Everyone today, or so it seems, has remembered the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy of the United States. I have too. I won’t even attempt to add my political analysis of that terrible event because much cleverer people than me have been doing that for fifty years and I’m sure I have nothing to add to that deluge of words and wisdom.
Like a lot of people though, I remember the day vividly even though I was but a schoolboy. I had moved to a new school in 1963 and my journey home, in West Sussex, UK, involved a railway journey and a walk over some open fields that lay along the foot of the South Downs hills. When I got in, the dreadful news was already on the television. As has often been said, a kind of innocence died that day even though I was much too young to understand its significance. I did know, though that President Kennedy was a ‘good thing’ and that he stood for progress and hope and, yes, the optimism of youth.
As you can see from this photograph taken that year, I was more than wet behind the ears but, even if I don’t look it, I was not so ignorant of current affairs that I couldn’t be profoundly shocked by this terrible and very public event. This death on TV and the consequent media frenzy was unprecedented and, like 9/11 all those years later, the world really was in a state of shock. It was like hearing about a death in the family but there was no room for private grief and so my emotional response had a feeling of universality.
My previous school, a traditional boarding prep school, wasn’t exactly liberal but it did encourage an awareness of current affairs, we had weekly discussion groups based around newspaper reports and debated as if we school-kids really could change the World. It was there that I first took an interest in ‘World Affairs’ – the often frightening stories about life outside the high flint walls of my Sussex boarding school. As quite a young child, in 1961, I learnt about the Belgian Congo, in what I had previously thought of as ‘darkest Africa’, now the independent Republic Of The Congo with its first democratically elected leader, the charismatic Patrice Lumumba. If I was shocked to hear about Kennedy’s assassination, one of the many reasons was because it was the second time I heard disturbing news about the murder of a liberal leader. The assassination of Patrice Lumumba was, for me, the moment when I realized that there really were enemies out there.
That fear, along with the story told to us schoolboys by the local vicar, underpinned my awareness that the world, even on the idyllic Sussex Downs, was indeed a dangerous place. That vicar, on one of his Sunday evening visits to my school, told us that there was a real danger of a Chinese invasion and that, if it happened, we, meaning middle class schoolchildren, would be among the first lined up against a wall and shot. Firing squads, in my subconscious, are always English flint walls. Then, of course, I found out about nuclear bombs and Kennedy’s role in the Cuban crisis.
I had my comforts though in the now, none more than my wonderfully optimistic English Setter, Rex who was my constant companion whenever I was free from school and who had no knowledge of nuclear war. With no intended disrespect to the Kennedy assassination, memories of his death are forever muddled in my mind with the death of Rex, a momentous event in my childhood. Kennedy died in November 1963 and, two or three months later, after another walk through those fields, I learnt that Rex had been killed on the local railway line, the one I had just been using. Maybe, I thought, coming home through those fields would always end in tragedy.
The television that night had no news reports about my dog’s death even though I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been international news. Instead of the news, there was a woman singing – a new song by American composer, Burt Bacharach, Anyone Who Had A Heart, in a British version performed by a Liverpudlian teenager called Cilla Black.
So sorry Mr President on the 50th anniversary of your world-changing assassination, my apologies if I remember you along with my dog and, yes, sorry again, this song:
My novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, was published on 31 October 2013. It is the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.
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