31 years ago, the British state, under Margaret Thatcher, committed one of its most violent acts against its own citizens, at the Battle of the Beanfield, when a group of travellers — men, women and children — who were driving to Stonehenge from Savernake Forest to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival were set upon by tooled-up police from six counties, and the Ministry of Defence. The travellers were outnumbered three to one, while the police were at the height of their use as a paramilitary force by Margaret Thatcher.
The year before, the police had crushed the miners at Orgreave (promoting calls this year for an official inquiry after the belated triumph of victims’ families against the police at the Hillsborough Inquest), and the assault on the travelling community had started shortly after, when a group of travellers were harried from a festival in the north of England. Some of this group joined up with other travellers, festival-goers and green activists at Molesworth, in Cambridgeshire, the planned location for Britain’s second cruise missile base, where a peace camp was set up, following the example of the Women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, set up in opposition to the first cruise missile base. The Molesworth camp was, in turn, shut down by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops, in February 1985, and for the next four months the travellers were harassed until June 1, when the Battle of the Beanfield took place.
The Beanfield was a horrible example of state violence, with both short-term and long-term implications. Severe damage was done to Britain’s traveller community, who had been seeking to create an alternative culture of free festivals from May to October every year, and who, as Molesworth showed, were not just hedonists, but also had ecological and anti-nuclear aims. Read the rest of this entry »
Every year, on the last weekend in July, I travel to Charlton Park in Wiltshire with my family and friends for the WOMAD world music festival, where my wife runs children’s workshops, where the sun nearly always shines, and there is great music from all around the world — and there is always some great band from west Africa, especially Mali, that I love. I know a few of the bands playing this year — Tinariwen, for example, and the Mahotella Queens — but not many. One of WOMAD’s great pleasures is discovering musicians that I didn’t know previously.
WOMAD also provides an opportunity for me to sing and play guitar at our camp, in one of the crew camping areas — with two other members of my band The Four Fathers, Richard and Louis. Traditionally, we’ve played a lot of covers — a lot of Bob Dylan and the Pogues, for example, but since last year I’ve written a number of songs that are featured on The Four Fathers’ debut album, ‘Love and War’, available here on CD for just £7/$11 plus P&P — and we’ll no doubt be playing unplugged versions of them this year. They include ‘Song for Shaker Aamer’, which is featured in the campaign video for We Stand With Shaker, the campaign calling for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, which I established with the activist Joanne MacInnes last November.
The video is below: Read the rest of this entry »
Happy summer solstice, everyone! I thought I might visit megalithic Wiltshire this year, for my first solstice visit in 10 years, but the anti-austerity march in London — and my desire to attend it — rather put paid to that plan. My hoped-for destination was Avebury, the village built in the remains of a colossal stone circle, roughly 20 miles north of Stonehenge, which awakened — or rather reawakened — my interest in all things megalithic from 1996, when a chance visit with my new girlfriend (and now wife) Dot led to such enthusiasm on my part that I devoted much of the next ten years to visiting ancient sacred sites all over England, and in Scotland, Malta and Brittany.
I also wrote two books in this period, after my original plan failed to find a publisher. That project was, “Stonehenge and Avebury: Pilgrimages to the Heart of Ancient England,” and it was based on three long-distance walks I made with Dot and other friends in 1997 and 1998, along the Ridgeway from the Thames to Avebury, and then an eight-day trek through Wiltshire to Stonehenge, from Dorchester in Dorset, which I christened “The Stonehenge Way,” and another walk of my devising from Stonehenge to Avebury.
I hope one day to revive that particular project, but what happened in 2002 was that I was encouraged to focus on one particular aspect of the book — the Stonehenge Free Festival, my first inspiration when it came to ancient sacred sites. As a student, I had visited the festival in 1983 and 1984, and had found my view of the world transformed by this gigantic anarchic jamboree that filled the fields opposite Stonehenge every June. The photo above is from 1975, the second festival, and is from the Flickr site of Basil and Tracy Brooks. Basil played with Zorch, who played at both of the first two festivals, in 1974 and 1975. See the albums here and here. Read the rest of this entry »
Every year since 2002, I have attended the WOMAD world music festival (it stands for ‘World of Music, Arts and Dance’) with my family and with friends. My wife runs children’s workshops at the festival, and for five days, at the end of July every year, we escape from the city and join the gathering of the tribes in a trouble-free version of the festival idyll that was first dreamt up by the counter-cultural pioneers of the 1960s and 1970s, and has since grown to appeal to — well, almost everyone, if Glastonbury’s success is anything to go by.
WOMAD had a capacity crowd this year for the first time since it moved to its current residence, Charlton Park in Wiltshire, from Reading in 2007. That meant that 40,000 people turned up to be hammered by the relentless sun and to be thrilled, entertained and moved by musicians who are not generally on the mainstream musical radar in the UK — with the exception of Sinead O’Connor, who stepped in at the last minute to replace the late Bobby Womack, and who was extraordinarily powerful, her unique mixture of vulnerability and anger bringing many in the crowd to tears, and not just during “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Sinead played many songs from her new album, “I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss,” which promises to be excellent.
From further afield, I enjoyed Clinton Fearon from Jamaica, formerly of the roots reggae legends the Gladiators, the legendary Manu Dibango and the magisterial Youssou N’Dour, but WOMAD is also about making new discoveries, in my case Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni ba, Malians who lit up the first night, folk legends Martin Simpson and Dom Flemons, and — my favourites this year — Debademba, a very funky, rocking and soulful bunch of West African groovesters featuring the Malian griot singer Mohamed Diaby and guitarist Abdoulaye Traoré, who was born in Burkina Faso. Read the rest of this entry »
Since 2002, my family and I, along with a crew of friends, including our kids, have been regulars visitors at the WOMAD festival (World of Music Art and Dance), originally in Reading but, since 2007, at Charlton Park in north Wiltshire, where my wife runs children’s workshops, and we get backstage passes to mingle with the great and good of the world music scene.
The festival is a world music lover’s dream, and this year I’m looking forward to seeing my hero, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (now, astonishingly, 77 years old!), appearing with Max Romeo, with whom, of course, Perry produced the extraordinary “War Ina Babylon” album, in 1976, featuring “War Ina Babylon,” a perennial favourite (and the song that Bob Marley begged to have for himself), which I’m posting below. That album also featured other timeless classics, including “Chase the Devil“: Read the rest of this entry »
Memories of Summer: The Thames Festival on London’s South Bank, a set on Flickr.
Sunday September 9, 2012 was the final day of the weekend-long Thames Festival, established in 1997, and run by the Thames Festival Trust, which regularly attracts tens of thousands of visitors, and did so again this year, even though it was the last day of the Paralympic Games, and had been a summer so saturated with cultural events that it was possible to have thought beforehand that cultural saturation might well have set in.
Instead, the banks of the River Thames were packed, and nowhere more so than along the action-packed shoreline that stretches from Butlers Wharf in the east to Westminster Bridge in the west, via Tower Bridge, City Hall, Shakespeare’s Globe, Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge, Gabriels Wharf, the South Bank Centre, the London Eye, and the cluster of largely unappealing corporate attractions in the former County Hall. Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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