BY Charlie Gere in Opinion | 24 MAR 21
Featured in
Issue 218

From Tolkien’s Shire to Thatcher’s England

Charlie Gere on growing up in London’s back-to-nature counterculture of the 1960s

BY Charlie Gere in Opinion | 24 MAR 21

In the early 1970s, when I was around 11, I developed a serious fixation on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. I was a little too late to appreciate the brief existence of Gandalf’s Garden, one of the more unusual establishments in the area in which I was brought up: the World’s End, which stood at the ‘wrong’ end of the King’s Road, in Chelsea, London. My parents had moved there at the beginning of the previous decade, as part of a westward wave of gentrification. What they could not have guessed in 1960 is exactly what the World’s End would become over the ensuing couple of decades. It went from being a largely working-class enclave to one of the centres of counterculture and, later, punk.

Muz Murray’s Gandalf’s Garden was a commune and seed centre located a little further down the King’s Road from Granny Takes a Trip, the famous counterculture boutique. Though I do not remember Gandalf having a garden, the Shire in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954–55) is definitely intended as a stand-in for an idealized rural England. It certainly would have appealed to those who dreamt of a return to a simpler existence, as they tripped out of Middle Earth nightclub in Covent Garden or listened to John Peel’s radio show Perfumed Garden (1967). The garden was a key countercultural trope, invoking, whether implicitly or explicitly, Eden and the return to innocence. Its most famous expression is, perhaps, Joni Mitchell’s lyrics for her song ‘Woodstock’ (1970), in which she declares: ‘We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden’.

By the mid-1970s, such romantic yearnings for lost innocence looked distinctly absurd. The hope for radical social transformation in the 1960s had evaporated with the economic decline of the following decade. The utopianism of the Woodstock festival in 1969 was followed, only four months later, by the violent debacle of the Altamont Free Concert. The postwar economic boom was over and, by the time Harold Wilson’s government fell in 1976, the UK faced industrial strife, IRA bombing campaigns, three-day weeks and power outages.

Gandalfs Garden May 1968
Gandalf’s Garden, issue 1, May 1968, cover illustration by John Hurford. Courtesy: Muz Murray

A world in turmoil found expression in the World’s End. By 1971, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood had taken over the former Hung On You boutique, running it under a succession of names. In 1974, it was called Sex and sold fetish gear; two years later, they changed the name again to Seditionaries and sold highly provocative clothes, such as bondage trousers and T-shirts featuring gay porn or imagery relating to the serial rapist Peter Cook.

It was during the shop’s incarnation as Sex that McLaren encountered John Lydon, who, as Johnny Rotten, became the singer for the Sex Pistols, perhaps the most significant punk band of the era. There are no gardens in punk. Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Hong Kong Garden’ (1978) is named after a Chinese takeaway, where the band witnessed racial violence. ‘We’re the flowers / In the dustbin’, sings Rotten in ‘No Future (God Save the Queen)’ (1977). Punk revealed the truth behind the counterculture’s dream of retreating to a Shire-like idyll, some hippy version of Merrie England. Such places do not exist and have never existed. If anything, the UK more closely resembled the despoiled state the Hobbits find the Shire in when they return home at the end of Tolkien’s trilogy, with trees cut down and new polluting machinery having replaced the old mill. However, unlike in the fictional world of The Lord of the Rings, there could be no uprising against the Shire’s ruin in real life, only its acceleration through neoliberalism.

Two years after the Sex Pistols released ‘No Future (God Save the Queen)’, Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister. Punk can, perhaps, be seen as a dada-esque anticipation of the creative destruction, privatization and evisceration of the state brought on by Thatcherism. If there were any space for gardens in this kind of politics, it was as an amenity to be monetized.

Mark Fisher famously declared that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Yet, at the time of his death in 2017, Fisher had returned to the counterculture as a possible source of alternatives to our current cruel and ruinous capitalism, and was working on a book titled Acid Communism. Later that same year, in an article for Red Pepper, Matt Phull and Will Stronge drew on Fisher’s idea to propose the building of a new socialist dance culture. Among the artists they discuss is Jack Latham, otherwise known as Jam City, whose 2015 album Dream a Garden imagines another set of social relations. Part of the lyrics to the song ‘Unhappy’ go as follows: ‘They want us to be sad / They want us to be selfish / They want us to be unhappy / So we dream a garden, its weeds quietly gatecrash this world’.

During the first UK lockdown, I returned to the World’s End to make sure my mother was all right. Walking in the brilliant spring sunshine along near-empty streets, the skies quietened in the absence of the incessant airplanes descending the flightpath to Heathrow, was both strange and beguiling. Whole families, emboldened by the lack of traffic, cycled together on roads normally too dangerous to do so. London itself, for a few weeks, felt almost like a garden.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 218 with the headline ‘World’s End’.

Main image: Jordan outside Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s Sex, London, 1976. Courtesy and photograph: © Sheila Rock 

Charlie Gere is professor of media theory and history at Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University, UK. He is the author of a number of books on art, philosophy, technology and the environment, most recently I Hate the Lake District (Goldsmiths Press, 2019). His next book, World’s End, is forthcoming from Goldsmiths Press.