Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice: On the 28th Anniversary of the Last Free Festival, Check Out “Festivals Britannia”

21.6.12

So today, as 14,000 revellers at Stonehenge faced a rainy summer solstice morning, with some of them, at least, echoing the reverence that those who built this giant sun temple over 4,000 years ago had for the great axis of the solar year, many of those in attendance may not have known of the long struggles that enabled them to party in the world’s most famous stone circle, or of the free festival that sprawled across the fields opposite Stonehenge every June for 11 years from 1974 to 1984, or of the brutal suppression, in 1985, of the convoy of travellers, anarchists and environmental activists heading to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th Stonehenge Free Festival, who were violently set upon and “decommissioned” in what has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield.

Those who want to know more can check out my books Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield, and can also find out more via my most recent article on the Beanfield, three weeks ago, and my recent radio interview, which I posted yesterday. However, I believe this is also an excellent opportunity for people to watch “Festivals Britannia,” a 90-minute long BBC4 documentary by Sam Bridger, first broadcast in December 2010, which I’m posting below in six parts, as available on YouTube.

This is an important programme, with excellent commentators and some astounding footage (including dreamlike Super-8 footage from the ’70s by Chris Waite, and equally dreamlike images from the last great gathering of the tribes, at Castlemorton in 1992), even though watching it was a rather surreal experience, as its narrative arc seemed to be drawn entirely — but without credit — from Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion.

As the BBC’s blurb stated:

[T]his documentary tells the story of the emergence and evolution of the British music festival through the mavericks, dreamers and dropouts who have produced, enjoyed and sometimes fought for them over the last 50 years.

The film traces the ebb and flow of British festival culture from jazz beginnings at Beaulieu in the late 50s through to the Isle of Wight festivals at the end of the 60s, early Glastonbury and one-off commercial festivals like 1972’s Bickershaw, the free festivals of the 70s and 80s and on through the extended rave at Castlemorton in 1992 to the contemporary resurgence in festivals like Glastonbury, Isle of Wight and Reading in the last decade.

Missing from that description of the counter-cultural forces that drove the various phases of the festival scene until its mushrooming as a mainstream phenomenon in the mid-1990s is the Battle of the Beanfield, which is the film’s dark heart. I was pleased that the film then proceeded to explain well the buoyancy of the rave scene that suddenly revived festivals and dissent in the late 80s when all could have been lost, and although I slightly drifted off towards the end, when festivals became thoroughly corporate and mainstream, I thoroughly enjoy, every year, attending WOMAD with my friends and family, where our kids have been growing up accustomed to five days of brilliant camping and communal existence every year, and, of course, it must never be forgotten that festivals are so successful not because of corporate involvement, but because the pioneers of the festival movement created something that was more successful than they could have dreamed — alternative social gatherings that provide escapism, but also provide hints of a utopian worldview that is sorely lacking from everyday life, and which, from their counter-cultural beginnings have ended up attracting 1 in 10 of us out into the fields to attend festivals every summer.

Now we just need a bit more politics involved — involving a sense of history, and an urgent engagement with the current problems we face, in which our savage and misguided government, fully committed to destroying the state in an orgy of malignant, ideologically-driven austerity, would like nothing more than for people to indulge in a long weekend — or a rainy night — of escapism, and not to suffuse their experiences with anything dangerous — like a burning desire to not let the UK slip back into the Dark Ages without a fight. I hope some of those at Stonehenge last night and this morning picked up on the temple’s long fascination for dreamers and dissenters, and caught something of the oppositional spirit that played such a major part in the Stonehenge Free Festival, and without which we are all merely the puppets of a savage, corporate, materialistic world.

POSTSCRIPT April 21, 2013: The videos have been removed from YouTube, sadly, but as of April 2013 the film is available here.

Note: For reflections on Stonehenge and the summer solstice, see Stonehenge and the summer solstice: past and present, It’s 25 Years Since The Last Stonehenge Free Festival, Stonehenge Summer Solstice 2010: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, RIP Sid Rawle, Land Reformer, Free Festival Pioneer, Stonehenge Stalwart and Happy Summer Solstice to the Revellers at Stonehenge — Is it Really 27 Years Since the Last Free Festival? For more on the Beanfield, see my articles, In the Guardian: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, which provides excerpts from my book The Battle of the Beanfield, and The Battle of the Beanfield 25th Anniversary: An Interview with Phil Shakesby, aka Phil the Beer, a prominent traveller who died two years ago. For more on dissent from the anti-globalisation movement to the Arab Spring, see The Year of Revolution: The “War on Tyranny” Replaces the “War on Terror”, and for commentary on how gypsies and travellers still face persecution in the UK, see my articles about the disgraceful eviction last year of gypsies and travellers at Dale Farm, The Dale Farm Eviction: How Racism Against Gypsies and Travellers Grips Modern-Day Britain and The Dale Farm Eviction: Using Planning Laws to Justify Racism Towards Gypsies and Travellers. And if you have time to trawl some excellent archives about the entire festival and free festival scene, check out the astonishing Festival Zone archive.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

23 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Nicole Simms wrote:

    geez….has it really been 28 years since I was there? So glad for that time in my life….

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I feel the same, Nicole. On the Jubilee, I was thinking that it seemed hard to believe that it was 35 years since the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” but it will only get worse. The 60s provided a hugely important reference point for me growing up in the late 70s (as I was part of the punk generation, but didn’t share the anti-hippie sentiments), and as this decade progresses we’ll be getting the 50th anniversary reports on everything from that decade – the Beatles, the Summer of Love, Woodstock, you name it …

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Nicole Simms wrote:

    Youre making me feel old Andy! I was only 19 and LOVED it! Havent been the same since actually…lol

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Ah well yes, the pleasures of being 19, Nicole. I didn’t mean to make you feel old, but it’s good to have done things when we were young that have lived with us as sources of energy and inspiration. Not everyone is so fortunate in their youth, sadly …

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Nicole Simms wrote:

    did u get any photos Andy? Id love to see old photos….met a guy here in Tasmania who said he was there too that had pics….I might chase him up….what a great last festival it was too…..

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    There are a few photos of the 1984 festival here, Nicole: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/06/20/its-25-years-since-the-last-stonehenge-free-festival/
    I also recommend the excellent Festival Zone website: http://www.ukrockfestivals.com/
    And the unparalleled archive of photos by Alan Lodge (Tash) – traveller, medic, photographer!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/tash/sets?per_page=1000
    http://digitaljournalist.eu/OnTheRoad/

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    And my article for the 25th anniversary also includes my recollections of the 1984 festival. I was also there in 1983, when I had the most amazing time, and without those visits I might not have ended up doing what I’m doing today.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Nicole Simms wrote:

    i believe most people would have done a bit of rebelling to get there….lol….so funny what is banned one moment becomes more mainstream the next.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Regarding your point about how what is banned becomes mainstream, Nicole, I do wish there wasn’t such corporate cynicism involved. I remember back in the late 80s reacting with despair at the realization that people my age who though they were cool had ended up in advertising and were now plundering our culture to soundtrack adverts for sh*t that no one wanted or needed, and that was completely at odds with what the music was about. It makes youthful dissent difficult when sharks leap on any edgy new development almost as soon as it surfaces. That said, it’s the plunder of my era’s youth culture that still gets to me the most. Imagine my horror the other evening when a lengthy BA Olympics ad featured the Clash’s “London Calling” as the soundtrack, including – unironically, it seems – the lyrics about police violence (“London calling, see we ain’t got no swing / Except for the ring of that truncheon thing”). I like to think that Joe Strummer wouldn’t have approved it, but who knows? Nowadays, it seems, almost everybody can be bought …

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Also on Facebook, after my friend Ann Alexander sent me a message on another topic and asked how I was doing, I responded with the following response, which started an interesting discussion:

    I’m well, Ann – apart from living under the Tories and with Guantanamo still open! Hope you’re well too.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Thanks Andy. I share your suffering.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I know you do, Ann. What a disgrace it is, when working on Guantanamo provides some relief from the permanent anger engendered by this savagely cruel and heartless government.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    Andy, I, and you, are watching the slow motion collapse of UK democracy into a Stasi State.
    I fear the worst. House arrest has now become embedded in the UK Justice and legal system, and is being abused.
    May’s new bill, enabling total spying on everyone, is just vile. May should be investigated, from the very beginning. Let us see if she has anything to hide…….

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Perhaps, Graham, we will discover that many of David Cameron’s colleagues have tax problems, and that it isn’t just an issue that involves Jimmy Carr! Incompetence has already dented the government’s implausible credibility; a tsunami of sleaze – beyond Leveson, and into the nitty-gritty of tax avoidance – may wound them fatally.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    The answer will be massive Murdoch type spin, lies, and repression. There are things I could say about Iraq, and illegal arms dealing, that would show that huge cover ups have been going on for years.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Perhaps, Graham, although I think they’re not as much in charge of the narrative as they’d like to be. The perception of incompetence and sleaze is toxic to governments, who need to maintain sufficient support to keep the illusion of democracy alive.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    Absolutely Andy. I think that the wall is crumbling however.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    I think so, Graham. The sleaze is growing, the incompetence is becoming more and more apparent …

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Nicole Simms wrote (in response to 9, above):

    yes its ironic how it goes….one punk I knew at the festival became a London Barrister! Good that so many youth there have gone on to quite meaningful things….it certainly sent ripples a long way though maybe not enuf….Im not sure that its almost everybody can be brought….more the price of a roof over your head is so expensive in uk, people towed the line just for basics…..youre doing a good job at keeping the flame going tho….

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Nicole. Yes, the problem is absolutely the cost of living – and particularly, the cost of housing, whether it’s a mortgage or rent. It’s where our reforming energies need to be directed – particularly the need for not-for-profit social housing (not subsidized housing, as it is called by those liars seeking to destroy it) for everyone who wants it or needs it. Apart from anything else, all that money being pocketed by the banks or by the individuals who got lucky on the housing casino is only helping to kill the economy, as none of it is being used to drive healthy economic activity – you know, the type that might involve lots of small business, and lots of jobs.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I am sharing this, Andy. Although I know next to nothing about this subject, several of my FB friends do. They’ll like this post.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George. The documentary is interesting. It could have had a stronger narrative voice – although that wouldn’t have been very BBC- but the interviews, the footage and the chronology are excellent.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    The videos have been removed from YouTube, sadly, but as of April 2013 the film is available here: http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/tXQiC996Phc

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