In the summer of 1969, as Thunderclap Newman proclaimed in their one and only musical claim to fame, there was something in the air. The alternative generation were talking about the recent Woodstock Festival in America, and eagerly looking forward to what promised to be a similar gathering, albeit on a smaller scale, at the Isle of Wight at the end of August, where Bob Dylan was headlining.
Enter 16-year-old Southampton grammar school boy Scott, from a well-to-do middle class background but with aspirations to rock stardom himself ever since his shortlived involvement in inept progressive rock band Butterhorn. One of many thousands of teenagers for whom the release of every new Beatles single was nothing short of a landmark, he is going to the festival with a tape recorder, determined that he will help create history (or a small part of it) by making a bootleg, or illicit, recording of the historic performance. On his arrival he meets and becomes personally involved with several contemporaries, mostly with a more radical outlook than his, none more so than the very communally-minded, leftish activist Jayne. She admits to ‘not particularly liking’ Dylan, but is there because ‘he’s a legend’.
Over the three-day festival, to a soundtrack of live music from the Edgar Broughton Band, Richie Havens, Pentangle, Tom Paxton and others, the new temporary community share experiences, a few drugs, spontaneous intimate moments, and general banter. There is momentary consternation when they learn that The Who have pulled out of the bill, as they have been told how much Dylan is getting for his spot and they decide they want more. The man once known as the great protest singer is said to be getting £35,000. “Won’t be protesting about that, will he?” one of them says. In the end The Who come and play after all.
During a trip and a walk (yes, two different things) they come face to face with what they think are seeing penguins, who turn out to be nuns. The encounter comes to a sudden end when the subject of drugs appears in the conversation, and the festival-goers tell the ladies theirs is called Jesus. At least their drugs don’t start wars, they insist.
Everything is almost spoilt when Scott’s precious tape recorder is stolen, and despite frantic efforts to track it down, it looks like the end of everything, or at least farewell to that coveted bootleg. But it’s not the end of the story by any means.
As one who can remember something of the excitement and upheaval of the late 1960s, yet was too young to be more than one of the mildly rebellious observers from afar (when being middle class but kicking over the traces, or making token gestures to, was a rite of passage), I enjoyed the atmosphere and lively, irreverent humour of this tale. There is the heady whiff of anti-establishment lifestyle, the flirtation of free love and drugs in the pre-AIDS age – and quite a poignant postscript. I suspect it might seem a little dated to today’s teenagers, though I could be wrong. But anybody who can recall those times will almost certainly enjoy it.
It’s a small world. The author’s father was the electrical contractor for the festival. And is it relevant to mention I was born the same year as the author?
Four stars. Buy? Yes. Borrow? Yes.
Review by John Van der Kiste