Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
On a cool, overcast Friday last week I wandered into Victoria Place, just off Eld Lane. This grey Colchester cul-de-sac is home to Slack Space, the local arts collective whose events regularly spring in town like willowherb on waste ground. Slack Space are a product of our cash-strapped times. They've commandeered many square yards of Colchester's un-used retail space, to mount exhibitions and concerts. Dave's Big Society in action? Possibly, but I fear that Dave would be mildly disappointed to discover that Slack Space probably exists despite him, not because of him. Slack Space, modern as it may appear, has its philanthropic roots in a much older subculture. Their latest exhibition, From Barsham to Albion, looks back to the East Anglian hippy festivals, nailing the tie-dye colours firmly to their mast.
Oddly enough, the building hosting From Barsham to Albion is a former Co-Op bank. Exhibition pieces include photos, film footage and other memorabilia from this region's alternative fairs including the 1971 Weeley Festival, right up to Colchester's more recent free events. This is not, however, any kind of post mortem on the hippie movement; because, whether you're pro or anti, the universal hippie, as a species, is still very much with us..
A few of the wackier aspects of the movement may have failed to take root it's true. They never did manage to levitate the Pentagon, for instance, or to find Atlantis. However, we've undergone, and are still undergoing a back-to-the-land food revolution begun by hippies many decades ago. Wholefood shops are now everywhere and most of the big supermarkets were eventually rail-roaded into stocking organic food. The fact that for all its marketing bluster, corporate burger culture hasn't quite had it all its own way is mainly due to seeds germinated back in the 1970s.
Now, you may laugh at the hippie, you may beat him up, evict him, impound his van, ban his festival and jail him for his smoking preferences. But he'll still be out there, designing sustainable housing, working out how to save electricity and water, and generally, fighting a rearguard action against damage done by the more rampant excesses of consumerism.
In May of 1997, did we or did we not witness a grinning young PM striding into Number 10 with an acoustic guitar? Didn't his wife have their residence sorted out by her Feng Shui guru? Blair was possibly our first hippie Prime Minister – which is probably why he was rubbish at handling international conflict.
Hippie culture quietly infiltrated everything, from our food shopping to our daily speech. Expressions such as hung up, ripped-off, hassled, hype, rap, crashed out, and freaked, all came into our language via the Love Generation. Your universal hippie may well be infuriatingly smug, platitudinous, differently-fragranced or just plain bonkers The thing is, that he or she can also be kindly, clever, inventive and at core, rather nice. A few of the pushier hippies may even have ended up behind the scenes in Westminster.
But those hippies whom we observe in the Slack Space exhibition's pictures – where are they now? I found it fascinating to study the faces, hair and the clothes of these people whom I once walked among, worked with, and sometimes, even lived with. Hippies were largely, a middle-class phemonenon. In these photos their faces look appropriately serious – as if on a quest.
One disquieting aspect of hippies, though, was that whenever they went anywhere near mud, nakedness often ensued. Unfortunately, it wasn't always those people with bodies best-geared to shedding their clothing, who did so. Accounts at the Slack Space exhibition also attest to the fearsome toilet facilities at fairs – along with memories of festival food ill-matched to the primitive facilities provided. If you ever attend a festival such as the ones pictured here, your dietary requirements should be one hard-boiled egg, with a slice of white toast, followed by a banana – twice daily. Only drink brandy. Stick with Old Newell's Festival Diet and with any luck, you won't need to visit the loo for the whole weekend.
Gaze upon these portraits, too, with caution, fellow time-travellers. Somewhere among the crowds may be a laughing-eyed love queen called Suzi Sunchild, with whom you may once have briefly shared a sleeping bag. Forget her. Nowadays, she's a kindly ash-grey blonde called Mrs Clarke. She runs a Sue Ryder shop somewhere in Berkshire.
Hippies, back then often mistook each others' silence for wisdom – a much revered quality. They frequently grew beards whilst in pursuit of this chimera. It only had the effect of making them look older – especially the women. The people in these pictures, are therefore probably much younger than they look. Hippie culture wasn't a youth movement, as such. It was more of a cultural transit camp where you were held – until you had to get a job.
Despite all of my quibbles with the hippie movement, however, From Barsham to Albion is an affectionate retrospective. Lingering much longer than I intended, at times I became quite misty-eyed. The exhibition also emphasised how many little freedoms – freedoms which we once all took for granted – have now been eroded or lost. Finally, to my utter amazement, I happened upon an entire bound collection of an ancient local alternative magazine, The Grapevine. For some years The Grapevine was sporadically published by the Stour Valley Collective. The magazine often featured a gauche young columnist, with the pen-name, 'Keith Wretched'. Those tolerant, kindly hippies gave Keith his first ever writing break. He stands raddled before you now, bereft of the elixir of youth.