In February, 1971, when I was ten years old, the first British soldier was killed in Northern Ireland. Robert Curtis was just 21. It was up until then that I was pretty sure I wanted to join the army and be a soldier when I grew up. I didn’t realise real people died in wars. His death and a growing awareness of the world shocked that out of me.
But it wasn’t until I was fifteen and read Richard Neville’s Playpower that I understood what I believed in. Neville was one of the three editors of the magazine Oz. An Australian. OZ was provocative, playful and reflecting a British/European hippy sensibility, less tangled in Vietnam, more about the culture that young people were growing. Neville’s book, Playpower was published in 1970 and is a kind of combination of Situationist manifesto and a guide for how to be a hippy. His ideas are set against the po-faced militant left as much as against the European establishment and older generation. He saw the future as belonging to the, then, young generation some of whom were more interested in love and fun than militarised revolutions.
Having been to Kiev (which is as beautiful architecturally as Paris) for a short visit it’s easier to picture the scene today, as war begins. Imagine sirens and anticipation in Bearwood, Echo Park, wherever you happen live. But I wonder about the agonies apparent in the press and the United Nations and compare them to the rather less agonised responses to Boko Haram’s mass murder in Nigeria, the more than a million deaths from war in the Congo, the raising of parts of Palestine, the round ups of the Uighurs. Yes, I know Russia has nuclear weapons. They had nukes in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was busily warming up the cold war with his ‘star wars’ projects. Of course it’s dangerous. Tell that to 13 year olds ‘recruited’ into the Lord’s Resistance Army. Remind the raped women of Africa why war in Europe is so much more dangerous than what has happened to them.
My thoughts are, and have been since that moment in 1971, why would anyone go to war? Actually pick up a gun, put on a uniform (not compulsory of course) and head out to kill another human? The answer often given is, like the gradually toppling chimneys after a storm, it’s the gravity of fate. Inevitable. Except it’s not.
If young people refused to fight there would be no war. My generation are in charge now. The generation of Playpower. We have no excuses. We have seen graphic footage of what happens in war. We have been the witnesses and sometimes the executors of many wars in our lifetimes. And now we (Putin is 69) are, ourselves, sending young people to go and get blown up in yet another war. No, I’m not in charge either. But, what we have created, this world, its politics, its shape. That’s on us. The rich idiots of the northern hemisphere.
What can you do? More importantly, what did you do? Did you allow the venal into government? Did you nod along with interventional bombing? Did you notice that, even while you worry and complain about money and prospects that the life you live is, compared to most of the world, that of a small royal in a small, rich country?
Do you feel guilty? If not, you should. Start there. We fucked up.
Richard Neville was right: no to war - yes to play.