreate the fabled moment in the mid-1960s when Time ran a cover story celebrating ‘swinging London’ as the city that led the world in music, fashion and fun. The original Time story itself involved no little hype – though it could at least be said to have been a response to an authentic phenomenon. For British popular culture of the 1960s, unlike that of the 1990s, spawned a dazzling cornucopia of world-class talent, especially in the realm of music.

Keenly conscious of the revolutionary cultural potential of the 1960s, the British filmmaker Peter Whitehead was also quick to sense that the Time story portended the creeping Americanization of Britain – and as such was a cause for disquiet. Indeed, this most British of social chroniclers insists that all his 60s films are fundamentally about American cultural imperialism. If the 60s were a period of liberation, they also saw, in Whitehead’s view, the rape of Britain and its native traditions at the hands of the US. A season of Whitehead’s films which has just finished in London’s National Film Theatre offered a welcome opportunity to appraise the work of an idiosyncratic artist whose message has lost none of its relevance during an era when displays of US military might have been equaled only by expressions of American hegemony in the field of global communications.

A product of a nomadic working-class background, Whitehead won a scholarship to a private school before studying physics at Cambridge. Alienated from the British class-system, he became a filmmaker by chance after attending a reading by the American Beat poet Alan Ginsberg in a London progressive bookshop. Soon afterward, in June 1965, he captured on film the extraordinary international poetry reading at the Albert Hall by Ginsberg and others. This seminal event was attended by a capacity audience of 7000 people, with some 2000 being turned away. It was the first significant manifestation of the historic movement that was to be variously known as the ‘underground,’ the ‘counterculture’ and the ‘alternative society’ and which, in addition to crystallizing opposition to war and nuclear weapons, became the catalyst for all manner of post-60s cultural trends, such as feminism and environmentalism.

Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), an attempt to apprehend the truth behind Time magazine’s mythologizing of swinging London, is perhaps Whitehead’s best known work. The film suggests that the mania for novelty and rampant hedonism of the 1960s were bound up with the breakup of the British Empire, while hinting, through the eerie music of the underground rock band, Pink Floyd, at an encroaching darkness. For Whitehead, the source of that darkness was the United States, with its palpable determination to subjugate the rest of the world, and he subsequently went to New York to broaden the inquiry begun with his London film. The Fall (1969) concerns the US itself and the forces that were bent on smashing the counterculture and resistance to American power everywhere. Toying with the idea of a film narrative that would culminate with a fictionalized assassination, Whitehead arrived in America to learn that Martin Luther King had just been shot dead. During the making of the film, he met Sen. Bobby Kennedy, then widely seen as the embodiment of idealism, and took part in a march against the Vietnam War at Columbia University, witnessing state terrorism being employed to crush student protest. When Whitehead returned to London, it was to receive the news that Kennedy, too, had been gunned down. Finding it increasingly difficult to separate truth from fiction, he ended up making a film about the ‘counterculture’ which also testifies to his own personal torment.

By the 1970s, Peter Whitehead had given up hope of changing the world. Abandoning his camera, he poured his energies into transforming himself. Long fascinated by the mystical significance of the falcon in ancient Egyptian mythology, he was to devote himself to breeding what had become an endangered species and traveled thousands of miles with falcons’ eggs breeding on his stomach.

During the 1980s, with Prince Khalid Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia as his patron, he was much involved in the creation of the world’s largest private falcon-breeding center on top of Jebel Soudah, the country’s highest mountain.

Now 69, Whitehead regards the glamourizing of ‘swinging London’ as an aspect of US ‘psy ops,’ a more or less orchestrated effort to stifle the radical energies that might have posed a threat to the American military-industrial-complex. At the same time, he has come to believe that the whole business of trafficking in images – which has been so central to the selling of America – is liable to cut human beings off from reality; he himself ultimately felt betrayed by film. The apotheosis of the image may be said to have exercised an especially malign influence in Britain, helping to project as a cool guy a politician who proved to be an instrument of US imperialism. The British Conservative Party leader, the bicycle-riding, eco-conscious, David Cameron, is currently being packaged in much the same winsome terms Tony Blair once was. He could yet prove every bit as deceptive.

The work of Peter Whitehead says much about how post-imperial Britain was seduced into becoming a manipulable appendage of the United States, with ominous consequences for the rest of the world. Its re-discovery is nothing if not timely.

Arab News, 23 March 2007

© Neil Berry/Arab News
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