Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

'The State It's In' - Squall Editorial

From The Ashes.....

The Spirit Of Free Festivals Arises

September 2000

Until recently the idea that the once profuse UK free festival scene would ever recover its health seemed unlikely. Decimated by culture-crushing legislation and paramilitary style policing, the UK free festival scene had been driven into a deep coma. All that remained in the vacuum (Glastonbury aside) were a few small eco-festivals forced to pay over the odds for policing, and a glut of festival parodies motivated and corrupted by commerce, and devoid of any substantial spirit or atmosphere.

And then along came the Free the Spirit Festival. Hosted on the Exodus Collective's Long Meadow Community Free Farm on the outskirts of Luton, the Free the Spirit Festival first began on August bank holiday, 1997. From the outset, Free the Spirit sought to re-establish the essential free festival vibe whilst at the same time protecting itself against reckless self-destruction.

In its first year, a small collection of experienced fezzie crews like SQUALL, Continental Drifts and the Kazbar joined Exodus to inaugurate what was planned to become an annual occurrence. The punters were mainly a Luton night club crowd who arrived in the evenings gobsmacked at the variety of entertainment on offer, and amazed not to be paying big entrance fees and bar prices for such a day and night weekend event. Naturally the Festival grew each year to become what is now widely hailed as the best and most authentic festival of the year. This year a new milestone has been reached which may have a significant affect on the rejuvenation of the free festival scene around the UK. A licence without cultural compromise.

Whereas the three previous Free the Spirit Festivals have all been illicit, this year's festival is licenced. This fact alone does not necessarily qualify for unadulterated celebration. What does give just cause for jubilation, however, is the fact that the licence has been cut around the culture rather than the more usual scenario of the culture being cut by the licence. The pedantic licencing stipulations associated with festival organisation - which soar above and beyond legitimate interests of health and safety - have made public festivals immensely difficult to pull off without major finance. And yet commercial festivals, by their plastic nature, lack the spirit which made the festival scene such an attractive culture in the first place.

Whereas the organisers of the Big Green Gathering and Glastonbury Festival are required to pay £15,000 and £150,000 respectively to their local constabularies for policing, the Exodus Collective have managed to secure acknowledgement from Bedfordshire Police that the Free the Spirit Festival is capable of policing itself. The result? This free event is more possible because the organisers aren't forced to stump up the huge cost of paying the police. Plus..... festival goers can enjoy three full days of festivities without finding a uniformed police officer looming over their affairs. Ultimately this is also a better option for the police, not in terms of over-time pay obviously but in terms of community relations. The level of justified animosity which builds up in a community when a police force becomes too intrusive is destructively anti-social. Bedfordshire Police say they will simply take care of local traffic difficulties and only venture on site if there are major incidences. They have already acknowledged that the Exodus Collective's policy of preventing drug dealers from profiteering on the dance floor takes care of their biggest concern. This agreement represents an unparalleled precedent.

Furthermore, as documented in previous issues of SQUALL, Exodus have developed a significant dialogue with Lord Howland, guardian and manager of the 13,000 acre Woburn Abbey estate owned by Howland's father, the Marquess of Tavistock. The tangible consequence of this unusual dialogue is the free provision of a stretch of previously overgrown set aside land on which the Free the Spirit Festival can take place. Significantly, the site is several miles away from local conurbations. An all night mini-festival which took place on the land on July 29 (reported previously in SQUALL) passed off successfully, allaying local residents' fears and earning commendations from the local council's health and safety department. Once again the fact that the landowner is giving consent without seeking financial reward is a precedent in itself. Some of the story of the Exodus Collective's relationship with Lord Howland has been shown on BBC 2's Country House series. In episode two of the series, the TV camera's managed to record a revealing exchange between Lord Howland, his parents the Marquess and Marquessa of Tavistock and their Woburn Abbey estate manager.

"Will they profit share with us or not?" asks the Marquessa of Tavistock.

"No they're free," replies her son, Lord Howland.

"Free! What do you mean, 'free'?" interjects the Marquess, dumbfounded.

"They do it for nothing?" queries the Marquessa looking up from her embroidary.

"People just walk in," replies Howland. " They do not charge them anything to walk in."

"So what is their incentive to arrange it," asks the Marquessa.

"They enjoy it," replies Lord Howland. "It's the spirit of free festivals they want to rekindle."

"How lovely, people doing things for nothing," says the Marquessa "They have price police my lord, " adds the Estate Manager.

"They have what?" says the Marquess.

"They have price police my lord," continues the Estate Manager. "They allow people to come and sell coca-cola's and hamburgers and they have people wandering around ensuring these people are not charging excessive profit."

Next year, the stated intention is to organise a meeting of free festival groups around the UK with a view to encouraging different regions of the country to facilitate their own local Free the Spirit Festival on the same August Bank holiday weekend. Having achieved a licence on land donated by an aristocratic landowner in the Bedfordhsire region, a powerful precedent has been fought for, won, and firmly established. Now perhaps that template can be applied all round the country. For all those who have aspired and worked for the furthering of such non-commercial community culture, the precedent established by this year's Free the Spirit Festival is one worthy of victorious celebration. Raise a toast.

Related Articles
- An overview of recent decades of festivals, raves, travellers and protesters - 1998
To see Squall's full coverage of Exodus click here