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.
I was struck down the other day by a gastric bug. It was exactly the same one that Her Majesty had, but without the headlines and constant news updates. Forced to lie down for a couple of days, I began leafing casually through Kessel and Walton's 1965 study of alcoholism, entitled Alcoholism.
A curious choice, you might think. Yet, for a good light read, when feeling under the weather, I don't think you can beat an old medical book with details of ailments worse than your own. Kessel and Walton's study contains far scarier cautions for the keen tippler than any finger-wagging government leaflets do. Alcohol abuse, after all, comes not so much with its own baggage, as an entire caravanserai of the stuff. Evidence of the more obvious detritus strewn in its wake may be seen in Colchester's High Street each weekend during the small hours, or at dawn just before the clean-up corps arrive. The serious long-term damage may not be as visible, yet it is far graver.
Local media attention, however has lately been focused on a new bκte noir temporarily usurping alcohol from its long-running top position. The threat concerns 'legal highs', those nebulous, not-yet-outlawed substances which teenagers are reportedly buying openly from a Colchester shop. I don't know the place myself, but I presume it's located somewhere in the Legal High Street. It's somehow odd that alcohol, surely the most popular legal high of all, causes many times the damage of its nearest competitors, yet generates only a fraction of the fuss.
To mixed reactions from the public, a recent proposal for minimum unit-pricing of alcohol was met with a cabinet revolt led by Theresa May. It seems that nobody wants to upset 'responsible' drinkers by taxing them any further. Let's leave this particular hot potato at the bottom of the oven however, since I also discovered amongst Kessel and Walton's research many other quotes: Drunkeness was the acknowledged national vice of Englishmen of all classes. observed the historian Trevelyan of the days of Queen Anne. Interestingly, another passage in Alcoholism comes from The Pub and the People (1945) and concludes: But whether a public house is a happy or friendly place, or the reverse, depends also largely upon the publican and his assistants. It is strange that there are so many morose publicans only a minority, of course but an appreciable minority.
Morose publicans? In the golden age? Surely not? Nowadays, perhaps it might be understandable, with pubs having closed in their thousands and the surviving ones still under assault. The reasons for the death of the English pub?
The giant pub companies, widely hated for their perceived greed and mismanagement may well be one cause. The 2007 smoking ban, however, is almost certainly another. The ban, by default, has led to young children roaring around many pubs all weekend while mum and dad have a drink. Some regulars deeply resent their locals being turned into a crκche each weekend.
The managed gastro pub, with its jauntily-written blackboards and tables pre-adorned with cutlery and menus all ready to be coughed-over by drinkers is another loser. Its new manager will probably not know his remaining regulars' names, even though they may have been drinking there for decades. Order food and no sooner have you received your 'skinny fries' than a waitress will loom up to ask you: Is everything alright for yourselves? D'you want any sauces with that, at all?
And then, even though in theory, 24-hour licensing now exists, on a quiet midweek evening, the bar attendant will already have the mop and bucket in view at 10.30 pm so that she can kick you out at 11pm on the nail and then lock up. Two drinks each for you and your partner in an almost empty boozer nowadays will cost around of £15. You could buy a nice bottle of supermarket wine for half of that, and gargle cheaply at home.
Let's not get too nostalgic for the old days, though. They weren't that good. Forty years ago we were still overseen by the Landlord That Time Forgot, with his brown cardigan, his handlebar moustache, his warm bottles of 'Danish' lager brewed under licence in the UK, his two flavours of crisps, his peanuts and: No, we only do food on Sundays. There isn't the demand. You've got to get here before 8.45 if you want ice in your drink. I've only got one pie left, I'm afraid. Untouched by human hand. The wife made it. Ha-ha-ha.
Things haven't changed that much. Because this is still England, where nothing can be done and where we are told: We have just stopped doing food / run out / called last orders. We are sorry but... The landlord is morose? We'll you're not here to enjoy yourself, are you? And despite a certain puritanism which has always run through the English middle-class like a single grey skein in our social plait, many will still drink themselves to Valhalla if it pleases them to do so and you'd better not stand in their way. Just because the pubs are empty doesn't mean the hospital wards won't still fill. Are we missing something here? Half a century later, Doctors Kessel and Walton's book, seems as bluntly fascinating as it must have done upon its publication.
Alcoholism byNeil Kessel and Henry Walton was published by Penguin Books in 1965
Tis spring come out to ramble, the hilly brakes around... A.E. Housman
'Tis indeed spring. Just about. By slow degrees. Like drawing teeth, actually. The first I knew of it was last weekend, when I was informed that some of the young blades had been seen sitting down outside the local quayside pub, with their shirts off. This was in all of 8 degrees centigrade, you understand, with a light easterly breeze hacking up the River Colne like a scimitar.
That's the thing about Essex, though: ask not what the prevailing temperature is, ask only whether the sun is shining. And, if it be the case that Old Sol is out, then on with the trainers and shorts, down with the convertible top and out to a riverside drinker or beer garden for 6 pints of extra cold lager. These people seem impervious to the cold. Maybe it's a generational thing.
I can remember, for instance, in my own glam-rock maytime, shimmying out of doors clad only in scoop-necked shirt with wizard sleeves, split-knee loon pants (ask your dad) and half a can of hairspray to armour my bird-nest hair against the tempest.
You'll catch your death out there, dressed like that. warned my elders. Well, I never did. Although I do remember feeling colder than I pretended. I also had chest infections and sinusitis every winter. But what was a bit of seasonal distemper in such halogen days, to a sparkling young drink of water such as myself? I couldn't have the chicks seeing me in a dufflecoat; or worse, one of those terrible army greatcoats that all the students and hippies wore. So I either stayed in, or I suffered the cold. The youngsters these days, though, are a different breed. I don't know when it was that the shirtless and be-shorted look came in. Somewhere between half-past Thatcher and a quarter to Cameron, I reckon. Then it spread to our postmen, so that if you ever see the post nowadays being delivered by anyone not wearing shorts, then it's a pretty good indicator that it's only about a month either side of Christmas.
Then New Labour railroaded in the smoking ban, whilst simultaneously introducing us all to 'continental cafe culture'. Suddenly, our provincial pavements were cluttered with lightweight steel furniture, occupied by shirtless smokers, all belching, cackling and yelling Oy oy! at each other. That was halfway through the summer of 2007. Young Essex took to the change with considerable zest. Through all but the grimmest winter months, this style continues, today and they tell us that our High Streets are dead?
As you'll know, all the best comedy, like all the best tragedy, is born of dashed expectation. I promised, a few weeks ago, that I would keep an eye on Colchester High Street following the introduction of trafffic restrictions running from 11am to 6pm. The restrictions once put into action dictated that only buses, bicycles, motorbikes, taxis and emergency vehicles would have access during these hours all other traffic being banned. The latest development however, is that two days ago the whole experiment was suddenly scrapped after widespread protests, demonstrations and even a threatened court challenge.
I have to admit that up until recently I'd not paid too close attention, because, like all matters pertaining to cars, car-parking and traffic, the finer details have managed to fill up entire local newspaper columns and letters pages without doing anything much more than boring me to the point of muscular paralysis. A few interesting points arose, however. Some traders are complained about something called a reduced 'footfall'. Footfall? Who let that word into the party?
...and here are the Colchester Footfall results:Williams and Griffin 12.
Red Lion Books 6. If Colchester High Street saw rather fewer people these past weeks, it may have been something to do with the character-forming force 8 zephyr which blew without remit throughout most of March. This meant that even the simplest task of say, venturing down the road to post a letter required a Captain Oates -like fortitude in order to accomplish it.
However, I was in Colchester High Street only last Saturday, when the ban was still in force. Even in a comparatively balmy 8C, there seemed to be plenty of footfall then.
I went into Emmaus, which in House of Newell, for some reason, we all pronounce 'E-Mouse'. Emmaus, incidentally, is the best-dressed charity shop in Colchester, It always has interesting window displays and the furniture for sale is often cheered up with artificial flowers. This endows the shop with a breezy spring-like feel, during even those less-clement English months. By this, I mean, say, from October through to the following October.
E-Mouse was so footfallen last Saturday,in fact, that I couldn't even get a close look at the pre-loved books and clothes. Over the road, the banks and building societies also appeared busy-ish. Pavements were relatively crowded and Eld Lane, meanwhile, which has never even featured motorised traffic, was so comprehensively feetfelled that, because I was in a hurry, I had to cut through Lion Walk to escape all the falling foots.
Another thing which I noticed about the High Street traffic experiment, was that the buses ran more efficiently, many of them bang on time. I was beginning to like the traffic experiment. Too bad. Another one in the net for King Car, I suppose.
Next week: Why all the freezing weather we've recently had is clear evidence of global warming.