It began during my brief career as a traveller. I was on the road after the eviction of the Rainbow Village from Molesworth in February 1985 until the following summer. I arrived at Greenlands Farm in Glastonbury just as my newly-acquired clapped-out van expired. During that time I was in Devon for a while with friends from the Green Gatherings, and typing out a newsletter for the Green Collective on a duplicating skin, I had half a page to spare and found myself typing:
“Get these Unique Publications only from us …”
There weren’t many publications on the ensuing list, but “The Last Night of Rainbow Fields at Molesworth” had made it (smudgingly) into print, plus one or two other things, and Unique Publications was born. I was selling copies of “The Last Night of Rainbow Fields” for £1 – more recently I saw a copy for sale on Amazon at £14.95 … It had become a collectors’ item!
I drove from Devon to Glastonbury, and my van broke down just a few yards past the police checkpoint outside Greenlands Farm – I had to find several sturdy fellows to help push it into the orchard. Thus I arrived back in Glastonbury, after my adventures at Molesworth and Stonehenge, and I have been here ever since.
The Enterprise Allowance Scheme
Unique Publications was subsidised for the first year by the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, a short-lived but very helpful government initiative which enabled people with some sort of idea for starting up a business to receive £40 a week paid direct into their bank account, rather than having to sign on and receive £25 a week at a cost to the state of another £25 to pay for the bureaucracy.
Besides this, I started publishing the briefly infamous ‘Times of Avalonia’, run off on a duplicating machine from my bender in the orchard, and made rainbow-coloured Avalonian dragon badges to sell when I was short of cash for lunch. All these items sold for 23 pence each, so my turnover was not huge but I did get by.
That autumn, the orchard became extremely muddy. Somehow, a letter from the Department of Employment got through to me to say that my premises and business records would need to be inspected before I could continue receiving the EAS. I trudged up to the telephone box and rang the number on the letter. The woman I spoke to gave me a date when she would be coming to carry out the inspection. I suggested that she wore a good pair of wellington boots.
I set to and built another bender (“premises”), including a makeshift wooden bench with the duplicator and typewriter on it, a hurricane lamp hanging above it to provide lighting on murky afternoons, and my business records (which included expenses from the Green Collective and also Green CND for producing their newsletters, as well as numerous 23 pence transactions) carefully recorded in a large orange accounts book.
The lady representative from the Government Department duly arrived at the appointed hour, and I cheerfully showed her both my premises and my records. I suppose you could say she was impressed. Certainly I had done better than she had expected – but not quite well enough for her to tick all her boxes.
She said that she would have to return in a month, by which time she would have to see some improvement in my premises. My business records were fine.
During the following month, the tortuous legal process by which travellers and hippy convoys were evicted from Alison Collyer’s orchard at Greenlands Farm finally reached its conclusion. Later I was to record all this in a booklet that received a brief and somewhat dismissive mention in the local ‘Central Somerset Gazette’; but for now I was busy struggling out of the mud and finding somewhere to live.
Three of us were lucky enough to find rooms to rent in a house just being bought by a friend who had been working for a big accountancy firm, but who had decided to move to Glastonbury and set up a community-based accountancy practice. Her front room became her office, large wooden desk , telephone and all.
I had started producing more booklets, and I joined the local Liberal Party – which made me eligible to use their photocopier at minimal cost. I was overstaying my welcome in their Campaign Headquarters, however, so I hired my own photocopier and installed it in the front-room office at home.
The woman from the Employment Department came to repeat her inspection. I borrowed the office for the afternoon, and all necessary boxes were ticked. For a few more months at least, I was financially secure.
Very soon after this, I was politely asked to remove the photocopier as soon as possible. This was a problem, but miraculously genuine premises were available in the form of a little shop at 25 Northload Street, which I took for £10 a week. Before long, the shop next door at No 23 became available and my landlord, realising how much more appropriate this would be, suggested that I move to his property next door.
I was now doing photocopying for 5p a go, making up people’s leaflets using letraset and a new electronic typewriter (which I had bought in Bristol and brought home on the bus), and printing more booklets on my own photocopier. Prominent members of my Avalonian clientele persuaded me to invest in a stock of recycled paper.
By the time the EAS ran out, I actually had a business running that could just about support me.
Inside No 23 Northload Street – an artist’s impression
23 Northload Street in 1986. I arrived for work one morning to find that the front wall (and the metal post carrying parking information) had been painted by sympathetic graffiti artists during the night. Much to my surprise, the new décor was never the subject of official complaints and remained until well after I had left Northload Street. However, irate neighbours did try to get me closed down on the grounds that my premises were ‘industrial’ rather than retail, and I had failed to apply for change of use under planning law (an allegation that the council considered but decided was unfounded). Some people in the town imagined that this was what had provoked the large ‘23’ that had appeared on the wall: “Well done – there are no planning regulations stipulating what size the house number should be!”
The Glastonbury High Street Experience
Once I had set up a business for real, I started to imagine what it would be like to be on the High Street. A year later, it happened. This was the time when traditional High Street shops were closing down one after another in Glastonbury, and one after another they were being taken over by the new breed of ‘alternative’ proprietor.
My friend Isi bought substantial property at 5 and 5a High Street, opposite the Glastonbury Experience. 5a she opened as ‘Isis’, selling interesting clothes and paraphernalia, with a workshop upstairs where extravagant hats and dresses could be created by a team of enthusiastic seamstresses.
This took up the larger of her two High Street shops, and I moved in to number 5 to pay a regular rent and to help underpin this ambitious new enterprise. Isis didn’t last more than a year or two, but Unique Publications was there for a decade and became a well-known fixture. I earned a reputation for having the scruffiest shop front and window display in the town, reaching its nadir one day when the ‘Unique Publications’ sign painted on boards above the window rotted out and collapsed onto the pavement.
My years on the High Street were very hard work – I’d do six days a week and then come in on Sunday to tidy up and get the book-keeping up-to-date – but also very creative and lots of fun. There was a steady output of photocopied booklets and pamphlets, an impressive display of recycled paper products for sale, together with comics, badges, and all manner of ‘unique publications’. I discovered that you can put more-or-less anything in a High Street shop window and sooner or later someone will come along wanting to buy it.
I became the town’s photocopy shop, at one time running three copiers including the new, expensive, digital full-colour model. I also bought my first computer and started to do rudimentary typesetting. To help with all this I took on self-employed artists, actors, poets and musicians, on a part-time basis, many of them contributing to the next unique publication to roll off my Heath-Robinson-style presses. One year I bought a big stock of Furry Freak Brothers comics and set off for Glastonbury Festival to run a stall. I soon discovered that having invested in saleable goods made of paper, and taking them out to the wind and rain of a festival site, was a worrying thing to do.
The deal I’d done for the stall meant that I doubled as the information stall for the Green Fields, and one of my duties was to hand out free condoms to anyone who wanted safe sex. One woman came back again and again, each time with a bigger grin on her face. A year or so later she came into the shop in town, with twins. I was still trying to sell off my Furry Freaks magazines.
I did enjoy the fact that everyone came into my shop, ‘alternative’ and ‘straight’, and often made interesting connections in the process. I was sad that most of the growing number of ‘new age’ shops on the High Street were of no use or relevance to the traditional community; it was only myself and the wholefood shop who sold basic commodities but in an alternative way.
Being on the High Street meant that I soon got drawn into other aspects of community life, particularly at the Assembly Rooms. The Glastonbury Assembly Rooms is a community centre which in the early nineties urgently needed re-financing and decent management. I was in a position to promote and help to bring about a community share ownership scheme (which is still in existence; most of the original shareholders have by now moved on and have little to do with the place – nevertheless it is still the only town centre real estate that actually belongs to a community group). I spent ten years on the Assembly Rooms management committee.
Helping to get the Assembly Rooms up and running well was good for business since I was endlessly printing posters, programmes and tickets for plays, pantomimes, parties and gigs. The sheer volume of such work shows how busy and creative the community was at that time.
By the end of the decade the size of the ever-growing ‘alternative community’ meant that you could no longer call in at the Assembly Rooms café of a lunch time and bump into whoever you wanted to see; that there were now several centres each with a different focus; different factions with different ideas as to how the Assembly Rooms should be run; and eventually it slid back into relative obscurity. For a while it had been headline news, with well known acts calling in to Glastonbury whilst on tour between London and the west country, and furious controversies over the need for proper sound-proofing and the like.
Unique Publications continued to do reasonably well as a High Street business. The amount of money that went through my hands never ceased to amaze me, though the pressure of paying High Street rent and rates, and all the other costs involved, meant that it all went out just as fast as it came in.
After my first day on the High Street I had slumped into a chair and declared “three years at the most – I definitely won’t be here longer than that.” By 1997 it had been more than ten. The opportunity came up to buy into the building immediately behind the shop, ‘The Old Clinic’, which had been Arabella Churchill’s ‘Children’s World’ building and where I was already renting storage space.
At Hallowe’en in 1997 I moved off the High Street and passed the shop on to Gareth Mills, who was selling second hand books from the Courtyard Bookshop in the Glastonbury Experience. He started selling remaindered ‘Mind/Body/Spirit’ books at discount prices, and ‘The Speaking Tree’ was soon one of the town’s most successful enterprises. I had retreated to St John’s Square, though most of my customers followed me and life did not get quieter for quite some time.
The Art of Downsizing
As a recovering workaholic seeking a quieter life, it took me a while to get it right. I started by taking the big room just inside the front door – which meant it was nearly as busy as on the High Street – as well as beginning work on a new project, producing the quarterly community magazine, ‘Free State’.
Free State ran for three years, and compared to the pasted-together-all-crooked-and-jumbly sort of community magazines of the ‘80s, it was wonderfully presentable. I was proud of it, but found it a lonely struggle keeping it going, both financially and in terms of finding sufficient worthwhile copy. Besides, magazines were gradually going out of fashion, with the internet and all. Since Free State ceased publication in 2001 there have been no more community-based magazines (other than the free what’s on guide, ‘The Oracle’, which actually began as the back page of Unique Publications’ ‘Glastonbury Gazette’ back in 1989). There have, however, been several community-based websites.
As a business, Unique Publications had reached its peak in terms of turnover in the mid-1990s; whilst at about the same time, in terms of publishing and creative output, it had just about reached the limit of what could be achieved within the constraints of the premises and the available resources. Moving off the High Street meant that life gradually calmed down, but also that the excitement of making new connections and getting involved in new projects slowed down too. Once we were beyond the millennium, I moved to a smaller office upstairs, took on book keeping work to keep myself afloat, and gradually figured out how to put more substantial works into print.
My first effort was ‘Stonehenge Pilgrimage’, my experiences of the Stonehenge campaigns of the 1980’s transposed into a novel. It very nearly found a publisher, but the deal fell apart at the last moment – after a substantial re-write and all – and a spiral-bound, photocopied version is the only one that ever saw the light of day.
The office upstairs in 2001 (left), and after refurbishment in 2012 (above).
I tried a more experimental (and more Glastonbury-style) project by writing a prose version of the traditional ballad ‘Tam Lin’. With the help of a website that gave me 34 different versions of the song, I wrote it all out as a story, and put it together as a booklet, hoping for some feedback and thinking that one day it might grow into a novel. I got no feedback, and so far I haven’t written the novel.
I had also got interested in pre-history, in particular looking at where “it all went wrong”. I was, and still am, convinced that humans evolved to be co-operative, creative and egalitarian creatures, and that the enormous problems of the modern world represent an aberration in human behavior; a warping of our real nature which somehow came in along with civilisation.
The more I studied the subject, the more I was convinced that this is true. The result, a book that I called ‘The Ancient Problem with Men’ (since the Problem arose with the beginning of Patriarchy), took about twelve years to come together – working at it on and off – by which time short-run print technology had been developed such that a one-man business like ‘Unique Publications’ could publish its own book. More would follow. I picked up the manuscript of ‘Rainbow Fields is Home’, the book I wrote about the occupation of Molesworth airbase in Cambridgeshire – potential cruise missile base. It was worth reviving. And the process of putting this website together had me looking at thirty years-worth of archive material, which contained another story to be told – in ‘Free State’.
Then one day, in 2014, I went to a film showing of the film ‘Aluna’, about the Kogi people of northern Columbia. At the same time I had started taking a real interest in spirituality, in the shape of Sufism and the teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. The Kogi told us that, if nothing else, we must protect the rivers, and Llewellyn gave us a ‘Four Point Plan’ to help us work with the environment more generally. The result was a plan to write four books, all quite separate, but all about different aspects of the river and the environment. It took me nine years.
The last of these, ‘The Fourth Point’, was written after spending 18 months coming back out of retirement and returning to The Old Clnic, where I opened ‘The River Brue Rehabilitation Board’. This was an office-cum-shop that was designed to look – from across the car park – like an official body tasked with repairing the various environmenta; problems that these days beset our local river. It was remarkably successful, attracting a nmber of interesting people and conversations. The story also coincided with the pandemic and lock-down, which added to the narrative.
It is perhaps a problem that every one of these projects is thoroughly different from the one before. I am not a poet, or a science fiction writer, or a journalist, or a novelist, or … I find that all I can do is wait to see what next might grab my imagination and my attention until I have forged it into something that makes sense to me. Whether it is of any real interest to the rest of the world I really cannot tell, I just have to hope that it works.
And even though I have now returned to being ‘semi-retired’, I am still doing my best to keep Unique Publications living up to its name.