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Twentieth Century Ranter: Bill Ubi Dwyer and the birth of the free festival movement
Pay no rent
The usual story of the hippie movement is that it comes out of America, out of the love-in between the San Franciscan Beat scene and the politics of Berkeley. That’s true. But it also came out of the UK, out of the breakdown in class relations caused by our post-war consensus.
Rock and Roll was born in the United States, but it came to maturity here in Britain, taken on by mainly working class kids suddenly opening up to the possibilities of another kind of life than the one that had previously been on offer. America gave us rock and roll but the UK discovered the blues and nurtured it till it became a full-blown revolution. The thing we now call by the vague name of hippie grew up as much in the post-war terraces of the British Isles as it did in the clubs, the arthouses and bohemian cafes of San Francisco and New York.
Actually it’s all about cross-fertilisation. That’s where all the best things come from. So it was the politics of Berkeley meeting the transcendentalism of meeting the rock and roll of Liverpool and London. Millbrook
And it’s out of precisely this kind of cross-fertilisation that the UK’s greatest contribution to the politics of the time arose. I'm talking of the free festival movement.
I won’t go into the entire history of the movement here. Suffice it to say that the three key figures behind the early free festivals – Bill Dwyer, Phil Russell, and Andrew Kerr – all claimed to have been guided by a spiritual force.
You can read about Andrew Kerr in my book, the Last of the Hippies, and you can read about Phil Russell, A.K.A. Wally Hope, in Fierce Dancing, so in this article I’m going to focus on Bill Dwyer who was responsible for starting the Windsor Free festivals, held in Windsor Great Park in August between the years 1972 and 1974.
Bill was also known as “Ubi” Dwyer. Ubi is short for Ubique. It means “everywhere”. Think about that. It tells you a lot about what was going on in his head at the time.
Most of the photographs of him show him with fairly long hair and a full beard wearing a floppy hat and a multi-coloured poncho. There are smiley faces on the hat and smiley faces on the poncho, and he’s usually smiling too and giving the peace sign. He looks like a bit of a nerd albeit a psychedelic one. He rode a bike everywhere and many of the photographs show him wheeling his bike. Sometimes he has a placard around his neck advertising the festival. He was a lot older than most hippies, being in his forties. He was a civil servant in his day job, a position he put to good use by using the office Xerox machine to create the tens of thousands of leaflets that he was distributing throughout the country.
As much as anyone else, Bill represents a specific instance of what we’re exploring here, of this spiritual and political crossover. He was born in Ireland but spent many years in Australia, where he sold acid. The story goes that idea of the free festival came to him in an acid vision during one of the free concerts held in Hyde Park during the late 60s and early 70s. He saw a massive gathering of people in Windsor Great Park, on the Queen’s doorstep, on land which had once been common land but which had been appropriated by the Crown.
OK let’s stop and think about that for a moment: how utterly audacious this is. As an idea it’s about as left-field as you can get. Even the most of fanatical of left-wing groups couldn’t have come up with that. To invade the Crown’s land in the name of an historical injustice and to put on a festival there. It was crazy but it was brilliant at the same time. There had been free festivals before, but none of them were as overtly political as this, none of them were so deliberately confrontational.
Here is the reason he gave for the festival in an interview with the Kensington Post 10th May 1972: To spark the revolution of LOVE-PEACE-FREEDOM when brothers and sisters shall shout together “we shall never again pay rent!”
It’s said that he was influenced by the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 where he witnessed the removal of the fences by hippie activists. He described himself as an anarchist, but some of the newspapers called him a patriot because he carried a Union Jack around with him. That just shows you the contradictory nature of the spirits working through him.
He was extraordinarily optimistic in his estimates of the numbers who would be attending the festival, telling the Evening Mail that it would be somewhere between one and five million, saying that a quarter of a million had got to the Isle of Wight and Windsor was so much easier to get to. In the event only a few hundred turned up and the organisation of the festival would be described, at best, as shambolic.
Nevertheless this tells you something about the spirit in which Bill was acting. It was like a great big YES! to the possibilities opening up in the universe. The second festival was much larger then the first and by the third as many as 12,000 people were in attendance. He never quite made the 5 million, but 12,000 for an ad hoc festival without any facilities in which everything is done voluntarily is a testament to the power of belief to make things happen.
In 1973 he sent a letter to the Queen inviting her to attend. The reply, by a lackey, was curt and to the point. “Dear Mr Dwyer,” it said: “I am commanded to acknowledge your letter of the 1st of May. The Queen does not wish to attend the second annual People’s festival on the 25th of August this year. In any event her Majesty will be in Scotland on that date.”
Bill took the reply as confirmation of the legal status of his festival. She replied, and that made it legal.
Note the date of Bill’s letter. I'm certain that was deliberate. He was clearly aware of the historical significance of the 1st of May, as the people’s holiday. Maybe he knew that it was traditionally associated with Robin Hood and that for centuries the clergy had been trying to suppress it. Certainly he would have known of its association with International Worker’s Day as all of the Communist countries at the time held May Day parades, as did the Trade Union and Labour movement in the UK. This point is emphasised by his name for the festival. Historically it has come to be called the Windsor Free Festival. Bill called it the People’s Festival, a name which was later adopted by Stonehenge.
In 1974 he gave the management of one of the stages to a young lad named Heneage Mitchell. Up to 30 bands were scheduled to play on the stage and Heneage, never having done such a thing before, and overwhelmed by the complexities of it, completely failed to pull it off. Later Bill confided in his young apprentice that “having the stage was not the issue: it was the belief shown in the concept that was important.”
To me that speaks volumes about Bill and where his head was at. It’s all about belief. Believe something enough and act upon it and you can make it come true. What a difference this is to the kind of politics we see practised these days, where politicians daren’t make a move unless it's guided by focus groups or political advisers. Can you imagine Ed Miliband coming up with an idea like this, or having the kind of courage and conviction it would take to pull it off? This is the difference between the kind of spiritual politics that I’m talking about, and mere politics. Politics is the art of organising people to some end, and you can either be guided by the masses, under the sway of the mass media, or you can set out to lead by example, to encourage people, to inspire them. The first is inherently safe and inherently conservative. No politician who takes this course will ever change anything.
Bill, on the other hand, was being guided by the inner light of his own convictions. It didn’t matter whether anyone else believed in what he was doing, he was going to do it anyway. He worked with the people who came to him and showed belief in them even when they didn’t believe in themselves. He took risks and when his gamble failed to pay off, he took a moral lesson from it instead.
This is was what he used to say in order to motivate people. “Get your brains out of your knickers you fuckwit!”
When he was arrested in 1975, for handing out leaflets despite an injunction against him, he said, “I know I am under an injunction not to organise this festival, but the God I believe in, namely Love, has laid on me a higher injunction to go ahead.”
He was jailed for that and eventually repatriated back to Ireland, where he organised two more free festivals, in Phoenix Park in Dublin, in 1977 and 1978.
The first festival was opened with a communal prayer lead by Ubi.
Here is what he said:
Dear God, Whose word is Love, In our hearts the seed, That justice shall be done, Help us in our struggles, That we may learn to live together, Loving one another And becoming better people, Work to be One with You.
OK, let’s take another pause here and have a think about the implications of all of this.
We have several things going on at the same time. We have a protest against the Monarchy, we have a protest against rent, we have the idea of squatting on and taking over what was once common land for a people’s festival, we have the idea of a human gathering as a spur to the raising of consciousness, and we have an injunction from God.
More than anything else what this reminds me of is the great spiritual and political stirrings of the English Revolution in the mid 17th century, which gave rise to the Diggers, the Levellers, the Ranters and the Quakers, amongst others.
Indeed, Syd Rawle, who was Ubi Dwyer’s co-organiser at the Windsor festivals, was a member of a group called the Hyde Park Diggers, which in part took its name from the San Francisco Diggers, a radical street theatre group in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the heyday of the hippie era from 1967-1968. Ubi Dwyer may also have been one of the Hyde Park Diggers. He certainly hung around Hyde Park and was a regular at Speaker’s Corner where he would often be found promoting his festival.
So the Digger ideal was in the back of everyone’s mind.
The main spokesman for the original Diggers was Gerrard Winstanley. He also claimed to have been given an injunction by God, in his case to take over the common land at St George’s Hill in Surrey and to farm it with the local community, sharing the produce between them. This event took place in 1649, just after the end of the English Civil War. By April of that year a letter of warning had been sent to the Council of State at Westminster advising them of the presence of a number of people on the hill. “It is feared they have some design in hand,” the letter said. The Council of State sent a dispatch to Lord Fairfax, the Lord General of the Army, asking him to intervene, describing the Diggers as “a disorderly and tumultuous sort of people,” adding that “a conflux of people may be a beginning whence things of a greater and more dangerous consequence may grow.”
Fairfax was ordered to disperse the group and prevent a repetition of the event. By March 1650 the group had been driven off the land by ongoing harassment by the army and by vigilante groups in the pay of the local gentry, although Digger colonies continued to spring up in various parts of the country for a while.
During this period Fairfax met Winstanley along with another of the Digger leaders, a man named Everard. Everard spoke of receiving a vision telling him to plough the earth as an attempt to "restore the Creation to its former condition." During the entire interview Winstanley and Everard refused to remove their hats, because, as they said, Fairfax was "but their fellow creature."
It’s hard to imagine now just what a radical gesture this was. Fairfax was a Lord and used to being treated with deference. Not removing their hats in front of him, while referring to him as “fellow creature” was tantamount to a declaration of revolution.
This refusal to remove ones hat to a person of higher status is a trait shared by the Quakers, who also refused to bow or call anyone Lord, and the use of the address “fellow creature” is one also used by another of the groups during this period, a group known as the Ranters.
There’s some controversy in history circles about whether the Ranters actually existed or not.
There was a lot of talk of Ranters in the popular press, where lurid stories circulated about their outrageous behaviour. Licentiousness and drunkenness abounded in Ranter circles, it was claimed. They were said to share their women in common and to indulge in lewd parodies of Christian worship in the pubs where they met, singing bawdy songs instead of hymns and drinking ale and eating meat in place of the sacraments. Almost everyone who is described as a Ranter is at pains to show that they are not. The term is more of an insult than a title.
Nevertheless we can assume that something was going on. There wasn’t an organisation as such, just as there wasn’t a central organisation in the early 70s. There were different organisations. In the 70s there were the Hyde Park Diggers and the White Panthers, the Dwarves, the Wallies, The Polytantric Circle, and a whole range of other tribal groups. There was Release, the drug advisory group formed in 1967, and Festival Welfare Services, formed in 1972. Some of them were formal organisations and some of them were not. Nevertheless, looking at them now, with the benefit of hindsight, you would have to describe all of them as hippies. At the same time, none of them would have used that word themselves. The customary term amongst the participants at the time was “Freaks” or “Heads”. The term “hippie” was an insult used by outsiders, just as the term Ranter was in the 17th century.
In other words, it was a phenomenon. It was a great spiritual explosion taking place in the minds and hearts of the people. Ranters, like hippies in a later era, were everywhere and nowhere at the same time. In the 17th Century this had been created by the upheavals caused by the Civil War. The execution of King Charles I in January 1649 must have had a profound effect on the consciousness of the population. Prior to that the notion was that the King was the representative of God on Earth. To have tried and executed the King on charges of high treason represented a complete breakdown in the mental and emotional structures which had held the world in place.
This is what I mean by “spiritual”. In this case it’s an invisible force that holds everyone under its spell. Once the spell is removed it allows new forces to break in and a kind of temporary collective insanity takes over. The people at the time certainly understood themselves to be engaged in spiritual struggle, in a spiritual war. Read John Bunyan or John Milton, the two best known writers of the age. Both of them are telling the story of their times in terms of grand cosmological and spiritual events.
The equivalent in the 1960s and 70s was LSD. Just as the English Civil War challenged a King, and eventually removed him, so LSD challenged the Kingship of the Ego and – just as temporarily – removed it, allowing for the entry of a new consciousness, a new paradigm, a new view of the individual’s place in history, and of the citizen’s place in society.
There’s two things I’m trying to establish here: one is the idea of the spirit breaking in and disrupting accepted narratives of what is going on in the world. Gerrard Winstanley had visions, his partner, Everard, had visions, as did a lot of other people that year. Three hundred and thirty years later, Andrew Kerr, Wally Hope and Bill Dwyer also had visions. Something from the outside is breaking into our world.
What I’m also trying to establish is the idea of a tradition going back in British society at least until the time of the Ranters. What was happening with the free festival movement in 1972 had its roots in history. It’s the same in America. The State of Pennsylvania was established by William Penn, a Quaker. That strand of nonconformist spirituality which gave rise to the English Revolution was transported across the ocean to the United States, where it continued to thrive. It was reborn again in the American revolution, and again in the 1960s with the hippies.
The counter-culture runs deep.
The World Turned Upside Down
Me: I was first alerted to the existence of this specific historical strand by reading Christopher Hill’s great book about the English Revolution, The World Turned Upside Down, published in 1972, the same year as the first Windsor Festival. I was reacquainted with the tradition when I read EP Thompson’s Witness Against the Beast in the early 2000s. Witness Against the Beast is a sort of biography of William Blake, but told from a historian’s perspective. What it does, very convincingly, is to trace Blake’s milieu back to that same Ranting tradition. Thompson calls it The English Dissenting tradition.
So anyway, back to the free festival movement, which reached its apogee in the Stonehenge festival. It lasted for ten years, from 1974 to 1984, and took place in the fields near the monument for the whole of June. The last of the festivals was in 1984 when an estimated 65,000 people turned up. The festival was like a spur to a whole alternative economy. People were buying buses and doing them up and taking to life on the road. People were making things in the Winter months in order to sell them during the festival season. They were setting up mobile kitchens to run cafes, building yurts in order to live out on the land, building hot tubs and sweat lodges, offering massage, doing meditation circles, learning a whole variety of new – and old – skills. There was a complete round of festivals, starting with the Summer Solstice, and ending with the Autumn Equinox. People were circling the country going from festival to festival, meeting old friends and making new friends along the way. Often the festivals were linked to ancient sacred sites or involved mass trespass on common land. They were political and spiritual at the same time. Later the free party and rave scene took over the reins, often attaching itself to the remnants of the older hippie festivals. The famous Castlemorton festival which took place over the May Day bank holiday weekend in 1992 on Castlemorton Common in the Malvern Hills, actually started as a rerun of the annual Avon Free Festival till the Somerset and Avon Police drove the festival goers across the county borders, who then had to find another site.
It’s also no accident that the greatest political movement of the 90s, the road protest movement, started as an attempt by a bunch of post-rave idealists to get back to nature by camping out on the land around St Catherine’s Hill near Winchester. That whole movement was riddled with magical and spiritual conceits and involved rituals and spell casting as well as a variety of wild and imaginative political actions.
This wasn’t about marching up and down on the streets of London shouting slogans to a lot of empty buildings, this was direct political action, offering your whole being to the cause, living it, being engaged with it on the deepest level, both spiritually and politically.
The Stonehenge festival was violently attacked by police on the 1st of June 1985 in the so-called Battle of the Beanfield. I say “so-called” because it bore no resemblance to a battle. It involved a large number of riot police with batons and shields wearing helmets attacking unarmed civilians, including women and children. If you’ve not already seen the film Operation Solstice, then I recommend you do so. It’s available on the internet, plus there’s a summary of it in my book, Fierce Dancing. I would also recommend Andy Worthington’s book The Battle of the Beanfield, which contains a whole mass of material, including eyewitness reports.
You might wonder why this would be? Was a bunch of kids sitting in a field listening to music really that much of a threat? It’s true that there were a lot of drugs involved, and that the festival was brazen about their use. You had stalls set up selling drugs in the same way you had stalls set up selling jewellery or arts and crafts, with chalked signs giving the price, but the police could have stopped this if they wished. They just didn’t want to stop it.
So what was the threat?
Unlike the Miners, who had been roundly defeated over the previous year, these people had no industrial clout. What they had was an idea. And that’s just the point. Bill’s mad optimism in 1972 in predicting five million people all joining hands to shout “we shall never again pay rent” was beginning to come true. These 65,000 people weren’t paying rent. More than that, they were finding new ways of relating to each other and to the Earth, new ways of making a living that didn’t involve working in a factory or an office, new ways of educating themselves that didn’t involve learning things by rote, new ways to construct their living spaces that didn’t involve taking on a mortgage for the rest of their lives. The festivals were crucibles for new, green technologies and for experiments in sustainable living. They were universities for alternative life styles. They were like cheap holiday camps for holidays that lasted the whole summer instead of just a week. They were political rallies, church rallies and car rallies all at the same time. People would be buying up all these classic vehicles, converting them into homes and then showing them off at the festivals. The politics was anarchist, the religion was pagan, and the church was in the open air.
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