At the tender age of 17, before FOMO was even a thing, I managed to miss Castlemorton festival. The biggest free party ever held, it took place on Castlemorton Common just 13 miles from my hometown of Worcester between May 22-29, 1992. While I styled myself as a bit of a rebel in paraboots and stripy tights, I wasn’t brave enough to sneak out the door and hitch a ride up to this bacchanal. In short, there was no real substance behind my grungy getup, I was simply copying the real renegades: the new age travellers that roamed the British countryside that time. Telling myself there would be other parties, I went back to studying for my A-levels.
I was only partly right. While I did attend raves in underground venues as a student, the Criminal Justice Act – a knee jerk reaction against Castlemorton – came into force and these unlicensed events began to disappear. Eventually, free parties emitting a “succession of repetitive beats” became a thing of the past. Dance music had been co-opted by the big clubs and those wanting to let loose had to pay hefty door charges for the privilege.
Why had the government reacted so excessively? This was something I had more of an insight in. Though I wasn’t there for the rave, I did have front row seats to the ensuing moral panic. Rewind to Worcester 1992 and Spiral Tribe, the collective held responsible for Castlemorton were camped outside the police station demanding the return of their sound system. While half the town was up in arms, the other half (me included) was cheering them on.
It was a moment that stayed with me. These grubby renegades lived a life outside a system that was slowly closing its grip on me and my contemporaries. A world in which rents were rising so quickly that once you clocked off, you were barely left with any energy or means to do the things you cared about. For me, this meant writing. Hoping to find the time and space to be creative, I moved to Brighton. A decision that now strikes me as incredibly naïve.
The Death of a Dream
The first sign that my dreams did not coincide with reality stumbled up to my pub table in the North Laines in ratty dreads and mud-splashed boots.
“The party’s over maaaan,’ he declared, 100 proof breath carrying the acidic tang of too many cider-soaked nights.
And he was right. Whenever a free party was declared, we arrived to an empty beach. A few charred tinnies smoldering in a suffocated firepit were the only signs that something had been about to happen. That is until the police turned up first to shut things down. Eventually, I managed to get to an event that lasted all night. However, by this point the drugs had simply stopped working, or rather were working too well. One image in particular remains etched in my mind of a man face forward in a puddle with his trousers round his ankles, bare mud-streaked bottom illuminated in the dawn light. Ketamine, rather than ecstasy, was now the drug of choice.
People were trying to dance dosed up on horse tranquillizers. This was nothing like the carefree events I’d been to in London: tribal art and gritted smiles glowing under UV lights as a friendly crowd bounced in unison to a sound system that was literally shaking the dust out of the brick walls of old warehouses.
Still, I shrugged this slight disappointment off. I was at heart an indie kid, so wasn’t really bothered that I could no longer rave all night for free. The ravers had their clubs, didn’t they? What did I care that they were being gouged for expensive water, that their culture had become commodified, their rebellion sold back to them at over-inflated prices?
Rave culture, however, wasn’t the only thing being sold out. Socialism too had been appropriated by the smarmy upwardly mobile Tony Blair. The Labour party, once a beacon of hope for the working classes was now embracing free market economics, unions be damned. Hyping a Cool Britania of Blur and Oasis, while doing nothing to foster the arts at a grassroots level.
No surprise then that I found myself barely scraping by, doing not one but two jobs to make rent. Living in a basement bedsit whose walls turned black with mold within two weeks of moving in. Even once I’d managed to scrape the money together to move into a proper shared flat, I still found myself stuck on the poverty line, working at a call center in a job that involved being abused by angry customers day in day out.
Life in a Squat
So I did the only reasonable thing I could do: got together with a bunch of mates and squatted a building. And initially, despite having to deal with a kitchen infested with rats, we were living the dream. I was writing a novel, for the first time. Not only that, but enjoying a communal life where we all pitched in for food to cook each other healthy meals. Where we had long stimulating conversations into the night in a shopfront lounge daubed with some dubious artwork one of our many visitors had left behind.
The artwork in question was of bouquets of flowers in plant pots. Despite the rudimentary skills of the artist, it might have been cheerful, except for the fact that the paint had begun to run down the walls. My housemate, summed it up best when he surveyed the completed work and commented that he felt as if he was ‘inside the mind of a madman.’
Like it or not, things were souring. More and more people were hoping to crash there. Two friends slept on our sofa because life in a van had proved impossible during the winter. One slightly unhinged guest even wound up sleeping in our bath! Clearly the party was over, only we didn’t know it until the eviction notice turned up.
Though I moved to another squat, the filth and my housemate’s slide into heroin addiction was beginning to depress me. So I worked hard, saved up all my money and did a TEFL course. Living in Japan, I eventually realised my dream of becoming a writer, though not of fiction. Aware that I would always need to to pay the bills, I turned to journalism. But this was never my first love and I always dreamed of finding the freedom to combine a day job with writing.
Writing fiction only became possible because of my extremely supportive husband. And guess what? In my first novel, The Insect Room, I found myself describing a free party in a field in Worcestershire. A party shut down by the police leaving a family of travellers stranded and vulnerable, prey to a member of the landed gentry. A psychological thriller that explores the class tensions that continue to haunt Britain. A Britain where free parties are no longer possible and even squatting has been outlawed.
Whatever Happened to Spiral Tribe?
The Criminal Justice Act and the crackdowns that followed was undeniably an unmitigated defeat. But this draconian legislation was prefaced by a small victory. Spiral Tribe, the group that provided the beats for Castlemorton, actually won the subsequent court case against them. Intrigued to read their story, I checked out an interview with Spiral Tribe’s Mark Harrison. Interestingly, Mark had also been forced to turn to squatting to allow him the freedom to pursue his artistic interests. And he had also wound up going overseas to find freedoms denied him in his own country. Travelling round Europe with a sound system, he set up parties that should, by rights, have taken place in Britain.
My novel, The Insect Room is available to buy in paperback and for Kindle from Amazon. A “wide release” to other platforms is planned later this year. Most of the photos in this article were taken by my husband, Sergio de Isidro (Ninpuu Kamui)