1969: The year everything changed

Not everyone succumbed to Moon mania. David Randall, then an 18-year-old news junkie, was more interested in the great events taking place on planet Earth
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The Independent Online

We sat by the television on 20 July 1969, for hour after interminable hour, waiting for the first sign of what we were told would eventually come – a man's slow, slightly mechanical voice uttering those famous words we longed to hear: "Normal programmes will now resume."

To me, space was a bore. I was 18, there were girls to underwhelm, bookish postures to strike, and far more interesting things happening back on planet Earth. Only two days before, Senator Edward Kennedy had driven his car off Chappaquiddick bridge, sending companion Mary Jo Kopechne to her death and himself into a career permanently hobbled by his ability to save himself but not her. It was one of many reasons why, for a trainee news junkie, 1969 was a very good year.

But not, however, for people in Northern Ireland or Vietnam. In Ulster, this was the time when The Troubles came again. The jailing of Unionist hardliner the Rev Ian Paisley, the Battle of Bogside, the conviction for incitement to riot of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey MP (who had only just won a by-election at the age of 21), and, finally, the arrival – and then deployment – of the British Army. And, in south-east Asia, the newly inaugurated Richard Nixon began the policy of "Vietnamisation" that would, he told us, soon bring the troops home. It didn't. Instead, the anti-war campaign grew stronger, fuelled not a little by Seymour Hersh's revelation that US troops massacred 109 villagers in a place called My Lai. The name still resonates 40 years on, as does that of Sharon Tate, pregnant wife of Roman Polanksi murdered in August by Charles Manson and his psychopathic "Family".

For some, it was a year of coming to power: Yasser Arafat, elected leader of the Palestine Liberation Front; Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel; and, in Libya, after the summary removal of King Idris, Colonel Gaddafi, who is with us still. Enter, too, Rupert Murdoch as the new owner of the News of the World, the Victoria line, Concorde, Boeing's 747, the quartz watch, maxi skirts, and, in San Francisco, the first Gap store.

Shopping was not quite the obsession it was to become; nor, too, were house prices, the average being £4,640. But wages (a teacher, for instance, earned about £1,650), and the lengths unions would go to improve them, were becoming An Issue, hence Labour minister Barbara Castle's proposed cure for industrial unrest, "In Place of Strife". Its failure would ultimately assist Margaret Thatcher into office.

Sport, as ever, was a diversion and comfort. England were still world champions at football, Birmingham-born Ann Jones won Wimbledon, Scotland's Jackie Stewart was top Grand Prix driver, and Tony Jacklin, a 25-year-old lorry driver's son from Scunthorpe, was the first Briton to win golf's Open Championship in 18 years. He was talked home over the closing holes by Henry Longhurst, one of a number of cask-matured voices (cricket's John Arlott, and tennis's Dan Maskell were others) that can still, when heard again by someone of a certain age, conjure up long-lost summer afternoons frittered away.

There were other soundtracks, too, not all of them welcome. As Rolf Harris's "Two Little Boys" and Lulu's "Boom Bang-a-Bang" were played again and again on the radio. The hearing envied the deaf. And then there was Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg's "Je t'aime, moi non plus", the authentic sound of two people lost in coitus, we virgins were led to believe. In time, we learned otherwise.

Altogether, the year had a fag-end feel, what with pirate radio gone, T-shirts from 1967's summer of love long since shrunk in the wash, the Beatles' last performance on the Apple HQ roof, and the release of their swansong LP, Abbey Road. The group whose first Number One had heralded the beginning of my teens had run out of good tunes and out of patience with each other. Before the year ended, Paul McCartney would marry Linda Eastman, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono would stage their bed-in at a Montreal hotel and record the dirge called "Give Peace A Chance". Woodstock, that August, seemed like an end-of-term concert for the Sixties; the end of something.

It wasn't the only finale. Charles de Gaulle exited from the presidency of France, looking as ridiculously proud as ever; Dwight D Eisenhower, architect of D-Day and presider over America's years of innocent plenty, died; so, too, did the Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes cartoon series ("That's All Folks!"); the Krays were finally sent down at the Old Bailey, good to their old mum to the last; Sir Matt Busby left the manager's seat at Manchester United; Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones was found dead in his swimming pool, something of a mystery to this day; the BBC's cosy radio soap Mrs Dale's Diary was put out of its lack of misery; and, saddest of all, Kenneth Horne, ringmaster of what is still radio's funniest ever show, died at the age of 61. Round the Horne, and much laughter, went with him.

In its place, later in that year, we got the start of Monty Python's Flying Circus, thus inaugurating four decades of people without a sense of humour wetting themselves as they recited the programme's catchphrases. How we longed for them to do something completely different; such as shut up. But they couldn't. It was 1969, you see, and it was all so terribly new.

Research by Emily Jones

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