‘I drove the car into the fountain’: causing mayhem at Essex University, 1969

Brian Caldwell on the sideshow he and his friends created during the university’s ‘revolutionary festival’

Essex University had quite an anarchic reputation during the student unrest of the 1960s. It’s partly what drew me to it. My English teacher at school suggested I might benefit from a less traditional university, and encouraged me to apply to one of the new ones. Essex had its first students in 1964 and was known for its innovative courses. I studied English and American literature – one of the few places that offered the course – joining in 1966.

In February 1969, it staged a “revolutionary festival”: students took over for three days, and held seminars and workshops on subjects including racism, capitalism, black power, imperialism and immigration. It doesn’t sound very radical, but these were subversive topics back then. It was described at the time as “an experiment in revolutionary thought”, its aim “to turn the bourgeois concept of a university on its head”.

The events in this photograph weren’t strictly part of the festival. The car was mine and, along with three friends, we decided to create a spectacle. We drove it into the main square on campus and did a few circuits of the fountain, pictured on the far left, which was frozen. We poured petrol on the ice and set it alight. At the same time, we set off firecrackers and threw them out the window. I doubt there was much theoretical underpinning for our actions, but we were clearly influenced by the incendiary atmosphere on campus. It wasn’t the cleverest thing to do.

One of my friends had fallen on to the ice while dousing it, and was covered in petrol. Flames were now coming out of the engine; it had a full tank and he was starting to get a bit nervous. So we decided to end the stunt by driving the car into the fountain, and then went to the bar for a pint. Members of the arsonist wing of the university’s Anarchist Ensemble approached us and asked if they could set fire to it – the first of several attempts to hijack our pyrotechnic art.

This photograph was taken after many efforts by the university authorities and the fire brigade to extinguish the flames. It captures the moment when a few students were trying to prevent my burnt-out car being towed away. Why I’m peering through the windscreen is beyond me; perhaps I’m trying to remove my tax disc, in case it identified me later.

This photograph suggests something far more riotous than the actual event. It’s more interesting than the pictures of seminars, yet the intellectual exchanges had a more lasting effect.

I saw it for the first time a few years ago, at an exhibition marking Essex’s 50th anniversary, blown up large. It’s currently on show at the Royal Academy, as part of a small show called Futures Found. Both exhibitions have lent the picture a significance that the moment didn’t really have; it was just a silly prank by some rather immature students. But the stunt reminded me how politically important and formative my time at Essex was.

• Are you in a notable photograph? Email thatsme@theguardian.com


Hannah Booth

The GuardianTramp

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