On the occasion of the Summer Solstice, BEN FINLAY looks back at the counterculture’s visions of Albion and the birth of the Glastonbury Festival
Albion has our noble hills for his bones and our native forests for his beard… a single figure outlined against the sea and a great face staring at the sky…
– William Blake
As the 1960s counterculture searched for new alternatives to the existing order, a quest for mysticism and spirituality became integral. The use of LSD would further intensify this need, and this would soon manifest itself in an engagement with Eastern religion and India. But travelling that far was an impossibility for many in the late Sixties, and would remain so until a good few years later when the ‘hippie trail’ became more accessible. An ‘alternative to the alternative’ was required, and around 1967–68 an interest in one’s own heritage began to develop.
But herein lay a problem. Modern Britain – teeming with class inequality and the last vestiges of colonialism – was something to be shaken off, not celebrated.
The answer was a new term that would embody an untainted consciousness, a new society, and a connection to the land. Or rather an old term, a resurrection of the oldest name of all for the British Isles: ‘Albion’. Within the lineage of the burgeoning counterculture, beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s espousal of William Blake certainly influenced a new use of the term, and it duly gained popularity among sections of the hippy subculture.
As a name, ‘Albion’ evoked a mythological quality that fitted very well with the mystical factions within the movement. In doing so, it removed any connotations of modern nationhood, or indeed modernity. It also went with a suggested vision – a simple, ‘authentic’ way of life away from the unromantic ease of contemporary life – the notion of ‘getting back to the land.’
Furthermore, just as stateside author Greil Marcus coined the phrase ‘old, weird America’ to describe the culture which created the other worldly strains of interwar folk, blues and country music, the notion of a ‘weird Albion’ would prompt an interest in British folk music, giving birth to a new wave of creativity.
The name ‘Albion’ was also deployed as the title for a one-off magazine, published in June 1968. The British underground press, which had begun in October 1966 with the International Times, now included the anarchic and visually arresting OZ, Tariq Ali’s politically radical Black Dwarf, and Muzz Murray’s Gandalf’s Garden. And it was the pure hippy vein of Gandalf’s Garden to which Albion belonged.
The launch of Albion was announced at London’s Middle Earth club, a hub of London’s hippy scene. Edited by Steve Pank, promoter and driver for the Third Ear Band, the paper featured prose from Dave Tomlin, and poems by Michael Horowitz, veteran of the 1965 Royal Albert Hall poetry reading.
Undoubtedly interesting though this is, it varies very little from what could be seen on the pages of International Times. But aside from the title of the paper, there are several points which mark out Albion as an important historical document. Aesthetically, the artwork is beautiful and the visual aspect of the paper is incredibly evocative. Created by Michael English, artist to the counterculture who had also designed for Oz, the front cover is incredibly evocative with geomantic images of dragons flying over the Tor at Glastonbury, here (in time-honoured underground press fashion) reimagined as a female breast.
Moreover, there is a major contribution from author and esotericist John Michell. In his lengthy piece ‘UFOs and the Message from the Past’, Michell espouses the mystical properties of Glastonbury, informing an increasing interest in the town within the counterculture. Michell provided a key text for the underground in The View Over Atlantis (1968) which put forth his theories on ‘Earth Mysteries’, sacred sites such as Glastonbury and Stonehenge, UFOs, Ley lines, and other aspects of a mysticism unique to Britain. Furthermore, Michell had strong links to the underground press; his first publication about the subject of ‘Ufology’ was the article ‘Flying Saucers’, which appeared in International Times (issue 7, January 1967) and he regularly wrote to the paper’s letters page.
Despite the brevity of its existence, Albion is a significant publication, thanks to the part it played in bringing focus to Glastonbury as a spiritual destination. In 1969, two years before the first festival at Worthy Farm, the Guardian reported that the Somerset town
has had a remarkable year. Hundreds of young people – hippies, poets, mystics, weirdos and sundry unclassifiables – have hitch-hiked and tramped into the town from all over Britain since March looking for ‘vibrations’.
The article credited Michell for drawing attention to the location’s ‘natural delights.’ It also went on to interview Muzz Murray; a piece on Glastonbury by historian Geoffrey Ashe had appeared in Gandalf’s Garden in 1968. In the article Ashe had intoned:
Britain will begin to be reborn when Glastonbury is. The Giant Albion will begin to awake when his sons and daughters gather inside the enchanted boundary, and summon him with the right words, the right actions, a different life.
The counterculture’s interest in reawakening Albion would ultimately manifest itself at the 1971 Glastonbury Fayre festival. John Michell would again have a part in this. Co-organiser Andrew Kerr was particularly enamoured with The View Over Atlantis and scheduled the festival to coincide with the summer solstice, which the book stated was when ‘astrological alignments are at their most energy-intensive’.
Further, the main stage (a one-tenth scale replica of the Great Pyramid) was designed in consultation with Michell. This was the first ‘pyramid’ stage; the idea for such a design was resurrected when the festival reappeared in 1979, and it has gone on to become the familiar icon of the festival to this day.
It might be an overstatement to say that Britain was ‘reborn’ through a hippy festival in a Somerset field, but in terms of the counterculture realising an ‘alternative’, the festival has undoubtedly become part of Britain’s cultural make-up. It is now ubiquitous, placing the once rebellious artform of rock music central to mainstream culture. But its underground roots should be celebrated; as Andy Roberts wrote in Albion Dreaming (2008), ‘the origins of this quintessentially British event are deeply rooted in the counterculture.’
Commercialised as it may have become, the contemporary version could not take place without the search for ‘Albion’ that resulted in the 1971 Fayre. Furthermore, in an antecedent to today’s concerns, that first festival promoted a consideration for the environment (at a time when it was far from a mainstream issue) and served only vegetarian and vegan food.
And what of the paper Albion? Ultimately, one could see the one-off publication as another curio in British countercultural history. However, when considering the part publications such as this played in contributing to a wider whole, it becomes more than a period piece with striking artwork and mystical ramblings. Seen as part of a quest to re-establish a deeper connection with British heritage, it transcends the contemporary underground concerns of the time seen in the alternative press; it is a ‘message from the past’ that finds an echo in the present.