Summer Solstice 2017: Reflections on Free Festivals and the Pagan Year 33 Years After the Last Stonehenge Festival

An aerial view of the Stonehenge Free Festival in 1984, liberated from the police during the subsequent trial.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.

 

My books Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield are still in print, and please also feel free to check out the music of my band The Four Fathers.

Back in 1983, as a 20-year old student, I had a life-changing experience when a friend of mine initiated a visit to the Stonehenge Free Festival, an anarchic experiment in leaderless living that occupied the fields opposite Stonehenge for the whole of June every year. The festival had grown from a small occupation in 1974, and by 1984 (when I visited again) became a monster — one with a darkness that reflected the darkness that gripped the whole of the UK that year, as Margaret Thatcher crushed the miners and, metaphorically, razed the country to the ground like a medieval conqueror.

I remember the 1983 festival with a great fondness — the elven people selling magic mushrooms from a barrel for next to nothing, the wailing of acid rock bands, the festivals’ thoroughfares, like ancient tracks of baked earth, where the cries of “acid, speed, hot knives” rang though the sultry air. Off the beaten track, travellers set up impromptu cafes beside their colourfully-painted trucks and coaches, unaware that, just two years later, on June 1, 1985, some of those same vehicles would be violently decommissioned at the Battle of the Beanfield, when Thatcher, following her destruction of Britain’s mining industry, set about destroying Britain’s traveller community, which, during her tenure as Prime Minister, had grown as unemployment mushroomed, and life on the road seemed to provide an appealing alternative.

A festival circuit, running from May to October, had grown up with this new movement, with Stonehenge at its centre. Michael Eavis’s Glastonbury Festival was also connected to it, as were numerous smaller festivals, as well as other events focused on environmental protest, especially against nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The travellers’ most prominent manifestation, the Peace Convoy, had visited Greenham Common, site of the famous women’s peace camp opposed to the establishment of US-owned and -controlled cruise missiles, in 1982, and in the summer of 1984 established a second peace camp at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, the intended second cruise missile base after Greenham Common. Read the rest of this entry »

Video: Andy Worthington’s Band The Four Fathers Play ‘Stand Down Theresa’, An Updated Version of The Beat’s ‘Stand Down Margaret’

A screenshot from the video of The Four Fathers playing 'Stand Down Theresa', a version of The Beat's protest classic, 'Stand Down Margaret.'When I was growing up in late 70s Britain, one of the great political anthems of the time — when we were not short of protest music from, to name but a few artists, the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Specials — was ‘Stand Down Margaret’ by The Beat, featured on their debut album, ‘I Just Can’t Stop It,’ which was released in 1980. Paired with Prince Buster’s ‘Whine and Grine,’ ‘Stand Down Margaret’ primarily featured a polite but wonderfully poetic and insistent message, asking Margaret Thatcher, who became Prime Minister the year before, to resign. As the song stated:

I see no joy, I see only sorrow
I see no chance of a bright new tomorrow
Stand down Margaret, stand down please
Stand down Margaret

Here’s Dave Wakeling of The Beat talking about the song in 2013 — and about Margaret Thatcher, about whom he said, “Most everything about Margaret Thatcher was pretend … a way for the privileged to secure themselves at the expense of everybody else.” And here’s fabulous footage of The Beat playing their “insurrectionary anthem” on children’s TV. Read the rest of this entry »

Never Trust the Tories: It’s 32 Years Today Since the Intolerable Brutality of the Battle of the Beanfield

'Beanfield', a 2009 work by Banksy, photographed in MOCO Museum in Amsterdam, where it is on display until August 2017 (photo via the website Rajah's 2 Cents).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.

 

Today, June 1, the cultural nostalgia industry — a burgeoning movement that seeks safe havens in the past, where the reality of the here and now can be denied — is in overdrive, marking the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ LP, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ Cue rhapsodic reflections on the meaning of “the summer of love,” and, presumably, very few people talking about how it’s not the Beatles’ best or more significant album, and, more importantly, “the summer of love” isn’t something to wheel out like a colourful aged relative.

If there is, at some level, a rainbow-hued joy to recollections of the time, this should reasonably be tempered with an awareness that the hippie movement was not just about fashion and flowers; it was also tied into the movement against the Vietnam War in America, to movements of resistance to the status quo (whether violent or non-violent), and to profound questions about culture, love, relationships, business and our place in the world that often led to conflicting and confused responses, in which irresponsibility played a part as well as idealism.

The rather more superficial aspect of the 60s — the fashion and flowers — led in turn to what I see as the most defining betrayal of the hope and desire for change that drove much of the agitation of the time: the sidelining of the commitment to political resistance — a largely communal affair — through the self-obsession of self-improvement: those millions of journeys to self-discovery that, absorbed and reinterpreted by the voracious mainstream of capitalism, have become nothing more than a vain sense of entitlement, typified by L’Oreal’s “Because You’re Worth It” tagline, but apparent everywhere, in the preening, pampering world of materialistic self-worth. Read the rest of this entry »

Rebel Music: Memories of St. Patrick’s Day in London, 1986

A vintage postcard image for St. Patrick's Day.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.

 

31 years ago, I made a discovery that had some serious resonance for me — the existence of St. Patrick’s Day. It was March 17, 1986. I’d moved into a flat in London three months earlier, in December 1985, opposite the George Canning pub, where I had ventured on my first night, meeting up with squatters, from the roads behind the junction of Tulse Hill and Brixton Water Lane, who soon became my friends.

After three years in Oxford, I wanted as big a change as possible — somewhere in the real world, as far removed as possible from Oxford’s dreaming spires and the endless reminders (to someone from a northern, working class, Methodist background) that it was basically a finishing school for the public schoolboys who would soon go on to run everything.

Seduced by my love for roots reggae music and the Clash, I decided there was no better place than Brixton to sign on and to learn to play the guitar and write songs, inspired by two of my other musical heroes, Bob Dylan and, recently discovered, Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, whose rattling bender of an album, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, had recently been released. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s Now 31 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield: Where is the Spirit of Dissent in the UK Today?

The cover of The Battle of the Beanfield, Andy Worthington's book about the dreadful events of June 1, 1985, collecting accounts fro those who were there on the day, along with contemporary analysis.

Buy my book The Battle of the Beanfield. Also available: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion.

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 »

Ha Ha! The Tories Lose London

"Tories out" graffiti.Good news for a change, as the Tories definitively lose control of London (OK, I’m slightly jumping the gun, but the Guardian is reporting that “Sadiq Khan ‘has won’ London mayoral race,” and Jeremy Corbyn has already sent Khan his congratulations). The Tories, who were already down in terms of MPs after last year’s General Election (when 45 of the capital’s 73 Parliamentary seats went to Labour), have now lost the Mayor, with Labour’s Sadiq Khan soundly beating Zac Goldsmith, and in the capital-wide elections for members of the Greater London Assembly, with 14 of the 25 seats counted, Labour had nine seats (a gain of one), and the Tories had five (a loss of one). The BBC reported that 43% of Londoners had voted Labour, 31% had voted Tory, and the Green Party had come third.

This is good news for Sadiq Khan, of course, but also for Jeremy Corbyn, in his first electoral test as Labour Party leader, and for the Labour Party as a whole the results are a vindication of his leadership — especially satisfying after the artificial anti-Semitism row that Labour right-wingers and a throughly unprincipled mainstream media were all too delighted to promote. At the time of writing Labour had held almost all its council seats across England, and had also held 29 seats in Wales (just short of a majority). The only dimmed light is in Scotland, where the SNP continues to replace them as the party of the left — and where, shockingly, the Tories pushed them into third place.

In London, of course, the Tories persistently shot themselves in the foot. Zac Goldsmith failed to connect with people and looked like he didn’t want the job — and it’s interesting to see how people aren’t fooled by a lack of desire for the job. However, his woes multiplied in the last few weeks when he hired the black propagandist Lynton Crosby, the Australian who has been behind the Tories’ relentlessly black propaganda for the last six years, which, it is important to note, is single-handedly responsible for the horrendous increase in the petty hatreds that have come to typify modern Britain — dominated, in particular, by racism, but also targeting anyone vulnerable, as can be seen by the government’s relentless assault on the unemployed and the disabled. Read the rest of this entry »

Breach Theatre On Tour With Acclaimed Theatre/Video Dramatization of the Battle of the Beanfield

Breach Theatre recreate the Battle of the Beanfield in Wiltshire in March 2015 (Photo: Andy Worthington).It’s over 30 years since the Battle of the Beanfield, a notoriously dark day in modern British history, when, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, 1,400 police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence “decommissioned” a convoy of around 500 new age travellers, free festival goers and environmental activists who were attempting to travel to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual free festival in the fields opposite the stones.

The Stonehenge Free Festival was a wild anarchic jamboree, which lasted for the whole of the month of June, and, in its last few years, attracted many tens of thousands of people, myself included — and the effect on me was so profound that I ended up writing about the festival and the Beanfield (and much more besides) in my 2004 counter-cultural history, Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion and then focused exclusively on the Beanfield in my 2005 book, The Battle of the Beanfield.

The festival’s violent suppression, in a one-sided rout of heartbreaking brutality, was one of the grimmer episodes in Thatcher’s bleak, eleven-year reign, dealing a crippling blow to Britain’s traveller movement, even though dissent refused to go away, as an ecstasy-fuelled rave scene, the road protest movement and the anti-globalization movement emerged to challenge the status quo in the late 80s and the 90s. Read the rest of this entry »

Video: Andy Worthington’s Band The Four Fathers Play ‘Tory Bullshit Blues’ Unplugged

The Four Fathers backstage at Lewisham People's Day, July 11, 2015.Yesterday, to coincide with the Conservative Party Conference, at which Jeremy Hunt has been causing anger by telling hard-working lower-paid voters that they need to work harder — like the famously exploited Chinese people, for example — rather than get tax credits to top up their government-defended inadequate pay, I posted ‘Tory Bullshit Blues,’ a new video on the YouTube channel of my band The Four Fathers, which I launched last week with a version of ‘Song for Shaker Aamer,’ about the last British resident in the US prison at Guantánamo, played by myself and my fellow guitarist/singer in the band, Richard Clare.

‘Tory Bullshit Blues’ is my defence of socialism over the selfishness and greed that has typified the Conservative Party since Margaret Thatcher — and it also challenges the racism of UKIP, blaming immigrants, the unemployed and the disabled for the problems caused by the bankers who were responsible for the global economic crash of 2008, but have not been held accountable for their greed and their crimes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice, 30 Years After the Battle of the Beanfield

The Stonehenge Free Festival in 1975, a photo from the Flickr page of Basil and Tracy Brooks. Basil played with Zorch, who played the first two festivals in 1974 and 1975.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 »

It’s 30 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Trashed the Travellers’ Movement at the Battle of the Beanfield

The front cover of "The Battle of the Beanfield," edited by Andy Worthington.Buy my book, The Battle of the Beanfield, here.

Exactly 30 years ago, on June 1, 1985, a convoy of vehicles trying to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual free festival in the fields opposite Britain’s most famous ancient monument, was set upon with violence on a scale that has not otherwise been witnessed in peacetime in modern times in the UK.

Around 1,400 police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence were in Wiltshire to “decommission” the convoy, which consisted of around 500 new age travellers, free festival goers and environmental activists. The police were thwarted in their efforts to arrest the majority of the convoy via a roadblock, and the travellers then occupied a pasture field and an adjacent bean field, establishing a stand-off that was only broken late in the afternoon, when, under instructions from on high, the police invaded the fields en masse, and violently assaulted and arrested the travellers — men, women and children — smashing up their vehicles to try and make sure this new nomadic movement would never be able to function again.

Successive waves of legislation — the Public Order Act of 1986 and the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 — largely destroyed Britain’s traveller community, although there were fascinating eruptions of dissent along the way — in particular via the rave scene of the late 80s and early 90s, and the road protest movement that was a direct descendant of the free festival movement. Unable to travel freely, protestors rooted themselves to a fixed spot, occupying land regarded as sacred and, in many noteworthy cases, living in trees in an effort to prevent road-building projects from taking place. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

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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