Nov 03, 2022, 07:46AM

The City Breathing

The politics of spirituality. The spirituality of politics.

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Every science fiction dystopia is coming true. We have climate change, economic meltdown, the rise of corporate fascism, and a global surveillance state which watches our every move, spying on us in the street, at the workplace, and in our leisure time. There’s nothing we do that isn’t being watched. Even our thoughts are watched, as we obsessively jot them down as status updates on Facebook. It’s like we’re conspiring in our own imprisonment.

What can we do about it? Is political campaigning enough or must we change ourselves before we can change society? What goes wrong when our politics are divorced from our spiritual life, and our spiritual life from our politics? Is there a way of reconciling the two?

A word about the headline, “The City Breathing.” What does it mean? It’s simple. The headline is echoed in the sub-hed: the politics of spirituality, the spirituality of politics.

The word “politics” is from the Greek Polis, meaning city. Its cognates are policy, police and polite. They’re all words that describe the kinds of structures we need to live together in large numbers in a complex artificial environment such as the city. We need to police our relations to each other, we need policies to carry out our work together, and we need to be polite with each other in order not to end up bashing each other about the skulls.

The word “spirituality” on the other hand, is from the Latin Spiritus, meaning breath, or air. It refers to an invisible animating principle at work in our world, or, to quote from the Third-century Christian text, the Hypostasis of the Archons, “By starting from the invisible world the visible world was created.”

Other associated words are inspiration and expiration, meaning, to breathe in, and to breathe out. To be inspired is to take something in from the outside. To expire is to die, to breathe one’s last. We can also conspire, that is we can breathe together while making secret plans; or we can aspire: we can dedicate our energy to the fulfilment of our dreams. We’re visited by spirits or sprites in our literature and imagination. We talk of the spirit of the times, and of people or animals having spirit. Native Americans talk of the Great Spirit.

So spirit is something that comes from the outside, that we breathe in and then out again as a form of expression. It’s a kind of acknowledgement of our dependence on the invisible forces of the Universe. Without air we can’t live. Without spirit our lives are drab and meaningless, boxed-in, boring, empty of purpose.

I’m not talking about religion here, or not mainstream religion. Religion is, and always has been, a contested realm. Religion’s the place in which our spirituality is policed. There’s always been a form of opposition within any religious current. There’s state religion, and there’s dissident religion. There’s orthodoxy and there’s non-conformism. There’s Sunni and there’s Sufi. There’s Catholic and there’s Protestant. The word “protestant” is from the same root as protest. A protestant is someone who rejects the authority of the Roman church, as Martin Luther did when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. That’s always been the case, from the earliest times. Who controls religion and to what ends is a political question.

In fact the spirit’s often disruptive of religion. It challenges religion. It breaks in on the cozy narrative of conventional religious discourse offering a new and often startling perspective. So that’s the meaning of my headline, “The City Breathing.” It’s a way of saying, “the politics of spirituality.”

We could also see it as a metaphor for the world. The city is man-made, and yet it’s empty without its inhabitants, a mere set of structures. We’re ruled by the city: how we live, when we get up, when we go to sleep, how we earn our living, where we live, how much money we earn, what entertains us, how we move about and at what speed, where we can go and where it’s forbidden to go. It’s like our breath has been sucked out of us by the city which is now living our lives for us. Our own creation has come alive and is ruling us. So maybe that’s what we have to do: we have to put ourselves back into the heart of the city, to take back our breath.

Politics is the means by which we engage with each other in our complex environments. There’s good politics and bad politics, good policies and bad policies. We can be polite with each other or we can be insolent and lacking in respect. We can police ourselves with wisdom and restraint, or we could live in the kind of police state we’re moving towards now. There are deep politics and surface politics. There’s the politics we see and the politics we don’t, ego-politics and psycho-politics, but what we want is a politics that can inspire: a spiritual politics.

I always think it’s a joke when people tell me they’re not interested in politics. So you’re not interested in life? Politics is everywhere. Whenever you put a group of people together, there’s politics, and that applies whether you’re in the Socialist Worker Party, the Labour Party, the Tory Party or in a meditation group or a knitting circle. There’s always some vying for attention. There’s always some jostling for position. There’s always some backroom briefing and behind-the-back shenanigans. There are always leaders and followers, lieutenants and sub-lieutenants, government and opposition. You either become conscious of that, and attach your politics to a greater cause, or you allow your life to be controlled by the kind of petty politics that drags us all down to the lowest common denominator.

I grew up on the left. My grandad was a left-wing Labourite. He’d be a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn these days. He believed in the redistribution of wealth. The post-war Labour Party was a radical institution. We came out of the war broke and broken, but that first Labour Government created the National Health Service, it built tens of thousands of homes, it nationalized the coal industry, the steel industry, the transport industry, it laid the foundations for the welfare state. The slogan of the National Health Service was, “from the cradle to the grave.” Later ideologues lampooned that as “the Nanny State,” but you have to ask, when did the idea of caring become an insult?

I remember as a child lying in my bed and listening to the rain pouring down outside. I could hear it rattling against my windowpane, while I was tucked up in my bed, snug and warm under the covers, and I could feel the world out there and felt safe and secure in my own home. That’s what the expression “from the cradle to the grave” means to me. It means a state in which our children can feel safe, where our old people can feel safe, which is run by its citizens on behalf of its citizens. That, very briefly, was what the post war consensus promised and very nearly delivered.

So we had free education to University level. We had a free health service. We had social security and housing benefit. We had fair rent laws. We had council housing. We had free nurseries. We had free dental care, and free opticians, and all of this provided by a state which was rebuilding itself after a devastating war, in which half of its infrastructure had been destroyed.

The reason I’m reminding you of this is that this was the background to the counter-cultural events that I’m about to describe. All of those hippie rebels grew up in the same world as me. What this does is to show you that you need a basic level of security before you can go on and question other more deep-rooted issues. You need a basic level of education and a basic level of health.

I was the first person in my family to go to University. That was new in the 1960s and 70s, the working classes being educated. I was a product of the comprehensive system, the British state education system that attempted to provide for people of all classes and all levels of ability in the same building. My school, Sheldon Heath Comprehensive School, was the first purpose built comprehensive in the country. It was situated in the middle of a massive council estate on the outskirts of Birmingham. Most of my friends went to University. It worked for my generation. It released us from the factory.

My two best friends at University were from working-class backgrounds. Andrew was excruciatingly class conscious. He was brought up in Loughton in Essex on a council estate to blind parents. He hated the middle classes with a vengeance. His hatred was fierce. You couldn’t go into a pub with Andrew if there were posh accents in evidence. He’d spit blood. At the same time he was into Carl Jung and Herman Hesse and listened to the Incredible String Band. Dave, on the other hand, was a hereditary Marxist. His dad and his uncle were responsible for setting up the Communist Party in South Wales, but were driven away because of their political beliefs. Dave was from Kingston upon Thames, which is where the family had ended up after they were sent into exile. All of them were communists, his mum as well as his dad, his brothers, his sisters, his uncles, aunts and cousins. At the same time he wore leather trousers and was a fan of the Doors and the Grateful Dead.

But I was young, eager and hungry for ideas. I read Jung and Hesse at Andrew’s behest, and Marx and Lenin at Dave’s. I even read some Stalin as Dave was an old fashioned pro-soviet communist, despite the leather trousers, something few people would admit to now. Jung and Hesse were preferable to Marx, much easier to read. As for Stalin, that was like being smacked around the face with a plank.

There’s always been these two strands in my life: the political and the spiritual, and that was true of the hippie movement as a whole.The usual story is that it comes out of America, out of the love-in between the San Franciscan beat scene and the politics of Berkeley, the mash-up of rock ‘n’ roll and drugs with anti-Vietnam War opposition. That’s true. But it also came out of the UK, from the breakdown in class relations caused by our post-war consensus. Rock ‘n’ roll was born in the U.S., but it came to maturity here in Britain, taken on by mainly working class kids suddenly opening up to the possibilities of another kind of life. What we now call “hippie culture” grew up as much in the post-war terraces of the UK as it did in the clubs, the art houses and bohemian cafes of San Francisco and New York.

It’s all about cross-fertilisation. That’s where all the best things come from. So it was the politics of Berkeley meeting the transcendentalism of Millbrook meeting the rock ‘n’ roll of Liverpool and London. And it’s out this cross-fertilization that the UK’s greatest contribution to the politics of the time arose: the free festival movement. The three key figures behind the early free festivals—Bill Dwyer, Phil Russell, and Andrew Kerr—all claimed they were guided by a spiritual force. You can read about Kerr in my book The Last of the Hippies, and Phil Russell, aka Wally Hope, in Fierce Dancing. So I’ll focus on Dwyer who was responsible for starting the Windsor Free festivals, held in Windsor Great Park over the August bank holidays between 1972 and 1974.

Bill was also known as “Ubi” Dwyer. Ubi is short for Ubique. It means “everywhere.” It tells you a lot about what was going on in his head at the time. Most of the photographs of him show him with fairly long hair and a full beard wearing a floppy hat and a multi-colored poncho. There are smiley faces on the hat and poncho, and he’s usually smiling and giving the peace sign. He looks like a bit of a nerd albeit a psychedelic one. He rode a bike everywhere. Sometimes he has a placard around his neck advertising the festival. He was a lot older than most hippies, in his 40s. He was a civil servant in his day job, a position he put to good use by using the office Xerox machine to create the tens of thousands of leaflets that he distributed throughout the country.

Dwyer represents a specific instance of this spiritual and political crossover. He was born in Ireland but spent many years in New Zealand and Australia, where he sold acid to fund his activities. The story goes that idea of the free festival came to him in an acid vision during one of the free concerts held in Hyde Park during the late-1960s and early-70s. He saw a massive gathering of people in Windsor Great Park, on the Queen’s doorstep, on land which had once been common but then appropriated by the Crown.

Think about how audacious this is. Even the most of fanatical of left-wing groups couldn’t have come up with that. To invade the Crown’s land in the name of an historical injustice and to put on a festival there. It was crazy but brilliant. There had been free festivals before, but none of them were as overtly political as this, none of them were so deliberately confrontational. Here’s the reason he gave for the festival in an interview with the Kensington Post on May 10th, 1972: “To spark the revolution of LOVE-PEACE-FREEDOM when brothers and sisters shall shout together “we shall never again pay rent!”

It’s said that he was influenced by the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 where he was one of the people who brought down the fences. He described himself as an anarchist, but some of the newspapers called him a patriot because he carried a Union Jack around with him. That shows you the contradictory nature of the spirits working through him.

He was extraordinarily optimistic in his estimates of the numbers who’d be attending the festival, telling the Evening Mail that it would be somewhere between one and five million, saying that a quarter of a million had got to the Isle of Wight and Windsor was so much easier to get to. Only a few hundred turned up and the organization of the festival would be described, at best, as shambolic. Nevertheless this tells you something about the spirit in which Dwyer was acting. It was like a great big “YES!” to the possibilities opening up in the universe. The second festival was much larger than the first and by the third as many as 12,000 people were in attendance. He never made the five million, but 12,000 for an ad hoc festival without any facilities in which everything is done voluntarily is a testament to the power of belief to make things happen.

In 1973 he sent a letter to the Queen inviting her to attend. The reply, by a lackey, was curt and to the point. “Dear Mr Dwyer,” it said: “I am commanded to acknowledge your letter of the 1st of May. The Queen does not wish to attend the second annual People’s festival on the 25th of August this year. In any event her Majesty will be in Scotland on that date.” Dwyer took the reply as confirmation of the legal status of his festival. She replied, and that made it legal.

Note the date of his letter. I’m certain that was deliberate. He was clearly aware of the historical significance of the 1st of May, as the people’s holiday. Maybe he knew that it was traditionally associated with Robin Hood and that for centuries the clergy had been trying to suppress it. Certainly he’d have known of its association with International Workers Day as all of the Communist countries at the time held May Day parades, as did the Trade Union and Labour movement in the UK. This point is emphasized by his name for the festival. Historically it has come to be called the Windsor Free Festival. Dwyer called it the People’s Festival, a name which was later adopted by Stonehenge.

In 1974 he gave the management of one of the stages to a young lad named Heneage Mitchell. Up to 30 bands were scheduled to play on the stage and Heneage, overwhelmed by the complexities, completely failed to pull it off. Later Dwyer confided in his young apprentice that “having the stage was not the issue: it was the belief shown in the concept that was important.”

That’s where Dwyer’s head was at. It’s all about belief. Believe something enough and act upon it and you can make it come true. What a difference this is to the kind of politics we see practiced these days, where politicians don’t make a move unless its guided by focus groups or political advisors. Can you imagine Keir Starmer coming up with an idea like this, or having the kind of courage and conviction it would take to pull it off? This is the difference between the kind of spiritual politics that I’m talking about, and mere politics. Politics is the art of organizing people to some end, and you can either be guided by the masses, under the sway of the mass media, or you can lead by example, encourage people and inspire them. The first is inherently safe and inherently conservative. No politician who takes this course will ever change anything.

Dwyer was guided by the inner light of his own convictions. It didn’t matter whether anyone else believed in what he was doing, he was going to do it anyway. He worked with the people who came to him and showed belief in them even when they didn’t believe in themselves. He took risks and when his gamble failed to pay off, he took a moral lesson from it instead. When he was arrested in 1975, for handing out leaflets despite an injunction against him, he said, “I know I am under an injunction not to organise this festival, but the God I believe in, namely Love, has laid on me a higher injunction to go ahead.” He was jailed for that and eventually repatriated back to Ireland, where he organized another free festival in Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1977.

That festival was opened with a communal prayer lead by Ubi. Here is what he said: “Dear God, whose word is love, in our hearts the seed, that justice shall be done, help us in our struggles, that we may learn to live together, loving one another and becoming better people, work to be one with you.”

We have several things going on at the same time. We have a protest against the Monarchy, a protest against rent, the idea of squatting on and taking over what was once common land for a people’s festival, the idea of a human gathering as a spur to the raising of consciousness, and an injunction from God. More than anything else this reminds me of the great spiritual and political stirrings of the English Revolution in the mid-17th century, which gave rise to the Diggers, the Levellers, the Ranters and the Quakers, amongst others.

Syd Rawle, who was Ubi Dwyer’s co-organizer at the Windsor festivals, was a member of a group called the Hyde Park Diggers, which in part took its name from the San Francisco Diggers, a radical street theater group in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the heyday of the hippie era from 1967-1968. Ubi Dwyer may also have been one of the Hyde Park Diggers. He certainly hung around Hyde Park and was a regular at Speakers’ Corner where he’d often promote his festival.

The Digger ideal was in the back of everyone’s mind. The main spokesman for the original Diggers was Gerrard Winstanley. He also claimed to have been given an injunction by God, in his case to take over the common land at St George’s Hill in Surrey and to farm it with the local community, sharing the produce between them. This event took place in 1649, just after the execution of Charles I. By April of that year a letter of warning was sent to the Council of State at Westminster advising them of the presence of a number of people on the hill. “It is feared they have some design in hand,” the letter said. The Council of State sent a dispatch to Lord Fairfax, the Lord General of the Army, asking him to intervene, describing the Diggers as “a disorderly and tumultuous sort of people,” adding that “a conflux of people may be a beginning whence things of a greater and more dangerous consequence may grow.”

Fairfax was ordered to disperse the group and prevent a repetition of the event. By March 1650 the group was driven off the land by ongoing harassment by the army and vigilante groups in the pay of the local gentry, although Digger colonies continued to spring up in various parts of the country.

During this period Fairfax met Winstanley along with another of the Digger leaders, a man named Everard. Everard spoke of receiving a vision telling him to plough the earth as an attempt to "restore the Creation to its former condition." During the entire interview Winstanley and Everard refused to remove their hats, because, as they said, Fairfax was "but their fellow creature." It’s hard to imagine now what a radical gesture this was. Fairfax was a Lord and used to being treated with deference. Not removing their hats in front of him, while referring to him as “fellow creature” was tantamount to a declaration of revolution. The refusal to remove one’s hat to a person of higher status is a trait shared by the Quakers, who also refused to bow or call anyone Lord, and the use of the address “fellow creature” is one also used by another of the groups during this period, a group known as the Ranters.

There’s some controversy in history circles about whether the Ranters actually existed. There was a lot of talk of Ranters in the popular press, where lurid stories circulated about their outrageous behavior. Licentiousness and drunkenness abounded in Ranter circles, it was claimed. They were said to share their women and indulge in lewd parodies of Christian worship in the pubs where they met, singing bawdy songs instead of hymns and drinking ale and eating meat in place of the sacraments. Almost everyone who’s described as a Ranter is at pains to show that they aren’t. The term is more of an insult than a title.

We can assume that something was going on. There wasn’t an organization as such, just as there wasn’t a central organisation in the early-1970s. There were different organizations. In the 70s there were the Hyde Park Diggers and the White Panthers, the Dwarves, the Wallies, the Polytantric Circle, and a range of other tribal groups. There was Release, the drug advisory group formed in 1967, and Festival Welfare Services, formed in 1972. Some of them were formal organizations and some of them were not.Looking at them now, you’d describe all of them as hippies. At the same time none of them would’ve used that word themselves. The customary term amongst the participants at the time was “freaks” or “heads.” The term “hippie” was an insult used by outsiders, just as the term Ranter was in the 17th century.

It was a phenomenon, a great spiritual explosion taking place in the minds and hearts of the people. Ranters, like hippies in a later era, were everywhere and nowhere at the same time. In the 17th century this had been created by the upheavals caused by the Civil War. The execution of the King Charles I in January 1649 must've had a profound effect on the consciousness of the population. Prior to that the notion was that the King was the representative of God on Earth. To have tried and executed the King on charges of high treason represented a complete breakdown in the mental and emotional structures which had held the old world in place.

This is what I mean by “spiritual.” In this case it’s an invisible force that holds everyone under its spell. Once the spell is removed it allows new forces to break in and a kind of temporary collective insanity takes over. The people at the time understood themselves to be engaged in spiritual struggle, a spiritual war. Read John Bunyan or John Milton. Both are telling the story of their times in terms of grand cosmological and spiritual events.

The equivalent in the 1960s and 70s was LSD. Just as the English Civil War challenged a King, and eventually removed him, so LSD challenged the Kingship of the ego and—just as temporarily—removed it, allowing for the entry of a new consciousness, a new paradigm, a new view of the individual’s place in history, and of the citizen’s place in society.

There are two things I’m trying to establish here: one is the idea of the spirit breaking in and disrupting accepted narratives of what's going on in the world. Gerrard Winstanley had visions, his partner, Everard, had visions, as did Abiezer Coppe and a lot of other people that year. Three hundred and thirty years later, Andrew Kerr, Wally Hope and Bill Dwyer also had visions. Something from the outside can be seen breaking into our world. What I’m also trying to establish is the idea of a tradition going back in British society at least until the time of the Ranters. What was happening with the free festival movement from 1972 onwards had its roots in history.

The movement reached its apogee in the Stonehenge festival, which lasted for 10 years, from 1974 to 1984, and took place in the fields near the monument for all of June. The last of the festivals was in 1984 when an estimated 65,000 people turned up. The festival was like a spur to an alternative economy. People bought buses and took to the road. People made things in the winter months to sell them during the festival season. They were setting up mobile kitchens to run cafes, building yurts in order to live out on the land, setting up hot tubs and sweat lodges, offering massage, doing meditation circles, learning a whole variety of new, and old, skills. There was a complete round of festivals, starting with the summer solstice, and ending with the autumn equinox.

People circled the country going from festival to festival, meeting old friends and making new friends along the way. Often the festivals were linked to ancient sacred sites or involved mass trespass on common land. They were political and spiritual at the same time. Later the free party and rave scene took over the reins, often attaching itself to the remnants of the older hippie festivals. The famous Castlemorton festival which took place over the May Day bank holiday weekend in 1992 on Castlemorton Common in the Malvern Hills, actually started as a rerun of the annual Avon Free Festival till the Somerset and Avon Police drove the festival goers across the county borders, who then had to find another site.

It’s also no accident that the greatest political movement of the 1990s, the road protest movement, started as an attempt by a bunch of post-rave idealists to get back to nature by camping out on the land around St Catherine’s Hill near Winchester. That movement was riddled with magical and spiritual conceits and involved rituals and spell casting as well as a variety of wild and imaginative political actions. This wasn’t about marching up and down on the streets of London shouting slogans to a lot of empty buildings, this was direct political action, offering your whole being to the cause, living it, being engaged with it, spiritually and politically.

The Stonehenge festival was violently attacked by police on June 1,1985 in the so-called Battle of the Beanfield. I say “so-called” because it bore no resemblance to a battle. It involved a large number of riot police with batons and shields wearing helmets attacking unarmed civilians, including women and children. If you’ve not seen the film Operation Solstice, I recommend it. It’s available on the internet, plus there’s a summary of it in my book, Fierce Dancing. I would also recommend Andy Worthington’s book The Battle of the Beanfield, which contains a mass of material, including eyewitness reports.

You might wonder why this would be? Was a bunch of youngsters sitting in a field listening to music really that much of a threat? It’s true that there were a lot of drugs involved. You had stalls set up selling drugs in the same way you had stalls set up selling jewellery or arts and crafts, with chalked signs giving the price, but the police could’ve stopped this if they wished. They just didn’t want to stop it.

So what was the threat? Unlike the Miners, who had been roundly defeated in their year long strike over the previous year, these people had no industrial clout. What they had was an idea. And that’s just the point. Dwyer’s mad optimism in 1972 in predicting five million people all joining hands to shout “We shall never again pay rent” was beginning to come true. These 65,000 people weren’t paying rent. More than that, they were finding new ways of relating to each other and to the Earth, new ways of making a living that didn’t involve working in a factory or an office, new ways of educating themselves that didn’t involve learning things by rote, new ways to construct their living spaces that didn’t involve taking on a mortgage for the rest of their lives. The festivals were crucibles for new, green technologies and for experiments in sustainable living. They were universities for alternative lifestyles. They were like cheap holiday camps for holidays that lasted the whole summer instead of just a week. They were political rallies, church rallies and car rallies all at the same time. People bought classic vehicles, converting them into homes and then showing them off at the festivals. The politics was anarchist, the religion was pagan, and the church was in the open air.

This has all been about land. That’s the secret that festival culture reveals to us. We’re not separate from the Earth: we are the Earth. Anyone who’s attended a festival or a rave and taken a few mind expanding chemicals knows this. Anyone who’s been to Stonehenge at the summer solstice will know the sense of the Stones coming alive. Where does consciousness come from? The reductionists will say that it’s no more than random electrical signals locked up inside our individual human brains. What those experiences out there on the land teach us is that we’re not isolated at all, that consciousness is all around us: that we breathe it in with the air, we hear it in the breeze, we feel it in the grass beneath our feet, we see it when we lie down on our backs and look into the vast deeps of the cosmic ocean, we taste it in the water we drink and the food we eat, and we absorb it through every pore in the very process of being alive.

Ownership of land is a spiritual as well as a political question. There are vast tracts of land held in the sole possession of just a few families. More than half of the land in Britain is owned by less than one percent of the population. Britain has the second most unequal distribution of land in the world. And you wonder why it feels so overcrowded at times?

Not being able to access the land is being cut off from the source of our inspiration. Not being able to gather at the sacred places. Not seeing the Earth come alive in the spring and going through its cycles in the course of the year. No longer feeling the rhythm of the year, the vast majority of the population are cut off from the spirit. We live disconnected, dissociated lives. Dissociation is a form of mental illness. This might help explain why the whole world seems so crazy right now.


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