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Episode 97 - Hockney's 'In the dull village'

Hockney's 'In the Dull Village' (made in 1966). Etching; from England

[We do not have the copyright the reproduce the Larkin poem Annus Mirabilis]

So, famously, wrote the poet Philip Larkin, master of the regretful lyric, pinpointing what were for him the key aspects of the Swinging Sixties - sex, music and then more sex.

But of course there was a great deal more to it than that! It's a decade that has now taken on mythic status: as a time, depending on your point of view, of transforming freedom or of destructive self-indulgence. And the myths are not unjustified.

In the 1960s, public campaigns in Europe and America asserted the right of every citizen - black, white, male, female, straight or gay - to exercise their basic freedoms, as long as they caused no harm to others. In Britain, there was also a sexual revolution - the contraceptive pill, women's liberation and the legalisation of homosexuality. Today's object is an etching by the British artist David Hockney. It shows a pair of lovers in bed. They are two men, and it could hardly have been published any earlier than the year it was - 1967 - because, until then, homosexual acts in Britain were outlawed.

"Then you couldn't be gay, but you could smoke everywhere. Now, it's the other way around. I mean . . . the story of my life, that! (David Hockney)

I think that this is a wonderful image to represent what human rights are all about." (Shami Chakrabarti)

Two naked young men, half covered by a blanket, lie side by side in bed. We're looking down at them from the foot of the bed. One lies with his arms behind his head, his eyes closed as though dozing, while the other lies looking eagerly at him. We've got no idea whether the relationship between the two men is recent or of long standing, but at first sight, this looks like a calm, entirely satisfactory "morning after".

It is one of a series of Hockney etchings inspired by the poems of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. It was published in 1967, just as Parliament passed the Sexual Offences Act - the first big step in decriminalising homosexuality in England and Wales. David Hockney's image was shocking for many then and, for some, it's still shocking today, even though there is nothing at all explicit about it. The blanket covers both men up to the waist. Yet it raises perplexing questions about what societies find acceptable or unacceptable, about the limits of tolerance and individual freedom.

One of the constants of this History of the World has, not surprisingly, been sex - or more precisely, sexual attraction and love. Among the hundred objects, we've had the oldest known representation of a couple making love - a small stone shaped around 11,000 years ago near Jerusalem. We've had harem women, voluptuous goddesses and gay sex on a Roman cup. Surprisingly, given this long tradition of representing human sexuality, David Hockney's decorous print was still a courageous, indeed a provocative, act, in the Britain of his day. We showed it to Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the civil rights organisation, Liberty. Here she is:

"It's a picture of two gay men, but it's not - to my eyes anyway - desperately erotic or racy or controversial. It's two people, obviously in some kind of intimate relationship, lying next to each other in a relaxed way in bed. It reminds me of what Eleanor Roosevelt said about human rights - 'Human rights begin in small places close to home'. This is not big politics, this is not legal judgement and legislation, this is about understanding what it is to be a human being, and respecting it."

Hockney was an art student in the 50s, but it was the 60s that formed him, and he, in turn, helped shape the decade. He was homosexual and prepared to be open about it, both in his life and his work, at a time when it was still illegal. When he made the Cavafy etchings, Hockney was living and working between Britain and California.

The young men in Hockney's etching - they look in their 20s - could be American or British, but they inhabit the place of the picture's title, which matches the title of Cavafy's poem 'In the Dull Village'. That poem is about a young man trapped by his circumstances, who escapes his dreary surroundings by dreaming of the perfect love partner. So perhaps Hockney's dozing boy is gently fantasising his companion, the one who is looking so ardently at him - a boy imagined, rather than actually present in the longed-for flesh, just as Cavafy describes in the poem.

"He lay in his bed tonight sick with what love meant,
All his youth in desire of the flesh alight
In a lovely tension all his lovely youth.
And in his sleep delight came to him; in his sleep
He sees and holds the form and flesh he wanted."

(Poem 120, 'In the Dreary Village', Constantine Cavafy, trans by John Mavrogordato. Chatto & Windus 1974)

Cavafy's poetry reads as modern verse, but it looks back to an Ancient Greek world, in which love between men was an accepted part of life. Cavafy, born of Greek parents in 1863, lived in Alexandria. His family were part of that huge Greek diaspora that for two thousand years had dominated the economic, intellectual and cultural life of the eastern Mediterranean. It was a world created by Alexander's conquest of Egypt in the fourth century BC, and it survived until the middle of the twentieth century, and it's a world that we've encountered several times before in our History, most notably on the Rosetta Stone, where the languages of Greece and Egypt appear side by side.

On the face of it, there's nothing to connect the worlds of Ancient Greece and Cavafy's Alexandria with 1950s Bradford, where Hockney was growing up. It's a great excitement for the first time in this history to be able, at last, to ask the maker of the object what it meant to him, so here is David Hockney:

"I think it was Lawrence Durrell published - in the back of one of his novels - a poem by Cavafy, and I'd found Cavafy in the Bradford Library. But you had to ask for the book. I looked it up in the index, catalogue. It wasn't on the shelf, because they didn't want too many people reading these poems, or something, so I got it out. And actually, I never took it back - I kept it. I took it back once and nobody else took it out for a few months so I went back and took it out. You couldn't buy this book in England at the time."

The 14 poems that Hockney later chose for his series of etchings - poems of longing and loss, of the first meeting of future loves and of intoxicating, passionate encounters - were exciting fodder, material that he could use for his own art, and an example of how an artist could make a public statement out of such private experience.

In the Bradford - indeed the Britain - of David Hockney's teenage years, homosexual activity between males was criminal, and prosecutions were frequent. Brought up by enlightened parents to follow his own line and not to worry what others thought, he felt a responsibility to stand up, through his art, for his own rights, and to join the growing campaign for the rights of others like him. Characteristically, he was determined that his approach would not be heavy-handed. These etchings don't preach, they smile and they sing. Here's David Hockney again:

"I think I did 12 . . . 12 etchings. Some were drawn from life, some were drawn from my drawings, some were drawn from photographs. I was rather proud of it at the time, and yeah, I would have thought of it as good propaganda, I would. And [it] probably helped a little bit. And I would always defend my life as it were - what I was up to. I wasn't speaking for anybody else, but I would certainly defend my way of living, yes. I've never really been an activist, only in my work - that's my job, to do my work, not to spend it doing anything else. But if I played a little part in it, I'm proud. I might have done, I think . . . made people open their lives a little bit, perhaps. I'd like to think that."

Hockney began work on the 'Cavafy Suite' in 1966, as the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, was drafting the legislation to decriminalise homosexuality in England and Wales. The Act was passed in 1967, and the etchings were published in the same year.

Gay rights were, of course, only one of the many freedoms asserted and fought for during the 1960s, but they were a particularly challenging issue in the context of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most of these concerned groups of people discriminated against on the grounds of gender, religion or race, and there was a wide consensus in the aftermath of the Second World War that such discrimination was wrong. Sexual orientation and behaviour, on the other hand, were seen as something quite different. Indeed they were not even mentioned in the Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Hockney, and campaigners like him, eventually changed the terms of the debate, taking questions of sexuality firmly into the arena of human rights in both Europe and America. In some countries, their campaigning changed the law. But in many parts of the world the matter is still seen very differently. Here's Shami Chakrabarti again:

"I think the image is really important, because you can look at it and see a rather sweet, not desperately erotic, but essentially intimate picture of two men lying in bed on a Sunday morning, or something like that, and see it as really quite a sweet image. But I'm sure that there are bigoted people who are still horrified by that idea all over the world. And lest we get too complacent in modern Britain, there are still people who fear deportation from Britain to countries where they might be persecuted, criminalised, imprisoned, or worse. The death penalty, in some cases, just for being themselves - just for perfectly consensual adult feelings and relationships, based on love."

Homosexual acts are still illegal in around 70 countries. In 2008, the United Nations General Assembly considered a statement condemning killings and executions, torture and arbitrary arrest, based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and any deprivation of rights on those grounds. The proposition was endorsed by over 50 countries, but it prompted a counter statement opposing it. It's clear that the frontiers of human rights are still being negotiated.

Hockney's etching is arrestingly sparse. A few black lines suggest a wall here, a blanket there. There is nothing to tell us where this bed is. We don't even know whether both figures are really present, and not just dreamt. This is an idea of a certain kind of love, not an illustration, and this insistently unspecific image tells us that sexual behaviour, although totally private, is totally universal. Society's responses to it, on the other hand, are most definitely not. In that respect at least, our world is less global than we think.

In the next programme we stay with human rights, and we'll be looking at the most important of them all - the right not to be killed. Our object is a chair from Africa, made out of guns from all over the world . . . it's called the Throne of Weapons.

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