Friday, 28 December 2012

Weighed down with stones.

At my first school I could see the Westbury white horse from my desk. The school was in Southwick near Trowbridge, as our mother taught us to say when making us memorise our address in case we got lost. We moved to Bath in 1973, so this would have been ‘72. The only other thing I remember about the school was pissing myself in class on my first day, that there was an outside toilet without a roof I didn't want to go to. I suppose I could be wrong about being able to see the white horse from my desk, but at this remove, does it matter?

I am sitting in Westbury town centre, it is the late morning of a rainy weekday in the summer of 1985. With me is a man called Slag, a nickname he gained at his school because his surname is Hoare. We are eating from a cold tin of beans and a dry sliced white loaf with a teaspoon, making rudimentary sarnies, food that we have bought from a supermarket for a grand total of less than fifty pence. Along with a couple of hundred other punks and hippies we have spent the previous night up on the white horse. The hippies have been chased all around Wiltshire by the police, thrashed and threatened and thrown from site to site all through June, as they attempt to get to Stonehenge. This is the first year that the ban on the Stonehenge free festival has been rigorously enforced. It began with the battle of the beanfield earlier in the month, the police went berserk and there was a lot of bloodshed. The miners strike came to an official end in March, and Margaret Thatcher has declared the Peace Convoy to be the new enemy within. We are only delighted to do anything we can to make life difficult for such things as hippy convoys, she tells the press. The police, emboldened by astronomical pay rises and the free hand they were given during the great strike, know that they can now get away with anything. The BBC are on their side, as they were at Orgreave and Wapping. Their lies at Orgreave will not be exposed for at least another decade; for now they are still generally seen as impartial, and not what they really are: a propaganda mill that would put TASS to shame, the publicity wing of the conservative party. We are not hippies, we are punks, but really we are all of a piece. We have cadged a ride up to Westbury the night before in the back of Chris Spurrell’s little van; myself, Slag, Bully and Howie. We have been to see a punk band at Walcot village hall. They are the Icons of Filth from Cardiff.

Slag is from South Wales as well, from Briton Ferry, just outside of Swansea. Through mouthfuls of cold beans and dry white bread, he tells me it’s bollocks what people say, you don’t need money to have a good time. I don’t say anything. The previous evening has been a washout, literally and figuratively. There have been no bands – there were the usual rumours of amebix and antisect turning up – but even the promised generator didn’t materialise. Neither was there shelter. We slept in a ditch behind a tree and are both soaked through. Handing me the half finished tin of beans and rubbing tomato sauce into the folds of his crusty parka, sucking the rest of the bean juice from his grimy fingers, Slag wonders aloud where Bully has got to. He walked down across the fields and into the town with us but has since disappeared. I tell him I don’t know, he was with us when we passed the church, and I wonder aloud about Howie. Slag doesn’t seem to know who I’m talking about so I tell him Howie’s life story as best I know it.

I don’t know where Howie is from but he is a Bristol squatter, from the notorious demolition ballroom, an old car showroom that has been made empty along with many other properties in the area, in readiness for a new roundabout and one-way system. There is no electricity there, they have been stealing power by discreetly running cables from nearby lampposts. They also occupy an abandoned café next door, which they have christened the demolition diner. They have made it into a new café, the food all vegan, cooked at no charge, but donations appreciated. They have made up stickers to encourage donations, stickers that read dig deep for the diner!’ These are a pastiche of the ubiquitous NUM stickers that said, dig deep for the miners. Some of the new stickers are the old stickers, adapted with black marker pen. The café has its own power, the electricity not yet cut off, so the supply for the demolition ballroom is supplemented by the café as well. In the ballroom there is also no running water. The toilets are situated down a slimy set of stone steps. You go down them in complete darkness, although candle stubs have been left lying around here and there. Few people bother with the steps unless they are truly desperate, or have dysentery. You stand at the top of the steps and you piss down them, into the void. If you do not have dysentery before you go down the steps you will have it by the time you come back up. There is no door at the top of the steps – it has been removed for firewood and beside the doorspace somebody has helpfully painted an arrow and a trilingual sign: the bog, les bogs, el bogo. Once, made desperate by too much lager consumed in a pub about a mile away, I try to piss down the steps. It takes me a moment to get my flow going and my arc right. But as soon as I am in full flow, I hear a scream from below, then a crazed gurgling and rapid footsteps. I turn on my heel, still pissing, and I push people out of my way to make my escape into the street, trying to put my dick away as I go in order to avoid detection. A drunk punk, named appletree because of his green jumpsuit, spiky green hair and a fondness for scrumpy cider, has been sleeping it off at the bottom of the steps and I have woken him up. Pissing down the steps of el bogo is an acquired skill.

Howie is on the run from the army. He is rumoured to have seen action in the Falklands. Traumatised and shellshocked, he has signed up for a further five years but has changed his mind. He has gone AWOL and fetched up on the streets of Bristol, so his barracks are probably a long way away, possibly up north, although his accent is more London. Sleeping in the parks and the multi-storey car parks, he has discovered glue sniffing and has learned how to bark at people who get too close. He carries a hunting knife and still wears his army boots. He lives like this for about a year before he is rescued by the big-hearted animal rights people, who take him back to their squat, wean him off solvents and introduce him to lysergic acid and speed. Despite his near pathological hatred of hippies, his best friend is an acid casualty named furniture, an old man who wears a waist length beard threaded with multi coloured beads and who never speaks. Howie is now a vegan and an anarchist punk. The army are still looking for him, they leave no man behind. He has come with us to the Westbury white horse in search of drugs and free love, and now, like Bully, he has disappeared.

As I finish telling Slag all this, he shrugs his shoulders, still unable to place him. He says something about Taf from disorder owing him some money, a reference to the demolition diner, and then he wipes bean juice from his mouth with the sleeve of his parka and belches loudly. He gets up. I hurriedly finish off the beans and hand him back the teaspoon and the bread, telling him that he should keep it because he has further than me to go. I put out my hand and he helps me up. I tell him that I grew up around here, that I was born only eight miles away, in Bradford on Avon. He shrugs his shoulders again. We walk off toward the A4 in hungover silence, preparing to hitch-hike back to Bath and South Wales. Our boots and our clothes are sodden but, high above us, the sun is breaking through the clouds and the day is beginning to warm. In the next week, the local press will be full of stories and irate letters, because they believe that the punks and the hippies have defaced the white horse – that they, we, have dug up the turf around the horse’s head to give it a horn and make it a unicorn. It turns out that they have arranged an assortment of white bin liners and carrier bags, weighed down with stones, into a cone shape; that when they leave they will tidy up much of the mess they have made and take some of the magic away with them, away to the next site and the next battle. To the next patch of earth from which we have all sprung. This earth, our home.

© Ted Curtis 2012 & 2014.

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