Phun City

Originally written for The Sentinel, the Worthing supplement for the Argus, this is a good introduction to the legendary Phun City free festival. One day, I’ll write the book:

“Sussex landed gentry the Somerset family have a place in the history books, as unlikely allies of the ‘free festival’ movement.

Phun City was the first free festival in the UK, and took place in July 1970. A 20 acre site at Ecclesdon Common, now lost under the A27 just north of Worthing, was turned over to camping, giant inflatable domes, and an open-air market.

The main stage was a rough scaffold affair, and at one point during the preparations the whole stage was carried to a new position on the site by an army of local hippies because it had been erected too close to power lines.

The stage saw sets from The MC5, Pretty Things, Kevin Ayers, Mungo Jerry, and the Pink Fairies – all playing for free. The MC5, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had their own political movement, the White Panther Party.

Ironically, Free were on the original bill but dropped out when organisers said they would be unable to pay them.

The obligatory psychedelic lightshow was provided by Peter Wynne Willson, today providing massive lighting rigs for stadium tours by U2 and Pink Floyd.

There was also a poetry gathering, ‘guerilla theatre’, cinema, DJs, and a science fiction convention with special guest William Burroughs, the American novelist and spoken word performer best known for the book ‘Naked Lunch’.

Former Worthing High School pupils Mick Farren and Gez Cox organised the event, renting the land at Patching from Mr J Fitzroy Somerset. Back then, rock festivals were a new idea and the local press reported terrified local residents, condemnation from the council’s health inspectors, and mixed reactions from the local clergy.

While Angmering’s Rev Reath was talking about getting food to the site, and reaching out to the hippy community, another local clergyman had a different view.

“They don’t do any work and then expect other people to help them,” said Rev H N Snelling , rector of Clapham and Patching, “ I don’t think we should encourage them to carry on with this mode of life. I can’t feel any pity for them”

But Mr Somerset was unrepentant about leasing the land to Mick Farren, saying “what he does with it is his own business.”

Phun City was the first free festival in the UK, but that wasn’t the original plan. Original posters, featuring a cartoon character drawn by International Times contributor Edward Barker, list a price of £2 for all three days, or day tickets for just £1.

However, the local authority took out an injunction in an attempt to stop the festival. By the time the injunction was lifted, organisers had three days left to set up the site and didn’t have any fences. Radio Caroline founder Ronan O’Reilly stepped in, providing financial backing to make sure the festival went ahead.

Those who attended remember a slightly shambolic festival and a naïve optimism, but overall a powerful sense of community.  And many wonder – if Worthing had embraced Phun City, would we now be hosting an event the size of Glastonbury every year? “

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