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Freaking London’s Jesus Festival

Religious proponents and gay-rights activists face off at the inaugural Festival of Light

Festival of Light Rally

Mary Whitehouse (left) sings a duet with Judy Mackenzie at the Festival of Light Rally in London's Trafalgar Square. Thousands of people have gathered to demand a reform of the censorship laws and protest against 'moral pollution', September 25th, 1971.

J.Wilds/Keystone/Getty

And so it was, that in the autumn of the year, a pollution came upon the land. A moral pollution.

And some banded together to fight this pollution and were called the “Festival of Light.”

And others banded together to fight those who fought the pollution, and were called “Operation Rupert.”

And so it came to pass that in the third week of the ninth month in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and seventy one, the Jesus movement in Great Britain surfaced, with a host of ideas about what exactly was wrong in the world, and the London underground surprised even itself by working together in a “political” action against what they considered a festival of hypocrisy.

* * *

“Excuse me, Sister, we’ve heard some homosexuals and radicals are going to try and disrupt our meeting here tonight. Will you pray for them?”

Westminster Central Hall, Thursday evening, September 7th. One of the Festival of Light security people asks a nun in blue robes and white cassock to help him. “We want to surround them with prayer, Sister,” he explains, “to help them see the light and find Jesus, Amen.” The nun nods serenely and smiles.

After weekly meetings that have been going on since March 19th, the Festival of Light is about to kick off its campaign to “fight pornography and moral pollution” and make a stand for “truth, purity and light.” In the past few months, close to 500,000 folders and other pieces of literature concerning the Festival have been mailed out. Lapel badges have been printed up (on sale for 20 pence, 50 cents per hundred) and T-shirts made up (at seventy pence, $1.75 each).

And how it’s paid off. Three thousand people crowd the hall. Another thousand watch the proceedings on closed circuit television in the basement. Twenty-eight-year-old Peter Hill addresses the crowd and tells them of the vision he had upon returning to England after four years as a missionary in India. “It was like a television picture,” he says. “Thousands of young people marching as witnesses in London.” The crowd applauds him heartily.

For this is only the beginning. In the next three weeks, there’s to be a national day of prayer and a national night for lighting the beacons. Beacons across the nation, blazing in the night, many of them in the very same places where fires were built to warn of invaders in the 16th century. And all of it is to climax with the actual Festival of Light itself, a day when 100,000 people will gather in Trafalgar Square to show where they stand on the issues of the day, then march in witness behind a brass band and a cross of gold to Hyde Park, to witness a concert of pop gospel music.

But even on this first night, other forces are at work. Under the code name “Operation Rupert,” London’s Gay Liberation Front have coordinated people from women’s lib, publications such as Oz, Frendz and International Times, and Freedom, a new organization formed to disseminate information that has John Lennon’s support. The “Rupert” people (Rupert being a traditional English nursery character, featured in the infamous Oz Number 28 with a huge hard-on) have managed to get a thousand phony tickets for the meeting printed. They’re all over the hall, in sixes and eights and dozens, in disguise, and as the evening wears on, it becomes obvious there’s going to be some aggravation, British-style.

The Bishop of Stepney is speaking, all the good church-going people applaud politely at every natural break in his talk, except that some people keep on clapping, even after he says, “Thank you, we, uh, haven’t got much time …”

It mounts from there. A woman is confessing the depraved life she led until she found Jesus. “Fuck you, cunt,” a voice cries out from the audience. “I was like you 11 years ago,” the woman answers, “until I got saved.” The crowd cheers.

Stink-bomb fumes waft through the hall. Banners appear. A girl blows bubbles in the balcony. Macolm Muggeridge, former editor of Punch, and one of Britain’s best known journalists, starts to speak. Someone yells a question at him and he answers, “I’m afraid I don’t like homosexuals. I just don’t like them.”

That tears it. Gay people are up all over the hall, shouting and kissing each other. Fifty white mice are let loose on stage and go scurrying under ladies’ legs and around chairs. In the midst of all the confusion, the nuns get up and begin dancing in front of the stage. The security guards wrestle with them. The crowd’s shocked, one of the nun’s robes comes off … hairy legs and big ugly boots … it’s Russ, of the Pink Fairies rock & roll band. They throw him out along with the rest of the bogus nuns and bring up the choir to sing and drown out the noise.

Pat, who works at Frendz, is minding her own business, picking up white mice one by one and putting them into her pockets so they won’t get stepped on, she’s got four safely tucked away when they grab her and she gets thrown out.

And that’s how the Festival of Light began.

* * *

The national day of prayer went off quietly. The lighting of the beacons was dampened by a sudden rainstorm an hour before kindling time.

Festival day dawned cold and gray. By 2:30 p.m., the paved area around the fountain in Trafalgar Square had filled with people. Onlookers lined the steps of the National Gallery in order to see the stage. In the Sixties, more than 100,000 people, Bertrand Russell among them, had sat down in Trafalgar Square to demand world peace through nuclear disarmament.

This day, there were already some 20,000 in the square, old men in dark suits who carried signs that said, “Fear God” and “The Wicked Shall Be Turned Into Hell,” and young people, many more young ones than old, holding up the regulation Festival of Light poster, a map of the British Isles blazing brightly against a blue background. Young girls walked with rings of Jesus buttons pasted on their foreheads and in a circle on their hair. They wore T-shirts embroidered with buttons in the shape of a J that ran between their breasts, and the slogan “Smile, Jesus loves you” scrawled on the back. Even the Blackstone lions that guarded Nelson’s column had orange Jesus buttons glued into their eye holes.

“Yes, yes,” a bearded priest said to two darling old ladies, with the stammer peculiar to many British curates, “I … I … I … I know your vicar well.”

Malcolm Muggeridge spoke early in the afternoon, the first of the Festival’s trinity of famous names to grace the platform. Lord Longford and Mary Whitehouse were to follow. Muggeridge, raised a socialist, had become an atheist and a Bolshevik, and one of the first newspaper correspondents to report from Moscow in the Thirties. He’d written books, worked as a gossip columnist and served in British intelligence during the second war. He is now 68 and a convert to Jesus.

“I felt an abiding sense of being so in need of salvation myself,” he said, “that for me the Festival has been an immense clarification. … Man’s true problem is his attempt to live without God, to live with fantasies that he’s a God himself. … Without God, we are irretrievably lost in the darkness of mortality. Praise the Lord!”

Mary Whitehouse took the podium. A former schoolteacher, her name was synonymous in Britain for opposition to publications like Oz, sex on the telly and dirty words on the wireless. She’d appeared on a panel show with Mick Jagger once and attacked him for “living in sin” with a woman. She is 61. “The eyes of the world are on what’s happening in Britain at this time,” she said, as a women’s lib banner began circling the crowd. It read “All God’s Children Got Nipples.”

Two attempts at a counter-demonstration by the “Rupert” people were quickly stopped. Both times, police loaded people with painted faces dressed as cops or nuns into vans and arrested them. Stink bombs went off. Fumes drifted over the crowd. Festival of Light marshals signaled the crowd to raise their posters in the air and begin singing. “You can hold them down for a moment,” the speaker on the platform said, not realizing that the crowd was under order and responding well. “Ah,” he said. “Well, yes, hold them up if you want to.” Reporters and television cameras were effectively screened from seeing what was happening.

* * *

In detachments a block long, the marchers streamed out of the square to Hyde Park. They marched behind a wooden cross with the band booming.

At Hyde Park, the sound of the band brought freaks running from all over the park across open green fields, swirling through fallen leaves and vaulting over a high spiked fence to join others already wheeling up Park Lane. Surrounding the band on all sides, a raggle-taggle army with right hands outstretched in a Hitler salute, chanting “Sieg Heil.” Freaks reading madly from the Bible with no one listening as they marched, freaks carrying little children in their arms, freaks carrying signs that read “Go To Hell — It’s More Fun” and wearing jackets that said “God Speeds.”

Sweeping into the park like a conquering army with the band playing for them, laughing people with long hair and open faces, goose-stepping along on the green grass singing “Lloyd George knew my father … father knew Lloyd George” in perfect time to “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

“Oh, do be quiet,” folksinger Judy Mc Kenzie scolded from the stage. “Praise God. Now I’m going to sing, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.’ He’s got the whole world …” she began.

“Between his legs,” the crowd screamed.

“He’s got the whole world …” she repeated.

In his pants,” the crowd howled.

* * *

The next day, John, a GLF leader, sat watching the videotape he’d shot of the action in the park. “See, there’s something we can improve on next time, they’re using Belfast Snatch techniques,” he told his people in his living room. “How can we get some CO2 canisters? They’re on sale openly in South Africa. If anyone goes there, that’s what we want brought back.” Someone across the room noted it down. John adjusted the large dark glasses that hide his eyes. The videotape rolled on, showing a fairly well known guy in the London underground addressing a small crowd. The tape was shot from underneath as the guy spoke, and the angle, plus the guy’s beard, long hair and army jacket made it into a Che Guevara movie. “Here comes the Portobello contingent,” the guy said, “so let’s go … let’s get it on.” Instant myth.

“We shot 800 feet of color film,” John said, “With four cameras and as soon as we get the tele-cine thing, we’ll splice them into a half-hour program. … See, this isn’t America where it’s a political thing to be a freak. Here it’s the dope trip which leads either to the religious trip and I don’t wanna be bothered, or the disillusioned trip and I don’t wanna be bothered. The big difference is that we have no constitution here which means no grounds to fight police authority.

“But what we can use is the national media that reports all kinds of things all over the country. If we use humor to disrupt things like this, we can make everyone aware of what’s going on, even a guy living out in a cottage in the Hebrides.”

Switching on his color TV set, he said, “Look, we have to extend the lifestyle out of just wearing beads. Operation Rupert and our future actions will be cultural operations designed to end the sexist/racist role playing of straight society and create our own myths … that can be swapped for them.”

And as the TV blurred on and videotape faded away, someone in the room looked at a last image of the Festival of Light band marching and said, “Here … that’s just when the machine gun fire comes from the van …” and laughed.

* * *

The police and the demonstrators waltzed circles around one another in the park the next few hours, playing games of position. Cliff Richard, once Britain’s Elvis and now a convert to Christ, came out and plugged in.

“Ooooh, it’s Cliff,” a GLFer moaned, swooning, “Oh, Cliff.”

“If we get honest with ourselves …” Cliff is saying on stage.

“Be honest, Cliff,” someone shouted. “Admit you’re a homosexual. … Come out, Cliff.”

Small knots of people formed in the crowd: a British phenomenon, the opposing sides actually talking to one another, arguing and discussing. “You people have done nothing for the last 10,000 years,” a man in a khaki jacket with a “Free Angela” button in his lapel angrily told the bearded priest who’d been talking to the darling old ladies in Trafalgar. “There are people without houses, starving in the streets and you’re worrying about pornography. You bloody well asked my opinion … get out of the bloody way.”

No one had ever talked to the priest like this before, and he was enraged. The color rising in his cheeks, he spun around and stalked away without saying a word.

* * *

“Do I have the pleasure of addressing one of our little friends from Central Hall,” Colonel Orde Dobbie, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Festival said to one of the “nuns” in the park, late in the day.

“That’s right.”

“Have you had a good day, my dear?” he asked, the very picture of a colonel in a bowtie and green tweed jacket.

“The police arrested 15 of us for no reason, all my friends are in jail,” she said, biting her lip. “They haven’t arrested any Christians, have they? It must be nice to have the pigs protect you.”

“Indeed it is, yes,” the colonel hemmed. “But you haven’t let a little thing like that spoil it for you, have you?” he hawwed. “Well, then, I must be going. Jolly nice to have seen you.”

As the day wore on, police kept on arresting demonstrators who wouldn’t obey them. The crowd got bigger and bigger. From Norwich, Bedford, Radlett and Gosport, they came. Trooping across meadows as the day faded and the light failed, kids and vicars and families and gaggles of elderly ladies, who sat on the grass munching cucumber sandwiches and drinking tea from a thermos.

As Saturday night began, there were 50,000 of them in the park. The concert that was supposed to end at seven went on until 8:30, a leniency police had never shown for any of the free Hyde Park rock concerts.

There were many people, yet they were strangely lethargic. They did not clap much or cheer or sing. By 7:30 even “Amazing Grace” could not rouse them. The Rupert people ended the day herded into a corner, surrounded by police, chanting impotently to themselves.

And although the Bible was quoted heavily throughout the day to various purposes, no one read the passage from Matthew 7, in which Jesus says:

“Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the plank in your own? How dare you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own. Hypocrite! Take the plank out of your eye first and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.”

In This Article: anti-gay, Coverwall, Religion

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