Like anarchists, only not as organised

FIERCE DANCING: Adventures in the Underground by C J Stone, Faber pounds 6.99

Jonathan Sale
Saturday 18 May 1996 23:02

If you think an alternative lifestyle means free-range eggs from the supermarket and lead-free petrol for the company car, read this book. Read it anyway. A paperback original, it costs a fraction of the price of a Glastonbury Festival ticket and will pass the time waiting for your case for obstruction to come up in the Newbury magistrates' court. It is an abuser's guide to what might once have counted as the Counter Culture and can now be summarised as A Bunch of Crusties Who Get Up Late.

C J Stone (make that C J Stoned, to take account of his mental state while conducting his researches) is the best guide to the Underground since Charon ferried dead souls across the Styx. He is part of the phenomenon he is investigating. He lives in a run-down council estate and, like John Prescott, used to be working-class. He has no permanent partner, although a 15-year-old son turns up occasionally. He writes for the Big Issue and, to judge by his cover portrait, could easily sell it as well.

He is not one of those Islington writers who turns up in a BMW and tells the quaint natives to speak clearly into his tape-recorder. His attempts at conventional journalistic interviews have, like his line drawings, a rather amateur feel.

He's unbeatable when he walks the walk and talks the talk with some loopy conversationalists. They open up to him over a beer, joint or tab. They could be classified as anarchists but only if they organised themselves a bit. The best offer hope for us all, and the worst are completely hopeless. These are the kind of folk who, if too drugged to remember what they were doing during the previous five hours, assume they must have been abducted by aliens. (If so, the spacemen would give up the quest for intelligent life on Earth and shoot back to Alpha Centauri.)

There is a man who thinks he is not exactly Jesus but certainly John the Baptist. Another far-out character creates a "psychic barrier" to ward off a planned motorway; he's known as Fen, as opposed to Finn, an ex-soldier who for the first time in his many reincarnations has survived beyond the age of 21. Kodan is a junkie who makes the lads in Trainspotting look responsible. Black Pearl is quite a girl, clad in only an orange vest and wellingtons. There's a bunch of folk all named Wally.

Stone joins enthusiastically in their road protests, free festivals, anti-Criminal Justice Act demos and pow-wows in teepees. He dances in woods to illicit sound systems. Yet even he sometimes makes his excuses and leaves: "I really didn't want to sit around a fire with a bunch of naked hippies drumming and chanting." He loses patience with Mung and Stew, a couple of free-range spirits who fail to return his hired car, which they have puked over anyway.

"This book is a mess," he admits. I am glad to say he is right. He offers no over-confident Tony Parsonifications ("... a design of shoelace which led directly to the birth of Punk. Next slide, please"). The book does not hang together - but no matter: each chapter has a wonderful life of its own with a terrific cast of characters. Even when he does not go out auditioning for them, his raw material knocks on his door. The man who comes to repair his computer turns out to have encountered an angel in Glastonbury Abbey.

Stone was not personally present at the Battle of the Beanfield but for him it was the day the music died. June the 1st 1985 saw an appalling police riot in a Wiltshire field. Their batons broke the teeth and smashed the heads of travellers who had been dragged through the shattered windows of their own vehicles. ITN's reporter witnessed the most brutal police behaviour of his career: the clubbing of people holding babies in their arms, for example. The worst of his footage went missing overnight and by an astonishing coincidence, says Stone, the BBC lost theirs too. Conspiracy theories flourish in the Underground and you begin to see why.

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