Birds of the British Isles – 1964, Swinging London and all that

What kind of screwed up world do we live in where American kids don’t care about Swinging London?

Kids of my g-g-generation marked the beginning of Modern Cultural Life in 1964—specifically February—Beatles on Ed Sullivan and the subsequent glorious British Invasion of Sixties bands, fashion and…the gorgeous girls—Jane Asher, Jean Shrimpton, Vanessa Redgrave, Patti Boyd, many others.

Kids don’t care.

Vanessa - and her hair


Callow pre-teens and teenagers ourselves, we disregarded anything pre-1964 as antediluvian—archaeological artifacts of our parents’ generation.

I quote the English poet Philip Larkin, writing in a curmudgeonly sour way in 1968:


Sexual intercourse began

In 1963

(Which was rather late for me)—

Between the end of the Chatterly ban

And the Beatles first LP.


(Note that Larkin referred to 1963 as The Beginning of the Era.  The British were always just a bit ahead of us in those days.)

Kids today just don’t understand.

Those girls, those birds—Vanessa, Patti, Jean and Jane—willowy and beautiful, English roses, distant, glamorous, the stuff of American teenage dreams, completely inaccessible and unattainable.  Those birds have flown.

Jean Shrimpton

Recently, there was a huge wedding in my vast, extended family—a beautiful young cousin, an elegant wedding right here in the cultural outpost of provincial Milwaukee, a very nice young man—a Brit, with parents of similar vintage to mine.  Peter, everybody’s best mate, quick with a joke—“fancy a drink? Wot’l ya have?”  And Charlotte, demure, quietly lovely.

Turns out that Charlotte was a fashion model back in the day, right there in Sixties Swinging London.  And now, she’s talking to me.  Me!  Formerly, a lowly suburban American schmucky kid, whose nose was pressed to the glass of the epicenter of the Mod youth explosion in England back in the day, and I believe she thinks I’m okay!  Forgive me, but this is exciting.

We’re chatting pleasantly.  But wait, she has a friend, Godmother of the groom!  Evie, miraculously, is also a former model of Carnaby Street London—blonde, of the aforementioned willowy variety, winsome and delightful.  They’re telling me a tale of a spooky long ago Sixties night spent in the remote English cottage of a famous British writer/comedian on misty moors of Cornwall—all right, maybe it was just some house in suburban Petersham, but I see it on some romantically gloomy wuthering heights, distant fearsome hound howling, moaning wind rattling windows and these two poor young birds, alone, lights out—there’s a noise, something creaks, knocks, bumps and imagination’s midnight rambler opens the door, enters the room dagger glinting.  The girls, wide-eyed, convinced of their certain doom, shiver under the covers, that hellish hound howling again, closer.  Then plucky Charlotte, ever so bravely, reaches for the light switch, dispatching the darkness, compelling the grim specter—a dripping iron—to flee into the night.

And there I am, at the party with the full attention of two showy British birds, direct links to a vanished civilization that my kids don’t understand.  Suddenly, I’m in that 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni British movie, Blow Up, the one with Vanessa Redgrave, a high-fashion London model, pop-art mini-skirts, white boots, white lipstick, striking fab angular poses for photographer David Hemmings, these girls, flown in direct from that world, chatting amiably at the party and I am smooth, sophisticated, my own Midwestern Michael Caine, or, yes!—I’m Brian Jones in full-blown ’66 rockstar finery in a thick paisley tie and polka-dotted shirt with huge cufflinks, striped pants tightly tailored, black Beatle boots and sharp double-breasted jacket from Carnaby Street. And my hair is perfect.

Brian Jones - 1966

And these lovely British birds smile like Lucy in the sky and the kids today are all right, but they just don’t know.

What kind of crazy world is this?

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2 Responses to “Birds of the British Isles – 1964, Swinging London and all that”

  1. Suze says:

    Love this … Not that I’m old enough to remember those days of course…. :-)) well, I was very young at the time!

    Was born and bred in Kingston ON but came over with my parents to UK in 1960. Lived in London from the late 1960s onwards but seriously was a bit too young to cash in on the early days … shame.

    Still live in the UK (45 miles north of London) most of the time but come home to Canada every summer for a few weeks. Also have friends in Milwaukee and Delafield WI.

    Anyway I’ll see you soon on Twitter no doubt; in the meantime all good wishes and the best of luck with that novel!


  2. Thanks Suze. Days gone by indeed. Always was an Anglophile, so this sort of stuff is right up my alley. In fact, I’ve been known to go a bit overboard. A year or so ago, I wrote a short bit about a lovely little Christmas love letter to London written by Ray Davies (frontman of the Kinks, old hero of mine). Never fails to jerk a tear or two.

    Friends in Milwaukee and Delafield? Sheesh.

    See ya in the twitterverse…thanks again.