Free State review – Palden Jenkins

Published in Glastonbury Oracle, and as a Blog post, 

Free State – Glastonbury’s alternative community 1970 to 2000 and beyond is a book I never thought would be written. I could not have done it, even though I was as involved in Glastonbury matters as much as the author. Bruce Garrard has written a remarkably objective and comprehensive overview of the history of Glastonbury’s alternative community.

It tells the story of a kaleidoscopic, creative and anarchic subcultural phase of Britain’s history, arising out of Flower Power in the 1960s and gradually becoming the core raison d’etre of a former market town in Somerset with a peculiar history. Rooted in legends of prehistoric greatness, Arthurian significance and medieval ecclesiastical grandeur, Glastonbury has in modern times seen a century of history involving dissident metaphysical people and activities and alternative lifestyles. The period from the late Victorian era to the 1960s was ably chronicled by Patrick Benham in The Avalonians (Gothic Image of Glastonbury, 1993) and Bruce’s book chronicles the flowering of the post-60s period, up to the Millennium.

Separating out the strands of all that went on in Glastonbury, particularly during its florescence in the 1980s, has been admirably done. It is impossible to mention everything that happened during these three decades, or every person involved, but Bruce has included a fair description and assessment of every major strand in this complex and colourful period in this rather magical small town.

The book will be of interest not only to those who know and love Glastonbury, but also to people interested in the dissenting alternative subculture that lived around the edges of an otherwise highly materialistic period of Britain’s recent history. It’s a story of people who didn’t wear suits, didn’t subscribe to metropolitan beliefs, didn’t seek success and financial security and were certainly not conventional in their ways. They paid a price too, gave a lot to the world and reaped many benefits, more in terms of ‘content of character’ than material payoffs.

It is a chronicle of possibilities, some of which manifested in concrete form (such as the famous Glastonbury Festivals), some of which are yet to be realised (because the capitalism of Britain and the West has not yet allowed it) and some of which were pipedreams. It’s also an informal sociological study of a subcultural movement of which the musician Brian Eno once said, “I feel I have been part of something much greater than it has actually been”.

This book is likely to become an authoritative source for people later in this century who seek to uncover how many things of their time began. It’s a tale of largely-forgotten giants on whose shoulders many future developments will stand, and it’s a recounting of what happened in a small, globally-significant Somerset town during a period when most people were busy looking the other way, chasing their own pipedreams.

It’s something of a masterpiece and, though I must confess to being mentioned in the book and to having edited it too, I do recommend you to read it because it ably describes a chunk of history that more people could have participated in than actually did. This is perhaps a saga of what they missed.