It was light when we woke up, but I could tell it was early from the lack of noise. I looked outside, no sign of anyone else. No-one had bothered to keep the fire going, no surprise there. There was a watery tinge to the air, and although the sun shone thru the weak grey streaked sky, there’d be rain later. I felt hungry, but there wasn’t time for that now. My back felt stiff too, but rest could come later. We made our way down the usual path, enjoying the silence, broken only by bird-song, while we could. From our position up on the hillside I could see strangers down at the bottom of the trackway. Some of the local men, by the look of their garb and beards. We’d come in peace, but not all made us welcome. I touched her on the arm, and indicated with a leftward nod of my head that we should look for another way. We found a faint track thru the bushes that brought us into a field the other side of the copse of trees. For a moment we stood transfixed as a buzzard hovered overhead, and then we were jolted out of our half-sleep by a rabbit hurtling across the path in front of us. At last we made it to the trees and set to gathering the precious dry wood for the fire before the weather changed. Wet or green wood would be useless later. Any relief we felt as we slowly made our way back up the hill to the camp was soon banished – our detour had been spotted, and one of the men blocked our path,
“Take our wood again and you’ll be sorry – you and her…”
Summer of ’89 – we were a decade into the Thatcher Dictatorship, and for anyone living in the city, life was generally No Fun. If you didn’t buy into the money and materialism culture, you were suspect. Meanwhile dissenters, squatters and the like were being banished to the Reject Zone. The pubs of South East London were increasingly dominated by a new life-form – the Thatcher Youth, with their plastic and their wedge, so easily surrendering the previous generations’ radicalism and sense of community the moment the Iron Lady cynically waved a few fivers in their direction.
In the seventies it had been easy to take it for granted that there’d always be a freak zone in the city, maintained and catering for the disaffected, the creative and the unwaged. Now as I looked around at the shell-suits, perms and baseball caps all about, I’d wonder where all the dreamers, activists, idealists and anarchists had gone.
Su and I toiled as drones for the local council. This enabled me to pay for a dingy bed-sit, while she had a top-floor flat in a tower-block rookery. In the time I’d known her she’d had her energy and humour drained by a series of break-ins – the thieves operated to a well-worn timetable: see who’s got a job and will be out during the day, do the business, and make a note to come back in a few months, time when the insurance had come thru and there’d be new stuff to nick.
So when some old mates across the river in the Grove asked if we wanted to come to the Treworgey festival in Cornwall with them, it was too good an opportunity to miss – the prospect of some free time and the chance to laugh together again.
Bill and Lyn were psychedelic veterans of many a festival, but were now trapped in the concrete situation of a smack-ridden estate and an increasingly beleaguered life on benefits. So it was no surprise to arrive and find no sign of the promised van hire, or to realise that it fell to us to cover the cash deposit. Still, there was a real excitement as we loaded up, chattering like kids set free from school. Soon we were heading along the fabled Westway. Once we got past Hammersmith and Chiswick to the start of the M4 we saw the first hitch-hikers waiting in the dusty sunlight. The festival hopefuls stood out a mile. We could only wave in passing, as the van was full. Bill and Lyn were up front, while we sat in the back with Liam, a street-wise old hand from the Grove – generally an amiable guy, but capable of flashes of temper. Then there was Steve – a middle-aged Californian who was already becoming tiresome with his monologues and superior attitude, and his partner, Polly, an incongruously pale young Gothette who barely spoke. Apparently he’d out-freaked us all, which meant endless lectures about Be-Ins at the Golden Gate Park in Frisco – you name it, he’d been there before anyone else. To prove the point, he’d got a bag full of t-shirts he’d screen-printed to sell at the festival, all celebrating things that had happened twenty years earlier.
On we drove into the fading sun. As the evening came on, the roads cleared of suburbanites on the home run and we could soon see who else was going our way. We exchanged hoots and waves with other hired vans, re-conditioned post-office vans and ambulances, and single decker buses of every shape and size, all coming together in summer migration.
Eventually we left the motorway and headed thru the night, before sinking deep into a maze-like world of trackways and narrow winding roads as darkness yielded to the new day. Beautiful views were abruptly terminated as we’d plunge into another steep-hedged lane, the van’s suspension groaning as we bounced around in the back. First light helped us to spot the discreet little signs showing the way near the festival. We scraped our way round another corner and saw what looked like two escapees from Blade Runner holding a farm gate closed across the road. We pulled up…Did we want any acid? they enquired.
Now we’d crossed the border into the temporary free zone. One of the lookouts jumped in and directed us up to a near-empty field close by the main travelers camp. We’d felt pretty hard-core getting down there mid-week, but others had been there for weeks already, preparing the site and getting in the mood. If I’d been wondering where all the freaks had gone, now I had my answer. It was like the first time I’d seen graffiti’ed subway trains in New York in the seventies – but now it was like a vast herd of the trade vehicles I’d grown up with had somehow collectively evolved into a new mutation of post-punk psychedelia and urban escape. Flags danced in the morning breeze with the smoke of the first fires of the day.
It was a relief to escape the confines of the tin-can van at last. I jumped out, and in typical city vs country karma, put my foot in one of the few undried cow-pats and splattered on to the ground. I took in our surroundings. We were on a hillside, rising on one side of a gently wooded valley. The fields were bounded by old tall hedges, which marked out the land in ancient patterns. This was repeated on the other side of the valley. The bottom of the valley in between was still mainly hidden in the mist, but as the sun penetrated the clouds, we could see a mirage-like picture of tall tepees and larger tents emerging from the trees, half-hidden like some medieval encampment.
The ground had been hardened by the dry weather, but eventually we scraped away the cow-dung and sheep-shit and battered our way thru the scrawny grass and chalky subsoil to put up our tents in a circle, allowing space for a fire in the middle. Just as we were drifting off I was practically choked by exhaust fumes filling the tent like a badger-cull. I looked out to find a massive, gleaming white camper van parked about six inches away from us, and a family of four with matching mullets came into view. I was about to go into pissed-off South London mode – “You’re having a laugh, arent’cha?” – when I realised the absurdity of the situation. It was like being the only person upstairs on a bus, only for someone else to get on and sit right next to you. They’d gone when I woke up. In short order we made two discoveries: a water supply in the form of a tap hiding in the nearest hedge – crucial, given a general shortage of water on the site. We also found there were no toilets provided. Glamping hadn’t been invented yet.
We soon discovered the two other constants of the place – dust and drums. The drought had baked the red West Country ground to the point that any movement would break the surface. We watched as a bus and truck headed up the field to the travelers’ camp. By halfway they were lost in a sub-Saharan cloud of churned up dust that gradually blew over our way, getting in everywhere it wasn’t wanted. But the dust quickly became a great equaliser, as everyone got marinaded in it, whether they wanted to or not. The dust-clouds swirled to a never-ending rattle of drums drifting down from the main field. The drum-beats became like the weather, always there but altering in pace and volume according to the time of day or night.
I’d lost touch with the festival scene around the time of Dylan & Blackbushe in ’76. Punk had happened since then, so hippie long hair and beards had gone for the most part, replaced by a kind of unisex Mad-Max-on-Acid look: clothes mostly black, sturdy laced up boots, hair generally shaved at the sides with a modified Mohawk on top &and optional swirly pigtail at the back – although variations on dreadlocks were popular too. We soon got to be mates with the people parked up nearest to us, fellow refugees from South London. They had a fire-pit which provided a near constant supply of excellent veg curry, day and night. They favoured a look of head shaved at the front & sides, while sporting a tied-back tangle of thin dreads at the back, giving a kind of psychedelic pterodactyl look. Day and night the field teemed with black-clad traveller kids and a never-ending call of “Hash for cash”
There was a very open atmosphere, as people came by offering their wares, or detecting a cup of tea on their brew radar. At night a couple of resourceful guys would come by bearing a bottle of tequila on a silver tray, serving it with the requisite salt and lemon. We’d marvel at how they’d maintain their balance, without a single spill, as they made their way from fire to fire. Then there were people selling flares – long wooden staves liberally soused in wax at one end. When a few of these were impaled in the ground they’d give off a good light for hours, and added to the hunter-gatherer atmosphere. Then there were specialised trades like the Hot-Knife Men, usually swarthy guys on account of the mass of fire-blackened, hash-tempered blades they’d carry with them. Other enterprising folk would wander the fields with plates and trays of hash-fudge or space-cake.
Sometimes there was a suspicious vibe from the hardcore towards us weekenders, but mostly it was cool. A fragmentary tale emerged of the pre-festival scene there. Depending on which variant you heard, the farm owner had been unable to cope and had a breakdown, or the promoter had done a runner with all the money, leaving the field crew to be paid in Special Brew. Some said it was the farmer’s son, hoping to put on a festival while his folks were away on holiday. Whatever, all the uncertainty had led to various service providers pulling out in fear of not getting paid – hence the lack of loos. There was also a thuggish private security firm somewhere in the mix. They’d stolen a serious amount of hash from the travelers, although it was eventually recovered – by negotiation or after a pitched battle, depending on who you asked.
Over a brew we got talking with a young Irish kid, Danny. He asked me if I knew anyone who’d like to buy a horse. I thought this must be drug-slang, but no, a few minutes later he was back with a beautiful white mare, leading it by the simplest of bridles. We met him again the next day.
“Did you sell the horse?“, I asked. He lowered his eyes sheepishly, before telling us that, sure, he’d sold the horse. But other people had spotted the transaction, followed him all evening, got him drunk and waited for him to pass out. He’d woken up lying penniless in a ditch.
At nightfall one of the buses nearby set up some speakers and played acid house til first light. On the way down I’d dreaded that the festival was going to be a time-warped reunion of gnarled old heads playing “Dark Side of the Moon” on their 8-tracks. This was all very different – as were the bus’ occupants: a much younger crew than most of the people we’d met so far, generally clad in white, and centred around Tim, a youth who looked like he’d stepped out of a William Blake etching, or time-travelled from the Neolithic era, casually dropping in en route to Avebury or the next seasonal gathering. We called them “the Shining Ones.”
Some nights there’d be untold sound-systems going simultaneously, broadcasting the latest Detroit techno sounds and many other soon to be criminalised “repetitive beats” over the hedges and across the fields. We’d lie in our tent or sit watching the embers of our fire, usually assisted by a livener of speed from the Shining Ones, and contemplate the absurdity of going back to work and our little hutches in the city.
To be honest, the best times were before the festival proper started & the place got filled up with the weekend crowd. We’d sit around our fire, as the 808 beats pulsed around us, smoking with Tim and his mates, who were convinced the sky was teeming with UFO’s. Across the other side of the valley, a road crested the hill in such a way that any headlights hitting the clouds would produce strange flashing light-patterns in the sky.
“Oh man, did you see that?!?” they’d cry out, “They’re really putting on a show for us…”
The weekend brought more people and more vehicles, churning the dust into a dry red tsunami with every movement. On the Saturday I woke up to find Liam and Steve doing their best to bring the city – or rather the Elgin pub in the Grove – to the country. I’d noticed some alpha-male nonsense between them a couple of times already and could see this was going to have to play out to its end.
Steve was exclaiming indignantly, “What – you want to fight me man?! I can’t believe you guys!“, he shrugged, darting a bewildered smile at the Gothette, who was staying well clear.
I wondered if I should intervene, but knew it would only postpone things. Steve was just one of those people who – deliberately or not – have a knack for being annoying. One night round the fire I’d ended up buying a couple of his psychedelic t-shirts. I gave him his cash, smiles all round. The next morning he came over and told me that he’d been out of it and got the prices wrong, so in fact I still owed him a tenner. If you need money, just say so, I told him, but don’t give me that wheedling crap.
The dispute between the two men was apparently the continuation of some old row, Liam sneering,
“That’s always the fuckin’ way with you, it’s all so small-scale – tenner here, fiver here, you think people don’t notice. I worked you out way back – just stay out of my way unless you want a slap”
“Well, I don’t know why you gotta be so goddamn primitive man…” spluttered Steve indignantly
Liam stepped forward, fists clenched. Steve quickly made a pacifying gesture and looked over at me, hoping for support. I ignored him, and before anyone else said anything, he’d moved back to his side of our circle, grunted “We’re leaving” at Polly, and started dismantling their tent. He proceeded very slowly, in the hope that someone would step up for him, but before long they were gone.
Despite the attractions of life in the field, we did get to hear some great music that weekend – Hawkwind, naturally – and Loop and Misty in Roots being extra good. There was a sense of adventure as we‘d make our way down the hill, and join the throng of people progressing up the lanes to the various stages in the nearby fields. In an urban context, this would have been a tense affair of people jostling for space on the pavement. Here, we made our way through the high-hedged sunken lanes, bounded by dried-up ditches on either side, steep-sided and thorn deep. Under darkening skies benign policemen would see us on our way. We’d noticed white-shirted pairs of cops in the field earlier on. This raised the hackles of some of our new friends, who remembered all too well the atrocity of the Beanfield in 1985, when Thatcher’s shock troops had been unleashed. But these were local cops, laid-back and anxious to avoid any conflict, especially when so out-numbered and in such a remote location. We’d see them proceeding across the fields at a set time every afternoon as if taking the air, keeping to the paths and maintaining a strictly blinkered eyes-ahead direction.
Given our self-imposed sleep-deprivation regime, and smoking dope from the moment we woke up, time and place became less firmly-fixed than usual. Sometimes the place felt like a medieval fair, but at others, a strange stillness would seem to descend & there seemed something out-of-place about this hillside now awash with people, cars and amplified sounds, like a kind of future-shift. It was the high-water mark of the cruise missiles/Greenham Common era. I was convinced that it was only a matter of time till our leaders brought war on us, so it was easy to slip into seeing this as some kind of post-nuclear gathering, after the missiles and air-bursts had done their work, Bristol and London no more, survivors instinctively fleeing to the countryside.
One afternoon we decided to explore and wandered down to one of the smaller stages – although it was really little more than a metal framework covered with a tarp. There was no actual raised stage, tho someone had thoughtfully put some old carpets down for the musicians. All this was set in a kind of miniature valley – more like a fold or wrinkle in the earth – at the bottom of a steep grassy slope. Trees overhung the stage area, framing it like a little woodland theatre, and providing some welcome shade from the sun. There was a cluster of small, ornately painted caravans arranged on one side. It was all like the setting for a living Hermann Hesse story to be enacted before us. I was expecting a magician to appear, or some shape-shifting creatures to go through their repertoire of changes, but had to be content with a couple of jugglers. I noticed a thin, bearded guy, wearing a kind of belted tunic, with a leather pouch at the waist and felt another medieval time-slip coming on, like the tale of Danny and the horse. After a while I worked out what he was doing as he methodically worked his way around the little enclosure, eyes intent on the ground, with the occasional swoop to gather something from the dust. He was meticulously collecting up roaches and part-smoked joints for later recycling. Eventually he worked his way round to where we were sitting, darting forward to seize a tab lying bySu‘s foot. I was all for living outside the money machine, but something bugged me about this – maybe it was the nuclear thing this time, too much like scratching around in the ruins for crumbs of survival. Or maybe it was the two small children with him, trained to pick up anything he’d missed or to run ahead, scouting for rich seams of drug detritus. I rummaged in my pocket and broke out a bit of hash, and offered it to him, “Look, there you go man…”
He looked at me thru piercing eyes, shook his head, and moved on silently.
The great thing about events like this was the random element, and letting yourself go enough for it to find you. For all the impressive names on the bill, we were about to hear the best music of the weekend from a group I’d never even heard of. We’d noticed a group quietly setting up their gear, and soon one of them stepped forward to announce, “We’re the Oroonies, we’re from Bristol”, before launching into an hour of some of the most extraordinary music I’d ever heard. A dense, powerful, kaleidoscopic mix of Eastern-flavoured spacey rock, with all the drive and power of Hawkwind, but with a real lightness of touch, sweeping us away to an intergalactic casbah.
I laid back & looked at the clouds towering over us, and felt that I could easily reach out and touch them if only I could sit up. Then I had a feeling like vertigo, or somehow falling back into the earth. I looked at the patchy grass around me, and for a moment thought it was like a green blanket I could wrap around me. I didn’t want to drift off and miss any of the music, but when I thought about it, I had no idea whether they’d been playing for a few seconds or all day. Looking around at the twenty or thirty people around us, I seemed to recognise them all, and in the same way, there was a dislocated deja vu about our surroundings.
I’ve been here before. I’ve always been here, so have they, this is what we do – the ground seemed to be feeding me information, stirring & connecting with the ancient shared memory, following the rising and setting sun across the hills, and through river valleys. This was the timeless life – dust and drums, fire and water, man and woman, life and death – and it would never stop til the last hill had been levelled and concreted over.
On the last night Su and I dropped some Green Eyes party acid. Soon the scene round the camp-fire felt claustrophobic. There’d been a strange atmosphere all day there. Eventually I got the story – two of our number had developed smack habits back home, and had convinced themselves that coming to the festival would be a life-affirming way to cleanse themselves and re-connect with older trippy values. I couldn’t imagine a worse scenario to start cold-turkeying – having to scrape for even basic resources, and seeing everyone else having a great unstrung-out time. They’d run out of the last gear they’d brought with them, and sat shivering and forlorn by the fire. Knowing there was nothing we could do, we made our excuses and left.
By the time the trips came on, we’d followed the throng and ended up by the main stage. The Climax Blues Band were playing, and sure, they were good at what they did, but the music felt earthbound after the Oroonies, and being in the crowd felt too restrictive. We wandered back until we found an open stretch of grass and sat down in a clear patch amid the accumulated festival litter. The trips were pretty mild, but we were in a good mood again and just enjoying have a laugh together, joyfully sparking off each other’s words and thoughts. Sal nudged me and nodded, indicating someone heading purposefully our way. As it was the last night of the festival proper, a lot of the dealers were flogging their remaining gear cut-price before the punters upped and left. I tried to collect my thoughts, so I could tell the guy – pleasantly but firmly – thanks, but we’re sorted. There was something different about him though – the pressed jeans, the crisp white Rainbow Warrior t-shirt, or the natty green head-band around his fair hair. As he came up to us, I realised – he’d just been beamed in from the Planet Clean. It was days since we’d seen anyone who hadn’t been encrusted in a mould of red-dust and mud stains. We exchanged greetings. I waited for the offer of cut-price hash-for-cash, but it never came. Su offered him her joint. He took one drag, before shoving it back at her as if he had more pressing things to do.
“So, you’re having a good time then?” he asked
I nodded and smiled back. The question was too obvious to require a verbal reply.
“Leaving tomorrow, I suppose?“, he continued, before indicating the ground around us, “Doesn’t all this shit here bother you?”
It was too beautiful an evening for anything to bother me much, so I shrugged and smiled weakly.
Su laughed, and indicating the vast spread of paper plates, cups, half-eaten food and drink cans all around us, said “Well, it isn’t all ours you know…” I found this funny too, but we’d played into the hands of the fuming eco-warrior
“That’s why the planet’s fucked – people like you…”, then putting on an exaggerated Gormless Hippy voice, “‘Oh man it’s not my problem, don’t bring me down’, let someone else deal with it”, before turning his attention back to me, “I suppose you two are tripping?”
I remembered how the grown-ups would grumble about ‘dumb insolence’ when I was a kid, and limited myself to a nod. He rummaged in his back-pack, pulling out a handful of something dark and shiny that left a black after-image in the sunset sky. When his arm came to rest, he thrust a black bin-liner at each of us,
“Come on, get off your fucking arses for once and do something!”
Yes, I know he had a point, but the self-righteous scout-master on steroids approach was never going to work. Su started laughing again, “Is it ok with you if we save the planet a bit later?”
He turned angrily to me, “How about you then?”
I really did want to clear up some of the crap, just not at that moment. He was at his bag again. I started back as he produced a long piece of metal with a sharp point at the end. “Oh no, misjudged it,” I thought, “He’s going to attack us…”
Instead he turned away, jabbing frenetically at the ground, spearing plates and cups in all directions, before shoving them into his bin-bag, occasionally turning to give us indignant glares like some New Age Captain Mainwaring. As darkness fell, he gradually shrank into the distance, till all we could hear was the occasional crunch of speared polystyrene.
The fire had gone out when we got back, though Liam was sitting there disconsolately with a beer, the casualties having retired to their tent. Next morning we tried to psych ourselves up for the grim return to the city. Right on cue the weather had changed, salty rain blowing in from the coast under a grey sky. Most of the crowd had left overnight, along with most of the traders, and we had a fruitless search for any breakfast. When we got back to the camp, Bill and Lyn emerged grey-faced and announced that – unless we could get them some gear or methadone – they were in no fit state to drive back, and in any case the van wasn’t due back til Tuesday, so what’s the hurry?. I tried to explain that back in the real world we were due back at work the next day & reminded them that we’d paid for the thing in the first place.
So we ended up blagging a lift from the Shining Ones, who dropped us off in Launceston near the coach station. I joined the queue to the enquiries desk, and eventually reached the front. The assistant ignored me and beckoned to the next person in line to step forward. As I started to protest, I noticed a sign on the wall, “New Age Travellers not welcome here”
When I went to the wash-room, the face that looked back from the mirror looked like a wanted poster. Beware this man is dangerous and believed to be sleeping rough. Do not approach under any circumstances. I couldn’t make much impression on the ingrained dirt on my face, but after a shave I looked presentable enough to be re-admitted to the straight world, and allowed to buy our tickets back to the Work Zone.
The cramped coach seat felt like a crash-course in returning to a life back in the world of rules & restrictions. As we were about to get off the Shining Ones’ bus in Launceston, Tim had said “Why not stay with us man?” and move on to the next festival with them. It sounded very attractive. Su shook her head – she’d run out of her allergy medication. On such little things does fate depend sometimes…
I’d gone thru Victoria coach station numb, on autopilot, and saw Su back to her place. It was only when I got back to my confined little cell that it all hit me. After a week living in the open, reverting to natural rhythms of life, I felt like a wild animal being put back into its zoo cage. It was all too quiet. I missed the endless background commentary of the drums, the smell of cooking and fires burning, the laughter of free children running about, the anticipation of the night ahead that rose as twilight fell. It had been all about sunrise, collecting firewood, getting food and water as and when we needed them, not when we were told to. The sun and moon had led the way, the sky our television. There were no drums or red dust clouds here, only exhaust fumes and sirens.
I ran a bath and got in. The water turned a dark reddish-brown straight away. I wanted to hang on to this physical reminder of where we’d been and lie there absorbing the Cornish soil. After a while I got out and ran another bath. When I got in the same thing happened again. This time I lay back in the dark water and let my mind float away back to the hills, lanes and fields.
Next morning I woke with the first sunlight, and for a moment thought, right, wood or water first?, before realising where I was, the dull shabby carpet making a poor substitute for green grass and the touch of the land.
As a kind of mini-protest, I went to work wearing one of Steve’s trippy t-shirts, not that anyone noticed. At tea-time one of my colleagues asked,
“Well, did you have a nice time in Cornwall? What was the hotel like?”
I awoke and could hear sounds all around me in the camp. My senses gradually followed suit. I heard the crackle of the fire – but also a hiss – and the acrid edge to the smoke confirmed that some fool had used green wood. I could hear the women and children, but no-one else. As I sat up, pain surged through my back like I’d been kicked. I’d hurt my back dragging firewood through the trees the day before and could barely move. It would pass, I knew, but for now I was dependent on the others and a burden in strange territory. When I didn’t recover right away, the others started to lose interest. Some complained at having to do my share of the work. I was fully awake now. She had already left my side and preferred the company of the other women. I looked outside and realised that the others had gone looking for food without me. This was a bad sign. Soon it would be time for us to head for the great gathering at Summer’s End, and I knew that I was in danger of being left behind, and condemned to a winter of hunger and ill-fortune.
(for Su Grant, 1960-2016)
Words: Den Browne
Images: Brian Gibson
You can can also listen to a broadcast of Drums and Dust read by Den Browne with sound track via