1968 Opening Ceremony
Opening Ceremony to the 9th World Festival

London Recruit Ken Keable recalls fondly his time at the 1968 Festival in Bulgaria which saw 20,000 participants from 142 countries gather in the capital 'For Solidarity, Peace & Friendship’.

To do justice to a report on the Sofia festival I would need to conjure up the atmosphere and the political situation in the amazing, exhilarating, fateful and tragic year of 1968 – but that would take too much space and is beyond my power. Let me just say that, in contrast to the atmosphere in Britain today, in 1968 many young people were wonderfully over-optimistic about what changes were imminently possible, many were beautifully idealistic, and many on the far left thought, wrongly, that a red revolution in western Europe was just around the corner. Trotskyists and Maoists were accusing the Communist Parties of being, themselves, the reactionary force that was preventing the workers from making revolution. I, as an “orthodox” member of the Islington branch of the Young Communist League, was one of the accused, fighting against people with these erroneous ideas in my own branch and elsewhere. It was an uncomfortable position to be in, but I have no regrets.

I was a rather immature 23-year-old at the time, just out of the City University with an electrical engineering degree. Now I’m a rather immature 62-year-old and a branch secretary in the Communist Party. I had already started to be an active trade unionist, which I still remain.

Besides being an active YCL member I was also active as a young adult leader in the Woodcraft Folk (then a left-wing, anti-militarist, secular, children’s and young people’s organisation sponsored by the Co-op); also a keen activist in the folk music revival, as a fiddle and melodeon player; and a speaker of Esperanto, the international language, which is intended to be a common second language for the whole world. At the WFDY festival in Sofia I combined all these roles, which made me a very busy person indeed.

The Woodcraft Folk was participating for the first time, paid for by the Bulgarian Pioneer organisation on condition that the Folk put on a minimum number of cultural performances whilst in Bulgaria. This proved to be a demanding condition, so, with my fiddle and melodeon, and in my green Woodcraft Folk shirt, I was needed to play on many occasions. After flying, in a special Hungarian plane, from London to Budapest, where we stayed for a few hours, and having an excellent meal there, we joined the “Festival Train” to Sofia. At stops on the way I got out and played for some folk dancing on the station platform, to entertain the locals and build up the festive atmosphere. We also sang progressive songs of the time, such as The Family of Man and We shall Overcome. Throughout the festival I travelled round Bulgaria, playing at civic receptions, concerts and other events, the highlight being when, before the TV cameras and a vast crowd, we performed some English folk dancing on a stage near the Dimitrov Mausoleum. All this was terrific fun.

The Esperanto movement had always been strong in socialist Bulgaria (where it never suffered the repression it suffered in other socialist countries, initiated by Stalin when he called Esperanto a “dangerous language”), and the Esperantists of Sofia arranged a wonderful programme of events for the Esperanto speakers who were at the festival. Again, I travelled around the country speaking (in Esperanto of course) at local receptions and in village squares, and, again, playing my fiddle. I especially remember giving a speech to the assembled Esperantists from many countries at our first meeting, in which I took it upon myself to bring greetings from the British YCL; also the time I played at a picnic beside the Esperanto House on Mount Vitusha, above Sofia. A Bulgarian folk band came with us – they seemed to be in unlimited supply. Here I heard one of the Bulgarian veterans declaim an Esperanto poem, Paco, amikeco, solidaro, that he had written on the theme of the festival’s slogan. On another occasion I was interviewed for the Esperanto section of Warsaw Radio.

One of my memories is of meeting a young Japanese Esperantist. After conversing with him for a while I asked him what he did for a living. When he replied that he taught English, I asked him to say a few words in English. This left me embarrassed – I could hardly understand a word.

Before setting off I had persuaded the British Esperanto Association to give me 1500 small brochures about the language – called “keys”. A “key” is a tiny booklet that explains the essentials of Esperanto to speakers of one particular language – in this case, English – and is enough to get them started on speaking and writing in the language. Whilst at the festival I distributed these to members of the various English-speaking contingents, and wrote a report about it to the President of the BEA on my return.

On the plane I met Madge Davison, a comrade from Northern Ireland. She was annoyed at having been put with the British contingent for the journey and said that she wanted to get away from us as soon as possible – which she did. I was very impressed by her fierce commitment but slightly miffed that she wanted to get away from the British YCL contingent. The next time I saw her was at the grand opening ceremony when I was seated in a stadium watching the colourful parade of representatives of each national contingent. There she was, in an Irish national costume this time, holding aloft the Irish tricolour. I slowly began to understand what Madge had been talking about.

On arrival we were accommodated in newly built flats which, we were told, would be handed over to Bulgarian families after the festival. I was ashamed of the behaviour of some of the comrades from Britain. We were often given packed lunches in plastic bags – which were quite a new thing at that time – and some people thought it great fun to fill up an empty bag with water, tie it at the top, and throw it from the balcony so that it landed with a satisfying splat as it split open. There it remained. I couldn’t understand how people, who had come to such a high-minded event, as guests in a socialist country, could behave in such a way.

Before the festival the YCL had been busy raising money to buy bicycles for the Vietnamese to use in the jungles on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, carrying arms and supplies to those who were fighting to get the US Army out of their country. (Bicycles, often loaded up and pushed, were especially suitable for the terrain). I remember a ceremony held at Unity Theatre (a left-wing theatre in North London) where the bikes were handed over to the comrades who were to drive the lorry from London to Sofia. One of my regrets is that I was so busy with all my other activities that I missed the ceremony in Sofia where the bikes were handed over to the huge Vietnamese contingent. I often saw the Vietnamese, impressive in their military uniforms, many having come to the festival straight from the fighting, but I missed that important ceremony.

There were many events organised in solidarity with particular countries and struggles. One that I couldn’t miss was in solidarity with the peoples of southern Africa, with comrades from the ANC present. I attended, but was unable to speak about my own, and the YCL’s, special part in that struggle. In April of that year I had secretly flown to Johannesburg, recruited through the YCL and sent there by a young Ronnie Kasrils (now a Communist minister in the South African government), to post 1200 letters to members of the Indian community. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was one of about 35 young people from Britain, mostly communists, whom Ronnie sent in for various purposes, at Soviet expense, many of us making multiple visits. I have since learned that these “London recruits” (as Ronnie has called them) transformed the position of the ANC.

Another memory I have is of Johnny Kaye, a YCL and Woodcraft Folk member and son of Solly Kaye, winning the protest song competition. With his guitar he sang Lyndon Johnson told the Nation with great panache. This US song about the Vietnam War perfectly caught the spirit of the time.

The Bulgarian participants in the festival wore a specially designed costume, modern yet national in character, and often sang a song I still remember, about Hristo Botev and his young fighters coming on the ship Radetsky to liberate Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.

I had a terrific time at the 1968 World Youth Festival, meeting people from countries I had never heard of, (such as Eritrea and the Comoros Islands), hearing lots of Bulgarian and other folk music, and arguing with other British participants, who had different attitudes to the Bulgarian authorities and to the developing, ambiguous situation in Czechoslovakia. I came back enthused, better informed, and more committed than ever.