Autumn Leaves Still Make Me Believe

Deciding to volunteer at Festival Number 6 was a step into the unknown. Last year, I listened to the coverage of the festival on BBC 6 Music, and I was intrigued. I’d seen one episode of The Prisoner, so I knew that was the reason for the festival’s unusual name; I liked the eclectic line-up, and I’d never visited Portmeirion, the eccentric village, built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1976 in the style of an Italian hilltop town.

One of the other major attractions was also the Manic Street Preachers, due to headline on the eve of the release of their new album “Rewind the Film”. I’ve loved the Manics for the past three years. I was always drawn to their earlier songs, glamour and the drama of their guitarist/lyricist Richey Edwards, missing, presumed dead since February 1995. I saw the band twice as a teenager. However, I only started getting into them when I was researching my novel-in-progress, Distortion. My teenage protagonist is obsessed with the Manics, and it rubbed off on me! It would be very special to see them in their home country.

I packed light(ish), as due to the steep, remote site, there’s no parking, so everyone has to park at the nearby Porthmadog football club. When I set the satnav postcode, I had to change the country to “Wales”. This was going to be an adventure: going on my own to a different country. I was in Wales within two hours, driving through the dramatic hills of Snowdonia. As soon as I was over the border, the road signs became bilingual: “ARAF” for “slow”, and “UN FFORDD” for “one way”. I hadn’t been to Wales for years and enjoyed the feeling of everything being slightly different. I got a bit lost trying to find the “park and ride”, because I was only the forth car to arrive on Wednesday morning. I caught the shuttle bus with most of my stuff to set up my tent in the staff camp site, just behind the main arena, which made the park and ride worthwhile.  I then returned to the football club to get my wristband. There were a few delays, but while I was making, I made friends with some other volunteers: Callum, Sharon and Rod in particular. By the time we were on the coach again, the rain was really coming down, blurring the dramatic skyline.

I helped the others to put their tents up, and we braved the rain to check our shifts in the production office. It was a shame my first view of Portmeirion was a rather wet one, but the advantage of having a festival partly set in a village is the advantage of buildings. We had a warming coffee in the tea rooms before getting a good view of the estuary and sheltering in a beautiful grotto decorated with shells. Later, we returned to the hotel and had a couple of drinks on wonderfully comfortable sofas in front of a fire. It had stopped raining and Portmeirion looked stunning under floodlights – it didn’t feel like we were in Wales at all, until we returned to our damp tents. Thursday morning dawned bright and sunny. The views of the estuary and the mountains really opened up. Sharon and I had a wander around Portmeirion and lunch in the staff canteen, which is also the main restaurant for tourists in the village. Bizarrely, I bumped into a lady I know from Sheffield, who was on a coach trip around Wales. We caught the shuttle bus back to the Park and Ride for our shift.

Unfortunately, it started raining again, the clouds blocking out all the hills. I was on wrist-banding duty as the first ticket-holders came through the gates, but after a few hours of dryness inside a marquee, I spent the rest of my shift directing cars and selling parking tickets in the car park. An entertaining security guard livened things up. According to the BBC Wales website, 61.2% of the population speak Welsh as a first language and I tried to pick up a few phrases: “Bore Da” for “good morning” and “Nos Da” for “goodnight”.

We finished our shifts at 11pm on Thursday, just after it finally stopped raining. We got straight onto the shuttle bus to take us back to site. I was still feeling fairly lively, so I had a couple of ciders and chatted to the decor crew, who had been working hard in the rain to make everything look beautiful.

Friday looked like it was going to be a great day, but again, and I was given the task of selling parking tickets again, and directing cars to where the stewards were parking them. It was sunny for a while, but then a steady rain began to fall, and didn’t stop until just before the end of the shift. It was my last shift though, so I didn’t mind too much, and kept relatively dry with my waterproofs and an umbrella. It was good to be one of the first people to greet the arriving ticket-holders, and it was amazing to see the car park field absolutely full up by the end of my shift.

By the time I arrived back in Portmeirion, it was a lovely autumnal evening. I met up with Sharon and Rob, and it was time to relax and enjoy the festival! We headed to the Estuary Stage, down by the waterfront and the hotel. it was great to just sit back, near the swimming pool and listen to the music while admiring the baroque buildings of the village and the beauty of the mountains in the background. The band was Clinic, a post-punk band wearing surgical masks. Some of their songs had a classic gothic sound, with drum-machines, strong basslines and intricate guitar lines. It was an aural assault but very enjoyable. As a total contrast, we walked uphill to the Piazza to watch the Brythoniaid Welsh Male Voice Choir. Hundreds of people were packed into the square to listen to this traditional choir – mostly elderly men in tuxedos – performing ‘Good Times’ by Chic, ‘A design for Life’ by the Manic Street Preachers, which was absolutely spell-binding, and ‘Uprising’ by Muse – which was slightly marred by the use of a backing track, but it was a fantastic experience.

Unbelievably, I hadn’t been inside the main arena yet, but as we walked towards the main stage (wisely inside a marquee!), there was time to take in the beautiful gateway, lighting and decorations in the arena. The scale of the festival is also astonishingly intimate, with everything within an easy walking distance. I hadn’t previously seen James Blake live, but when I was in the final weeks of my job and the horrendous daily commute to Derby, his song ‘Retrograde‘ was regularly played on 6 Music. Its sensitive, soul-searching lyrics, with an unsettling undercurrent of searing electronic noise really helped me through those tough times at work, when I was wondering if leaving work and following my own path was the right thing to do. James Blake sometimes seemed like a rather introspective choice for a headliner, but Festival Number 6 isn’t about obvious choices. There were moments of banging bass which really brought the tent alive, and he proved that he’s got plenty of quality songs. James Blake actually performed ‘Retrograde twice, as his “autoharp” wasn’t working properly, providing me with two magic moments. After that, all the standing around in the rain caught up with me, so I had a quiet can and a chat back at the camp site, before heading off to bed.

Saturday dawned beautiful, and thankfully, stayed that way! I wandered around with Sharon, and we hung out at the Tim Peaks diner – a coffee shop in a small tower, run by Tim Burgess of the Charlatans. It was rammed inside the building, but it was great to sit on the steps and admire the view. We decided to explore the sea-front and the woods, making the most of the weather, so we took in the atmosphere on the estuary-side path, where children were being taught pirate skills by professional pirates, and festival-goers were relaxing, taking photographs and admiring the view. People were serenely paddle-boarding below us. We walked down to the beach but the estuary tide was turning. The path through the woods was steep in places, with surprises around every corner: origami-wishes that we made and attached to a tree, under the supervision of a fairy; a daytime woodland rave; an Ibiza style cafe filled with dry ice; and a children’s area with a very cheesy disco! There were lots of activities for children, including an area where they could make their own dens. It was a brilliant, relaxed way to spend an afternoon at a festival, in an atmosphere that was truly magical. The strangest thing we found was an artist making screen-prints of the topography of the forest floor. His name is Maurice Carlin, and he’s done some pretty interesting stuff!

Following our wander, we settled at the Estuary Stage again, having treated ourselves to some posh drinks from the Fevertree bar – I had a Gin and Tonic. We watched Stealing Sheep, who paraded through the audience with a brass band before they came on stage. The music was folky psychedelia which washed over us gently as we soaked up the sunshine and the gorgeous view. The need for food was calling us into the main arena, and I had a delicious curry from Ghandi’s Flip Flop. We relaxed in the sunshine outside the Soup Library – a stall combining a pop-up library and home-made soup, flicking through the old books and chatting to fellow festival-goers. The audience at Festival Number 6 is a really nice mix – fairly mature and family friendly, open-minded, and a fair amount of hardcore indie devotees. There were lots of local people, who’d been able to purchase tickets at a reduced rate, so the lyrical Welsh language was often heard around the site. All the signs at the festival were bilingual.

We watched trip-hop legend Tricky at the main stage, who seems to have gone in a heavy metal direction with distorted guitars. I particularly enjoyed a cover of ‘Ace of Spades’ by Motorhead! We then returned to the village piazza to watch punk poet John Cooper Clarke. The piazza was packed with people of all ages, absolutely entranced with John’s mix of stand-up, rambling commentary and the set-pieces of his poetry. It was the perfect moment, as the sun was going down, making the pastel-coloured buildings glow.

Returning to the Estuary Stage again, we watched Caitlin Rose, a hotly-tipped country singer-songwriter, often played on Marc Riley’s show on BBC 6 Music. She’s a brilliant performer and her songs are beautifully crafted. I particularly enjoyed ‘For the Rabbits‘. Her music is gentle, but with a dark edge. When her set had finished, we could already hear My Bloody Valentine’s headline set echoing over the estuary. Legendary innovators of shoe-gaze, their sonic attack must have been too much for many people at close-range and the main stage marquee wasn’t full – but the hardcore audience were spell-bound by the waves of sound. I’d been warned about the infamous ending to their gigs – a wash of feedback and noise. I loved it – and so did the My Bloody Valentine devotee I was dancing with, having the time of his life!

Sharon sensibly retired to bed after a nightcap of Kraken Rum, but I stayed out and partied to some great tunes in the Kraken bar, which consisted of the same three tipis as one of the more laid-back stages at Shambala festival! I made some great friends for the night, determined to boogie to the very last song.

I awoke on Sunday morning to gales. It wasn’t raining too much yet but the weather had definitely taken a turn for the worse. I helped Sharon to pack as she wasn’t up for spending another night in a very draughty tent. By the time we walked to the village, the rain was torrential. My plan was to get inside somewhere as soon as possible. I managed to squeeze into the Tim Peaks diner for Bingo Disco, which was great fun, although there wasn’t much room to dance! The main arena was closed because people were checking the safety of the structures, but the winds seemed to be easing off slightly. After a veggie burger from the always reliable Goodness Gracious, I found myself back in the Tim Peaks diner, listening to a reading from Joe Dunthorne, author of the novel Submarine, which was made into a brilliant film by Richard Ayode, a beautifully quirky coming-of-age story. It was a real treat, and a good lesson in putting on a good performance as a novelist. The highlight was a “choose your own adventure” story about a couple having a picnic in a park, with the audience voting on what happens next, leading to wild sex on a revolving office chair!

The next must-see thing for me was Caitlin Moran in conversation with John Niven. I’ve always liked Caitlin Moran, ever since she was the bouncy, teenage presenter of music show Naked City on Channel 4 in the early 90s. She’s only a couple of years older than me. I really enjoyed her autobiographical book on feminism, ‘How to be a Woman’. Despite an impoverished childhood, she won a writing competition at the age of thirteen, kept writing and ended up with a published novel and was working as a reported for Melody Maker by the age of sixteen. Her interview was very entertaining, full of embarrassing stories of Mooncup disasters, turning Gwenneth Paltrow’s house into a blood-bath. I’d love to find out what gave her the faith to become a writer throughout her childhood. Did being home-educated and immersed in books strengthen her resolve? Was it success in a competition at a young age that boosted her confidence in her writing? It’s clear from listening to her speaking and reading her books that she wasn’t confident in everything. She was often desperately unhappy and insecure about her weight. I’m full of admiration for her – but if I have to be honest, a little jealous too. And that’s totally unreasonable of me. I’m learning to have confidence in my own writing and teaching abilities and I’m making my own life, my own career, based around writing; on my own terms. And strong women like Caitlin are fighting my corner.

I stayed around in the bar to listen to Guy Garvey in conversation with Stuart Maconie. I’m not the biggest Elbow fan, but I was fascinated by the discussion about his lyrics and how they develop, sometimes over a period of months. The interview inspired me to listen to Elbow more closely and examine the poetic craft that goes into the songs.

It was time to stake out the main stage in preparation for the Manics. Although I was on my own, there was plenty to keep me entertained. I am Kloot – a Manchester band closely related to Elbow, played a stunning set. I’ve been into I am Kloot since around 2000, when their skilful, sensitive songwriting won me over. They now have a more dense, mature sound, rocking out more, but it was a beautiful way to start the evening. The next act was Johnny Marr. I’d never seen him live before and it was an absolute treat. His own songs sounded great, from his solo album The Messenger, proving that he has a good singing voice as well as unbelievably amazing guitar skills. The highlights of the set have to be the Smiths songs he performed, owning them just as much as Morrisey ever could. Johnny Marr turned classic songs such as ‘There is a light that never goes out’ into sing-alongs, the crowd delirious with happiness.

The marquee was packed for Chic. The intimacy of the venue really came into its own – there was no need for a big screen. Nile Rodgers was standing a few metres away from me and the band looked unbelievably glamorous in spangly white outfits. Nile Rodgers accurately pointed out that he’s responsible for some of the most important moments in the history of pop music, such as ‘Let’s Dance’ by David Bowie and ‘Like a Virgin’ by Madonna. They played a hit-filled set of Chic classics such as ‘Le Freak’ and ‘Good Times’, and a medley of Nile Rodgers songs such as ‘I’m coming out’ by Diana Ross. They ended the set by dancing to the hit of the summer, ‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk, which features Nile Rodgers distinctive guitar playing. Nile Rodgers is really inspiring, overcoming cancer by the power of positive thinking and pure determination: http://www.nilerodgers.com/blogs.

I eagerly waited for the Manics to take to the stage, and they didn’t disappoint, starting the set with an explosive ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. They played a hit-filled set, with lots of songs from ‘This is my Truth, tell me Yours’. The cover of that album was actually shot on the beach at Port Meirion, as the Manics explained – and they’d enjoyed fish and chips afterwards! Songs from the new album ‘Rewind the Film’ sounded great – more acoustic and reflective, and Richard Hawley made a brief appearance for the title track, where he sings most of the vocals. James Dean Bradfield himself was in fine voice, obviously pleased to be playing on “home ground”. Nicky Wire looked great in his Star Wars jacket, and he jumped around the stage with enthusiasm, scissor-kicking with his impossibly long skinny legs! It was the first time I’d seen them from such close quarters and it was particularly great to see Sean Moore in action- he puts so much power and precision into his drumming. The audience had a wonderful time, hanging off every word and lyric. Towards the end of the set, Nicky introduced ‘Revol’ from The Holy Bible as a tribute to Richey. It was so heart-felt and genuine. In the wake of the Manics massive success with ‘Everything Must Go’ and ‘This is My Truth, Tell me Yours’, it’s easy to forget the ongoing importance of Richey to the band. The stage-left position is always left empty in tribute to him. The set finished with ‘A design for Life’. I felt like I’d been part of something really special. http://www.manicstreetpreachers.com/

But the night wasn’t over yet! I danced the night away in the Kraken bar again, courtesy of a Craig Charles’ funk and soul DJ set. I didn’t stop dancing for two hours and even got to shake Craig Charles’ hand at the end. Eventually, I stumbled off to bed, proud that I’d done the last festival of the season proud!

On Monday, I packed away quickly and got a shuttle bus back to the car without any delays. I’d drunk all my cider, so I had no problem carrying all my stuff in one go! I made a detour to visit the Centre for Alternative Technology, nestled amongst the mountains of Snowdonia. CAT was one of the first pioneers of wind and solar power. When it was established in the 1970s, the community was seen as a bunch of cranks and weirdos. Forty years later, the technology they helped to develop is now mainstream and widely accepted. If governments and society in general listened more to organisations like CAT, we’d solve the problems caused by climate change. But sadly, CAT have still got a lot to do! I also found out that “Popty Ping” is Welsh for “microwave”.

After my adventure, it was good to get home to a rainy, dark Sheffield and my other half, who’d been waiting patiently for me (and the chip supper I brought home!) I’m determined to crystallise my summer experiences into developing my own writing career and to inspire me to live live my way.

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