How To Become a Hippy 1970-78
In the autumn of 1970, at the age of fifteen I wrote this:
“Stephen Dunster, being of sound mind, doth hereby his future life, whatever it be worth, to the furthering of beauty, peace and love unto the far corners of the Earth.”
How did such a decision arise to become a hippy?
It was the zeitgeist of course. I was a typical English kid, brought up in rural Kent, reaching my teens in the mid-sixties. Top of the Pops on BBC television plus Radio Caroline at night subliminally introduced me to the fact that there was “Something in the Air”. I treasured the rare singles I could afford to buy – the Kinks and the Small Faces were my favourites. I remember my first amazed sight of the cover of Sargent Peppers at my best friend Charles’s house late in 1967 (the first album either of us had ever owned) and listening to it was – as for so many people – a revelation. I stayed up deep into the night the following year to hear the pre-release of the full White Album on pirate radio. As yet I had no conscious understanding of what I was imbibing; the music and lyrics were fascinating and lovable but I was far too immature to analyze them or their effect on me.
In 1969 I found myself drifting away from the rest of the rough and tumble group of kids from my class that I had been hanging out with – fishing, stealing sweets from shops, mock fights, illegal beers in a dingy but co-operative local pub – and being attracted towards some of the loners in my school. The thoughtful, shy, unpopular and even handicapped ones who weren’t good in groups, or at sport. Perhaps a loneliness in me resonated with theirs.
It seems now that this period was preparing me for what was to come. 1970 brought a cascade of events that would lead me to identify myself as a freak and to write that manifesto in the autumn.
Quite how Charles and I determined that we must try marijuana I don’t know. Nor how we obtained a pinch of uninspiring-looking leaves or found ourselves under a bridge in Maidstone in early spring. We smoked them with a sense of excited anticipation that was not, as far as I remember, crowned by any remarkable new sensations.
But as they say, if you remember the sixties then you weren’t there. The next thing I recall is camping with Charles and another friend at two pop festivals that spring at Plumpton racecourse in Sussex. Already we felt we were different – we quietly mocked the ‘straight’-looking campers beside us, even though with our school regulation haircuts I doubt if we looked any more like freaks than they did, despite our home tie-dyed T-shirts. Perhaps we’d finally obtained something worth smoking (some older hippies had rented a house on Cranbrook High Street and were supplying ‘quid deals’ of Lebanese hash) because hearing Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower’ repeatedly blasted from the speaker stacks sent me into ecstatic goosebumps. The Edgar Broughton Band provided the grunty R&B to help me release my inhibitions in mad dance, while Hawkwind replaced the cobwebs in my head with farout swirls. At the end of the first festival a guy was handing out headbands saying ‘Woodstock Peace and Love’. I’d never heard of it.
Falling in love (a deep crush would perhaps be a more accurate description from todays perspective) provoked a romantic introspection to accompany my solitary walks after school through the woods and fields behind our house. Naturally there was music to accompany me, with my head full of Forest, Roy Harper and Donovan. It was unexpressed, so shy was I, and unrequited. The girl was more interested in a fascinating new arrival into our little scene.
Mark was from London, that faraway (just an hour by train in reality) beacon of hip. He spent the week at some progressive school there where: “Man, can you believe his luck? They actually allow students to grow their hair long!”, and the weekends in Kent. Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell were his thing (hitherto far too American for my English parochial tastes). In short, he was sophisticated compared to us bumpkins, yet his warmth as a friend balanced his cool as a freak. Before long Charles and I were visiting him in London, where he introduced us to a Jewish crowd in Golders Green, whose parents would disappear off to California or Paris for days on end and leave them alone at home. Where they could naturally hold extravagant parties, at which I became the darling of the girls by spending much of my time helping in the kitchen. I’d never seen anything like it: the freedom, the big houses and big money, the vast record collections……
I’d wake on the floor or a couch early on a Sunday morning and hurry off in a daze to get back to Kent for a 9am start at my Sunday job as a lawnmower cum stable boy. This usually involved a suburban train ride to some outlying station near the main road and then a frantic hitchhike down the A21.
Finally school broke up for the summer holidays and we could turn our attention to being full-time freaks for a while. We scoured the neighbourhood on our bikes, exchanging records with friends, listening to them over and over again before reluctantly having to pass them back. King Crimson, Quatermass, Pretty Things, Soft Machine, Van Der Graaf Generator, Dr John, Fairport Convention, Dr Strangely Strange – we absorbed the whole eclectic bundle. Trips to London to obtain something to smoke (the pedestrian underpass at Notting Hill, the Chelsea Drug Store, Kensington Antique market) and pick up the latest freak magazines (Oz, IT) and Robert Crumb style comix, involved hitchhiking or risky ticketless rides on the train, sixteen shillings under-18 return being beyond our budget.
The Isle of Wight festival crowned the summer. But it wasn’t the headlining Hendrix, Emerson Lake and Palmer or the Who that I was waiting for. Alvin Lee’s Ten Years After was going to be my highlight (and I have to say, watching the film recently my judgment wasn’t far off!). Huddled amidst the vast crowds, far from the stage, I had no idea of the chaotic goings on up there or on the boundary fence. Incomprehensible announcements passed me by; my main pre-occupation was finding my way back to Charles and Mark after a trip to the toilets, the fastfood outlets or a search for hash. Bearings had to be carefully taken and hundreds of bodies crossed. At one point, completely lost, I gave up and plonked myself down at random. Chatting to the fellow beside me I learned he was from Oxford. “I’ve got a friend who moved there”, I told him and gave her name. “Oh I used to go out with her,” he replied. So small seemed the world suddenly, and how central we, the festival-goers, the Woodstock generation, were to it. Mark’s brother picked us up off the ferry in a van. Three sleepless nights had taken their toll on me: I lay in the back half asleep and hallucinating the whole way home.
Music remained the thread on which the next couple of years hung. Incredible String Band in a Leicester Square theatre – I’d never seen such exotic instruments before; Pink Floyd in an Art College student refectory in East London, dancing so close to the band and their psychedelic backdrop projections. My school gave us permission to invite bands to perform in our assembly hall. We had a few one hit wonders who I imagine have now vanished without much trace, one of which was shortly afterwards to surprise us: Genesis had released their first LP but we still got them for our standard budget of fifty quid, (plus buying them all a beer in the pub). It wouldn’t be long before I was bemusedly and greedily gobbling up their second, then their third……
“Love is our religion
Truth is our worship
Conscience is our guide
Peace is our shelter
Nature our companion
Beauty and perfection our law”
(written autumn 1971)
Hash, and the difficulties of obtaining it in a small town like Cranbrook, was a second thread. I simply craved the release it gave me from the routine of a dull boys only school, a sexually repressed culture and home and what in retrospect was probably the trauma of being fatherless since the age of seven in a society where my parents ugly divorce was a scandal. I used it to get high and commune with nature, bowling through the fields, my eyes full of gladness at the green beauty around me; I used it for my poetry of unrequited love, for the doodles and drawings that would overtake my attempts to get my homework done; for drowning myself in music though a pair of old aviators headphones that a technically minded friend managed to hook up to our family’s mono record player. And for freaking out at parties, head to the speakers, wildly shaking my tragically not-long-enough hair, my limbs twitching, anaerobic blood pumping through my frustrated veins. Hitchhiking one day I was picked up by a freak and invited him home to my attic hangout. He produced a twist of exquisite Moroccan and soon we were catalytic with cathartic laughter.
My mother bought me a fifteenth birthday present of a guitar (a nylon string that I managed to hang on to as a momento from those days until it mysteriously – it can have had no cash value at all – disappeared from my sister’s house as part of a burglary a year or two ago). I had no sense of myself as a musician, my sole previous experience being triangle player at primary school, and no confidence that I would be able to reproduce any of the sound that I was hearing on my favourite records. I took a few lessons in classical, the main result of which was learning to read music and a few lovely studies that until not so long ago my fingers still remembered how to play. My sister and her girlfriend joined me and a couple of others to form a band, which lasted just long enough to do one performance as opening act in our school hall. We covered a few folk songs, including a version of Bridgewater Fair that I wrote a simplistic new melody for, and I strummed until my fingers bled. Afterwards we got compliments from our new headmaster (a progressive type who had taken over from the deeply regressive type who had occupied the post for the previous quarter century or so) complaining that he couldn’t make any sense of what the main act (Comus I think it was) had played but that he’d really enjoyed us.
The thread of hippy culture also passed into me through comix. These – mostly American – alternative cartoon strips often contained scenes that would today be seen as verging on pornographic and introduced me to the anti-war, Vietnam-protesting, guru-spoofing wider world. I’d listened to Jefferson Airplane and CSNY expressing this stuff through their lyrics, but now I began to take note of a broader picture, that included Black Panthers, feminism and environmental activism. A card-carrying English flower child, I was soon repelled by the righteousness of it all, and by the time I left school in 1972 I left Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones in their opening albums and found my gaze turning towards the gentler pastures of English psychedelic/traditional folk.
Gradually books began to take their place beside music as central to my education. An exotic gay physics teacher in my last year of school introduced me to quantum theory and to the mystical ramblings of Pawals and Berger. Jorge Louis Borges ‘The Aleph’ and ‘Labyrinths’ became a bible to me; my first glimpse of the cover of Lord of the Rings lying on someone’s bed had me grabbing for it like it was the Messiah. And the East was gently hinting at its’ future presence in my life. [see 1972-1984 Journey to the East] One of my Jewish London friends gave me a tiny illustrated book containing snippets from Tagore and the Bhagavadgita. “Let me not hear facts, figures and logic. Fain would I hear lore, legend and magic” sang Donovan and I brought my dreary course in Philosophy and Theology at Nottingham University to an abrupt end after less than a year.
It was a new experience to find myself rootless: I’d left my family home and, although it provided a refuge when needed, it was replaced by squatting in London and harvest work on farms around Kent. These were places where people gathered who had no particular attachment to the flower-children era but who, like myself, had imbibed their own take on it all. Suddenly there was the struggle for survival as priority (not that I needed ever to feel hungry or truly homeless until I reached Pakistan in 1975). I got a job for the local Council in Hendon, North London helping some good old boys mow the parks and verges. I did the apple and hop harvests around Kent, living in huts and an old disused oast house and mixing with gypsies, hippies and traditional Eastenders. To please my mother I even managed to get a couple of real jobs. One was for Camden Council in a children’s home (unqualified, unvetted, at eighteen not much older than the oldest kids there – how different those times were compared to today!); another at a charity providing food and shelter for homeless ex-prisoners. One of these, an engaging alcoholic, I brought back to live in our squat in Baker Street, where he’d engage in boxing rounds with invisible opponents and grin with bemusement at our vegetarian cooking. He was off before long and probably back in the familiar comforts of prison where three meals a day and all decisions were provided free for him. Neither jobs lasted, I was too restless to stay anywhere long.
Me, sometime in the early ’70s
I finally lost my virginity early in 1974, embarrassingly late compared to my friends, but delightfully. One of my searches for something to satisfy my mothers desperate concern about my future career led me to Colonsay, an island off the west coast of Scotland. Here the ex-military and eccentric head of an organization sending volunteers to work in the Third World had his lair, where he’d put prospective candidates through tests of endurance. I recall nothing of these, spending as much of my free time as I could smoking pot in the heather overlooking the sea. Of the rest of the options on offer I had nothing but contempt but ‘Assistant to the Archbishop of Ovamboland’ took my fancy. I was told that it was unlikely that I would get the post as the currant occupant was thinking about staying on but I insisted on my choice. On the train back to Glasgow a wee slip of a girl who had been on the course sat opposite me. She’d noticed me off in the heather she remarked, suspecting what I’d been up to but too shy to approach me. Her parents were away, she told me and I could come and spend the night at her home if I wanted. Innocent as a dove, I jumped at the chance to get a free night’s lodging before taking the train back south the next day.
So it was that I found myself in a suburban house in Stirling, having a hot bath run for me. How we managed to both tumble into it fully clothed can be left to theorists of evolution and the central role of reproduction in evolutionary fitness. Before long we were both naked in front of an electric bar heater, exploring each other’s bodies with our hands and eyes in wonder. It was the first time I’d ever been with a naked woman (such were the constraints of a 1960s English upbringing) and the image of the golden light on her skin remains with me today. I was completely incapable of getting it in once we were in bed; it was hard but why wasn’t it fitting? So, tired out, we slept and when I woke in the morning we’d done it. I’d lost my virginity in my sleep.
Joy and I met up a few times over the next months for energetic sex and I tried to convince myself I was in love with her. But she was having none of it and left as planned with a girlfriend for the south of France that summer. Joy, thank you and bless you! I remember you with joy in my heart.
I took my disappointed self off in autumn for hop picking at Tibbs Court Farm, Brenchley, there to meet Paddy, an Irishman who introduced me to Van Morrison, James Brown and the delights of Soul, so refreshing after a long diet of rock and folk. And Liz, another Scot, who succumbed to my blandishments and – just seventeen – allowed me to become her partner. Harvest done, we searched for a place to live, trying a caravan in Scotland (she caught crabs and I a dose of love for the country that would last into the eighties), even briefly renting a bedsit in Nottingham, where I worked as a delivery lorryman’s assistant.
Quite how and why we cooked up a plan to go overland to India as soon as possible I have simply no idea. Whatever it’s source, it required saving for, so we took ourselves to our respective parental homes to eliminate rent and met up regularly over the winter at friends in Bradford. There was fabulous Pakistani curry there, and sleepless weekends lit by lavalamps but the hitching was tedious and I leaned to curse the long queues at the start of the M1. I did odd gardening jobs at my old Primary school, where my mother was secretary and worked as a plasterers help at a building site in my Secondary.
By early spring 1975 we decided we had enough (around $500 between us if I remember rightly, adequate for six months at around a dollar a day each). Despite her being still legally a minor, there were no objections from Liz’s doting parents to her disappearing off with a twenty year old for an indefinite length of time on an unknown route through Asia. Nor do I recall any tearful farewells either there or from my mother. We promised to pick up letters whenever possible at Post Restaunte in major cities and to write whenever we could. In late March we met up in London and set off. [see 1975 Hippy Trail]
Self portrait 1977
My identification as a hippy survived the arrival of punk and the New Wave the following year. I remember how shocked I was at friends cutting their hair and adopting a more urban dress code. My reaction was to retreat further into the countryside (but not so far further as to join the wave of people heading off to rainy Wales to attempt living off the land). Liz and I moved to Canterbury, where I took a room in a ramshackle old farmhouse with a group of run down freaks. Hash was no longer getting me high, late 70’s music was heading over my head, but a return to painting, which had been my sole success at school, became a temporary savior. I enrolled at Teacher Training College to please my mother, chose Art as my main subject and spent close to three years out in the fields and amongst dilapidated barns with canvas and drawing pads, attending College only when required to keep myself on the course.
By late 1978 even this was not enough. Liz and I had separated and, the excitement of exploring the countryside around the old farm was paling. Hippydom had meant a rejection of societal norms, now I was barely connected to any society to reject! We had been going to create a better world, now I was just another longhair surrounded by other drifters. My 1970 manifesto was still alive in me but I certainly wasn’t embodying it.
Life provided me with the perfect answer in the shape of Diana, a Canadian passing through UK on her way to Rajneesh’s ashram in India. She was utterly unlike anyone I’d come across before. Her suitcase was full of macrobiotic food and exotic natural supplements; she looked with disdain on my ragged wardrobe and had long given up on pot smoking. She had come from Nelson, BC where her friends were Vietnam draft-dodgers building their own houses on mountains and locals running successful wholefood businesses and organic farms. She was five years older than me, which felt to me an eternity at the time, confident and clear of her direction.
We fell in love immediately and passionately and when two weeks later she left for India I knew I had to follow her somehow. I couldn’t just abandon my studies again, so this meant attempting to vicariously experience her path by taking myself at weekends up the orange-painted staircase to Rajneesh’s Kalpataru Center in London’s Chalk Farm and trying out the meditations and groups that she would be doing in India. I felt like a total outsider amidst the orange-clad sannyasins who seemed vastly more mature than me but could nevertheless feel the resonance between these people and my original vision of beauty, peace and love.
Over the next couple of months Diana wrote to tell me that she had taken sannyas and become Ma Prem Dagdha, while via frustratingly interrupted international STD calls we re-affirmed our commitment to each other. She needed a break from the intensity of the Poona ashram, she told me and I wasn’t yet ready to face everything I was hearing about the place, so we made a hasty plan to meet in Delhi during my short Easter break from College. [see 1979 India]
Thus began my seamless morph from hippy to sannyasin. While waiting for a bus in a dingy chai shop in Pathankot, Punjab I made this drawing. Something beautiful had died; out of it something powerful was emerging.