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

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…

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