I was born in 1953, in Birmingham in the UK, from a typical working class family. My Dad was an electrician, my Mum a hairdresser. Dad was in the Navy when I was born, so I saw very little of him in my early life, although we did go to Malta when I was about 3 or 4 years old, from which I retain certain vivid memories.
So I grew up in that post-war consensus, which saw living standards rise and continue to rise for three decades or more.
I was a child in the fifties, a teenager in the 60s, and a young adult in the 70s.
That was the hippie era, which I’m sure many of you will remember. We did a lot of experimentation. We took a lot of drugs. I took my first LSD with a school mate, it must have been in the summer of 1971, in a park in Birmingham. It was California Sunshine, that very strong, very pure Owsley acid coming out of San Francisco at the time, the seat of hippie culture.
I didn’t really like it, and, to be perfectly honest, I never really got on with acid. It was just too overwhelming, too challenging of the person I thought I was, and I had a number of bad experiences on it.
I went to University in Cardiff in 1971, where I met a couple of people who are still friends to this day.
The early 70s were a time of real political and spiritual ferment, which I’ve written about extensively in my book, The Last of the Hippies. It was a genuinely revolutionary time. If you weren’t in one of the new far-left groups which were just emerging in that era – The Socialist Worker’s Party and the Worker’s Revolutionary Party to name but two – you were joining some other kind of cult, Scientology or the Divine Light Mission. Everybody was looking for something. We were all trying to change the world.
People were dropping out all over the place. That phrase came from Timothy Leary, who, in a famous speech to the Human Be-in, a gathering of 30,000 hippies in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1967, told his audience to “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.”
Later, in 1983 in his autobiography Flashbacks, Leary explained what he meant by the slogan.
“Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. “Tune in” meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean “Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity”.
I have to admit that that’s how I understood the instruction. I spent nigh on 18 months in my late teens and early 20s, off my head on dope and other psychoactive substances, listening to rock music, surfing the psychic ocean of relativity, avidly reading books about enlightenment, while being thoroughly unenlightened myself, fracturing whatever sparks of my native intelligence had survived the onslaught.
Something was happening to the hippie movement at the same time. It too, like my brain, was fracturing. In the 60s the urge was revolutionary and the revolution took took two distinct forms. There was a spiritual revolution and a political revolution, but they went hand in hand. People were trying to change the objective world out there, marching against the Vietnam War and joining revolutionary groups; but they were also engaged in a struggle with their inner life, trying to change their subjective world through encounter groups, magic, astrology, the I-Ching. Eastern philosophy was all the rage.
By the 70s these two strands were splitting apart. You were either one thing or the other, either political or spiritual, so if you joined the Divine Light Mission, as one of my friends did, you started talking disparagingly about political engagement, saying things like “the only revolutionary act is to free your mind,” while attending mass events and turning into a spiritual clone.
I went to one of their meetings once, in Acton, and I hated it. Some little kid came up to me and did that thing where they point at your chest and say, “what’s that?” and you look down and they bring their hand up to your chin making you jump and laughing at your stupidity. I thought he was a brat and I looked around to see where his parents were so I could ask them to keep their annoying kid under control, only of course they were too engaged in seeking their own enlightenment to be worried about what their child was up to, which I think was characteristic of the age.
That reminds me of something I heard on the radio a few years back. It was a reading of Tim Guest’s book, My Life In Orange, which is about him growing up in the Rajneesh community, the group we used to call the Orange People. It’s a book I would highly recommend to people of a certain age. There’s one memorable passage in it. Tim was brought up in various communes both in this country and beyond, and his Mum, who was high up in the Sannyasin community was always too busy to spend much time with him. Tim talks about spending a lot of his time in large halls full of people, standing on his tiptoes trying to see where his Mum might be. But he talks about one commune and about how the Sannyasins were always trying to be as egoless as possible. That was the idea. You were supposed to get rid of your ego. And one day there were all sitting round the big table in the kitchen having one of their weekly encounter groups, and – as is the way with communes – there was a lot of rivalry, and Tim overheard a conversation which went a little like this: “I’m more egoless than you are!” “No, I’m more egoless.” Even at the age of five, Tim knew how absurd that conversation was.
But back to my story. I’d been at Uni, but, inspired by Tim Leary’s words, and the actions of various friends of mine, I’d “dropped out.” I left university and went to live with my Auntie Else and Uncle George in Burton on Trent, where I became a dustman. Well it was a summer job. I didn’t see a future of lifting bins ahead of me. But I developed muscles in that time, and a taste for beer. I also used to spend a lot of time talking to my Uncle George. Actually he was my Great Uncle, as Elsie, his wife, was my Nan’s sister. It turned out that they were my God Parents and they saw their role as guiding me in this transitional time in my life. George was a fervent socialist, and Else a promoter of animal rights. She would have been an animal rights activist had she been born a few years later. But it was George who grounded me in my history. He was a rebel, like me. He was a trade unionist and a republican, a Labour activist, and he showed me that my flirtations with rebellious ideas stemmed out of a long history of political engagement going back to the thirties and before.
So that’s how I became a socialist. It was a combination of long conversations with Uncle George, and with a good friend of mine who I’d met at university, who was the nearest thing you could meet to a hereditary Marxist. His family had come from the Valleys in Wales, where they had all been blacklisted as communists.
The reason I’m telling you all this is that there have always been these two strands in my life: the spiritual and the political, a combination of my background, as a child of the post-war consensus, and the era I grew up in, which was an era of experimentation: with drugs, with lifestyles, with music and with literature, and my whole life has been an attempt to reconcile the two.
The Wicker Man
So, to fast forward a few years.
In the 1980s I joined the Labour Party, and I also became interested in paganism.
One of the main inspirations for this was watching the film The Wicker Man.
I had the director’s cut version, which is virtually a musical in that it breaks into song nearly every five minutes. There’s one major sequence in the director’s cut which never made it into the cinema version. In it Edward Woodward, as the Christian cop, is praying by his bedside, having witnessed all these disturbing scenes of promiscuity and public lewdness, while Christopher Lee, as Lord Summer Isle, is delivering a young man to Britt Eckland’s initiatory embrace, while the people in the pub down below are singing “Gently Johnny” in soft voices, and Lord Summer Isle is quoting I Think I Could Turn and Live With Animals by Walt Whitman, while we see cut-away scenes of two slugs making love in slippery ecstasy:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
I must have watched that film a hundred times or more, and I will still watch it again every so often now. It is a remarkable film, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to have developed an interest in paganism from viewing it.
There’s one line that sums it all up for me.
As Lord Summer Isle hands Ash Buchanan into the arms of Willow McGregor, he says, calling up to her window: “Another sacrifice for Aphrodite, Willow.”
“You flatter me your Lordship,” she replies: “Surely you mean to Aphrodite.”
“I make no such distinction,” he says: “You are the goddess of love in human form and I am merely your humble acolyte.”
That’s the line: “I make no such distinction.” That’s what distinguishes paganism from the Abrahamic religions: the idea that divinity may be expressed through humanity, that any of us could be vessels for the divine, if we so choose.
At the same time, in the mid eighties, we had the Miner’s Strike and the attacks upon the New Age Traveller movement in the famous Battle of the Beanfield.
The New Age Travellers were my generation. Many people that I knew back in my student days in Cardiff, had become New Age Travellers. They were the perfect combination of the things I’ve been talking about here: the alliance between the political and the spiritual.
They arose out of the free festival movement of the early 70s. There were four main figures behind this movement: Bill Dwyer, Sid Rawle, Andrew Kerr and Phil Russell, known as Wally Hope.
I wrote about Wally Hope in my book Fierce Dancing, and about Andrew Kerr in The Last of the Hippies. Sid Rawle, unfortunately, blotted his copy book in later years by showing an unhealthy interest in girls young enough to be his grandchildren, and developed a reputation as a sex pest. You wouldn’t want to get into a sweat lodge with Sid if you were female and under a certain age as you would be certain to find yourself being groped by him. I won’t go into that here, although it does shed a certain light upon some of the problems of the age.
The first person on my list was Bill Dwyer, also known as Ubi Dwyer, who was the man who started the Windsor Free Festival, which was held over the August Bank Holiday in the years from 1971 to 1974. Bill sort of sums it all up for me.
The name Ubi, by which he was commonly known, was short for Ubique, which means “everywhere”. He got it, so the story goes, from a combat jacket he bought in Camden Market, which had belonged to someone in the Royal Artillery. The jacket had a badge on it, which was in the form of the symbol of the Royal Artillery: a spiral of dots with flames coming out of the top, with the regimental motto “Ubique” written underneath. So you can imagine him looking at this badge while he was tripped out, and all the layers of meaning in it blowing his mind to such a degree that he decided to name himself after it.
Bill was an acid dealer and user as well as a committed anarchist. He was Irish but had travelled the world, living in Australia and New Zealand for a while, where he had sold acid and organised early raves. He was in his forties in the 70s, so a lot older than many of the people he was surrounded by. Pictures show him with long hair and a beard, often riding a bike, smiling broadly , wearing a multi-coloured poncho and a fishing hat with a smiley badge on it. He also contributed to the historic anarchist magazine “Freedom” where he edited and compiled the famous acid edition.
A friend of mine, Wally Dean, refers to the early free festival people as “psychedelic anarchists” and that would be a perfect description of Bill. There’s a bit of film of him, made for an Irish TV programme, probably in 1970, about an Irish commune he was involved in in Dublin, in which he’s berating his fellow commune dwellers for being lazy.
He has a lovely, soft Irish accent and is very articulate. “We are determined, we who founded the group, that it should be a working community,” he says. “And we think, we think, that the alternative to a working community would be a doss house.”
So Bill and the other commune dwellers were obviously having the same difficulties interpreting the meaning of the phrase, Drop Out as I was.
Squats and communes were all the rage in the 70s, but we forget that there is a history to all of this. Living in communes has a long history in anarchist circles, going right back to the last years of the 19th Century, when the spiritual anarchist and novelist, Leo Tolstoy, had set up a commune and lived as a peasant in pre-revolutionary Russia. Tolstoyan communes had sprung up all over the world after that, of which there were a number in Britain, so while commune dwelling was very fashionable in the 70s and 80s, it was anarchist activists like Bill, who knew their history, who were behind it.
The thing about these anarchists is that they were much less doctrinaire than the communists who are their great historical rivals. Communists were and are rigidly materialist, but anarchists are able to adopt a more spiritual outlook as well. Tolstoy was a Christian as well an an anarchist, and Bill Dwyer was not averse to allowing God into his philosophical justifications either.
When he was arrested in 1975, for handing out leaflets despite an injunction against him, he said, “I know I am under an injunction not to organise this festival, but the God I believe in, namely Love, has laid on me a higher injunction to go ahead.”
In fact there’s something quite remarkable about all of these early proponents of the free festival movement, that all of them claimed to have been given their instructions by God. Andrew Kerr, who started the Glastonbury festival in 1971, says that he was lead to Michael Eavis’s door by a series of revelations, Wally Hope saw God in Cyprus while on an acid trip and conceived the Stonehenge free festival, while, according to the stories, Bill Dwyer had had his vision during the Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park in 1969. He saw a massive gathering of people in Windsor Great Park, on the Queen’s doorstep, on land which had once been common land but which had been appropriated by the Crown. As he told the Kensington Post on the 10th May 1972 his aim was To spark the revolution of LOVE-PEACE-FREEDOM when brothers and sisters shall shout together “we shall never again pay rent!”
He’s talking about squatting. Squatting isn’t just a lifestyle choice to Bill, it’s a spiritual injunction. He sees the gathering not only as an opportunity to raise consciousness, to alter consciousness, but to serve as a political protest against the very notion of private property. In Bill’s world view we free ourselves through spiritual and political action, which are one and the same thing. The result of meeting together on the land, on historically disputed land, and grooving together on acid is to attain love, peace and freedom which will lead inevitably to revolution.
The last Windsor Free Festival took place in August 1974. It was violently attacked by the police after four days, who stormed through the site wielding truncheons.
By this time, the first ever Stonehenge festival had also taken place, over the summer solstice in the National Trust field across the road from the monument.
After a few failed experiments with other sites, the so-called People’s Free Festival (as Bill and Sid and other’s had referred to Windsor) eventually handed over the baton to Stonehenge.
That festival was to last another ten years and was to spawn a whole lifestyle that has continued to this day.
You may already know the history of this. To my mind it is this festival, more than anything else, which kick starts the modern pagan movement we see today.
You can trace modern druidry back to the 18th century, and Wicca to Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, but the sudden explosion of interest in all things pagan, I feel, arises very strongly out of the free festival movement of the mid 70s to the mid eighties, reinforced again by the road protests of the 90s, which were its spiritual heir.
I have my own theories as to why this might have happened.
The Stonehenge festival was a month long affair. It started off very small, but grew and grew as the years went by, till, by 1984 up to a quarter of a million people were attending.
It continued to reflect its anarchist origins, and the most common flag was the anarchist flag, a white circle with an A on a black background, but the site itself must have imposed itself on people’s hearts and minds over the years. Unlike Windsor, there wasn’t the same strong political edge to holding a festival here. One of the early druid groups, the Church of the Universal Bond, lead by George Watson MacGregor Reid, a notable eccentric who mixed sun worship and druidry with socialist revolution and anti-imperialism, had first fixed the idea of druids and Stonehenge into popular consciousness in the early 20th century, and George’s son Robert continued to bring druids to the circle throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, when the festival goers would have seen them.
Amongst their number was William Roache, famous for playing the fictional character Ken Barlow in Coronation Street, and it was one of the festival jokes to go along to the ceremonies on solstice morning and intone “Ken Baaaaaaarloooooow” as a mystical chant along with the druids’s own more elevated incantations.
But, you can’t deny it, Stonehenge casts a spell.
It is evidence that our prehistoric ancestors were profoundly civilised and had a deep cultural understanding of the movement of time and the stars.
I know from my own experience, having visited it regularly on solstice and other nights ever since open managed access was instigated in the year 2000, that there there is a presence there, something profound and mysterious. I don’t think anyone can enter that circle and not feel it. So imagine spending the better part of the month there, every year, year after year, and then moving on, from stone circle to stone circle throughout the summer, as the Travellers were wont to do. Add to this some psychoactive chemistry, nights spent out under the stars, and days in the sunshine, reverting back to a simpler and more organic form of life, cooking on an open fire, meeting new people every year, living in trucks and benders and rediscovering your nomadic roots: living tribally, everyone depending on everyone else, is it any wonder that people were seeking out new ways of looking at the world, new philosophical understandings, and finding these less in the Eastern religions which had informed the hippies a few years earlier, but in something organic which grew out of the British soil. Call it Albionism. It’s as good a word as any.
The Battle of the Beanfield took place 11 years after the first Stonehenge festival, on June 1st 1985.
It was not long after the Miners had been defeated, after their year long strike. Margaret Thatcher had famously referred to them as The Enemy Within. The New Age Travellers had been described as “Medieval Brigands” in the press and it is clear that the Thatcher government and other members of the establishment were fed up with their on going act of collective rebellion at Stonehenge and beyond and had set out to crush the movement.
Which they did, in an act of collective vandalism tantamount to a police riot. There’s a whole chapter on the Battle of the Beanfield in Fierce Dancing. It’s a very emotional chapter.
Criminal Justice Bill
OK, to talk about myself once more: those of you who know me will know that in the 1990s I wrote a column in the Guardian Weekend called Housing Benefit Hill, later brought together in a book.
It was about the council estate that I lived on at the time, with my son Joe. I was a single parent.
The way I came to be writing that was that I wrote two stories about the council estate and then, on the off chance, sent them in to the Guardian, which were then, miraculously, accepted.
Anyone who knows anything about the writing trade in Britain will know that the Guardian never accepts unsolicited manuscripts, but they did on this occasion.
Trouble is, I made a mistake right at the beginning. I was so excited when I heard that my stories would be published, that I told everyone. And, of course, you can’t write about people in a national newspaper without it affecting your relationship with them. So once the stories had started to appear, followed by the inevitable backlash, I stopped writing about the people on my council estate, and I started writing about my friends on other council estates in other parts of the country. I stopped writing about people who didn’t want to be written about, and I started writing about people who did. The early stories are quite dour and unhappy, stories about poverty and loss. The later stories are funnier and lighter. The early stories are about people oppressed by their poverty, the later ones about people who, despite their poverty, still manage to make a life for themselves.
So it was halfway into my first year as a Guardian columnist that the legislation against certain lifestyle choices was being introduced in Parliament. This was the Criminal Justice Bill, which, along with a rag bag of other unrelated issues, also contained legislation against raves, against particular forms of protest, against squatting and against travellers. So I started writing about that in my column too, and became, accidentally, a sort of national spokesman for the movement.
And it was in the process of making a TV documentary about the movement against the Criminal Justice Bill that I came across my first road protest.
This was on Solsbury Hill near Bath. I wrote an extended column about it which appeared under the title “Spirits in a Material World.”
This was the first time I came across a movement which was overtly magical in its terminology, and yet deeply political at the same time.
Here is a short extract:
“THERE was one person I particularly wanted to talk to, and on my last day I managed to secure an interview with Sam of the Donga tribe. She’s a lithe, powerful woman, very dark-skinned, fearsome and brave, as I saw in her actions against the machines. Whether she is really a Queen or not, there is definitely something regal in her bearing.
“We sat by the fire and drank tea, while she told me about her theories. The tribe’s name is taken from the deep ruts or trackways that used to cross Twyford Down. They were worn by the tread of human feet heading for St. Catherine’s Hill, which was the principle meeting place for all the tribes of ancient Europe. In chalk downland especially, she told me, there are deep underground streams, ‘like the veins in my hand.’ This is what people and animals are in tune with. ‘They’re like energy lines, and people follow them to places on the Earth where people are welcome to gather.’
“In these places there’s a special kind of magic. They are sacred. In England these are the Hill Forts, many of them now under threat from the DoT’s road building programme. She has an image of the ancient world as entirely on the move: thousands of tribes treading the trackways or following the trade-routes, ships and carts and the incessant tread of human feet. But something (the ubiquitous they) wants to stop this natural urge to travel and to gather. They buried plague victims in the sacred spots. They put the sewerage works on St. Catherine’s Hill, and then they built the road.
“Who are we talking about exactly? The Freemasons. They are attuned to a negative form of the same energy that the tribes worship. They are actively trying to cut off the Earth’s nervous systems. Why else are they selecting the most beautiful sites for their road programme?
“Sam has many theories that are obviously part of the on-going myth-structure of the movement. She talks of astrological patterns in the landscape, crystal energy, of vast, all-embracing conspiracies; of the circular dance. I’m disinclined to believe most of it, though I support her right to believe anything she likes. But there’s one thing she says which strikes me to the very heart. ‘There was a time when, world-wide, everything was in total harmony, when all the stone-energy was producing euphoric ecstasy of the Earth. She loves all the lovely things that we like – you know: dancing, laughing, sex, music, the whole lot. You know that brilliant feeling when you’re in love with someone special? Well imagine being in love with the whole of the Earth, and every lovely thing in it…’
“A philosophy like that doesn’t have to be true in the strict scientific sense. It’s true enough in the feelings of longing that we all share.”
Well all of this was completely new to me, but it really struck a chord. And it was after this that I started following up on all the road protests going on around the country at that time, the early to mid nineties.
They were definitely the heir to the Stonehenge free festival. They utilised some of the same skills: living on the land, building benders and yurts and other low-impact housing, cooking around an open fire, using the squatting laws to stop being evicted. Some of the same people were involved too, like Arthur Pendragon. They also followed on from other protest movements that used occupation of land as a strategy, like the peace camps around Molesworth and Greenham Common, and which continue to this day in the Occupy movement.
But it was the philosophy which really knocked me out. It was like a form of radical animism. It wasn’t pagan in the formal sense, which acts like an alternative religion, with a self-appointed priesthood. There weren’t any priests amongst these people, although there was a lot of mystical speculation going on. It seemed spontaneous, as if it grew out of the very soil on which they were camped. I don’t know what books they were reading, if any. It seemed to me that they were reading directly from nature itself.
Here’s one story which really encapsulates the whole thing for me. I saw one of the protesters sitting on a low wall gazing abstractly at the work going on below him: those huge, heavy-gauge vehicles gnawing at the land and turning it to dust. He’d spoken to one of the workmen earlier, he told me. Do you believe that trees have spirits, he asked? Answer: “No.” Do you believe that animals have spirits? “No.” Do you believe that the Earth has a spirit? “No.” And you: do you believe that you have a spirit? Slight confused pause, then: “No.”
I followed up on these first experiences of the road protest movement by writing a book with Arthur Pendragon, who had been a road protester at the Newbury Bypass protests, amongst other places.
Arthur perfectly encapsulates my interest in this magical-political crossover; although I have to say that writing a book about a guy who says he’s the reincarnation of a mythical King rather spoiled my reputation as a cynical, hard-bitten journalist. My writing career never quite recovered from it. After that I became a postal worker.
What all of this has been about is land. That’s the secret that festival culture reveals to us. We are not separate from the Earth: we are the Earth. Anyone who has attended a festival or a rave and taken a few mind expanding chemicals will know this. There’s a real sense of the Earth awakening beneath our feet, of it responding to the joyous rhythm of our step. Anyone who has been to Stonehenge at the summer solstice will know the sense of the Stones coming alive. Where does consciousness come from? The reductionists will say that it is no more than random electrical signals locked up inside our brain. What those experiences out there on the land teaches us is that we are not isolated at all, that consciousness is all around us: that we breathe it in with the air, that we hear it in the breeze, that we feel it in the grass beneath our feet, that we see it when we lie down on our backs and look into the vast deeps of the cosmic ocean, that we taste it in the water we drink and the food we eat, that we absorb it through every pore in the very process of being alive. Ecstasy doesn’t come from the mind, it comes from the body. It is that joyous shiver of recognition we feel when we embrace the living Earth.
Thus ownership of land is a spiritual as well as a political question.
There are vast tracts of land held in the sole possession of just a few families. 70% of the land in Britain is owned by less than 1% of the population. Britain has the second most unequal distribution of land in the world. And you wonder why it feels so overcrowded at times?
Not being able to access the land is being cut off from the source of our inspiration. Not being able to gather at the sacred places. Not seeing the Earth come alive in the spring and going through its cycles in the course of the year. No longer feeling the rhythm of the year, the vast majority of the population are cut off from the source. We live disconnected, dissociated lives. Dissociation is a form of mental illness. Maybe this might help explain why the whole human race seems to be on the verge of committing ritual suicide right now.
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