(FIERCE DANCING, CJStone, Faber & Faber)
Some readers will be familiar with alternative journalist C.J.Stone from his Housing Benefit Hill column in the Weekend Guardian (UK). Here, at book length, he takes a brave new look at the Counter-culture of this country (& it is an idiosyncratically English, though by no means parochial, spin in that it excludes America, not to mention the rest of the world.)
As the subtitle 'Adventures in the Underground' suggests, this is an Alice-under-an-alias journey into a mind-altered wonderland. The illustrator is no Tenniel but the use of drawings underlines the connection.
We are presented with a fascinating mix of autobiography, cultural history, documentary reportage, & socio-political & philosophical critique. From the perspective of straight society, this picaresque hybrid offers a voyeuristic peep into a demimonde or underworld of outside-the-law drop-outs, travellers, posses & mad millenial conspiracy theorists.
Spanning a period from the late 60s (remember the Incredible String Band, Hawkwind et al.?) through the 70s & 80s (Free Festivals mutating & evolving into free parties) to the mid-to-now 90s, it is at once a looking-back (but not in anger), elegiac, valedictory evocation of a vanishing Albion of old hippies (who might only be New-Agers in disguise with their cranky concepts of ley-lines, morphic resonance & back-to-nature) & a forward-looking up-to-the-minute report on the emerging DIY culture of raves & road protests. For those of us who were there (but may have forgotten because all those spliffs wreak havoc on the memory), there are many resonances & reference points to relate to; while, for younger readers of the E-ed up yuff generation, it's history brought alive & kicking into the moment.
A long strange trip of a road movie in a beat-up old vehicle, it takes us the length & breadth of this land from the bleak no-hope council housing estates of Renfrew in Scotland to rural, idyllic mid-Wales & various locations in England; prominent landmarks on the way include Stonehenge & Windsor (of the Free Festival rather than the Castle), with many stop-offs at squats & other crash-pads.
It introduces & amplifies upon a bizarre cast of characters, who with their unusual names & demeanour may appear surrealistically strange (because so marginalised from the mainstream & at odds with consensus reality) but who are rendered recognizably human by a sort of matter-of-fact naturalism.
The author & narrator, Stone is in some ways himself the hero (albeit paradoxically self-justifying & self-deprecatory) of his own story. He is a participatory yet still somewhat objective observer of the whole shebang. His persona is one of an unashamedly shamanic alcoholic, a cool & no-holier-than-thou sceptic believer, who is not wholly uncritical of the counter-culture he portrays & is part of, though there is no doubt about which side of the fence his sympathies & allegiances lie.
It is an eminently readable & entertaining if partial take on that particular zeitgeist from the vantage point of Housing Benefit Hill. With his tour to promote the book in progress, it will certainly shift a few units for Faber & Faber.
Davy King (1996)
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