I love British summertime because I love the festival season, even if it means trudging around a field soaked to the bone in waterproofs and wellingtons for most the summer – which, if I’m honest, is a common and likely scenario.
This weekend is the infamous, ever-popular, ever-growing Glastonbury Festival. Glastonbury was originally celebrated as one of the many free festivals and hippy gatherings of the 70s, welcoming hippies, travellers, protesters and others of all kinds. The freeness ended with concerns over ‘anarchist’ conditions on site (ie lack of rules) as the years went by, and in 1990 security guards clashed with new age travellers at the festival in ‘the Battle of Yeoman’s Bridge’.
Busloads of people turned up expecting the usual free festival, to instead find that the field usually allocated to them (outside the festival entrance) was inaccessible. The atmosphere grew tense and serious fighting broke out, and pressure was put on the festival organisers to change the way Glastonbury was run. Two years later (there was no festival in 1991), a 10-foot-high fence was erected to keep the new age travellers out, and a four-part documentary series titled Show Down at Glastonbury: Outsiders was made to explain the new security and policing measures on site.
Laws began to tighten in 1983 as it became mandatory for large festivals to hold licences in order to go ahead. I like to think that the Sunrise Festival, which took place in Somerset a few weeks ago, is a bit like what Glastonbury was like a few decades ago (Sunrise Festival has an entry fee too of course, but more on that later).
Imagine a colourful, musical, artistic green place, where you can look the way you want, dress the way you want (or wear nothing – or only paint!), express yourself the way you want, and talk openly and spontaneously to other creative, open-minded, happy people. This is the Sunrise Festival. It is also sustainable, as on-site energy use comes from green power sources, a lot of the food and drink on site is sourced locally, composting and recycling occurs, and there are eco-friendly compost loos to top it all off.
Add to the mix enough music, dance, art and workshops of all kinds to fulfil the creative needs of even the most high-maintenance artist. When we left Sunrise a friend turned to me and said: “I feel an inner peacefulness that I’ve never experienced before, and I hope going back to normal life doesn’t suck the feeling away.” This calm peacefulness led her to question why she couldn’t stay in that field forever: live there, grow food there, clothe and house herself there, and continue connecting with people, creating art, music, and dancing at a life-long Sunrise Festival, for the rest of her days.
The sobering reply I gave her is that land laws are strict regarding whether you can live in a tent or vehicle in a field for free (the blunt truth is, you cannot). The Criminal Justice & Public Order Act states in section 77: “Power of local authority to direct unauthorised campers to leave land” and in section 78: “Orders for removal of persons and their vehicles unlawfully on land.” Woody Guthrie’s infamous song, This Land is Your Land, comes to mind.
Partly because of these laws regarding land use, and partly thanks to ever-increasing public disapproval of ‘alternative’ or ‘hippy’ exploits and lifestyles, in the last year we’ve lost the Big Green Gathering, Strawberry Fair, and Glade Festival. The organiser of the Thimbleberry Festival was arrested after police discovered cannabis smoking on site, and they also ‘confiscated’ the £3,500 the festival had earned (as ‘proceeds of crime’).
Glade Festival couldn’t afford the immense costs of modern security requirements this year. The Big Green mysteriously had its license revoked after announcing that it would be fundraising for the climate camp movement. The public reasons cited in the news were vague comments over ‘health and safety’ concerns and site ‘security’ requirements; the major policing concern at the Big Green was apparently that of ‘crime and disorder’. ‘Crimes’ including nudity and impersonating stewards (arrests have occurred under these headings at Glastonbury Festival in the past).
‘Green’ stewarding at Sunrise was also a sobering experience. We signed up completely unaware that we would be acting as security officials throughout the festival: checking wristbands, watching borders, telling people what they were and were not allowed to do, etcetera. Night shifts on the outskirts of the site were unpleasant highlights, and they led us to question the need for such tight security measures at such a loved up, arty, open-minded community festival anyway..
The fact is that beautiful little festivals like Sunrise cost a lot of money to run, because there are so many new laws surrounding licensing fees, and this is entirely unfair.
I went to Reading Festival a few years ago, and it seems that the rules for the bigger, more commercial festivals are very different to the ones that the smaller ones have to follow. Of course the larger festivals can afford the licensing fees without too much trouble, but they also seem to have more freedom with how their events are run.
At Reading I had to careful avoid copious amounts of litter, including glass and sharp cans on the ground (there was no litter at Sunrise), and on the Saturday night it seemed normal for people to revel in throwing glass bottles across the campsite. A friend of mine had to be taken to hospital because alcohol spilled in his eye (he was lucky that it wasn’t glass). Compare this to Sunrise Festival, where festival-goers were searched on entrance for glass bottles, despite the fact that you could actually buy glass goods inside the festival, and there are rarely incidences of violence even so.
Is it too cynical for me to state here that gatherings fuelled by political motives, including alternative lifestyles, continue to be steadily clamped down on, while the corporate-sponsored money-making ‘convoy-less’ events are permitted to carry on as they please?
Which would you prefer? The tightly-patrolled heavily-sponsored advertising-haven with the massive-line-up, or the loved-up creative open-minded arty Sunrise celebration?
Oblivious to the movement against free and open-minded culture in our country, we have learned rapidly to repeat powerful (but vague) phrases such as ‘health and safety’ and ‘security’ in response to tighter controls of our rights to gather, protest, coalate and party. We readily accept the lines as they are drawn a little closer to where we dance, conceding to stand still instead.
The Criminal Justice & Public Order Act deems ‘gatherings’ of 15 or more people as worthy of suspicion and infiltration, on the grounds that in such a setting a spontaneous rave can occur. According to the CJA, a rave is ‘wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’ – so be careful what you listen to. Section 63 of the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act dictates ‘Powers to remove persons attending or preparing for a rave’, and last year under this section a barbeque in Devon was infiltrated when police claimed to have ‘intelligence’ that it was a secret rave.
The blunt summary is, that for smaller gatherings like the Sunrise Festival to continue, it needs to cover its licensing fees, as it doesn’t necessarily sell-out every year in the way that Glastonbury Festival is apt to. I’m all for the British festival season – Sunrise marks the beginning of the festivities for me – but unless we support the less commercial ventures over the massive money-making ones, the more independent gatherings will either disappear altogether, or be forced to become commercial events as well.
The sun has yet to set on the ever-increasing CJA versus alternative movement war (and I expect there is still more to come in that arena)- I just hope that it doesn’t effect the Sunrise.
That would be a real shame, and a massive loss to the British festival season.