A look back at the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’ in Norwich
PUBLISHED: 12:30 04 July 2017 | UPDATED: 12:30 04 July 2017
Fifty years on from the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’ when an estimated 100,000 people converged on San Francisco in search of nirvana, Victoria Manthorpe looks back at how an Anglo-American youth counter-culture arrived in Norwich and thrived in Norfolk for nearly a decade
Despite its transitory nature, the Summer of Love gave rise to an explosion of energy and captured the imagination of a generation. In that same year The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the profane rock musical Hair opened off-Broadway. The new movement was inspired by Timothy Leary’s experiments with the psychedelic drug LSD and his slogan ‘turn on, tune-in, drop out’.
Its deeper roots were in the Beat culture of the 1950s that embraced jazz, existentialism and marijuana. Vehemently anti-establishment and anti-war (Vietnam and the atom bomb), many young people quickly espoused free love, Eastern and shamanic spirituality, ecological awareness, vegetarianism and social openness.
Hippy ideas swept across the Atlantic to already Swinging London and it wasn’t long before some young idealists wanted to escape from urban commercialism into quiet backwaters - including Norfolk. In Norwich the new University of East Anglia had opened its doors to an influx of young people and, hey, the moon was in the Seventh House; the time was ripe.
Dissemination of new ideas came through small presses, imported publications, underground newspapers and comics. San Francisco’s radical City Lights Bookstore, a beacon for the underground since the 1950s, was the inspiration for a number of alternative UK bookshops. In the estimation of Norfolk publisher Richard Barnes: “It would be true to say that the hotbed of counterculture in Norwich was Bristow’s Bookshop, run by the late Giles Bristow in Bridewell Alley. His bookshop had books which changed people’s minds. There were books about Paris 1968 and American anti-war protest. And there were poetry books for sale. No other bookshop in Norwich then or since could compare.”
Giles Bristow (1940- 1993) was from a Bohemian London family that had relocated to Norfolk in the 1950s. He was a veteran of the Aldermaston peace marches and of a libertarian persuasion; the bookshop which he opened in 1968 was much more than a business venture. Norch, a poetry magazine, was produced on the premises, while the back room and the basement were regularly and freely used for events and readings. Pip Mosley, then an MA student at UEA who sometimes edited Norch, described the atmosphere as ‘cheerfully chaotic’.
But it was by no means the only venue for underground poetry. Mosley recalled: “Bishopsgate was the site of two pub venues: a back room of the Red Lion by Bishop’s Bridge, and the main bar (drinks were carried in from the taproom) of the venerable Adam and Eve. Diz Willis, Derek Neville (who, along with George Barker, presided over a bucolic literary micro community at Itteringham), Tim Sillence, Bill Jervis, Colin Cross, Hilary Mellon, and the inimitable Willis Feast, rector of Booton, were among the regular participants.”
The Summer of Love quickly turned into a year of violence: 1968. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The students in Paris took to the streets demanding both political and sexual revolutions. Mounted police suppressed a peace rally in Grosvenor Square. All of which fuelled the counter-culture whose message of peace and love was spread most memorably in music – rock and folk. In Norwich Pete Sayers and Ralph McTell played at The Mischief Tavern on Fye Bridge. At the Jacquard Club on Magdalen Street you might hear Paul Simon, Judy Collins and Tom Rust among local performers.
The favourite meeting place for the hip and the young was Backs where a conventional wine bar on Gentleman’s Walk gave way to huge subterranean pub with a long bar and open fireplace. Hippy style became so prevalent that the management had to ban customers with bare feet. Near the Art School on St George’s Street the juke box in The Red Lion pub pounded out the Beatles’ Revolution and The Festival House (now the St Andrew’s Brew House) was crowded with long-haired students clad in brightly-coloured velvets, silks and embroidered Afghan sheepskin coats.
Venues for bands and performers included the yet-to-be restored Bacon’s House on Colegate, the Arts Lab in Studio Four behind the Anglia TV headquarters and Premises on St Benedict’s Street. The anarchist Jeff Nuttall performed alongside a former Norwich School schoolboy with attitude, Tim Sillence, in a poetry act called The Australian Dancers. There was widespread access to marijuana, some of it brought back from the legendary hippy trail to India. This was a culture wholly different from the conservative middle and working class that made up the bulk of the population in Norwich.
Outside the city, internationally-known artist and performer Bruce Lacey had moved to Wymondham and often performed locally. George MacBeth hosted parties and poetry readings at Oby and Wiggenhall. UEA lecturer Robert Short was instrumental in organising elaborate all-night surrealist parties for the Norfolk Contemporary Arts Society in the grounds of country houses, including Wiveton Hall, Elsing and Bulcamp. They featured tableaux of male and female nudity and culminated in torch-lit parades.
Dilapidated rural properties were cheap to rent or buy; artists and writers, often with their young families, experimented with communal living and self-sufficiency. The best remembered are Crow Hall at Denver (which defined itself as not-a-commune) and Shrub Farm Cottages, Larling – still going. There was also the Global Village Trucking Company at Diss and The Settlers in Bishopgate, Norwich.
A new family event arrived in Norfolk in 1972 with the first of the many Barsham Faires, soon followed by the Albion Fairs. These reinvented medieval fairs were characterised by historical costumes, stalls selling hand-made goods and natural food and entertainment provided by bands, performers and interactive theatre. Some participants were living a pre-mechanised lifestyle on smallholdings or in caravans, for others it was a chance to be weekend hippies. In the winter, music events happened in village halls including the Rumburgh Hut near Bungay.
And then this celebration of social revolution and utopianism was called to order. The police raided Bristow’s Paperback Bookshop in 1973 and in 1974 the Norwich Magistrates prosecuted Giles Bristow under the Obscene Publications Act. Two years earlier the publishers of the subversive magazine Oz had won an appeal against similar prosecution and Bristow protested that the materials in question were available at other shops in Norwich.
He refused to pay the fines on principle. Against his wishes supporters raised a subscription but much of his stock was confiscated and destroyed. The shop closed. Why Norwich, a once radical city, was so offended by Bristow’s Bookshop is not clear; the records of the trial in the Norfolk Record Office are closed to public view.
It’s a long time ago since those few crazy, heady years and from today’s perspective aspects of the counter-culture may sound flaky and misguided. But there was a legacy from the idealism of the hippy critique that effectively challenged reactionary social attitudes towards sexuality, class and race. Vegetarianism and ecological awareness have become mainstream. In Norfolk the free fairs in the Waveney Valley carried on well into the 1980s and their impetus shifted to the West Country including Glastonbury. Giles Bristow’s son, China Mièville, grew up to be a successful writer of radical sci-fi novels. Sadly, the bar that was Backs on The Walk has long been closed and war is still with us.
Victoria Manthorpe is the author of Countrywoman: Lilias Rider Haggard available from Poppyland Publishing.