The scene: Early 60s London. Conjure displays of cool style at local discothèques. Youthful insolence and wit. Frivolous consumerism. Into this swirling myth/reality of the “Swinging” city in the early 60s, Dave Wallis’ Only Lovers Left Alive (1964) weaves its own petulant “image making.” The youth attempt to create a world in the ashes of their forefathers who commit suicide in droves.
Unlike John Christopher’s Pendulum (1968), that drips with sullen rants about England’s “traditions crumbling under the assault of the new Hedonism,” Only Lovers Left Alive (1964) uncovers a beating heart behind the experience-driven youth forced to confront a world without parents and other “squares” (14).
For a fascinating look at the “image making” and material power of Swinging London, even then “part myth and part reality,” check out Simon Rycroft’s Swinging City: A Cultural Geography of London 1950-1974 (2011) (65). Like a piece Richard Hamilton pop art, Dave Wallis’ Only Lovers Left Alive (1964) cuts to the sad heart of things and weaves something new from the collage of the past.
Why All the Squares Looked for a Way Out
A pandemic of emptiness crawls its way into the souls of all adults but the insane. Mr. Oliver, a history teacher, cannot escape the crushing sadness of self-reflection: “what was he doing slaving in this examination factory” (3). He jumps from his classroom window. Later his students in all their “cliques and gangs and groups,” club at the Tropic Night. Around the juke boxes and pool tables, materialism and image–the height of hair, the tightness of jeans–rule youthful perceptions rather than “scholastic ability” (6). Mr. Tellen, a journalist looking for a story and a reason behind Mr. Oliver’s demise, thinks something is afoot as the kids “held an odd loyalty to an institution they loathed and to a dead man they despised” (8). And indeed, an inscrutable malaise afflicting all adults, despite attempts by the World Health Organization and enterprising journalists like Mr. Tellen and Alf Neighbor, cannot be lifted. And like Mr. Oliver in his moment of sad reflection, adults make the ultimate choice.
Ernie, Charlie, and Kathy—the core of the Seely St. Gang—each have their last connections to school, their previous world, their families, severed. They speculate on the reasons for the mass suicide: “I think the squares is just giving up. I mean they never seemed to get any kick out of anything, just beer and poo, and telly” (26). For a while they feel the pull of habit–they drift back to their empty homes at night (34) and they gather for parties in the homes of the dead (31). The warm embrace of the Tropic Night with its throbbing music and teen rituals of status and sex somehow provide balm to the corrosive post-WWII evisceration of purpose.
With the death of institutions and bureaucracy, the National Bingo Governing Council attempts to exert control. The Bingo Halls “became the centres of local economic life and one of the few remaining meeting places for the young and surviving old” (49). But supplies are running low. The teens bemoan the lack of contraceptives, hair products, and petrol. Conflict will lead to spoils. And so they set off.
Medievalism as The Last Gasp Before the Petrol Runs Dry
Before a new world can be wrought previous paths must be reenacted. In a last entropic gasp before the petrol runs dry, the Seely St. Gang feels the inexplicable pull towards the center of historical things–capturing Windsor Castle, the land of The Kings (78). Charlie hooks the lure: “I’ve heard they have a whole lot of stuff down at Windsor Castle […] big guns, lots of ammo, all sorts of stuff and a big store of petrol” (60). Enacting timeless scenes from Alexander with his Companions to Arthur’s Round Table, Ernie, ensconced on his makeshift throne, feels the world in the palm of his hand and a perceptible shift in the air that this revanche “was not playacting” (66).
Gathering their surviving petrol tins, attaching pillions replete with the gang’s girls, with banners of re-conceived medieval symbology flying high, the gang sets out as “ranks of knights, six abreast” with Ernie “looking straight ahead in purposeful fashion with is black jacket collar turned up and the organ tiger’s head” (71). Kathy drives the van with the gang’s supplies (71).
The inevitable conflict is an apocalyptic one. There will be no more fuel. The parades of materialism (the perfectly formed hair, the clothing, the polished motorcycles) will never happen again. A brutal landscape will emerge with Ernie perched, king-like, in Windsor’s ruins, an instrument in the decline. As the gang disperses looking for new leaders and new ways to survive, the core that remains sets off with a “vague feeling that this would be a bigger and longer expedition than the others” (136). On their way into the countryside they see how others have eked out a way to live in the ruins. A more immediate array of pleasures accost them–the smell of “roast mutton and baking flour” (140).
Dave Wallis presents the revanche and its aftermath as a final action of sheering off the institutional shadow of the past. A last historical reenactment of past before something else can be created in the wreckage. Swinging London, despite all its youthful insolence and frivolous consumerism, will birth something new and lasting.
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