Bare breasts, smug faces

Stone circles, dirndls, tepees, conch shells and yurts - the Big Green Gathering brings the New Age to the West Country. You can play the didgeridoo, have your aura read or your DNA reconfigured. But does anyone there do anything useful? Photograph by David Rose
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Indy Lifestyle Online
On a hill on the edge of Salisbury Plain is a place called Greenhenge. As you might expect, it's a stone circle: a sweet little circle of 21 roughly shaped uprights about four feet tall, with magnificent views over the rolling barley fields and dwindling dairy herds of the West Country.

On the first day of the Big Green Gathering, a five-day festival of all things green, brown and fertile which descends upon the fields of Wiltshire every year in vans and cars, in old library trucks, on bicycles, in dreadlocks and nose rings and Indian cotton, I took some time out against a stone in this made-up sacred spot. In the centre, young things shared a spliff and gazed at the sky. A nine-year-old boy flew a stunt kite with consummate skill. I was considering wandering over to get a few tips when the girl appeared. She was a stubby sort of girl, a bit like Helena Bonham Carter in a headband and a short red shift dress. She had a didgeridoo under her arm and was having a little sing. I couldn't work out the lyrics, but they went something like "Jaya-te-te-ja-ja-ye-ye". The dope smokers saw her and fled.

The girl walked over to a stone, sat against it and started blowing down her didgeridoo. Is there an extrapolative verb for playing a didgeridoo? Didging, maybe? Anyway, she was doing it, and making a noise like the hum of high-tension wires on an electricity pylon. And after a couple of minutes, she got bored. Crossed the circle. Found another stone. Leant her didge against it, reached down and peeled her dress over her head. Underneath, she was starkers, buck naked: totally without clothes. Her breasts bobbed in the breeze. She squalled back down again, knees drawn up to her chest and a foot or so apart, that part that dare not speak its name pointing directly at the sun, and got didging again. I just hope she'd made liberal use of the factor 15 before she started.

They wouldn't have liked it down in Longbridge Deverill. Longbridge Deverill, the nearest village, doesn't approve of the goings-on at Lower Pertwood Farm. As you flash through the village on the way to your downland target, you pass one of those useful yellow signs that tells you you're still on the right track. "The Big Green Gathering", it says. Except that someone has crossed out the "Green" and in its place has scribbled "Grim".

That's a bit harsh. Yes, Greens tend to a smugness about their relationship with the land that must annoy the heck out of the average farmer, but I'd rather have a gang of New Age Greenies on my hillside than, say, a Hell's Angel convention. The Big Green Gathering attracts up to 5,000 people at any one time, but there wasn't a scrap of litter. This was different from the unnatural cleanliness of Disneyland: there, armies of functionaries cope with the fecklessness of crowds; here, people take responsibility for their own leavings.

They do take themselves a tad seriously, though. It's evident from the moment you arrive. On a noticeboard outside the information tent, among the scraps of paper saying things like "Pia. I'm here. I'll be outside the Manic Organic stand around 10am tomorrow", and "Shaz, Robbie: we're over in the kids' area. Sunseed stand and blue van", is a notice entitled "Safety Precautions". It starts off quite sensibly: wear high- factor sun lotion and a hat; clear stones if you're going to light a fire as some of them are hollow and might explode; protect yourself from biting insects as there's one up here that carries Lyme's disease. And suddenly: "Bolster your immune system by eating lots of organic fruit and vegetables. Smokers need extra vitamin C!" and, "Smile at everyone, be kind to them ... remember, we only live a short time here and life is not a rehearsal!!! Treat everyone with the love and support you would want for yourself..."

As I read this, a middle-aged man and woman were locked in conversation beside me. He was dressed like a medieval court jester, in patchwork velvet and a floppy hat. She wore a dirndl. Dirndls are de rigueur here, along with a slightly insulting take on the shalwar kameez which, with the statutory holes and public displays of affection, would probably horrify a self- respecting Pakistani. "It's difficult," she was was saying. "I mean, of course I hug him when I see him, because we have to, don't we? But..." "Ooh, I know," he replied, "some people do make it so hard, but you have to keep trying. It's what we've been put on this earth for, to try to get through to people like him..." It must be nice to know you have a higher function.

Apart from the fact that virtually everyone seems to have arrived by petrol-driven transport, the first thing you really notice is the tents. There is a camping ground at the far end of the site for the backpackers' delight, but the main ground is packed with a showy collection of short- term accommodation: shelters of camouflage netting, marquees, canvas yurts with chimneys, benders, army surplus tents, majestic tepees, Bedouin tents complete with Persian rugs. Voices issue from the open flaps: "Andrew! I said no kicking!" "Would Alasdair like some cheese?" "I just love it in here. I can close my eyes and play for hours..."

Each tent, each vehicle, carries a sign: cider 3 litres pounds 4, scented flares pounds l, didgeridoos pounds 15/pounds 20; reflexology; massage, osteopathy; chinese herbs; reconfigure your DNA; dressed salads pounds 1.50; yoga; t'ai chi; aura readings. Everyone is busy creating, or practising their skills: a man whizzes past on an extra-tall unicycle, expertly negotiating the flinty ground and carrying a child in his arms.

There is a gorgeous Heath Robinson contraption made from old bicycle wheels, cotton reels, beads, bits of wood, old plastic bottles half filled with water. As you spin, thump and wobble its parts, they make musical noises. Parked nearby is a van belonging to Southampton Scrap, who "turn waste things into play things". There's a PA system run by bicycle power, and generating it is popular with pre-pubescent boys. It pumps out flutey, drummy Goddess music with the sort of lyrics I got embarrassed about writing around the age of 13: "Sun spread your rays to embrace the celebrants"; "I am as old as the earth itself ... see me now, aged and haggard from your poisons..."

On the edge of a beautiful round garden made from driftwood, willow strips and shrubs in pots, a woman summons people by blowing on a conch shell. They join hands and energise, smiling lovingly at one another. Someone asks her how you play a conch shell and she shrugs. "I don't know, you just blow really hard until it stops sounding horrible."

And this is the problem. Everywhere you look there are posters and people earnestly discussing the necessity for love and sharing, and making beautiful things out of bits of wood. But as the old West Country proverb goes, fine words butter no parsnips. Is there anybody in the New Age movement who actually does something useful? It's all very well running drumming workshops and teaching people to make chalk carvings, but these are the accoutrements of a leisured society. New Agers gather about them this indiscriminate hodge-podge of borrowed culture, other cultures' playthings. Sitting on a beach playing a conch shell is lovely, but if you don't get on with it and cultivate the manioc, you're stuffed come the rainy season. Ultimately, whatever the power of spirituality, survival comes first. You can't heal people if they're starving to death.

Sellotaped to the inside of a loo door, I found a leaflet from a charity called Tree Spirit. Tree Spirit want to plant native broad leaf trees - an excellent aim - and also "hope to create a deeper sense of awareness and affection for trees, woods and the natural environment as a hole [sic]". How lovely. They've bought some land and are planting it up; they are also - wait for it - going to build a "Saxon-style roundhouse". Why? People are dying of tuberculosis on our streets, and those who claim the moral high ground are fooling around building Saxon roundhouses for singing and storytelling.

Never mind. Learn to juggle. Make some crystal pendants. Sniff some essential oils. Cast the runes. Get your Tarot cards read. Eat some sunflower seeds. Have a lovely day out - and don't think for a moment that all this isn't a lovely experience - and convince yourself you're a concerned participant. And as the tree people say, "Blessings to you, may your shadow never shorten".

The Big Green gathering continues today and tomorrow at Lower Pertwood Farm, Longbridge Deverill, Wiltshire. Call 01747-870667 for ticket details.

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