it was more understandable that the callow 20-year-old Bob Dylan did not speak out on human rights when he first played for an audience in China 50 years ago today.
In 2011 it’s disappointing to many fans and humanitarians alike that he not only went along with the censoring of the set he has just played in Beijing (no The Times They Are A-Changin’, no Blowin’ In The Wind, nor Chimes of Freedom) but also failed to use the occasion to challenge incarceration of dissidents.
So much more is known about the Chinese regime’s human rights record now; back in 1961 less information had leaked through the Bamboo Curtain, although there was a great deal of suspicion about the treatment of those who whispered, never mind raised their voice in protest.
Dylan has gone on to play to fans in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and for many it may well be one of the high points of their lives in what has, so far, been a wretched year in terms of disasters and death tolls.
The citizens of Christchurch in New Zealand are still reeling from the reverberations of the earthquake that irrevocably changed their lives in February. Japan has suffered another earthquake following the quake and tsunami that killed nearly 13,000 last month, with almost 15,000 citizens still missing and damage to health and environment from a damaged nuclear power plant.
Meanwhile Sierra Leone is in chaos, conflict and change have swept through various Arab countries and a tide of migrants is rolling out of Libya into Europe following Nato air strikes. We are in the grip of austerity, but at least we can freely express our feelings on cuts to public services. Those looking for some frivolous distraction have only a certain wedding to look forward to.
It’s only spring, and yet this feels like a momentous year. But is it? Were the sands shifting as quickly back in 1961, say? What was happening the first time Dylan failed to step up to the plate, despite having written the world’s most celebrated protest songs?
One of the heroes of 1961 was Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet who became the world’s first man in space 50 years ago tomorrow. Later in the year, he was allowed to visit Britain, arriving to visit a foundry in Manchester in a Rolls Royce. On leaving office President Eisenhower severed relations with Cuba. New president John F Kennedy increased aid to Vietnam to aid its fight against the Viet Cong. The US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba failed. Kuwait, Sierra Leone and Tankganyika gained independence from Britain and the Berlin Wall was built.
West Side Story was best film at the Oscars, the farthing ceased to be legal tender, panda road crossings were introduced and the Beatles played at The Cavern Club for the first time. Later in the year there were 1,300 arrests during CND protests in Trafalgar Square, the RAF dropped food parcels to flood victims in Somalia, the entire population of the island of Tristan de Cunha in the South Atlantic was moved to the UK after a volcanic eruption, Britain applied for membership of the EEC, the contraceptive pill became available on the NHS, and in a referendum on Sunday pub opening eight Welsh counties voted to stay “dry”.
Every year has its natural and man-made disasters, its political upheavals and instances of heroes proving to have feet of clay. This year does seem to be a particularly rocky one, but let’s hope the worst of it is over.