With the summer solstice approaching, Champion Up North’s Rich Jevons talks to poet, novelist, musician and philosopher Penny Rimbaud.
Penny co-founded the Stonehenge Free Festival with the late Wally Hope who was ‘murdered’ by the State in 1975, and here comments on this and the tragic events of the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985, a police attack on travellers on their way to commemorate the summer solstice at Stonehenge.
Could you tell us about Wally Hope and the Stonehenge Free Festival?
I got to know Wally in 1971 because [Dial House] is an open house which attracted quite a lot of the local kids, and he was friends of them so he followed them into the house. We got to know each other, and he went away to Cyprus for the winter and came back with the idea of squatting Stonehenge to hold a free festival (which seemed like a crazy idea at the time).
Initially, I was not particularly supportive; I thought it was a hairbrained idea. But eventually I bought into it and said ‘How can we help?’ Some of his thinking was not particularly practical, so I think I was able to help in a practical way, organising printing, who to send stuff to, etc. Largely my side of it was logistical.
Loads of invites went out to all sorts of people, from Prince Philip to the Dalai Lama – they didn’t turn up! A hundred or so hippies turned up and that was the first festival; it was a low key event.
It took place on the Solstice?
Yes, it was on the Solstice, at the Stones—a little way back from them on Ministry of Defence land, which was probably their mistake.
Was there any notion that you could have been prosecuted for trespass?
Strictly, no. If they had been closer to the Stones they might not have had the trouble they got for being on MoD land. Porton Down is there (the big chemical warfare depot) and they probably weren’t too keen of having a load of hippies sitting around close to them.
It was really quite innocent, and I don’t think anyone expected anyone to do anything about it because the Stones weren’t what they’ve become now. They were just there and people stopped off and had a look at them
A case was brought against them to get them off [the site]. It was big news because it was in high summer when there is no real news, so the story of Wally and the Wallys became regular news, particularly in London.
So they were evicted?
Yes, there was a long hearing in the High Court about it but after they’d been asked to bugger off they all just went back and organised their next move as winter was coming in.
My only actual physical involvement then was doing a bread run from here [Dial House]; baking up bread and running up food and taking it down every two or three days. So all I can describe is a few dozen hippies sitting around waiting for the bread to turn up. The bands who turned up couldn’t do anything because there wasn’t a PA. It was a very nice event, a bit of fun really.
Could you tell us a bit about the subsequent festivals?
Wally was arrested before the second one on a trumped-up possession charge. There were all sorts of questions about how and why he came to be arrested. He’d been making a huge amount of noise in London about the second festival; he’d been handing out leaflets and making quite a scene of himself.
He got quite a bad relationship with the authorities after the trials because he just made a mock of it really. He was travelling to Devon to rest before the festival when he was arrested. From then on—it’s a fairly often told story—but for one reason or another he was incarcerated in a mental institution and diagnosed as being schizophrenic and it eventually led to his death.
He came to stay with you didn’t he?
He was released—apparently now healed and cured from his schizophrenia—the day the last hippy left the second festival which rather indicates something. It took him about two days to get back here [Dial House] and he was absolutely ruined. We found out he had chronic dyskenesia—basically, brain damage caused by the drugs he’d been treated with to ‘cure’ his schizophrenia.
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.
Then the government, for some bizarre reason, offered a site in Watchfield to run a festival on. I think they were trying to contain the festival movement. Wally insisted on going. We really tried our best to stop him but, short of putting him in manacles, we wouldn’t have managed. Three days later he was dead.
He went to the festival and then was in the care of a local doctor, a surrogate father, and it was there that he died in very suspicious circumstances. This set me off on two years investigating it and I proved in the book Homage to Catatonia that he’d been needled to death. At the first inquest there was a needle mark noted on his back thigh which quickly disappeared in subsequent reports. There was no way he would ever have used a needle so that led me off into all sorts of directions.
This led to me having death threats. I felt that they hadn’t managed to shut him up with the psychotropic drugs he was being given in the mental hospital, so they did the job well and proper and did him in. I was becoming very dark and completely obsessed with this story and getting too many veiled threats from too many different directions.
So I one day just went out and burnt the whole lot except stuff that was other people’s. I’d got a whole study full of documents, all the police papers, everything in files. Shibboleth was written from the remains of what I had left, stuff I hadn’t got round to sending back, and memory.
Can you tell us about the subsequent festivals?
I attended the next one in 1976 with Wally’s ashes. I took them down and they were eventually scattered on the Stones [and Penny told me by email that he still lights a candle for Wally on the summer solstice].
Crass went down there intending to play in 1980 but it turned into a bloodbath. The Hell’s Angels decided they didn’t like the look of the punks so it just turned into a stupid night of violence. We just spent all night trying to save people and get them off the site. It was just bloody really unpleasant.
Were the Hell’s Angels self-appointed security?
Yes, as they were at Altamont. They’ve toned down now but in those days if they decided they were going to be security, they were security.
The last Stonehenge Free Festival was in 1984, and 1985 has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield. Do you have any connection with that at all? I ask because a lot of people you supported in the squats in London then joined the Peace Convoy.
At that stage we were very much in touch with what was happening. 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.
In fact a lot of people all gathered after that [the Battle of the Beanfield] down in Oxfordshire and we went down to play but there was no PA. Some of those people I’m still in touch with. It was a real breaking point; after that, a lot of the Convoy headed off to Spain and places.
There are all sorts of reports about the Battle but it does seem to have been pre-planned.
There is absolutely no question of that. Also, at the time, Thatcher had upped the detention centre levels. The State was really concerned that things could go really haywire in terms of revolutionary spirit. Huge centres were prepared for that possibility in putting out of action any real opposition. The first opposition were the unions and working class; the second opposition was people outside of both: anarchist liberation freedom-seeking alternative societies.
There was a prosecution against the police with the Convoy suing the Wiltshire police for wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage.
It was unbelievable violence the likes of which we hadn’t seen in this country for a very long time. If you had to put it in the context of the city riots, they were half-carnival, half-riot. We were beginning to show our colours in terms of resisting. The State was fighting back and they fight back with horrific violence, as they did in Orgreave [during the miners’ strike]—that was a set up too.
Penny is currently writing 365 aphorisms on his Twitter @pennyrimbaud1, recording with The Bloody Beetroots, and performing with L’Academie des Vanités. See the Southern label site for details of Penny Rimbaud/Crass recordings.
Read Penny’s essay, The Last of the Hippies – A Hysterical Romance.
Penny also put CUN in touch with Dean Phillips of the Wally Hope Appreciation Society. Dean is custodian of Wally Hope’s ashes and describes the English Heritage management of the site as being in a state of paranoia, over the possibility of a return to the idyllic days of the first festival. When he told them of Penny Rimbaud’s intention to perform a spoken word piece with cello through a PA, they replied ‘An amplified cello constitutes a festival’, and refused permission.
He describes being herded into the area with a checkpoint where all bags and pockets are searched, a mile and a half floodlit walk to be confronted by further security and police including sniffer dogs, until eventually reaching the stones to be greeted by burger bars and portaloos – hardly conducive to any kind of religious celebration, be it Druidic, pagan or whatever faith.
So for Dean this is a political protest and Wally Hope a ‘victim of ignorance’ as it says on the box of ashes that he will take again this year for another visit to what he calls ‘the most sacred part of the country’. The conundrum is such that Dean could not tell us which of this year’s folk and traditional music artists would be performing on the horse-drawn stage (without PA, of course!) in fear they may be ‘pulled’ even at this point in time.
Dean and other Wallys will commemorate this year’s summer solstice as the 40th anniversary of the first Stonehenge Free Festival, the 30th anniversary of the last Stonehenge Free Festival and the 39th anniversary of the death of Wally Hope on this field in Wiltshire, to stand up for human rights and to oppose state interference, in all its institutionalised forms, into our essential right to celebrate the Solstice.
Details of this year’s ‘Managed Open Access’ to Stonehenge on 20-21 June can be found here.
Sunrise for the summer solstice in the UK is 4.52am on 21 June 2014.