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 »
I’m thinking about mortality today, with the passing of one of my oldest friends, Nick Parsons, who has died aged 54. At New College, Oxford University, in 1982, it was Nick who introduced me to musicians who had a profound effect on me — Neil Young, Van Morrison, and, in particular, Bob Dylan, whose influence has been enduring. We used to listen to music in his room in the college during our first year (in the so-called ‘New Buildings’ — they weren’t very new, but nor was the college, which was founded in 1379) and by the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ on New College Lane, where Nick’s room was in our second year.
It was also Nick who, one day in June 1983, insisted that he and I and other friends (Rupert and Hugo, you know who you are) get in Rupert’s car and drive down to Stonehenge for the Stonehenge Free Festival, an eye-opening, psychedelic, anarchic jamboree that led, eventually, to me writing my first and second books on Stonehenge and the counter-culture, which, in turn, led to me writing a third book, about Guantánamo, and devoting the last 11 years of my life to getting the prison closed down.
That first visit was wonderful, on a personal level, like our own “summer of love,” and in terms of seeing how an alternative to mainstream society could actually exist. We returned again, in 1984, for what was to be the last festival, before its violent suppression in 1985 at the Battle of the Beanfield, but by then it was clear that, in what was one of the darkest years of Margaret Thatcher’s horrible rule, any coherent belief in a brighter future was unravelling under duress, and, sadly, also under self-inflicted wounds. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
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 »
If anyone out there hasn’t yet completed their Christmas shopping and would like to buy any of my work, I’m delighted to let you know that all three of my books — about Guantánamo and the UK counter-culture — are still available, as is the album “Love and War,” recorded with my band The Four Fathers and released just a few months ago.
Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion is a social history of Stonehenge, interweaving the stories of the outsiders drawn to Stonehenge, primarily over the last hundred years — Druids, other pagans, revellers, festival-goers, anarchists, new travellers and environmental activists — with the monument’s archeological history, and also featuring nearly 150 photos. If you’re buying this from me from anywhere other than the UK, please see this page. You can also buy it from Amazon in the US. Read the rest of this entry »
If you’re around on Sunday, between 3pm and 5pm GMT, you can listen to me reading from my books and playing some of my favourite music with human rights activist and arts curator Hamja Ahsan (DIY Cultures), who has a show, DIY Sunday Radio, every Sunday afternoon (UK time) on One Harmony Radio, based in Brockley, south east London, where I live.
Hamja became a campaigner because his brother, Talha, a talented poet with Asberger’s Syndrome, was imprisoned without charge or trial in the UK for six years pending extradition to the US, and was then extradited, spending two years in a Supermax prison before a judge sentenced him to time served and sent him home. See the campaign’s Facebook page here.
One Harmony Radio, which mainly plays reggae music, is a community internet radio station, so you can listen to my show from anywhere in the world! The Facebook page is here.
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 »
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 »
As tens of thousands of people gathered at Stonehenge last night and this morning for the summer solstice — and, presumably, more photos were taken than ever before, including, of course, the ubiquitous “selfie,” an example of which can be seen in the photo to the left — I recall that, 30 years ago, in June 1984, the last Stonehenge Free Festival took place in the fields opposite Stonehenge, and I was one of the tens of thousands of people who took part in it.
I had first visited with friends the year before, and had been astonished to discover that, while Margaret Thatcher was embarking on her malevolent plan to create a taxpayer-funded privatised Britain of selfishness, consumerism and unfettered greed, tens of thousands of people were on Salisbury Plain — partying, yes, or just getting wasted, but also sidelining consumerism and embracing communalism and alternative ways of living and looking at the world.
My experiences were central to my book Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, a social history of Stonehenge, which I wrote over an 18-month period from 2002 to 2004, and which was published ten years ago. It’s still in print, and you can buy it from me here, or from the publisher, Heart of Albion Press, or, if you must, from Amazon. After ten years, it is also — finally — being stocked at Stonehenge itself, in the new visitors’ centre that opened last December.
From humble beginnings ten years before, the Stonehenge Free Festival had grown to become the definitive counter-cultural expression of hedonism and dissent, a month-long manifestation of an alternative society, which so alarmed the authorities that the following year an advance convoy, travelling to Stonehenge to secure the festival site on June 1, was set upon by 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD, and decommissioned with shocking violence at an event that will forever be known as “The Battle of the Beanfield.” My book, The Battle of the Beanfield, about the terrible events of that day is also still available. For bulk orders, please contact Enabler Publications. Read the rest of this entry »
29 years ago, on June 1, 1985, a convoy of around 450 men, women and children — travellers, anarchists, free festival goers and green activists — were ambushed by 1,400 police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence, and decommissioned with a violence that has rarely been paralleled in modern British history.
The convoy was en route to Stonehenge, to set up what would have been the 11th annual free festival in the fields opposite Britain’s most famous ancient monument, but the savage decommissioning of the travellers’ vehicles, their mass arrest, and the raising of a military-style exclusion zone around Stonehenge put paid to that prospect.
The exclusion zone was raised every June for the next 13 years, until the law lords ruled it illegal in 1999, and since then English Heritage have allowed unfettered access to the stones on the summer solstice, with up to 30,000 revellers — everyone from pagan priests to teenage party-goers — availing themselves of the “Managed Open Access” policy. 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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