The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act had passed into law with Royal Assent on Nov 3rd 1994. The campaign of opposition against it had proved to be the catalyst for uniting a massive national network of ordinary people against the legislation, and the government that had seen fit to implement it.
The winter and spring of 94 and 95 had seen free parties happening unabated practically every weekend. The idea of a big free festival that would be a direct V’s up to the legislation, and a celebration of the culture it had criminalized, was an idea that captured the public imagination. It would be the The Mother of all free festivals.
Discussion began around finding a suitable site that would hold such an event. The question was just how to provide the infrastructure necessary to make it safe, secure, hygenic and fun for all concerned, as well as keeping its existence secret, in order to make sure that it actually happened.
There were quite a few umbrella groups involved in the creation of the Mother, and unfortunately that diminished the kind of unity of purpose necessary to make such a thing happen. An element of the People’s Popular Judean Front versus the Judean People’s Popular Front began to appear, with each faction keen that the revolution was seen to be its own individual responsibility.
Also, there had been infiltration of these groups by undercover, directed to keep authority in the loop as to the word on the street. Nevertheless, preparations continued apace, and after a couple of research visits to the West Country, a venue was decided upon.
Some years previously in 1992, a massive convoy of traveller ravers had been prohibited from entering Glastonbury. This left a big problem for the local constabulary as to where to put them. The convoy of vehicles containing Spiral Tribe, Bedlam, DiY, Lazy House, Circus Normal and Circus Warp were subsequently directed to an old airfield on top of the Blackdown Hills called Smeatharpe, where they duly held an alternative Glastonbury.
It seemed to make sense that if the authorities had chosen this place as a venue suitable for such an event before, then it might make sense to utilize it again. Glastonbury ‘95 was awash with excitement at the prospect of the free festival to come. Everyone you met was talking about it, many people planned to leave that event and go straight to The Mother.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. With intelligence in place the Police launched Operation Ornament, and by the time people started to arrive at Smeatharpe they had taken over the local village hall, set up a mobile control center, and every available entrance to the airfield had been blocked in some way or another, with two huge lorry containers left in front of the main access.
There were roadblocks in place on every major road for a ten mile radius, stopping likely looking people and conducting searches. One girl
subsequently reported that she had only escaped having her body cavities searched on the side of the road by a male policeman, by explaining she had her period. DiY’s rig got confiscated.
The army turned up in a field in Somerset belonging to a local landowner that previously had been a party venue. The field was being used as a holding area for people waiting for news that the site had been established and road blocked the people inside preventing anyone from leaving.
In London there were a series of dawn raids on the houses of people believed to be involved in organizing the party, including Debbie from United Systems and Michele from Advance Party, and eight people got charged with ‘conspiracy to cause a public nuisance’ The charges were later dropped.
Computers and telephones belonging to the Advance Party were confiscated, as was their English Bull terrier Bocky. During interrogation they were informed that their phones, and the phones of their closest associates, had been bugged for some time.
We got to know about this when Michele and her colleague Andy turned up at what was left of the Mother some days later, and told us about being busted by MI5, who worked in collaboration with the Special Demonstration Squad of Special Branch.
We’d had some kind of idea already though, as our landline had been behaving weirdly for a while in Bristol. In response, we had taken to having random conversations to whoever might be listening to indicate that we knew about the intrusion on our privacy, and thus could be communicating misinformation.
The amount of people who turned from all over the country was staggering. The roads were full of people looking for a party. A local paper subsequently reported that officers had stopped “demonstrators from as far a field as Wales, Yorkshire, East Anglia, Lincolnshire and Surrey.”
A couple of days before that a rig from Leicester had turned up at our house in Bristol on its way to the area looking for tools to fix an engine problem. The geezer fixing the truck was a bespectacled kind of chap who was into graffiti called Robin. He was also local to Bristol.
After driving around Somerset all night getting through roadblocks right, left and center, hooking up with various different contingents of party people, a call came through while we were at a small party on a farm in a village called Fiddington.
People with some local knowledge had successfully led a convoy of vehicles and some rigs onto Steart Beach near Bridgwater. This had been a great party venue for some years.
In the car we’d been using we drove over there, and met up with the people on site. Swiftly establishing that nobody had noticed their presence yet, we left again to go and get our truck, so that we could return and join them for the long haul.
By the time we got back there were roadblocks in place, preventing access to the beach from the usual roads. We drove to the next village down the road and made for the coast, as we had done a couple of parties in the fields between what had become the festival site and the village, and we knew there had to be a way in without using roads.
Hidden away just next the track that we needed to drive down was a big mobile control center with a satellite dish on the roof. It was pretty much alone. So we stopped and went to speak to the people inside. The inside of a mobile control center is a pretty interesting place to get a look at.
We explained to the chap inside that we’d been on site earlier, that we’d left a broken down truck there, with my fictitious teenage sister looking after it until we could return with tools to fix it, that we had been refused access to the site, and now were very concerned as to her welfare. We’d had enough, and just wanted to rescue her and go home. Our next question was whether we could walk across the fields to get to site with some tools.
The friendly policeman was very accommodating. He got out a map and showed us that it was impossible to drive into site from where we were but walking was possible. Thanking him for his patience and kindness we asked if we could drive down the track so that we would have a short a walk as possible with the heavy tools. He kindly gave his consent before going back to his job.
Happily we drove off down the track looking for the fields we knew from before. In the daylight it all looked different, and the one that we wanted we’d got into from a different access. It had also been ploughed since we were last there. The only way into it was down a steep bank and a narrow gate. I was worried the truck would tip over on the gradient into the gate, but came up with a solution.
One of us got out and opened the gate and guided me inch by inch down the slope. The others got up on the top side of the truck with the idea of weighting it down. It worked, and we made it through the gate with inches to spare on either side.
The truck had a fantastic crawler gear for in first, designed for use uphill with a heavy load on. I stuck it in that and set off at a snails pace through the plowed field. The steering wheel was pretty much impossible to keep hold of and so I just let go and let the truck do its work.
We saw an open gate into another field and went through it onto a grass track that ran along the hedge that lead to another open gateway into yet another field. Once we got through that, the track led up a steep bank. That was the road into site on the inside of the roadblocks.
At the top, adrenalin racing through me, we turned right and headed foot to the floor for the all the rest of the people who had made it onto the beach for what was left of The Mother.
As I turned I could see a riot van speeding towards us from the roadblock, blue lights flashing, siren going, with a man with a video camera leaning out of the passenger side window, but clearly there was no stopping at that point.
Two cars had left the main body of vehicles on site and were coming towards us. They went past us towards the oncoming riot van and pulled across the road making a roadblock themselves. As the riot van was forced to slow down by their presence, they pulled away again at speed and followed us back into site.
I’ll never forget the beautiful girl who was driving one of those cars, as she was one of those friends you make forever in your teenage years who will never leave you, although she was one of those who shone far too brightly for way too briefly in the end.
Site was cheering when we arrived and we were the only people in or out of there for a week in the boiling hot sun. It was just too dangerous to leave. At one point a representative arrived on site to let us know that a violent eviction was imminent unless we left. That clearly was an invitation to get busted.
Knowing that the airwaves were being monitored, we got on to a mobile, called just about every media outlet and friendly charity we could think of. We told them that we were about to be attacked by the police and could they please help by reporting it. Needless to say the violent eviction never happened. The next day a single lone unobtrusive man in car came by to say hello and check us out. Everyone was nice to him of course.
One evening some clueless lads were trying to help a lady in a car that had cracked its petrol tank getting in to site. They pushed the car into what was the dance floor for one of the rigs. It was leaking petrol so badly they had the bright idea of burning off the fuel on the ground.
To stop the flames they built a sandbank to separate the car from its fuel trail, and lit the leaked fuel some distance away. The flames sped down the track, jumped the bank they’d built. and the car ended up blowing up on the dance floor.
I was sat quietly on the roof of a truck in the dark on the outskirts of site watching the flames at some point a little later. There was a rustling in the
bushes of the hedge bordering a field nearby. Very quietly a squad of six camouflaged soldiers appeared out of the night beneath us.
We stayed stock still, and quiet. The soldiers more occupied in checking out what was going on with the car on fire, and a couple of minutes later, they melted back into the field from where they had came and disappeared.
At one point a very excited friend turned up in my truck with some amazing news. He’d just met Joe Strummer from The Clash camping with us on the beach. I couldn’t believe it. I Fought The Law was one of the first singles I’d ever bought at school, and I meant to go and say hello. Something ended up happening though that needed dealing with, and I forgot all about it until it was too late. Joe used to live in a village just up the road from Steart so it was no surprise.
In the aftermath it turned out that there had been similar attempts at The Mother in Corby and Sleaford up north, both of which had been busted. We’d all hoped that the Mother would have children. In a sense she has. But they are not free.
The comforting thing is that now, thousands upon thousands of people buy into festivals, every weekend of every summer. They also support a massive industry of creativity involved in festival production. That creativity is something that makes the inhabitants of our island utterly unique.
The free trade and free association models of old school festivals have been subsumed by the imposition of capitalism and authoritarian control. Festivals are now big business creating huge revenue streams for banks, insurance companies, councils, media, security companies, the police, and of course those clever individuals who can manage all the huge cash flow needed to produce festivals to current licensing requirements. Plus, pretty much all those attending have to have their identities and contact details digitally logged. I always wonder who has access to that data?
Gone are the days when you could just turn up in a beautiful field, invite your friends and have a party somewhere secluded. If you do, and plenty of people still try, you are guilty of breaking the rules of the market and your rigs will be confiscated, your guests will be persecuted, and the riot police sent in.