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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, July 04, 2011

You must be honest to live outside the law.

Stacia and Hawkwind at Windsor Free Festival 1973

Just woken up at 4 20 am by the early morning light, still close enough to the solstice so not much darkness. Usually I would try to get back to sleep, but Nic asked me a question on Facebook about the Brew Crew which has burrowed its way down into the depths and re-emerged as a dream about people fighting at a gig which has woken me up.

Half- asleep it seemed to make sense but now half-awake in the greyness of dawn mist, it is more difficult. I think the answer to Nic’s question is ‘To live outside the law you must be honest’…Mick (Luggy) came up with it when we - the (Kill Your Pet) Puppy Collective- were looking for vaguely situationist style slogans to print on stickers to stick on bus stops or to send people who wrote in asking for ‘info’.

It is a Bob Dylan quote, but along with Mark (Mob)’s description of anarchy as being about trusting people, it summed up our approach to living outside of society. You could say that put us in the same political space as Margaret Thatcher and her ’there is no such thing as society’- but she then said ’there are only individuals and families’. But what we were trying to do was find an alternative between the (often intolerable/ abusive) constraints of family life and extreme isolation as individuals surviving in a city.

Punk was not an answer. As originally constructed by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren, punk was a reaction to and rejection of the collectivist values of the preceding counterculture and its failure to turn dreams of an alternative society into reality. But as punk was propagated as a moral panic and punks became folk-devils, it attracted thousands of alienated teenagers to London. While many soon returned home, for others the enforced individuality of being homeless in a hostile environment led them to squatting. It was a steep learning curve and the pressure of survival forged connections with the pre-existing squatting scene.

Some of these connections -e.g. between the Clash and the big west London squats- had been there from the beginning. Others developed organically as punk squatters had to learn the same skills as hippy squatters.

By the beginning of the eighties squatting had become part of the punk subculture in London. At the same time punk was emerging and developing, the free-festival and travelling subculture was also emerging and developing. The Windsor Free Festivals which began in 1972 and ended, after violent police actions in 1974, were a major influence and inspired the Stonehenge Free Festivals which ended in similar circumstances 11 years later. While rock music festivals influenced Windsor, over in East Anglia folk-music and the tradition of medieval fairs inspired a different type of free-festival, more of a Green gathering than a rock music event.

Although the distinction between a small free-festival and a large fair eventually became blurred, their different origins meant there was always a tension between fairs and free-festivals. While the tensions came to a head in the mid-eighties and involved punk as a scapegoat, they had their origins in the early seventies and divisions within the sixties counterculture. As the optimism of the sixties counterculture began to fade there was a ‘back to the land’ movement’ which involved attempts to set up rural communes and adopt a more self-sufficient and ecologically sustainable lifestyle. The East Anglian fairs came out of this movement, but there were communes and back-to-the landers scattered across the countryside - including Wales and even south-west Scotland where a commune (now a housing co-op) was set up in 1972.

Others within the counterculture stayed in the cities, especially London, and became active squatters and/or engaged with the feminist and gay liberation movements. The Angry Brigade were the most dramatic manifestation of the post-sixties urban counterculture. Apart from the free-festivals, groups like Hawkwind, the Pink Fairies and the Edgar Broughton Band frequently played benefit gigs for political causes and also free gigs underneath the Westway or on Parliament Hill Fields.

John Robb [Punk Rock an Oral History, 2006] quotes Brian James, Rat Scabies, Captain Sensible and Mick Jones as going to and being influenced by these events. International Times, which was started in 1966, revived itself in the seventies and reported on punk. If the 1976 /Year Zero version of punk history is demystified, what emerges is an aspect of punk which was the next-generation of the seventies urban counterculture, urban guerrillas with guitars instead of guns.

According to Brig Oubridge [in George McKay, Senseless Acts of Beauty, 1996], 1976 was also the year the convoy was born- as a means of moving from one site to another from May through to September. Don Aitken lists the festivals and fairs- May Hill in May, Horseshoe Pass, Stonehenge, Ashton Court, Inglestone Common, Cantlin Stone, Deeply Vale, Meigan Fair and various in East Anglia and finally the Psilocybin Fair in Wales in September.

Before 1976, people had started using trucks and old buses to get to and stay in at the Windsor Free Festivals. But it was only once there were enough festivals to go to that the idea of swapping squatting for full time travelling could take off. It was a gradual process and required learning a new set of skills, although previous experience of squatting no doubt helped. Since the idea of travelling round festivals was contemporary with punk, it was first adopted by members of the pre-punk counterculture who had been teenagers in the late sixties and were now in their mid-twenties or older.

Most of the festivals and fairs listed by Don where not very well known, but as Stonehenge festival got bigger, it became a media spectacle, introducing thousands of people to the travelling scene, including punks. These punks confused their elders. ‘When I first saw punks at Stonehenge, I thought they were aliens’ I was once told. But by the time of the last Stonehenge festival in 1984, some of the punks has already become travellers. Looking back in 1989, John Pendragon told me that it was the influx of punks onto the travelling scene which ’destroyed it’.

Yet in 1982, too early for the punks to be blamed, an alternative community newspaper from Waveney in Suffolk was worrying about the impact of the ‘Peace Convoy’ on the fairs of East Anglia and how far the tolerance and openness of such alternative gatherings could be extended. A year later a different reality intruded, with a ’picnic not a fair’ to be held at the Lakenheath Peace Camp. McKay [1996, 42- 44] links the two together, pointing out that to blame the Peace Convoy for the demise of the Albion Fairs is to confuse symptom with cause. Brig Oxbridge’s 1976 convoy became the Peace Convoy when a group [including KYPP’s Tony D] moved from the Stonehenge festival to Greenham Common Peace Camp in June 82. In contrast to 1976, in 1982, ‘ everything vaguely or coherently alternative was more difficult to achieve under Thatcher [and] became more extreme in its response.’

Given the political climate - with mass riots in 1981 and the miners strike, mass arrests at Nostell Priory, eviction of Molesworth peace camp and battle of the Beanfield - even if no punks had become travellers, John Pendragon would still have been affected by the culture of repression.

To get back to Nic’s original question about the Brew Crew. Part of the answer is in George McKay’s summary of the Albion Fairs/ Peace Convoy conflict-

If the Peace Convoy turned up at green fair, its members would intimidate punters out of money, rip other fair goers and organisers off, squat the land a month after everyone else had left and when they did go, leave burnt out cars and piles of rubbish behind…soon the Peace Convoy put people off holding fairs altogether. [1996, 43]

So behaviour attributed to the ‘Convoy’ in 1982 was attributed to the ‘Brew Crew’ a few years later, and (at least by John Pendragon) blamed on the influx of punks to the travelling scene. A few years later again, when there were mass raves similar problems arose.

By way of a conclusion, the Dylan quote is useful. Where ever you have a group of people ‘living outside the law’ the problem of self-policing arises. Where such an alternative society is even vaguely anarchist in its form, there is a real difficulty of adaptation. Without obvious signs of external authority, an attitude of ’I will do what the fuck I want’ can emerge which is often destructive. Given time, so long as there are no underlying mental health difficulties, a form of mutual self-respect emerges - the honesty of the Dylan quote. With honesty comes trust and a sense of solidarity. Which is fine a for relatively small group working/ living together for long enough to become self-organising. But when the there are suddenly thousands of people at a free festival, or hundreds deciding to become anarcho-punks or travellers - it gets much much harder.

In late summer 1985 I was at a gathering to discuss the future of Stonehenge festival. There was a lot of discussion about how the festival could become self-policing, how to create a minimal order out of the chaos. In 1975 the feat was managed with the semi-official Watchfield free festival - see here

But in 1985 there was no way the Conservative government would adopt an idea used by a Labour government ten years earlier. Instead they id their best to make life as hard as possible for ’new age travellers’ and conflicts over Stonehenge became a annual event for many years afterwards.

Finally - in the early nineties there was a re-radicalisation of travelling and squatting through the road-protest movement- with large scale squatting on the M11 protest and ‘new age travellers’ active at Twyford Down. One of the travellers (who called themselves the Donga tribe) was Donga Alex and George McKay quotes her complaining about the protest being plagued by ’young people on dodgy chemicals who leave their rubbish and literally crap everywhere’… At Claremont Road (a row of squatted houses on the route of the M11) the protestors practiced some self-policing - evicting a group of ‘lunch-outs’ from the street…

AL Puppy


Anonymous History is Made at Night said...

Same tensions/dynamics on the free party scene from the early 1990s down today, just as it was in the anarcho-punk squats.

I remember being at a squatted pub in Vauxhall around 1990 (Tyer Street). It was a benefit gig with a bar, and the 'brew crew' violently stormed the bar and stole all the beer. Many hours were spent at 121 Centre etc. debating what to do about various inviduals whose 'anti-social behaviour' had crossed the line to violence against other people.

I think you are right that the self-policing thing is a dilemna, and that it partly arises from an 'I can do what I like' ideology. But I also think in all the scenes you mentioned, there was a 'community care' angle, in that they tended to attract people with various serious mental health and addiction problems with nowhere else to go. It's a good thing that people looked out for each other in this way, but often we didn't have the resources, skills or experience to really help people beyond tolerating them.

7:42 am  

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