This Summer Solstice, The Party’s Over; Now It’s Time to Save the Planet

The summer solstice 2019 at Stonehenge (Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters).

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Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and at Stonehenge, the astonishing Bronze Age temple on the downs in Wiltshire, around 10,000 people gathered to watch the solstice sun rise through the heart of the temple, on one of the relatively rare years that the dawn sky was clear. It’s a contemporary celebration of the cycle of the seasons, but it also ties us to our mysterious ancestors, 4,000 years ago, who spent untold years transporting and shaping the vast sarsen stones that make up the temple’s epic bulk, so that it aligned with the rising sun on this particularly significant day.

People seem to have been drawn to Stonehenge for the summer solstice for centuries, although many archaeologists have a different take on the monument’s purpose, suggesting that it was not built to celebrate the summer solstice, but to celebrate the other end of this cosmic axis: the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, when, as the archeologist Aubrey Burl has suggested, our distant ancestors — whose lives, to quote Thomas Hobbes, were “nasty, brutish and short” — sought to reassure themselves that life would return from the dead world of winter.

Burl may be right, and much of the archaeological record supports his Hobbesian analogy. Life was indeed hard and short, but the romanticised view of our ancestors celebrating the summer solstice — rather than undertaking the building of stone circles and other extraordinary monuments to seek reassurance, in the depths of winter, that life would return to a dead world — has a powerful resonance for anyone who lived through, or has been influenced by the counter-cultural movements of the western world in the decades following the Second World War, and, in particular, the 1960s and 70s.

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34 Years On from the Battle of the Beanfield, Is Widespread Environmental Dissent Conceivable?

A photo from the Battle of the Beanfield on June 1, 1985, when the government of Margaret Thatcher violently decommissioned a convoy trying to get to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

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It’s 34 long years since the boot of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain crushed one of the most visible demonstrations of counter-cultural dissent in the UK via a brutal demonstration of the violence of the establishment at what became known as the Battle of the Beanfield, when 1,400 police — from six counties and the MoD — shut down a vastly outnumbered convoy of nomadic new age travellers, anarchists, environmental activists and free festival stalwarts as they attempted to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

From humble origins in 1974, the festival grew — reflecting massive discontent in Thatcher’s Britain, where unemployment was at an all-time high in the early ‘80s — so that by the time it was suppressed, tens of thousands of people, for the whole of June, set up a makeshift settlement, the size of a small town, in the fields opposite Stonehenge. 

Drug use was rife, as was acid rock music, while the festival’s regulars, who took part in a circuit of free festivals in England and Wales from May to September, tried to get by via the creation of a low-level, low-impact economy that, like their decision to take to the road in old vehicles rather than stagnating on the dole in towns and cities without jobs, fundamentally challenged the state’s insistence that nomadic activities were reserved solely for Gypsies, who, themselves, have a long history of persecution, as settled people generally, it seems, despise nomadic people. 

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Extinction Rebellion’s Urgent Environmental Protest Breaks New Ground While Drawing on the Occupy, Anti-Globalisation and Road Protest Movements

Climate emergency: Extinction Rebellion campaigners – mainly featuring an impressive samba band – marching from the camp at Marble Arch to the Oxford Circus occupation today, April 18, 2019. Most of Oxford Street was closed to traffic, like so many roads in central London, including Waterloo Bridge (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Well, this is getting interesting. On Monday, when the environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion began its occupation of five sites in central London — Parliament Square, Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus and Marble Arch — I wasn’t sure that the ongoing intention of crashing the system through mass arrests, and waking people up to the need for change by disrupting their lives was going to work. 

I’d taken an interest when Extinction Rebellion started in October — although I was still largely preoccupied by the occupation (and subsequent eviction) of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford — but I’d ended up thinking that, although they had secured significant media coverage, which was very helpful, and their ‘branding’ was extremely striking, this wasn’t going to be enough. 

I was somewhat heartened when, in related actions, school kids — inspired by the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg — got involved in climate strikes, and I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more on that front, but on Monday I couldn’t see how Extinction Rebellion’s latest coordinated protests were going to work. The police seemed, for the most part, to be trying not to give the protestors what they wanted — mass arrests — and although the crowds I encountered at Parliament Square and Oxford Circus reminded me of aspects of social movements of the past — Reclaim the Streets and the road protest movement from the ’90s, the anti-globalisation movement of the late ’90s and early 2000s, and 2011’s Occupy movement — I couldn’t see how the movement was going to be able to take the next step, and to build the momentum necessary for significant change.

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Video: The Battle of the Beanfield, Free Festivals and Traveller History with Andy Worthington on Bristol Community Radio

Is the UK on the verge of a second traveller revolution? A question posed in a Bristol Community Radio show in August 2018, featuring Andy Worthington and New Age Traveller Sean in discussion with Tony Gosling (Photo: Alan Lodge).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.




 

Last week I was in Bristol for a screening of ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, the new documentary film about the cynical destruction of council estates, and residents’ brave resistance to the destruction of their homes, which I narrate. The screening was at the People’s Republic of Stoke Croft, a pioneering community space in a once-neglected area of Bristol that has now started to be devoured by the insatiable profiteers of the “regeneration” industry. My article about the screening is here, and a brief report about the screening is here, and while I was there I was also interviewed by Tony Gosling for Bristol Community Radio, which is based in the PRSC complex.

Tony and I have known each other for many years, through a shared interest in Britain’s counter-culture, and it was great to take part in his politics show for the station as the author of two very relevant books, Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. Although we discussed the film, that interview has not yet been broadcast, because Tony’s primary focus was on discussing the traveller community of the 1970s and 80s, the free festival scene, focused particularly on Stonehenge and Glastonbury, and the Battle of the Beanfield, on June 1, 1985, when, with Margaret Thatcher’s blessing, 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD violently decommissioned the convoy of vehicles — containing men, women and children — that was en route to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

To discuss the above, Tony had also contacted Sean, a veteran traveller, who still lives in a vehicle, and still upholds the DiY values of that time. We had a wonderful discussion over 40 minutes, which Tony has put on YouTube, illustrated with traveller photos by Alan Lodge, and which I’ve cross-posted below. Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts on Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice 2018: Has the Dominant Materialism Killed Some Magic in the World?

A photo of the summer solstice sunrise at Stonehenge on the morning of June 21, 2018. In a very modern manner, it was taken by a police drone.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.




 

So the sun shone this morning, and it looked like a lovely sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice. According to the BBC, however, the number of attendees was just 9,500, considerably less than in some years since Managed Open Access to the great temple on Salisbury Plain was reintroduced in 2000, after 16 years in which access to Stonehenge on the summer solstice was prevented through the existence of a military-style exclusion zone.

In part, this was due to the solstice dawn taking place on a Thursday morning. Attendee numbers are highest when it falls on a weekend, but other factors may also have been involved. It now costs £15 to park a vehicle for the solstice — “£15 per car, live-in vehicle and non-commercial minibus (up to 19 seats)”, as English Heritage describe it — and security has been ramped up in the last two years, primarily, it seems, because of the government’s delight in keeping us in a perpetual state of fear — and racist fear, to boot — by pretending that every aspect of our lives is subject to a potential terrorist threat, even the summer solstice at Stonehenge.

“As with last year’s event”, the BBC explained, “Wiltshire Police confirmed it had stepped up security with armed police on patrol.” Yes, that’s right. Armed police at Stonehenge. What a horrible and unnecessary policy. Supt. Dave Minty, Wiltshire Police’s overnight commander, conceding that there had been no trouble at all, and that “behaviour at the stones was ‘brilliant’, with no arrests made”, nevertheless said of the security situation, “People seem to have adapted really well to the heightened level of security and they’ve been really patient with it.” Read the rest of this entry »

It’s 33 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield: Is It Now Ancient History, in a UK Obsessed with Housing Exploitation and Nationalist Isolation?

The Observer's front cover, the day after the Battle of the Beanfield, June 2, 1985, featuring a report by Nick Davies, one of the few journalists to have witnessed the horrendous state violence on the day.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.




 

Please also note that my books The Battle of the Beanfield and Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, dealing with the topics discussed in this article, are still in print and available to buy from me. And please also feel free to check out the music of my band The Four Fathers.

For anyone attuned to the currents of modern British history, today, June 1, has a baleful resonance.

33 years ago, on June 1, 1985, the full weight of the state — Margaret Thatcher’s state — descended on a convoy of vehicles in a field in Wiltshire, in a one-sided confrontation in which around 420 travellers — New Age travellers, as they were sometimes referred to at the time — were attacked with serious and almost entirely unprovoked violence by 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD, armed with truncheons and riot shields. 

The violence that took place that day was witnessed by few media outlets, most of which had been told to stay away, as the state prepared to deal with the latest “enemy within,” so designated by Margaret Thatcher, drunk on power, who, over the previous year, had dealt a crippling blow to Britain’s mining industry, and was now sending her paramilitarised police force out to Wiltshire to do the same to a small group of anarchists, self-styled modern gypsies, green activists and peace protestors. 

The state’s excuse for the violence of June 1, 1985 was that the convoy was travelling to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th free festival in the fields opposite the ancient sun temple, and had ignored an injunction preventing them from doing so. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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 »

DIY Cultures 2017: The Counter-Culture Is Alive and Well at a Zine Fair in Shoreditch

Zines and posters from DIY Cultures at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, London on May 14, 2017 (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.





 

Last week I paid a visit to DIY Cultures, a wonderful — and wonderfully packed — one-day event celebrating zines and the DIY ethos at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, curated by a core collective of Sofia Niazi, my friend Hamja Ahsan and Helena Wee, and was pleasantly reminded of the presence of the counter-culture, perhaps best summed up as an oppositional force to the prevailing culture, which has long fascinated me, and in search of which I am currently bouncing around ideas for a writing project I’d like to undertake.

Next week it will be exactly ten years since I started publishing articles here — on an almost daily basis — relating, for the most part, to Guantánamo and related issues. Roll back another year, to March 2006, and my Guantánamo project began in earnest, with 14 months of research and writing for my book The Guantánamo Files.

Before that, however, I had been interested more in notions of the counter-culture than championing and trying to reinforce the notion that there are absolute lines that societies that claim to respect the law must not cross — involving torture and imprisoning people indefinitely without charge or trial. 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 »

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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 (The State of London).
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