It was a fine October afternoon following two weeks of rain. A misty sun hovered like a flame behind a blue screen, hour by hour recreating every plane and prospect of England’s ancient capital. I had been to high mass at the Brompton Oratory and returned to my Jewish friend’s flat in Maida Vale around 2 p.m. He suggested that we tour Hampstead.
It was unusual at the time to see young mothers sporting bare midriffs, pierced navels, brazen tattoos, and hair the colours of the rainbow. But there were three of them on the summit of Primrose Hill, where my friend had thought to present to me a breath-taking view of the city.
Laurence was a London cabby with a degree in economics. London was his city, he knew its every nook and alley, and through the years he had seen virtually everything. But he could not avert his eyes from the parti-coloured mothers, toddlers in tow, who had climbed the hill, apparently, with the express purpose of ignoring the view.
For here, laid out before us, from Battersea Power Station on the twisting Thames to the spire of St. Mark’s in Regent’s Park, was the crucible of English language and literature, theatre, royalty, empire, and democracy — not to mention the best beer brewed anywhere in the world. And here were three young women standing in a tight circle, their backs to the view, cigarettes dangling from flaccid lips, speaking in the broad accents of North London as if the history of their race were not written at every point of the compass.
The children might have been the offspring of accountants and solicitors, so ordinary did they appear: a pram-sized infant, a brace of garden-variety toddlers. But the women appeared is if they had been caught in a gale. My own mother’s bright lipstick used to embarrass me as a child, but I got over it. What did these children have to look forward to, going through the family albums 20 years hence?
“That’s my mother, the one with the swastika on her belly and the safety pin through her nose. And that’s Auntie Jen with the steel spikes in her hair and the death’s head tattooed on her back. Yes, she often wore a studded leather bikini top with vinyl trousers.”
There is another side to this, of course. People have been adorning themselves with tattoos, ingenious hair styles, paint, dye, clay, kohl, and quicklime for millennia. These three women were the contemporary result of thousands of years of tradition. However bizarre their self-expression, they had every right to express it.
It hadn’t always been so. For a dark and hateful period in the 20th century, individuality among the young was systematically suppressed, and often punished. Those young mothers would have been suspended from school, even expelled, for refusing to conform to the norms of society.
Twenty years before I was, four times in two days, barred from registering at school because of the manner in which I chose to wear my hair. After three haircuts my mother, with the implicit authority of my father, contacted the principal to protest, not only on my behalf but in defence of three friends who had been similarly singled out.
The story made the news — there was even a paragraph about us in the Globe and Mail — but we weren’t identified by name and no one made any attempt to solicit our point of view.
The four of us went to the school board offices and demanded to speak with the superintendent, who granted us fifteen minutes, ten of which he devoted to a very odd parable about freemasonry.
If we wanted to join the masons, he opined, we would have to conform to certain rules and expectations: it was the same with school. It wasn’t, we opined, in turn: we didn’t want to join the masons, we just wanted an education. But our fifteen minutes were up.
On the third day my father intervened, invoking his position in the community and his formidable powers of persuasion. He offered to take the school board to court. In the end, I think, it was the awful spectre of the law that conquered their trivial autocracy.
I was awarded a 9-A pin in the first semester. The vice-principal stared daggers as I stepped down from the stage in the auditorium, but there was nothing he could do to lower my grades.
We knew there would be consequences, of course. For my part, I was routinely insulted, yelled at, challenged to fight, and subjected to crude suggestions that would today be rightly condemned as sexual harassment (#MeToo? I’m afraid so) — this from social conservatives who judged a man by the cut of his hair and the shine of his shoes. Never mind that they drank themselves stupid every weekend.
As I was leaving a shop in downtown Victoria one day in 1968, a pair of young men called out that I looked like a dog. I was embarrassed for my companion’s sake, but she was used to being harassed because of her gender and her beauty, and she just ignored them. In a way, I was grateful to be able to share the experience with her.
My neighbour’s daughter, an elegant young woman, recently died her long, smooth locks a brilliant green. The woman next door has sported a shining orange-red mane since we moved in 12 years ago. I see her at mass most Sundays, and she often reads. A young man I know is blonde on top and brunette beneath. One of the many efficient and highly professional pharmacists I have come to know over the years is tattooed from neck to wrist, and he assures me he has one on his back as well.
I take pleasure in the fact that young people feel free to express themselves creatively as they greet the daily world. Few of them know that this is a right that others suffered and fought for.
And we won.