Coming of age in the early-80s could be a pretty miserable experience. I was eighteen when I left school in 1982, clutching three useless ‘A’ levels, having been rejected – mostly without interview – by every university to which I’d applied. (Unless you were grammar school, which I wasn’t, you weren’t getting in from a council estate.) Unemployment had hit 3 million, the Falklands War was raging; there were flag-shaggers everywhere and tacit support for the National Front in the tabloids and among the police and the government. Thatcher was riding so high in the polls she was already clearly unbeatable, especially as bloody Labour had split the year before, with the centrists forming the SDP while Militant took over the party, effectively making it unelectable. The IRA had bombed Hyde Park and Regent’s Park; Ronald Reagan was in the White House, there were US Cruise missiles at RAF Greenham Common, the Cold War showed no sign of ending and we all expected a nuclear war to kick off at any moment. (This was the era of Threads, ‘Protect and Survive’, and Brothers in the Land, which traumatised my generation.) It was fucking bleak.
I was renting a room in a rundown hippy house with three other people and estranged from my folks having finally had enough of being hit all the time. I was skint and signing on, I couldn’t find a job and I didn’t have a girlfriend… But fuck it! Why dwell on it? It was not all bad. I was already in a tight circle of the best friends I had ever and will ever have. And we were all in the same boat, which made it more of an adventure than a drag, spread out across bedsits, shared houses and the odd squat. As I’ve mentioned before, I was making a lot of new social connections in what turned out to be Norwich’s thriving alternative scene, while my best friend Mick, now working at Scott’s, was getting in with a group of mostly British bike riding mates and headbangers from in and around North Walsham through a couple of other apprentices. They called themselves ‘North Norfolk Mountain Rescue’ and cheerfully welcomed me into the ranks although I was totally outclassed as a rider and mechanic. (As ever, what I brought to the party was the weed.) There was Colin, Fred, Matt, Boris, Angus, Barney (his brother), Andy, Heather, Adam, ‘Terror’, Max(ine), and Ant, who now owns Jolly Rodger Tattoos… and I’m forgetting names now, I’m crap. (Help me out, gang!) Some, like me, were more hippies than your classic rocker, and we really bonded, remaining as close as family to this day. In the Norwich contingent, then, there was Rob, who was some sort of art student, and through him I met Will, an apprentice printer – he makes armour now – who may or may not have already owned a BSA 350 B40 by that point, a cool longhair called Carl, the enigmatic musician Mike, and Chris, who had a 250 Honda and remains the nearest person I have to a brother, along with Danny, who I met a couple of years later. (I think Rob started on a BSA Bantam and graduated to a 250 AJS, sometimes with a wooden sidecar that once literally fell apart while I was in it on the way to a beach party.) There was also Spike and Steve, who came from the local rockabilly scene – Steve had once won ‘Best Dressed Ted’ at the Caister Rock ’n’ Roll Festival – and had become proper rockers, both on BSAs as I remember. Womble was there; like me he’d gone for the big-ish Brit bike with sidecar and L-plates, a marvellously ratty, rigid-framed BSA M20 side-valve which I think he still owns among his fleet of vintage bikes, trucks and tractors.
There were also the adults in the room, who were kinda like us only a few years ahead, with decent flats, big bikes, and stable relationships who we all looked up to, like Martyn and Kim, who had respectively a Triton and a custom BSA A65 with various brass parts that he machined up during his lunch breaks at Rowntree Mackintosh, hence it’s name, the ‘Brass Tart’. (Kim had, and has a Triumph Trident too.) Fraser was another one of this crowd, he of the booming, infectious laugh, who rode something big with a sidecar… and I can’t remember what it was; Triumph, I think. (He always denies this, but he once talked me out of committing suicide. Amazing human being.) There was the enigmatic Ian, his partner Callie, Marty and Bev – Ian and Marty later got me into Harleys – Pete ‘That’ll be a pound’ Lowe, the wheeler-dealer of bikes and spares, and Freddie, Alex, Roger, and Gonzo Nick, all already brilliant engineers, and Titch, the ex-squaddie, who had a BSA chop and a huge tattoo on his head, Ian from Canvey Island, who looked like the devil, and Crazy Dave, who was… And above them were the proper outlaws – RLD and Glyn’s crew – some of whom were dangerous bastards, like Aidie, ‘Rhino’ and the legendarily fearless and savage Micky Royal. There was a group of mad bastards on Japanese bikes as well, with nicknames like ‘Thrasher’, ‘Monster’ and ‘GT’. We were all moving in the same circles – gigs, pubs and dealers – so again bonds were formed. And they weren’t all bikers either, honest. There was the Sannyasin crowd, and the trio of subversive UEA graduates, Mark, the games nut, Derek, who’d been a sound technician for the BBC and was active in the local band scene, and Dave, who got me into history, and a bit later Daniel, who was a Liverpool marine biology graduate whose mother I was seeing (I know, I know, but we’ve been family ever since). There was also Bear, who’d been a year above me at school – with film star good looks he was such a hipster – and Wee Jim, who was a UEA Law student from Scotland who took a room in the same house as me and dropped out soon after. (Jim was years ahead of the curve on Morrisey. I have a vivid memory of him hurling abuse at the little shit when The Smiths played Glastonbury.)
And there were the girls: Stacey, who rode a Triumph Thunderbird and became romantically involved with Mick; Liz, who had a 400-4 and eventually married (and divorced) Spike, the rock chick sisters Jane and Julie, the rockerbillies Cathy – who married Steve – and Kibsy, Will’s sister Amy, Sharon, a whole lotta woman, Charlotte the artist/musician and proper punk who went on to form the band Palladium, Jan the utter hippy, Morag, who jacked vodka and swung both ways, the Mann sisters, Deb and Steph (Deb was my first kiss), Alison (Crazy Dave’s sister), Cyl – man, was she a wild one – the Dickensian Glynis (who was just plain scary), Karen from Cornwall, who married Fraser, Vicky the art student and entrepreneur, and Nicky the dental nurse (I think), with whom I was unrequitedly and madly in love.
In Norwich, those of us out of work were all getting by on fuck all, supporting each other, and taking the edge off with cheap Red Leb, homegrown weed, junk TV, old records, and board games – I have played Risk round the clock stoned out of my mind. Most nights were some sort of a session or TV party – we particularly liked old monster movies in which the dinosaur kicks the shit out of the Marines – and we all just moved around each other’s places. Best of all, I’d managed to sail through my bike test first time – which wasn’t exactly difficult in those days – and I’d often skip meals to save money for petrol to keep mobile. I tended not to drink either (and didn’t until I became an academic), so most of my dole money after my share of the bills went on drugs and the bike – because dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope – while I lived off baked potatoes sprouting from a sack, black coffee, and cheap muesli with water. (I have thus been plagued by stomach problems since my thirties.) When there was work, it was temporary and cash-in-hand, in my case often on farms. What we lived for the most was the summer: the all-night beach parties and, most of all, the Albion Fairs. You’ll recall I ended the last entry heading for one of these fayres, or fairs, or faires, on a run with my mates loaded up with camping gear and cheap booze. Even crashing the Ariel hours before was not going to keep me away. It was that important. It was that essential to my soul…
As far as I know, the Albion Fairs were relatively unique to East Anglia, specifically Norfolk and Suffolk, although they did branch out into Essex, I think. They were born out of the hippy diaspora that moved out of London in the early seventies looking for somewhere more mellow and finding it in the villages and market towns of Norfolk and Suffolk: the Soho and Ladbroke Grove crowd of artists, writers, musicians and hangers-on who bought bits of land and did up barns and farmhouses and raised families. (They’re dying out now, God bless, but I still know a few who, much to their surprise, found themselves property millionaires by the nineties. Boomers, ’eh? They had all the luck.) This was the generation above mine, but I had older cousins who hung out in that scene, and out of a group of such peaceful folk living in the Waveney Valley came the idea of reviving the medieval craft fair, with music, theatre and circus acts along with traditional craft stalls, vegan food and real ale that would run over a bank holiday weekend. They called themselves the East Anglian Arts Trust – a non-profit-making limited company – to make it sound more respectable and went on to establish the community newspaper and organ of the local alternative scene, the Waveney Clarion. An agreeable site was found at Barsham, near Beccles, and the first fair was held there in 1972. (This was well before my time. I was eight in 1972.) At the fag-end of sixties hippy culture, and all the idealism and creativity that entailed (well, we’ve always been a bit out of date in Norfolk), the Barsham Fair attracted local families as well as the alternative crowd, many in medieval dress, and was a great success. The event became a popular annual ritual for the next four years until word spread so far that it outgrew its site as tens of thousands of visitors descended from all over the country. The last one was in 1976. Such was the love for the Fair, that the idea evolved into a travelling version which became the ‘Albion Fairs’, organised at various rural locations across the region between 1978 and 1986, again by the EAAT, introducing me to places I’d never heard of like Lynge, Rougham, Bungay, Brome and Thornham Magna.
I discovered the Albion Fairs when I was fifteen in 1979, a pivotal year for me, as previously noted, involving my first forays into drug and biker culture. Some older hippies from Friends of the Earth pointed us young’uns in the right direction, and with a couple of equally n’er-do-well mates from school I cycled to East Bergholt in 1979, trusted by my parents because, through what they’d heard from my country cousins, a medieval fair was likely to be a lot more wholesome than all that nasty punk rock I’d gotten into. As soon as we’d pitched our tent, we spent all our money on drugs. Everyone there was so nice. I loved that weekend, and not just because of the LSD. I made friends, I lightened up, I stopped worrying about everything at home and just lived in the moment. After years of miserable family holidays in leaking tents and caravans I finally grasped the concept of ‘getting away from it all’, which here involved jugglers, puppet shows, reggae, performance poetry, giant papier-mâché heads, pagan rituals, buskers, magic, Bruce Lacey, Mistress Crabbyquim, the Smallest Theatre in the World, lots of dancing, and atomic long-drops. And dope; plenty of dope. To this day, the smell of woodsmoke outside takes me straight back there. That little hippy campsite in the Stour Valley was, as far as I was concerned, the fields of Elysium.
Like a monomythic traveller, I returned home changed and able to bestow boons on my fellow man, specifically getting all my new bike buddies into this scene. And for us, which is the reason I bought up all that dystopian stuff about Thatcher and unemployment, the fairs became the closest thing we ever had to a holiday. This was a space where you could be among your ain folk, your tribe, with no coppers hassling you or skinheads chasing you down. You could forget about money, the mould in your bedroom, the Tories, the Republicans, the National Front, and the coming apocalypse, and just be – enjoying the sun, the music, the shows, other people, and whatever floated your boat. You didn’t have to feel like an outcast in your own country. If you wanted to get high in the open, nobody cared, and nothing is quite so sweet as a spliff with your mates around a campfire, while the cheap wine or cider goes the other way. It only cost a couple of quid to get in, and food stalls were plentiful and cheap, as was the weed, the speed, and the acid. (I should note, by the way, that I gave up all that decades ago so don’t judge. It was fun at the time and the only thing I regret was getting hooked on bloody cigarettes in the process, which took me considerably longer to pack in.) It was positively Dionysian, and the revels would last all night. Then you’d doze in the morning sun, have a smoke, a wander around, and then do it all again the next night. You might be signing on on Tuesday, but for now you were on another planet. As a fellow traveller wrote on the Broadland Memories blog: ‘In an era when Mrs Thatcher was teaching us all to think of me, me, me and riots were a common occurrence in the major cities, there was something quite special in being part of several thousand people gathering together in our little corner of rural England to live for a weekend in peace, love and harmony.’
And you never knew who you might bump into. I remember seeing Nic Turner’s Inner-City Unit at one of these things and was blown away by his version of ‘The Crusher’. I had no idea what that was then (it’s a 60s garage song by a wrestler called, unsurprising, the Crusher), but the blend of punk and rockabilly driving it was one of those ‘Where have you been all my life’ moments, a bit like hearing the first Alien Sex Fiend album at a party the next year. I saw him wandering around later and had a word. He loved our old bikes and the stockade Spike and RLD had built out of some of the scrap wood scattered about for firewood and joined us at the camp to talk about music and the good old days. I asked him about ‘The Crusher’ and he turned me on to The Cramps, for which I will always be eternally grateful. (The next week I blew my food budget on Song the Lord Taught Us and Psychedelic Jungle.) He and RLD really hit it off and kept in touch. When Hawkwind next played Norwich, he got my copy of Space Ritual signed by the band. I tell you, that man’s a national treasure.
You could spend a lot of the summer drifting from fair to fair, then hitch to Stone Henge for the Solstice. (I wouldn’t trust my old Ariel to get me there and the whole point was to relax.) It couldn’t last though, and as the Tory Press manufactured the moral panic of the ‘Peace Convoy’, travellers who traded in a miserable life in a council block for an old bus, a community and the open road, became national pariahs. All the inflammatory rhetoric came to a head at the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985 (where I and many other harmless folk got beaten up by riot police and arrested heading for the Stones), which put an emphatic end to the culture of the Albion Fairs and the free festivals as Thatcher’s new public order acts banned gatherings on public land. But that, as they say, is another story…
I’ve done big musical festivals since, and I stuck with Glastonbury until it became so corporate that it simply wasn’t fun anymore. I’ve even been to Latitude a few times, but nothing will ever equal the intensity of the experience of those little Albion Fairs, not even the Henge. I found some photos from one of the Rougham Tree Fairs for this piece, and posted a couple on social media this week, to which Rob replied: ‘If time travel were possible, I would probably spend quite a lot of time there recreationally.’ And he’s right. This is the happy place. One of those perfect memories, of sunshine and peace and being young. It was a long time coming, but his was my happy childhood.
This post was written to the music of Hawkwind…