Thursday, 2 February 2017

Why the counterculture matters to placemaking – Wally Hope and the free festivals





With all the recent talk about the state of political resistance, it's easy to forget alternative narrative of resistance - how the counterculture and alternative culture informs and shapes space. This article charts an early movement – the Stonehenge Free Festivals – that reframed place. And how it was closed down. So why does alternative culture matter to placemaking?

Alternative culture (music, nightclubs, coffee houses, festivals, and so on) has formed the backbone of social and cultural change in the UK. It has contributed to the transformation of attitudes towards sexual freedom, women's liberation, gay liberation, tolerance, a critique of the mass media, artistic and cultural space, to name a few. The boundaries between normativity and outsiderliness were broken down as a result of what might broadly be understood as the 'counterculture'.


The counterculture means many things, but includes alternative culture and music, alternative thinking, and a lifestyle that tried to be different from the conventional landscape of schooling, work and family. Yet the conventional norms purveyed as part of the propaganda of the elite, always strived to reassert its right to shape the consciousness of the masses.

This article will tell some stories about the battle of the establishment against alternative cultural resistance, exemplified in the tale of Wally Hope. Who was Wally Hope, what did he represent, and how and why did this moment of the counterculture get crushed?

Stonehenge Free Festivals – the story

In 1974, a small free festival was organised at Stonehenge. After the festival, a group stayed behind and pitched camp. The Department of the Environment and the National Trust moved to evict them. Penny Rimbaud (Jeremy John Ratter), a key narrator of events, argued that it was only made an issue because there was no news that summer. An injunction against squatting needed a named individual, so the squatters all called themselves Wally. The ‘Wallies’ were renamed a cult by the mass media, and narratives focused on their theatrical garb and mystical ideals.

This is what Nigel Ayers says about the adoption of names that stand for all:

“Wally was thus a name anyone could use. Multiple names are a playful and idealistic attempt to create havoc with officialdom, both within and beyond the margins of `art'. The multiple-use name Emmett Grogan was used by San Francisco diggers in the 1960s. The book Ringolevio is a biography of several members of the diggers merged together as the autobiography of one `person,' Emmett Grogan. The name Karen Eliot refers to no one and is potentially everyone. In the 1990s, the multi-use name Luther Blissett was invented and spread by artists, writers, musicians, footballers and avant-bardists. The multi-using of the Wally name was abandoned by 1975 when, on the other side of the galaxy, the Mail-Artists Stefan Kukowski and Andrew Czaranowski, initiated a project "...to change everyone's name to Klaus Oldenberg.”

The establishment got its injunction, but Hope claimed a moral and cultural victory, and so he made himself the focal point of resistance. He also attracted the ire of the authorities. The Wallies moved eight feet to common land, according to Ayer, and set up their camp named ‘Fort Wally.'

Rimbaud argues that they retreated to Windsor, where they were brutally attacked and taken away by the police. Another festival was planned for the following year, 1975, but while publicising it, Wally Hope was arrested after a raid on his house and kept in a cell for a month. He was then diagnosed with schizophrenia and consigned to a psychiatric institution.

In 1982, Crass released Christ the Album, based on the story of Wally Hope. In a booklet written by Rimbaud that came with the album, it was claimed he had been driven to his death by sectioning in a psychiatric institution after being caught with three tabs of acid. While there, he was given huge quantities of an anti-psychotic drug, which destroyed his mind and gave him a condition known as chronic dyskinesia. Rimbaud describes his condition on release:

“He could barely walk; he couldn’t sit outside for long because if he sat in the sun he would just explode as a side-effect of the [prescribed] drugs. His brain was scrambled, he was in severe depression, although it was more of a numbness. He’d been made into a cabbage basically. He could still articulate, and we spent about a month or so trying to get him back to some sort of health.”

He committed suicide after taking an overdose of sleeping pills and choking on his own vomit. Rimbaud did not fully accept the suicide thesis, arguing that he had been ‘needled to death’ (murdered). The investigation into his death was dismissive and did not take into account his incarceration in the hospital. The police officer charged with investigating his death said sarcastically in the coroner's court "He thought he was Jesus Christ, didn't he?"

Rimbaud claimed to have received death threats after conducting further investigations into the cause of Wally’s death. He said of Wally Hope that:

“Wally was not mad, not a crazy, not a nut, he was a human being who didn’t want to accept the grey world that we are told is all we should expect in life. He wanted more and set out to get it. He didn’t see why we should have to live as enemies to each other. He believed, as do many anarchists, that people are basically kind and good and that it is the restrictions and limitations that are forced onto them, often violently, by uncaring systems, that creates evil.”

The last Stonehenge Free Festival was in 1984. In 1985, marking the end of the movement was the Battle of the Beanfield, when the police stopped New Age Travellers from setting up the festival. A four-mile exclusion zone had been set up around the site by the Thatcher government. The police suggested that they were attacked by the travellers, but this was dismissed by the Guardian newspaper.

The police set up a roadblock, smashed the windows of the convoy, and later attacked the festival-goers, including pregnant women and those with small children. Many travellers were injured, with 16 hospitalised (along with eight officers). 537 travellers were arrested, the largest mass arrest of citizens since the Second World War. So says Rimbaud:

“The Beanfield was part of Thatcher’s exclusion zone [four miles around the Stones] and basically they [the peace convoy] were set up. Thatcher had done her job on the miners and the next step was the alternative society. That was her big fuck off to the travelling people, the whole punk movement and everything.”

Space and social control?

In this story of one man and a festival, it is possible to see the panorama of social control moving into action against a perceived threat. How might we begin to explain the reaction of the establishment to Wally Hope, and what are the mechanisms of control?

To explain it, we could start with the media who are having a quiet summer, so they seize on a tale of anti-establishment resistance, calling attention towards it by the authorities. Since Stan Cohen write that seminal text Folk Devils and Moral Panics, we have all had the tools to understand the role of the media both in fermenting the reaction of the authorities but also in consolidating or shaping the identity of the resistance (goading them on, in a way, then pointing the finger).

But we could also go further back, to the conflict or battle over land, a source of contestation involving the expulsion of commoners from the land since the enclosures of the sixteenth century.

The dislike and discomfort with otherness is important as well. Look at the way Kenneth Marks, who was the Labour Government's Under-Secretary of State for the Environment in 1977, talked about the Wallies

"A group of drop-outs set up a sordid encampment adjoining the monument in 1974. After some months the Department secured their removal by an injunction from the High Court, after some rather bizarre proceedings lasting several days. All the trespassers claimed the same name—Wally. They then settled on the adjoining trackway from which they were eventually dispersed by the highway authority. They then squatted in Amesbury. Their leader has since died. The Department has no responsibility for any remnants of the sect who may survive in the locality."

The disgust, on the one hand, and the carelessness on the other, with which this government minister discusses the festival-goers is palpable. What began with Labour ended up with the Conservatives. The Festival was derailed through the fight back by the establishment in the twentieth century to reclaim space.

Why does it matter?

It is hard for most city or town planners to be sympathetic to story of the counterculture, or even necessarily see why it matters. Planning and governance deals with the rational, not the creative and behaviours of wild difference.

But we have seen many times, from the centrality of bawdy public houses in communities, to rave and dance culture, that placemaking (in other words, what makes places meaningful) is not just about glittering developments, but about people and alternative culture. Telling the stories about lost movements and people, as well as the conflicts that were fought, is part of the process of understanding the distinctiveness of place.

Image from UK Rock Festivals, Stonehenge 1974.


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