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Author of ‘Break These Chains’ Kirsteen Stewart reflects on fashion, fear and feminism in 1960s London

Author of ‘Break These Chains’ Kirsteen Stewart reflects on fashion, fear and feminism in 1960s London

By Gabrielle Johnson |

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Break These Chains is set in 1965. It seemed to me, looking back, that it was a sort of seesaw year, and so the perfect setting for my novel. In 1965 the Beatles were no longer cool. Pink Floyd gave an era-changing concert at an art school. Prescriptions became free. Comprehensive schools were introduced. Harold Wilson refused to join the US war in Vietnam. We protested against the bombing of the Imperial City of Hue, and we hero-worshipped Che Guevara. But the Abortion Act was still two years away, the Pill hadn’t arrived and there were five years to wait for the Women’s Movement to begin.

Suppose you were a country child in the 1950s, went to Oxford in the early 60s, and arrived in London in 1965. Well, like the heroine of my novel Break These Chains, Lydia, you might be quite unprepared for the grown-up, glittering, shifting, suddenly liberalised version of the world. So it is in Break These Chains, which sees Lydia find her way through love and loss, family secrets and the first stirrings of feminism in a time of huge social change.

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My father, mother, grandmother, younger sister, beloved dog and I about 1946 when my father was assistant to the Governor of the Bahamas (the Duke of Windsor). I was about five in this picture.

After experiencing childhood trauma, Lydia is terrified of the impact of love and sex. Her love-stricken mother chased after unsuitable men along the edge of the dangerous quicksands of the Solway Firth, and this has deeply affected her. While elements of Break These Chains were inspired by my life, my own mother was not like Lydia’s. What my family faced was the assassination of my father in 1949, during the ceremonies to welcome him as governor of Sarawak, North Borneo. My mother flew to his bedside. There were photographs of him and us, three blond-haired children, in the newspapers every day as he fought for his life. At the time, my grandmother was looking after us in England. One morning she summoned us to her bedside to tell us that he had died. Aged eight, I remember staring at the sloping wooden floor of the bedroom in that old house, Chapel Farm, as though my world too was tipping away from me. She told us that our father’s injuries were so bad that ‘God decided to take him to him’. It was meant to be comforting, but for years afterwards I believed there were two sorts of death – outright ones, and the ones where God decided on balance to relieve you from unbearable suffering.

‘For years afterwards I believed there were two sorts of death – outright ones, and the ones where God decided on balance to relieve you from unbearable suffering.’

My mother, typically of the time, told us that a terrible thing had happened to us, but that we should draw a veil over it and move on. I was too young to cope but too old to draw a veil. There was something about my father’s assassination that made me feel set apart from other children whose fathers had died in the Second World War – a sort of violent public drama, which was both unacceptable (not to be talked about) yet in a horrible way glamorous.

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Portrait of me at the end of the 60s, by artist Charlotte Johnson (mother of Boris Johnson)


Life changed completely. My mother, a widow at 32 with 3 fatherless children, was given a grace-and-favour flat at Hampton Court Palace, where we were the only children living in the Palace and had the only dog ever allowed in one of those apartments – after my mother wrote to King George VI asking for special permission. When she remarried, we moved to a pretty commuter belt in Surrey, much more orthodox but where, until I got into Oxford, I felt like a social misfit.

‘My instincts, like Lydia’s, took me outside the accepted attitudes of my family after I left Oxford – in clothes, in career, in social circles, in sexual dilemmas.’

Oxford was still a protected world in the early 1960s: there were no mixed colleges then. If a man was found in your room after 7pm you were sent down (temporarily expelled). If you got married, you were sent down. If you got pregnant, you were sent down. There were, however, occasional exceptions. A girl in the year above me was allowed to take her final exams while pregnant, in fact. Picture the high-ceilinged University Examination Schools, rows of students in black gowns and white shirts and black skirts or trousers and compulsory black shoes and a strikingly beautiful heavily pregnant St Hilda’s girl fainting away to the floor.

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Me and my sister (I am on the left) country girls before London

Some of my friends got pregnant and married. Some still wanted to be virgins when they married. Some took a liking to the new freedoms and had lots of careless 60s sex like in the films. Perhaps a few, like me, like Lydia in Break These Chains, were scared of their own natures – of getting a taste for promiscuity.

‘The early 60s was an exhilarating but frightening time not to know who you were.’

The year 1965 was a turning point. A few years earlier and I would have dressed in sensible clothes, pearls and brown nylon stockings, permed my hair, worn a lot of grown-up face powder and red lipstick and looked about 30 years old. Had a little job until I got married to someone whom I’d met at a ‘suitable’ social occasion. Too late for me. My instincts, like Lydia’s, took me outside the accepted attitudes of my family after I left Oxford – in clothes, in career, in social circles, in sexual dilemmas. I went to my office in the Department of Education dressed in a short purple shift expecting to be taken seriously. And when faced with sexual harassment, I assumed it was an aspect of working in a man’s world.

The early 60s was an exhilarating but frightening time not to know who you were. Break These Chains documents these times as Lydia falls in love with a sports-car mechanic, part of a smart, shady circle. Weaving her uncertain way through the glittering opportunities and pitfalls of a changing society, the old-fashioned values of her doting grandmother and her serious civil service job, it is when Lydia inherits a brasserie in run-down Notting Hill that her journey really begins.

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My father’s Scottish family. He is on the far right.

Publishing my first novel, aged 78, gives me a new perspective on the 60s. I now see things that I didn’t understand then, how unresolved childhood trauma (in my case the assassination of my father) could throw you off course when faced with the dismantling of old-fashioned values and social and sexual change. Break These Chains is semi-autobiographical, influenced by bittersweet memories of those days.

‘I wanted to write a book that showed the pitfalls behind all that amazing 60s stuff, behind the glittering opportunities and the glossy photographs.’

The story, characters and context are loosely based on what I have known, but it is only now, at a safe distance of 55 years, and with a long-distance lens on my insecure existence and my fraught love life, that I understand what was really happening to me then. Like me, my heroine, Lydia, fears that she will become addicted to drugs, sex and a louche lifestyle and not be able to stop sliding downhill. I wanted to write a book that showed the pitfalls behind all that amazing 60s stuff, behind the glittering opportunities and the glossy photographs. It wasn’t all wonder and delight. Especially for someone bruised by childhood. Even then I could see that something was wrong. But only now I see that my unresolved childhood trauma meant I had no edges at all.

Break These Chains publishes today. Buy your copy here.

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