Once upon a time I lived in a big, old, rambling Edwardian townhouse in Glastonbury with between four and ten friends and we had lots of parties.
I’d been sharing a house with Tim and the tenancy was coming to an end in 1998. This being Glastonbury we decided to manifest another as we wanted to continue to live communally. We drew up a list of what we wanted – lots of space, at least four bedrooms, a big pine kitchen table, a large garden, a nice landlord and neighbours. I wasn’t hugely hopeful – what landlord would want a bunch of part time employed musicians and hippies living in the kind of plush pad we wanted?
That Christmas I moved into a small house in Victoria Buildings and was invited to dinner by my friend Steve, I’d never been to his place before and immediately fell in love with it, it was large, comfortable and beautifully decorated. It also had every one of the things that me and Tim had put on our manifestation list, and a set of servants bells in the lobby. After a fantastic Christmas dinner I almost jokingly said to Steve “If you ever decide to rent this house, please rent it to me”. A week later he rang “Come round, I want to discuss your proposal”. I had no idea what he was talking about, as he hadn’t mentioned he was buying a boat and going to live in Greece. We agreed that I’d find other tenants, and we’d move in that Autumn.
This was doubly convenient as my landlady decided to come back and live in the house I had rented, and turned out to be mad as a box of frogs. (I should have guessed – she had painted the living room walls and ceiling blood red and her name was Mad Lizzie). She had two stinky Labradors, a mother and daughter, whose principle hobbies were noisily licking each other’s bits and shedding fur all over my rugs. After I had an extremely sedate birthday tea party with 3 friends she pronounced me unbearably sociable and kicked me out, threatening to throw my stuff out on the street. I stayed with my mate Rachel until Steve’s house was ready to move into. One night we kidnapped a handsome, wavering Hari Krishna, got him drunk and attempted unsuccessfully to seduce him, but that’s another story……
The house was on four floors, had 4 bedrooms, a big kitchen with a walk in larder, a lounge with an open fire, a front room which served as an office, rehearsal space or dressing up room and a shower room which featured a mural of our landlord Steve in the Garden of Eden, sporting only a fig leaf. The Garden was long and thin and had a mature apple tree at the end, and a cherry plum tree that scattered millions of tiny sticky plums outside the back door. Me and Ben did our best to grow vegetables, but in the end settled for only growing the kind of veg that slugs didn’t like, as our midnight torch lit slug killing frenzies got tedious and didn’t seem to make much difference. We didn’t have a TV but we did have lots of computers, stacks of board games, loads of musical instruments, every kitchen implement known to man, billions of friends and about five big fancy dress parties a year. Soon after moving in we named the house ‘The Glastonbury institute of Gracious Living’, or GIGL.
I was working for the psychedelic cult jazz rock band Gong and Daevid Allen came to stay for a few weeks while he was touring the UK, he was in his 70’s and his girlfriend who stayed occasionally was 28. It was odd living with someone who had been my teenage hero, but he revealed himself to be human after all. One morning he came downstairs with a ringing alarm clock and demanded a hammer, duly smashing the clock to smithereens on the tiled kitchen floor as he hadn’t been able to find the off switch.
It was while Daevid was staying that we had a joint fancy dress party for my friend Lauren and my birthdays. Lauren was celibate and vegan at the time, so she ironically themed the party as a ‘Chocolate Sex Party. Trouble was some of the guests didn’t get the ‘ironic’ bit. Chopper the chef turned up with a fish shaped glass bottle full of homemade chocolate sauce, and someone, well me actually, thought it would be amusing to start pouring it on the other guests and licking it off. I found myself pinned to the floor with chocolate sauce being licked off my thighs by dreadlocked hippies. This was not even faintly erotic but very funny, particularly as Daevid chose exactly that moment to arrive, accompanied by a Norwegian film crew, who apparently filmed the whole party and showed it on late night Norwegian TV. I’ve never seen the footage sadly.
We ate our vegetarian evening meal communally and took it in turns to cook, we got quite competitive about it, producing multi dish curries, lasagnas, chillies with chocolate and espresso coffee etc. Sometimes dinner wouldn’t turn out quite as planned and the cook would serve it up while apologising, this became known as the ‘Pre Dinner Disclaimer’. We also fed our many visitors, John Who managed to magically appear 5 minutes before dinner was served pretty much every day, but only ever washed up once, and did it so badly we never bothered hassling him to do it again. He did contribute by looking fantastic in a frock (or on one occasion a Margaret Thatcher style pink dog-tooth ladies suit) and generally entertaining us.
After one party I got up to discover an entire, large block of cheese had disappeared from my shelf in the fridge, a brief interrogation of every one remaining in the house did not reveal the culprit. It happened that Ben had been filming the party on one of the first digital video recorders, we sat around to watch the wobbly footage, and we were surprised to see that he had decided to film the inside of the fridge. A pair of hands reach in and John Who’s distinctive Somerset burr is heard “What is there in here to eat then? Mmm, cheese!” The cheese is then crammed in its entirety into John’s mouth. Neither Ben nor John had any recollection of this. 15 years later and John still owes me a block of cheese.
One of my birthday parties had ‘1970’s Porn Stars’ as it’s theme. We spent weeks before hand making our costumes, including gold Fimo medallions with genitalia designs. I awoke on the morning of the party to find all the men in the house had shaved their beards and were now sporting massive porn star moustaches. I’m not too great at costumes so I simply wore a bikini, when the party moved to the Assembly Rooms for a gig that evening I decided not to change. We had a big group photo taken in the garden, one party goer from Cambridge, who hadn’t realised there was a theme and was dressed ‘normally’ was so upset at the idea that a lack of suitable costume excluded him from the photo that he simply stripped off naked and ran to the front of the group. One of Ben’s female friends from Cambridge turned up sporting a silver jump-suit and strap on penis. Despite our fondness for innuendo, cross dressing, very rude words and dubious fancy dress themes we weren’t actually up for hosting orgies so this was considered to be ‘taking things a bit far’. At one point she mentioned she was popping outside to get something from her van, we really didn’t want to horrify our (extremely tolerant) neighbours, so we suggested she disguised the appendage. We tried hanging tea towels and items of clothing off it, but they all fell off, then Tom had the genius idea of removing one of his silver moon boots and slipping it over. We declared this to be an excellent solution and allowed her out the door.
Other party themes included the French Revolution Party (Simon and I were planning on constructing a guillotine but never got round to it), the Hip Hop Inuit Bubblewrap Party (Jim made himself a polar bear costume out of white fun fur which was uncannily realistic. I protested at the silliness of the theme by dressing entirely in black rubber, greased my hair and put black rubber gloves on my feet and came as an oil slick). For my birthday Pirate Party someone made me a Captain Pugwash cake. Sian Evans from dance band Kosheen gatecrashed one of my parties, but felt under-dressed and within 10 minutes of arriving was naked in my bedroom trying on my frocks, this made me feel incredibly cool.
Ben took every opportunity to dress up, in his pink cat suit and a series of frocks and red high heels. Generally around 4am he would decide he wanted to go to bed and everyone should go home, he would declare this by stomping downstairs naked and ordering everyone out. Needless to say we all ignored him. Cross dressing was always popular, I first met Henty when he turned up dressed rather fetchingly as a nurse complete with fake breasts. Some men found the idea of wearing frocks uncomfortable, I remember DJ Roger in particular objecting, until one party when he finally relented, put on a white voluminous number and asked us to do his make-up so he “felt like a real woman”. One of my favourite memories is of a load of male mates in flowery frocks singing and dancing along to ‘YMCA’ by the Village People.
When our parties started getting a little too popular we decided to host a Bad Taste Fancy Dress Party at the Assembly Rooms, complete with a dressing up room. As we all got ready at the house I noticed that Austrian David had been in the shower room for over an hour. Eventually I asked him what he was doing and he replied “Putting turmeric down my underpants”. His costume consisted of said brown stained formerly white Y-fronts, a plastic mac, and massive sunglasses. I don’t think he spoke all evening, but simply greeted everyone by rubbing his crotch against them. We gave him the prize for the best costume – a cheap Victoria Sponge which I rubbed into his face.
Sometimes all this hedonism could serve a useful role. A quiet man once introduced himself to me at one of our parties, he said he didn’t expect that I’d remember him, but that a year earlier he had decided, after 5 years of self imposed isolation and meditation, that he had had enough of Buddhist asceticism and needed to meet people again. He had phoned a friend, Gabriel, and asked if he knew of any parties, Gabriel replied that my birthday party was coming up that weekend, and knowing I had an open house policy he was welcome to come. Apparently our mad gathering of loons had reminded him that human beings were all right after all, for which he was clearly humbly grateful. He hadn’t felt confident enough to tell me at the time what a difference we’d made to him, so had come back a year later having been inspired to get back out into the world, to thank me, and enjoy another party. I was genuinely touched.
We didn’t just have parties, we also made a lot of pies, bread, jams, chutneys, fruit wines and meads. On one occasion Ben was bottling elderberry wine when it exploded spectacularly over the kitchen ceiling, leaving it looking like a rather grisly crime scene. I made the mistake of leaving a gallon of mead out at a party that was clearly still very young and had another few months of fermenting to go before drinking, needless to say it was gone in the morning.
One of our housemates, Sally, was keen to introduce us to her new boyfriend, and wanted us to make a good impression. Unfortunately most of the house had been grape picking that week and we had a large number of bottles of almost undrinkable Sherborne Estate white wine, which we had decided to demolish in their entirety after dinner. We were so hideously pissed that we started burning the corks and painting our faces black with them. New Boyfriend arrived to find us all giggling and crawling black faced across the kitchen floor. He wasn’t too bothered however, his red double decker ended up parked outside for a couple of weeks and he soon got into the swing of things, dressing up in Janetta’s tightest frock and splitting the seams in the process.
No children permanently resided in the house, but Tim’s son Zac stayed most weekends and despite the fact that I amused myself by teaching him new swear words from an early age he doesn’t seem to have been emotionally scarred by the experience, and has grown up into a thoroughly nice, intelligent young man.
Janetta’s daughter Zoe spent a lot of time in the house and came to many of our parties from about the age of seven, when we moved out she insisted that she wanted to go round and say goodbye to the house, when Janetta asked why she replied “I spent the formative years of my childhood there”. She has since gained a first from Cambridge University and has also grown up into a fantastic adult, and I’d like to think we played some part in that.
Technically four of us lived in the house, in practise with partners, friends and visitors we must have housed hundreds of people over the time we were there, people would just turn up on the doorstep who were looking to move to Glastonbury and move in for a few weeks while they found their feet. We were a community who shared resources, food and friendship, and of course fell out sometimes. (I remember a Christmas Day which started with a huge row and resulted in me locking myself in the walk in larder and crying for an hour). We lived cheaply, ate well, embarked on creative projects together and shared bills and resources, we recycled, and we grew some of our own food.
Shared housing is seen as a short term solution for impoverished students, but for me, as someone who has lived in housing co-ops, shared houses and on travellers sites for pretty much my entire adult life (30 years) it offers a viable solution to loneliness, isolation, poverty and the environmental problems caused by consumer culture. Despite our numerous parties our neighbours loved us, sometimes they’d come round or just enjoy the sound of bagpipes, hurdy gurdys and mandolins coming from the garden, they still chat whenever I see them in the town.
GIGL was one of several shared houses at the time, sadly those days are gone, thanks to Health and Safety legislation which assumes that people only live in shared houses through poverty rather than choice, and are all being housed unsafely by unscrupulous landlords. In order to comply with the legislation our landlord, Steve, would have had to rip out many of the period features that gave the house it’s character, turn the communal spaces into bedrooms, install safety features that are considered unnecessary in a house occupied by a family, put locks on all the doors and raise the rents to cover the costs. A beautiful house would have become a load of bedsits. Steve didn’t want this, and nor did we. On the day he announced his intention to sell the ancient apple tree in the garden split asunder, and the plumbing packed up. Sadly the Glastonbury Institute of Gracious Living had come to an end. That house was as big a character in my life as many people and I miss it even now, 10 years since we moved out.
I haven’t got many photos from those days, so I’ve just randomly scattered the ones I do have through this post. I know I have missed out many wonderful people and great stories from this post but it’s gone on far too long already1 I’m hoping some of you have your own stories of GIGL, please put them in the comments on the blog, or post them and any photos you have on the Normal for Glastonbury Facebook Page. Please like and share this post if you enjoyed it.