Alan Lodge Festivals Photography Interview
1. To begin, can you speak about how you got into photography and what made you decide to focus on it?
I have been involved with photography since school [long time ago]. Taking it up more seriously when being involved with these gatherings. I come from a free festival and traveller background. Surprisingly to many, I also worked as an accident ambulanceman in the London Ambulance Service. I also volunteered and worked for ‘Release’ a drug and welfare organisation and helped set up the ‘Festival Welfare Services’ and the ‘Travellers Aid Trust’ charities that helped to provide medical, social and legal advice services to those living on the road attending festivals and related events. Those that the state excluded and made no provision for. We also felt that we should try to do many of these things for ourselves. DIY.
However, policing was becoming more aggressive and in addition, it was apparent that the ‘main-stream media’ were not accurately portraying events.
I took photographs initially with the mission of attempting to record the way the authorities reacted to a new group of social misfits as they were seen. Some of these photographs enabled people to be successfully defended in court. They showed circumstances that would have been otherwise unavailable. Thus my initial interest in photography was merely a means of gathering evidence.
I began to record more aspects of life on the road. There is no stereotype of a festival goer or traveller that is truly representative and so the project grew to take this into account.
Not very many people were trying to photograph these events at the time; the exception appeared to be the tabloid press intent on rubbishing events and the police looking for evidence. Against this background, it was clear that every effort and time should be given to reassure people of my intentions. This was hard to begin with because of many peoples past experiences. But my purpose was understood and I was welcomed and encouraged.
I was further able to lower suspicions by showing a “slide show”, perhaps next to a stage. Where for the first time, those assembled were able to see the work of one of these “photographer types” who came and went and nobody knew who they were! The show I did became known to the traveller’s circuit and seemed appreciated. It also of course exposed a bit of a “double standard” held by some that enjoyed seeing pictures of themselves and friends on home ground, but did not like having their photos taken. Some have still said that “I steal their souls” by taking photographs.
To take things yet more seriously, in my 40’s I completed a BA(hons) in Photography. Then in my 60’s did and MA in Photography. All trying to ‘keep my pencil sharp’ and to keep ideas alive! I am currently an Alumni Fellow at Nottingham Trent University.
2. Could you speak about how you got involved in photographing the early “free festivals” in the late 1970s, and give us a sense of what these events were like?
‘Free Festivals’ developed from people being fed up with the exploitation, rules, squalor and general rip-off that so many events came to represent. They discovered something. It is a powerful vision. People lived together, a community sharing possessions, listening to great music, making do, living with the environment, consuming their needs and little else. Parallel to all this, the squatting movement was taking off in the cities and groups such as the ‘San Francisco and ‘Hyde Park Diggers’ were beginning to question land rights.
It is from these beginnings that the 1970’s saw the establishment of many commercial and free events. The Windsor People’s Free Festival became an annual event over the August Bank Holiday.
As numbers continued to rise, and with the politics of the situation, (after all, we were in the Queen’s back garden), in 1974 Thames Valley police eventually acted. Forcibly breaking up the site with much violence and injury. I was drinking a cup of tea; sitting on a log round a fire when a line of police arrived and little ol’ naïve me thought that they would just say something like …. “Now come along now, move along” or somesuch. Not a bit of it. A police sergeant, without a word being spoken raised his truncheon and whacked me round the side of the head. I fell off my log, spilt my tea …… and I’ve never been the same since! Quite an education that has continued to shape some of my attitudes and politics. (They have been hitting us with sticks for over fifty years now!)
After finding a sense of community and purpose, some for the first time in their lives, many adopted an alternative lifestyle and travelled between events in the ‘season’. They didn’t go ‘home’ in between. You got to choose your neighbors and defeated the alienation that many had felt back in the cities. A regular summer circuit had been established. From May Hill at the beginning of May via Horseshoe Pass, Stonehenge, Ashton Court, Inglestone Common, Cantlin Stone, Deeply Vale, Meigan Fair, and various sites in East Anglia, to the Psilocybin Fair in mid-Wales in September, it was possible to find a free festival or a cheap community festival almost every weekend. Young people from traditional travelling families began to come into the festival scene and people from the cities began to convert vehicles and live on the road. As the habit of travelling in convoy caught on, larger groups of performers were established. They were joined by a wide variety of traders of different kinds. So the New Traveller culture was born.
The following years the gathering at Stonehenge became the People’s Free Festival at the summer solstice. People looked at the various examples provided by gypsies here and in Europe. To nomadic people across the world. To try life outside the house in many different ways and to pick and select those means that make life comfortable, easy and meaningful. The ‘bender’, the Indian ‘tipi’, the Moroccan ‘yurt’, the Romany ‘bow top’, the western two-man tent, the truck and the double decker bus.
Suddenly, life on the road in an old £300 1960’s bus, truck or trailer seemed like a bloody good option weighed against the prospect of life on the dole in some grotty city where the only values being espoused by the Tory Government were those of me, me , me and more me – what was a poor boy to do. Five of you – £60 each , forget about the Tax and Insurance (fascist claptrap), let’s just chuck a few mattresses in the back of the Bella Vega and head for the nearest festival where we will be welcomed with open arms and be swallowed up into the new age traveller family bosom. Simply making do!
The temperature had been rising for some time. Assisted by the representation in the press and their invention of the ‘Peace Convoy’, a moral panic was created. The papers were full of the shock – horror that we have come to expect. The Sun’s – “Gun convoy, hippies attack police” (No mention of gun in the article!). The News of the World contributed – “The Wild Bunch – Sex-mad junkie outlaws make the Hell’s Angels look like little Noddy.” These were headlines read my millions of people and made modern day `folk-devils’ out of essentially peaceful people.
At a meeting of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), in early 1985, it was resolved to obtain a High Court Injunction preventing the annual gathering at Stonehenge. This was the device to be used to justify the attack at the “Battle of the Beanfield” on the 1st June in Hampshire. Well it wasn’t a battle really. It was an ambush.
A distance from Stonehenge, just short of the A303 and the Hampshire / Wiltshire border, two lorry loads of gravel where tipped across the road. So many policemen running down the convoy ahead of me smashing windscreens without warning and ‘arresting’ / assaulting the occupants, dragging them out through the windscreens broken glass. 1600 police officers attacked.
Kim Sabido of ITN, a reporter used to visiting the worlds ‘hot spots’ did an emotional piece-to-camera as he described the worst police violence that he had ever seen. “What we – the ITN camera crew and myself as a reporter – have seen in the last 30 minutes here in this field has been some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I’ve witnessed in my entire career as a journalist. The number of people who have been hit by policemen, who have been clubbed whilst holding babies in their arms in coaches around this field, is yet to be counted…There must surely be an enquiry after what has happened today.”
There wasn’t. Things were never the same again and some parts of the lifestyle, turned into a refugee column with no means of economic support. Then came the free party / rave scene.
3. Could you give us a sense of the various alternative cultures celebrated at Stonehenge Free Festival, and what it was about these groups that most resonated most strongly with you?
By the end of the 1970s a regular summer circuit had been established. From May Hill at the beginning of May via Horseshoe Pass, Stonehenge, Ashton Court, Inglestone Common, Cantlin Stone, Deeply Vale, Meigan Fair, and various sites in East Anglia, to the Psilocybin Fair in mid-Wales in September, it was possible to find a free festival or a cheap community festival almost every weekend. Young people from traditional travelling families began to come into the festival scene and people from the cities began to convert vehicles and live on the road. As the habit of travelling in convoy caught on, larger groups of performers were established. They were joined by a wide variety of traders of different kinds. So the New Traveller culture was born, emerging into public view at Inglestone Common in 1980 with the New Age Gypsy Fair.
The Stonehenge Free Festival had been held at the Summer Solstice since 1974. However at 1977 event, numbers suddenly increased and this became the Annual People’s Festival. Since then, the numbers involved doubled each successive year. The 1984 festival attracting hundreds of thousands over a six week period. For a significant number, the stones of the Henge became THE place to be to hold the hippie/punk/anarchist/biker/ traveller ritual of festival ….. Many didn’t go home after. The circuit helped provide an economy. Strolling players, service, food, vehicle maintenance etc. Skills learned, barter and exchange.
The word ‘environmentalist’ hadn’t been applied yet, but in conducting experiments how things might otherwise be … I think we were making a contribution.
4. Could you share the aims of the Stonehenge Free Festival, the activities that transpired here, and the kinds of people who came out to celebrate summer solstice over the years?
There was a whole festival circuit. It was all about travelling and building communities, tribes, and societies. A kind of anarchy [which is a very scary word for some … but they have had a bad press].
Stonehenge has cosmic and so very great historical significance and people have probably gathered there for around 6,500 years. It is thought strange by me / some that after all that ‘use’ you can now commit crime by gathering there and then being charged with ‘aggravated trespass’.
It became a large event where conversations and meetings took place on where to go next and round the year’s circuit.
Most didn’t go into the stones, the festival was on fields nearby, but on the solstice morning many did. I think the pictures selected in the Café Royal book show a wide variety of people having a spiritual ‘pull’ to the place that is so difficult to explain. To some of the more’ Viking like’ amongst us of course, the tribe can party and have fun.
5. Could you describe what it was like to attend these events and share any particular memories that stay with you over the years?
The prehistoric monument at Stonehenge has long held a fascination for the mystically inclined and so it was only natural that those within the counterculture who believed that the ancients situated their sites at places containing special powers would want to hold a festival there. After all, at their best when the music was right, when the people acted in unison and that rare communal shared pleasure came to pass (if only fleetingly) that festivals could conjure up a heightened awareness. It was this search for IT that inspired many folks to take the annual pilgrimage to the Henge, in addition to the general feeling amongst hard core hippies that their psychedelic explorations happened to mimic the mind-set of the ancients I suppose. Also, of course, an excuse to get down and party hard for increasingly long amounts of time until 1985.
6. Lastly, looking back at this era, could you give us a sense of some of the lessons and wisdom of the period that would be particularly pertinent today?
Through the 1970’s and into the 1980’s I remember as a pretty scary time locally and in the world. Locally; unemployment, inner city unrest, crap housing, squatting, policing. Internationally; Economic stress, Thatcher & Regan scary nuclear developments with cruise missiles and the like. Folks banded together looking for ‘alternatives’ to what can we do differently.
Many developed a sense of common purpose and identity. There was an acceptance that modern life was too fast, expensive and polluting to the environment. We had discovered Anarchy in action, and it worked! [well sort of]. People began working out and managing relations within ‘our’ communities, without reference to Them. So many that the state excluded and made no provision for. Many felt that we should try to do many of these things for ourselves. ‘DIY’.
Thing globally, act locally!
Political liberation and questioning how we live, consumption, recycling and trying out different shelters. Concluding that nomadic folk have quite a few solutions and all comes to nothing, if you don’t have access to land.
So, we took some!