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“Top Dog” revisited

This is a brief interlude between two adventures! I’ve been madly trying to catch up with stuff this week. There have been a few times this week when I’ve doubted my faith in myself and my new path in life. There have been a few moments where the “top dog” or “shitty committee” has reappeared and told me that everything that I’ve done so far is a failure; that I’ve not got the abilities I’ve claimed to have. The “top dog” is the voice that lives in everyone’s heads that tells them they are worthless and rubbish. It’s all our collected fears and insecurities. Yesterday, part of me started dwelling on past failures again.

Then I remembered the good advice and encouragement that people have given me over the past few months; the moments when I’ve felt fulfilled and needed. There were a lot of times when I was picked last for the team as a kid; something went wrong in a job;  I sabotaged my efforts through insecurity. So? That doesn’t mean that I have to keep making those mistakes.

The most important thing is to keep going: to remember that my insecurities are pasted across my face; to have faith in my own abilities. I’m definitely getting somewhere. Since the end of April, I’ve run a successful memoir course; gained loads of experience in working with children and in schools; done lots of work on two freelance writing projects, and had enormous amounts of fun volunteering for Oxfam. There’s more that I want to do, but I can’t do absolutely everything at once, unless I had a “time-turner” like Hermione Granger in Harry Potter!

My only regret is that I haven’t had a lot of time for my own fiction writing. I seem to have lost faith in my novel. I’ve let some criticism get to me, rather than making the time to work out if it was valid and spending time on my fiction. So often, my own writing ends up at the bottom of my “to do” list, under cleaning the bathroom or sorting out the laundry. That’s just wrong. When I return from Glastonbury, I’ll set some time aside per day. An hour a day on my own novel would make a massive difference.

The Download Dog

The Download Dog is a very different beast. He’s the mascot of Download festival, the biggest rock festival in the UK. He’s usually a bright pink colour, with fearsome teeth, sharp claws and mad staring eyes. He might look fierce, but he’s a big softy really (in fact I saw a cuddly Download Dog at the festival accompanied by a little girl) and all he wants to do is ROCK! In fact, he’s similar to the punters at Download. They have big piercings and lots of tattoos, but are some of the nicest people who Oxfam encounter in festival-land. I’ve now done three Downloads in a row, despite some terrible weather! Download takes place at Donington Park, the legendary motor racing venue, and is just a few miles away from East Midlands airport. So it’s a very different festival experience for Oxfam, with our campsite next to the racetrack, planes roaring overhead and our “Oxbox” in one of the pit-lane garages.

I was lucky enough to have the registration shift at Download, making sure that the other Oxfam stewards arrived safely. When I collected my shifts, I realised that I would have the whole festival free to enjoy myself! Happy days! It was lovely to greet people I hadn’t seen since last year – as well as some people I’d been working with at Trailtrekker, and it was good to be working as part of the Oxfam team again.

On Wednesday and Thursday, I enjoyed hanging around and relaxing with my friends – apart from the bits where we got caught in some horrendous rain-storms. The shifts went quickly: checking tickets and putting wristbands on people, who were always excited to be arriving at the festival, whatever the weather. The security staff were checking people’s bags for glass bottles, but then being very helpful – pouring the drinks into plastic bottles, and even advising ticket-holders on where to buy a decent bottle of wine. It was all rather civilised. Some Danish people tried to bring a bottle of a liqueur called “Fisk” though with them. It was a dark brown colour, with a picture of a fisherman on it. The Danish lad explained that the drink tasted like Fisherman’s Friends. These are a really horrible cough sweet and not anything that you’d want to have in a drink. But apparently, it’s very big in Denmark!

On Friday morning, it was time to rock! At Download, you aren’t actually let into the arena until the music starts, which helps to keep the ground fresh. I had lots of red wine with me, but I had to try to pace myself, because one of my favourite bands of all time, Gogol Bordello, were on at 8pm. We had to ride out a few more heavy showers, though, which always seems to encourage me to drink! We saw a random variety of music, escaping into the covered venues at times to get out of the rain. I was underwhelmed by Korn and Bullet for my Valentine, but only one band were going to really do it for me! We had great fun attaching pegs with messages onto passersby, and I made a pocketful of Gogol Bordello related pegs. Shortly before 8pm, I joined a crowd that seems much more colourful than the usual Download black. Gogol Bordello were brilliant and definitely managed to “kick the arse” out of Download! I’d been worried about how they were going to go down, as they’re a unique genre of gypsy punk. Everything was turned up to 11 and their set was over far too soon! I should have stopped when the going was good, but I decided to go to the Dog House late night “rock disco” and didn’t hear a single song I recognised, staggering back a distance of two miles at least, in the rain! Not a good move.

So on Saturday, I was feeling a little fragile. This was a big day though, Iron Maiden day! My other half’s favourite band, so I’ve been indoctrinated over the years, and now I’m genuinely keen on them. I took it easy, making sure I ate enough and slowly sipped my cider. It was also brilliant to see Motorhead, who didn’t disappoint me one bit. I made the effort to get closer to the front, with an Oxfam friend who was celebrating his 40th birthday. A few swigs of Jack Daniels helped to feel suitably rock ‘n’ roll! Queens of the Stone Age slowed things down a bit again – maybe they’re a band I need to get into a bit more.

Iron Maiden were also everything I’d hoped for. I hung back with the bit group of Oxfam stewards at our traditional meeting point in front of the disabled viewing platform. The sound wasn’t quite loud enough from this position, but there was a great view of the crowd, and it was good to be with lots of friends having a great time. There were countless backdrop and prop changes, and singer Bruce Dickinson had several changes of outfit. Despite being more senior in years, there was lots of running around on stage and the band played a lot of their classic songs, ending in ‘Running Free’, with lots of Oxfam friends singing along, with surprisingly tuneful voices. This time I was sensible, and returned with everyone for a party in the “Oxbox”, before we were forced to go to bed, due to Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit being asleep in the tour bus next door. Download is so rock!

Sunday was a lovely warm day, and the main reason I returned from Download with a big orange face. We enjoyed a good variety of bands, including Huntress, and Amon Amarth, who had a viking ship as their drum riser! I enjoyed The Gaslight Anthem, who are definitely a band I’ll be checking out in the future – a bit more thoughtful, reminding me of Frank Turner. I enjoyed the Teutonic stomping of Rammstein, but I escaped in the middle to see Sonic Book Six, a band I’d really enjoyed at Bearded Theory a couple of years ago. They were great, and it was brilliant to be in a much smaller, intimate venue, bouncing up and down to punky ska. When I returned to the main stage, Rammstein were still going strong, but unfortunately, I’d missed some action with a giant dildo with sparks coming off it. That would have been worth watching, but I’m glad I went to support a smaller (and more fun) band! After another party in the Oxbox, Download was over for another year.

And now there are only “two more sleeps” until I set off to Glastonbury, ridiculously early!

Smile in the face of evil and dance!

A few weeks ago, on the 22nd May, I was supervising a rounders match on a panoramic playing field at a very multicultural junior school in Sheffield, when something terrible happened in London. An off-duty soldier was brutally murdered in an attack by two terrorists, in the name of Islam. The backlash against ordinary Muslims started almost immediately, although there was widespread condemnation of the attack from the Islamic community. There is no justification for terrorism, or killing an innocent man who was just walking home from work. (Wikipedia link for more information.)

Last week, I found out that the EDL (The English Defence League), were planning to march on Sheffield city centre, and that a counter demonstration was being planned to celebrate and defend multicultural Sheffield. I haven’t been involved in demonstrations for years. As a teenager, I was involved in the Socialist Worker’s party, but I left when I was at university and had much more interesting things to do than sit in meetings in rooms above pubs. I realised that the prospect of a revolution was rather remote! Anyway, that’s another story. The reason I’d got involved in the first place was to do my bit to stop the rise of far-right groups. In the early 1990s, the BNP (British National Party) were gathering support and votes. For a while, it seemed that far-right extremists were losing their appeal. Then 9-11 happened, and the bombings in London on the 7th July 2005, and groups like the EDL appeared, stirring up anti-Muslim hatred. I’ve worked with lots of Muslims. The Muslims I know just want to get on with their lives: go to work, have their tea, bring up their families in peace and go on holiday, just like everyone else. They have no interest in extremism, and why should they?

I decided to join the march on Saturday in Sheffield because of the kids that I’ve been working with recently as a teaching assistant. In the multicultural schools of Sheffield, children work and play together. They’ve grown up used to classmates from many different cultures, and the richness that this gives to their lives. I wanted to make a stand, to defend the right to live in harmony with my neighbours. I love living in a multicultural society. Think of the food, music, language, art, dance, clothes and many other things we’ve been influenced by, due to other cultures coming into the UK. Britain is an amazing country, with its own rich culture. It’s not under threat. In fact, in recent year, there has been a renaissance in the popularity of British culture such as folk music, British food and beer (such as the wonderful microbreweries in Sheffield like the Bradfield Brewery!) Throughout the land, village greens still resound to the thwack of leather on willow (a cricket match!) and polite applause, as no one has a clue what’s going on, before reaching for the cucumber sandwiches. We’ve got a lot to be proud of.

The EDL, on the other hand, and other far-right groups, claim that British culture is under attack and that we are somehow being “overrun” by muslims. These people want to create divisions, and want working class white British people to believe that they are being  marginalised in their own country. Their politics are about defeatism, negativity and hate. The EDL’s stated aim in coming to Sheffield was to place a wreath on the Barker’s Pool war memorial. But they’d demonstrated the week before, and apparently, there had been Nazi salutes on the streets of Sheffield.

I was delighted when I got a Facebook message from my friend Angelina Abel, who runs the Mulembas D’Africa dance classes, last Friday. She said that a festival had been organised at the Peace Gardens in Sheffield’s city centre at the last minute, to celebrate “One Sheffield, Many Cultures”. She’d been invited to perform and was going to do a workshop to a new routine. I was definitely up for that. My placard-waving days may be over, but dancing for peace was going to be the perfect way to prove that many cultures and creativity are the things that make life really worth living. The festival was due to start straight after the demonstration.

So yesterday, on a warm, sunny morning, I set off for the city centre, heading for the City Hall steps. Unfortunately, I found my way blocked by rows of police officers and metal barricades so I couldn’t get down any side streets. I started to feel quite uneasy. Eventually, I managed to get round to Barker’s Pool, the large square in front of Sheffield’s City Hall, a magnificent 1930s concert hall. There were ranks of police, lots of temporary Heras fencing and a few people, obviously from the anti-fascist side, standing or sitting on the City Hall steps in the sunshine. There didn’t seem to be a lot going on, and I could see a crowd gathering under Trade Union banners on the other side of barricades next to Holland and Barratt, so I thought I’d join them. The quickest way to get through, avoiding more metal barriers, was through the John Lewis Department store and out the other side. I was briefly side-tracked by looking at kitchen-ware, but within a couple of minutes, I was standing in the middle of the crowd of protesters.

I got talking to some students. They weren’t left-wing fanatics. One of them had made a banner out of a Stella Artois box, that read “This memorial supports anti-fascism and so does Sheffield – one culture”. As one of them explained, he had grown up at a multi-cultural school. His friends were from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and that made life richer, but at the end of the day, they were just his mates. The crowd was full of Sheffield people, who’d given up their normal Saturday lunchtime to make a stand against hatred. There were banners from left-wing groups, but also trade unions, and home-made banners, including the “fluffiest” banner in the world, which read “Welcome to Sheffield, try some Henderson’s Relish, OPEN YOUR MIND, and have a safe trip home”. There was some shouting and chanting when the EDL arrived, but it was difficult to see exactly what was going on because the EDL members were right at the other side of Barker’s Pool. Standing on tip-toes, it did look like the EDL member were giving Nazi salutes. However, they EDL claim they were making “Churchill-style V-signs”. Hmm. The Sheffield Star followed the EDL and you can make your own mind up by watching this video. Eventually, they let the anti-fascist protesters through, to gather on the City Hall steps. There were a lot of us – about 2,000 at a guess and it was great to recognise lots of friends amongst them, who had just turned up, like me.

It was time to head to the Peace Gardens, around the corner, to meet Angelina. I had time for a pasty first, another example of British culture at its finest! The set-up in the Peace Gardens looked very professional, and as we changed into our Mulembas D’Africa vest, we started to feel like we were part of something big. Two members of the dance class had turned up to dance, and another lady had just been passing through, but she also got roped in! Angelina took to the stage, and we encouraged members of the audience to join in. At first, we thought we’d have a couple of small children, but it was brilliant when the middle of the peace gardens was full of people. There was only one problem – we didn’t know the routine that Angelina had been cooking up, and now we we had to convince a hundred other people to join in. It was great fun, and I managed to keep up and try to look stylish, but we were very hot and sweaty when we’d finished our Kuduro routine!

One of the people joining in our dance routine was Sista Chaz from the Allstar Revolution, and they’d also been invited perform; to headline the festival! So we headed off to the off-licence to relax, dance and enjoy the music. Over the afternoon, we enjoyed various DJs, a folk band, young street-dance groups and a parkour group bouncing off the fountains and doing incredible back-flips. There was also a Bhangra group and an excellent garage punk / indie band called the Sonik Seeds. Finally, The Allstar Revolution started their set, starting with a more laid-back, Afrobeat vibe, spreading their message of love, fun and friendship. It was a fitting end to a wonderful afternoon.

After the EDL left Barker’s Pool, there had been some trouble as the march headed up West Street and out of the city centre. But right in the heart of Sheffield, we showed what cultural diversity and unity really means.




Trailtrekking, across the universe…Well, 100km around Skipton!

I volunteered at a special event last weekend. It wasn’t a festival, but it involved camping and Oxfam.

It was Trailtrekker, a long distance walk to raise money for Oxfam. Around 1,400 walkers, in teams of four, walked up to 100km in a circular route around Skipton in North Yorkshire, trekking through some of the most spectacular scenery in England. The event raises an amazing £800,000 for Oxfam.

As you can imagine, a lot of volunteers are needed. As well as the essential medics,  mountain rescue teams and logistics crew, Oxfam need lots of people to make sure that the walkers get refreshments; that the walkers’ support crews can park safely and most importantly, that the walkers get lots of cheers and applause as they reach every checkpoint, water points and essentially, at the finish line! This was my fourth Trailtrekker. My role is volunteer co-ordinator / deputy co-ordinator, making sure that all the volunteer roles are covered and everything is going smoothly, working with my Oxfam friend Karen.

I arrived at Aireville School in Skipton early on Friday evening. For the first time, I managed to avoid getting stuck in the slow roads around Bradford, and had a scenic drive via Ilkley. Aireville school is the most scenic secondary school I’ve ever scene, with a beautiful backdrop of mountains, surrounded by woodland with wild birds and rabbits that seem remarkably tame. I put my tent up and had a meal in the main hall while listening to the walkers’ briefing.

Most of the walkers hadn’t walked for such a long distance before, but the majority of them were still determined to “go for gold” – the 100km distance. Walkers get a bronze medal if they get to the 40km stage and silver if they reach the 60km stage. Since Trailtrekker brought in the bronze and silver medals a few years ago, the demographic of the walkers has changed – there are still several super-fit teams, all sinew and muscle. However, most of the walkers are now “ordinary” and lovely, if slightly insane people – work colleagues, friends, families and even couples! There are several corporate teams, and this year, Oxfam volunteers were supporting a team from Barclays.  It’s wonderful that the prime motivation of most of the walkers is to raise money for Oxfam. I don’t think I could ever attempt gold – I think my feet would disintegrate first – so anyone who manages it gets my full respect!

Friends from the Oxfam Stewarding world arrived and soon it was time for the staff and volunteers’ briefing – an interesting mixture of medical volunteers, events staff, mountain rescue, radio hams (from RAYNET – they are essential because the hills and mountains block mobile phone signals), as well as the Oxfam volunteer co-ordinators. The briefing was livened up by a lovely black labrador padding around us. He belonged to the owner of the events company and eventually, he fell asleep next to a little boy.

After a few beers and catching up on festival news, it was time for bed – Saturday was going to be very busy!

After watching some of the walkers set off early on Saturday morning, it was time for Karen and I to head off to Checkpoint Two at Horton-in-Ribblesdale; the Bronze finish line. By the time the walkers reached this beautiful village, they had walked 40km, over Fountains Fell and around the dramatic peak of Pen y Ghent. I’m not sure why this mountain has a Welsh sounding name when it’s in Yorkshire! The checkpoint was in a scenic, riverside field, with views of the mountains and the famous Settle to Carlisle railway.

We busied ourselves getting the checkpoint marquee ready: putting up signs and banners; making sure the urn was full of hot water for tea and coffee (always essential for anything Oxfam do); decorating the marquee with bunting and getting to know the Oxfam volunteers and the other Trailtrekker staff here. We discovered that we were due to park hundreds of cars in a field which doubled up as a home for a flock of free-range chickens, which caused amusement and alarm throughout the day! The other major trauma was that we had no biscuits on our checkpoint. It wasn’t too bad, as the walkers’ support crews arrange amazing meals, relaxation and pampering to the knackered walkers! Also, the village fete was taking part in the next door field, so we were frequently confused by tannoy announcements of “Mr Bubbles the Magician is on shortly in the main arena”.

As soon as we were ready, the first walkers came through – they were actually running, as they were aiming for a record time, and eventually finished the entire route of 100km in 13 hours. The average time for completing the route was 24-30 hours! We had to wait almost two more hours for the next walkers to come, and then it was a steady trickle, building into a torrent from 4-6pm, when all I did was put teabags and coffee in disposable cups, occasionally running around to make sure that everything was running smoothly. Karen was busy too, but everything seemed to go very well. No chickens were run over (it was a close-run thing!) and astoundingly, the last walkers were through the checkpoint by 8.30pm, well before the cut-off point of 10pm. Some people were happy – and relieved – to get bronze medals, but the majority of people were determined to go for gold, or silver at least. Most of the walkers still looked relatively fit, but there were a few people badly limping – let down by their feet, ankles or knees, who were glad of the first aid and massage available.

We tidied up as soon as the walkers had all checked in. The checkpoint had created an entire skip of rubbish throughout the day, but everyone had been very tidy, apart from some naughty people who left a smouldering barbecue by the river. The only other litter was the backs of blister plasters!

On Sunday, I woke up at 4.15am to start my shift at the finish line at 4.30am. I really must be crackers! My tent was just further up the field, so it was just a case of waking up and getting dressed, shivering in the dawn! The sky was perfectly clear, but it was freezing. Only a few teams had made it through the finish line, but as the morning drew on, more and more teams limped, ran, stumbled and crawled over the finish line. More than one person was in tears (of pain and relief), and everyone was very glad to have finally earned their medals. Soon, the school playing field was full of exhausted people with medals around their necks, having a well-earned beer and clapping on the other walkers, with their friends and family. The atmosphere was brilliant, and I even came back to do more clapping, once my shift had finished.

Trailtrekker is a completely different experience for Oxfam volunteers. You don’t get to see your favourite band for free or party all night, but you do get inspired by the grit and determination of the walkers. The money they raise will make a massive difference to people around the world.

Things this blog is about…