The return of Reverend Rave Panda – a very Shambalic wedding!

The Wednesday before the August Bank Holiday. It was time for my last (perhaps) festival of the season. My last Oxfam festival anyway. The summer went so fast, and it’s been a lot of fun. There was still time to squeeze some more fun out of it though! And what better way to do that than Shambala – a festival where you can relax or rave, enjoy top-class live music, or spend the whole weekend weaving willow or carving a spoon!

When I arrived at Shambala, there was a big queue of stewards waiting for their wristbands. We had all registered our virtual ticket numbers on-line in advance, but there was a problem with the electric supply in the registration portacabins. Luckily, wasn’t a long wait, and was a good opportunity to catch up with people – some of whom I saw two days ago at Beautiful Days in Devon, but there were also some people I hadn’t seen for years, and some people who I was meeting for the first time.

It wasn’t not long until I was registered and ready to set up camp. The Oxfam stewards’ campsite was just next door to the car park, and I headed towards the big “Lazyland” event shelter to say hello to Gaelle and Graham and others, who were already relaxing underneath it. They had reserved a space for my bell-tent, and after a few trips to the car, everything was sorted and set-up.

It was time for our briefing again. I was quite pleased with my shifts and where I was working. We even had a talk from the lady who runs the accessibility camp site, where  I would be working,  and one of the main festival organisers popped along to say hello. Another lovely thing about Shambala is that our staff meal tickets can be used at absolutely any food stall around the site, which is a really lovely idea.

There was also a special announcement at the briefing. Long-term stewards Gavin and Carrie were getting married the week after Shambala in a very low-key ceremony. So Oxfam decided to put on a surprise “wedding rehearsal” for them on the Friday of Shambala. Apparently, a few weeks previously, Fraser had suggested it as an idea, and then he got landed with actually conducting the ceremony! But luckily, there were lots of people who were happy to help out and contribute ideas.

As the sun went down, the evening turned seriously freezing cold, but some people lit camp fires made out of washing machine drums. After a quick warm-up, we chatted under Lazyland, and then inside the awning of Kat and Martin’s campervan, until it was time for bed. I had a shift that started at 9.45am on Thursday – a fairly civilised time, but I needed some sleep.

Thursday morning was bright and sunny, and I managed to get a shower and have breakfast before the start of my shift. I seem to have been “typecast” at Shambala, as was down as the supervisor for the disabled/accessibility camp site and artist camping again, as I have been for the past two years. Not that I was complaining. It’s a wonderful place to work. The accessibility campers and the people in charge of running their field are always lovely, and one of our responsibilities on duty there is to make sure that the fire-pit keeps going all night, in case people need to get warm (what a terrible chore!), and there’s a small marquee where we can store our belongings. It’s also lots of fun to be working in artist camping, as all sorts of crazy walkabout performance art departs from the field into the public areas of the festival – a crazy fire-breathing mechanical horse, the Police Rave Unit,  a man pedalling a piano sideways as he’s playing it and lots of other things.

The start of the Thursday shift wasn’t so exciting though. The accessible camp site, and the artists’ car park and camping was just an empty field. We were already at work though, making sure that only people with staff, artist, or accessible camp site wristbands could get in there!

Gradually, our field started to fill up, and we helped some of the campers to put there tents up as the weather became more cold and windy as the afternoon wore on. The festival was gently cranking into action. When I went on my break, I had a quick look at the eclectic and quirky clothes stalls, grabbed a mock duck wrap from the Wide Awake Cafe, and even got to see a little bit of one of the first bands on, at Chai Wallahs, a large covered venue, which is the third largest at Shambala. The fact that I got to do all this in a half an hour lunch break gives you some idea of the scale of Shambala – it’s quite small, but there’s lots going on and lots of things to do, a far cry from corporate sponsored festivals.

At 6pm, our shifts finished. I headed back to camp. Before going out to enjoy the live music, my plan was to write a song for the wedding ceremony, and in about half an hour, a few of us had worked together and written something really lovely. I couldn’t wait to play it at the wedding.

By the time we arrived at Chai Wallahs, unfortunately, I’d just missed By the Rivers, but I really enjoyed The Magnus Pluto, who put on a brilliant show, combining ska-punk with hip-hop and electronica, and loads of energy. I can thoroughly recommend them. I was looking forward to Kate Tempest, but I was too far away from the front of the stage by then, and I couldn’t hear her lyrics properly, which is the whole point of having a poet, and I was chatting too much. We wandered around and explored the festival, going in and out of some of the many miniature and hidden venues. We found ourselves in one of my favourite places, around the fire in the meadow, and I found some people from Sheffield to chat to. There are still quite a few Sheffield people at Shambala, because when it first started fifteen years ago in Devon, some of the organisers were from Sheffield. That’s how we heard about the festival, from friends who had been to it, and had come back with some hazy tequila-infused memories!

Eventually, I stumbled into bed, but I was up, relatively bright and early. I was a bit annoyed that the showers I’d used the day before were now blocked off, and the showers next closest to our field had a massive queue. It wasn’t a big problem though, because the accessibility camping field didn’t have a very big queue, and it was nice to say hello to some of the campers I’d met the day before. When I returned, I persuaded Fraser to come to a Klezmer music workshop. It said in the programme that musical instruments would be useful, so I brought along my ukulele.

At first, I was the only other person with a musical instrument, apart from the workshop leader Anna Lowenstein, who played the violin beautifully, but then gradually, other musicians came to the workshop – and they were all far better than me! I didn’t want to let myself get intimidated though, and I was delighted to find out that even though what some of the others were playing along with the melody we were singing sounded complicated, in fact, I just had to strum two chords! Perfect! And when the musicians went into a klezmer jam at the end, I just got out my kazoo! It was great to learn about the history of the music too, and by the end of the session, it felt like a bit of my musical knowledge was coming back to me, understanding scales and different singing techniques, as well as just thrashing a few chords out. I love music, and I love playing and singing it. I think the reason why I stopped learning was because I was afraid of being rubbish and not understanding it. But that’s the whole point of learning, isn’t it?

I came away from the session singing the melodies we’d learned in the workshop. But after running through my song for the surprise wedding a few times, that tune had taken over instead. I wrote the chorus of the song on a whiteboard. Fraser had gone away to prepare the wedding ceremony. We tried to keep our preparations secret, but we were nearly rumbled by the groom, Gavin, when we were writing on the whiteboard. He didn’t seem to notice that anything unusual was happening.

As we entered the marquee that we’d borrowed from the other stewarding organisation, Green Stewards, it was a riot of bunting. Fraser had even borrowed champagne glasses from the bar (although there was no champagne!), and rigged up a PA system. The marquee was crowded with stewards who had come to celebrate with the happy couple, and the night-shift team had even designed and printed an order of service for the ceremony. I put my ukulele in the corner. Fraser, resplendent in his Rave Panda outfit, did a fantastic job, with wedding vows pulled out of a cardboard box, a cardboard cake, loom-band rings, a light-house shaped wedding certificate, and even official photographers. My song went down very well, and everyone joined in with the chorus. The happy couple were whisked off in the Oxfam buggy, but unfortunately, there was no honeymoon just yet, as Gavin had to start his shift at 3pm.

And I was due on shift at 4pm too. It was a pleasant shift, making sure that the stewards were happy in their various positions. The most exciting thing that happened was when several hot air balloons were inflated in the next field, and floated low across the camp sites and across the festival in the still evening air. There were lots of performers arriving to park up in the artists’ field, and we got to see the Rave police, stilt walkers, and fire-breathing robots set off from the field we were working in! We also had lots of lovely chats with the residents of the accessibility camp site. I even had a break and got to watch some of Public Service Broadcasting‘s set, which was very enjoyable. If you haven’t experienced them yet, they’re an instrumental duo who use samples from old newsreels and public information films in their music.

After my shift finished at midnight, there was still lots of entertainment on offer. I headed back to the tent to grab some cider. I watched a bit of the Hackney Colliery band in Chai Wallahs, who perform powerful brass renditions of funk and soul classics. They did a very good version of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. But they had competition. Over in the Social Club, most of my friends were watching Smerin’s Anti-Social Club, another brass-driven outfit. Another legendary festival band I’ve always missed, but this time I saw them, and they were fantastic.Virtuoso musicians, with a real latin vibe, and definitely waiting all those years to see! The band were followed by an outrageous drag queen disco, courtesy of Sink the Pink, a drag super-group. It was brilliant fun. Finally, after a quiet chill-out around the dying embers of the fire in the meadow, the sky was starting to get light. In some ways, it was good to start my evening at midnight – it felt like I was a “dirty stop-out” when I was actually fairly fresh!

Saturdays at Shambala are special. It’s dressing up day. You can dress up every day at Shambala, but it was time for the “Seas of Shambala” theme, so I put on my pirate outfit! I went to the Klezmer workshop again, and really enjoyed myself, learning a new song and remembering the ones from yesterday, even though my voice wasn’t in its best shape after all of yesterday’s partying. We even did a bit of dancing! Then I had a spot of lunch, and hid from a rain shower while listening to an entertaining and thought-provoking talk by Ed Gillespie, who’s written a book about low carbon travel – because he actually circumnavigated the globe by using any mode of transport apart from aeroplanes.One of the great things about “The Emporium of Invaluable Insights” is that there was an artist drawing a cartoon of each talk, building up to a brilliant bill-board.

I met up with Fraser again, and we wandered around in the woods, enjoying a freshly-prepared calzone pizza and a cup of chai. The woods are full of art installations, and we were amused by trees which had hundreds of Trivial Pursuit cards stuck to them. We did quite well at answering the questions. As the afternoon wore on, more and more people appeared in fancy dress. There were some really elaborate outfits and costumes. We watched the fancy dress parade go past, and the amount of effort people had gone to was amazing.

At the main stage, we enjoyed Gentleman’s Dub Club, who are smartly-dressed and funky, a real party band, followed by current festival favourites, Slamboree, who describe themselves as “Pyro Circus Rave Massive”. That kind of sums it all up, really – they’re like a cabaret of different styles of music, from dub to electro-swing, accompanied by amazing circus acts, including fire juggling and acrobatics. Definitely a spectacle! It was amazing how quickly time was going, chatting, dancing and listening to the music, and I had time to watch the whole of the legendary Femi Kuti and the Positive Force before the start of my shift. Femi is the son of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian musician who invented the musical genre of Afrobeat, which combines funk, jazz and African rhythms. He put in a great performance, and the Afrobeat dancing ladies certainly had a few guys’ eyes out on stalks.

It was time to start my final shift, and I went back to the tent to put on a few warmer layers and grab a few snacks. It was a fun, lively shift, with lots of revellers still up, and the enviable position of being able to sit around the accessible camp site fire, chatting to the campers. Things were steady, but pretty peaceful, and as dawn broke, we were treated to more hot air balloons setting off over our heads. I felt quite emotional as I swapped my tabard for Oxfam badge, which said “Shambala, Glitterati Party”, because this was my final Oxfam shift of the year. Time for bed before my final day of partying.

Sunday got off to a gentle start with the annual Shambala poetry slam in Chai Wallahs, which started off with special guest performances from Wordlife Sheffield, amongst others. It was fantastic to sit down and enjoy a great show. The poetry slam contestants all did really well, and one of them was my old festival friend Harry Squatter, which was a brilliant surprise. The audience was huge. I wonder if I dare to enter the poetry slam next year?

Over the course of the weekend, I was thrilled to find out that one of the accessibility field campers is actually a writer and performer who was recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, a lady with Tourettes who helped to run a group for young people with the syndrome. It was moving and inspiring, and just a little bit naughty to listen to the occasional swear word at 10am on Women’s Hour. I wanted to see Jessica Thom aka Tourettes Hero perform together with Captain Hotknives. It was a brilliant performance. Tourettes Superhero is on a mission to reclaim this misunderstood syndrome, and she does so with a surreal sense of humour derived from her tics, such as “biscuit” and “hedgehog”, and they sung songs about “Bob the Amazing Sheepdog” and animal sex and ending with biscuits being thrown into the audience at high speed. I think you had to be there, but check out the website above for a taste of it. My stomach was hurting from laughing so much, and the duo received a standing ovation at the end of the show. What I really admired about the show that it was about the performers being themselves (albeit one of them was dressed as a superhero) and enjoying themselves. Just a few simple chords and a great sense of humour and a large marque was packed to the gills. There were lots of amazing musicians at Shambala, but sometimes, talent doesn’t mean being able to play a fancy solo or sing in several octaves.

A quick change of clothes into evening-friendly layers, and I headed back into the festival. We relaxed in the 1920s themed Swingamajig tent for a bit, which was fairly quiet, and then we headed into the Kamikaze marquee for My Panda Shall Fly, abstract electronic soundscapes, which sounded immense. Fraser felt quite under-dressed as he wasn’t wearing his Rave Panda outfit for once, whereas the DJ/sound artist was wearing his panda outfit with pride. We then explored some of the secret disco areas for a while, clambering through a caravan to get into the hidden funk disco at Shambarber (actual hairdressers shop by day, disco by night). I was keen to watch Mulatu Astatke, the final act on the main stage, the founder of Ethio-jazz (Ethiopian Jazz). It was a bit slow at first, but built into a mesmerising performance.

The music wasn’t finished yet though, as I was keen to enjoy a bit of Manchester techno legend A Guy Called Gerald in the Kamikaze marquee, followed by Zion Train and Batida in Chai Wallahs. Batida perform electronic and live music, combining samples from old 1970s Angolan tracks with spacey samples and Kuduru beats. Kuduru is the African dancing I do in my friend Angelina Abel’s dance class in Sheffield, Mulembas D’Africa, so I had a good dance, right at the front of the audience, and got a free whistle! The trouble was, it all went so fast! We weren’t quite ready to go to bed yet, even though it had started to rain. We quickly checked out the Ska bar in the woods, before we got kicked out because it was closing, and caught the end of the disco in the Wandering Word yurt, before everything finished. My friends were still keen to find some entertainment somewhere, but I was exhausted! It felt like I’d squeezed the maximum amount of fun out of Shambala.

I wasn’t in such a festive mood when I woke up in my tent on Monday morning to the sound of the steady rain, coming down with a cold. Bank Holiday Monday was a terrible festival come-down, cold, with constant rain, but despite the gloom of the weather, I left Shambala with lots of happy memories and experiences. I’m looking forward to doing it all again next year!

 

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Art and Decay: a walk home

I’ve decided that once I’ve finished my festival reviews (I’ve still got Shambala to review, and a cider festival coming up!) I’m going to do more blog posts in the form of photo journals and poetry. Actually, I was inspired by Shambala, as I was in the audience at the epic Sunday afternoon poetry slam, and really enjoyed the contributions by poets from Sheffield’s Wordlife.

Today, I was walking home from the city centre, after an interview with a teaching supply agency (I seem to be collecting agencies!), and treating myself to coffee and cake in the Blue Moon Cafe. Maybe it was the effect of the caffeine, but I started taking photographs. The back streets that take me directly back to Walkley fascinate me – a mixture of derelict steel and cutlery trade buildings, wooded wasteland, fancy new apartments, businesses, and accommodation for students, many of them Chinese. As the sun goes down on Scotland Street, the area turns into the red light district. If you end up there by mistake, and hollow-eyed girls start to lurk in the abandoned factory doorways, you want to break into a run, as the feeling of menace grows. But there’s beauty in the decay too.

On the walls of the old industrial buildings, graffiti artists have pasted disturbing faces that add to the unsettling atmosphere, but around the corner, the Furnace Park is transforming an area of unclaimed wasteland into a celebration of art, technology, recycling and Sheffield culture.

Anyway, I hope you like my poem!

Walking Home

Walking home, on Scotland Street
Past an abandoned pub. Demolished buildings
Transformed into an early autumn wood,
Rowan berries ripe. A blackbird calls,
Cutting across the roar of ring-road traffic.
Sinister photocopied faces stare down at me
From boarded windows, scrawled graffiti
Shouts back at redundant safety signs
And a bundle of clothes in a doorway
Reminds me that behind the ash and elder
Springing from pavement cracks and asphalt
It changes when the sun goes down around here.
Broken girls loom in shadows, cars crawl
You’d better run if you don’t belong.
Back to the safe University side of the street
Where the slums were cleared for parks and puppies
Where you’ll never know that whole families lived
In rooms the size of your white en-suite.

Red Squirrels vs Rave Panda at Beautiful Days 2014

Beautiful Days is one of my favourite festivals, and I think a lot of my fellow Oxfam stewards agree with me. It’s organised by one of my favourite bands, the Levellers, and combines folk, punk, ska, reggae, dance music, and everything else you can imagine, with no sponsorship or  branding – just good fun!

We travelled down on the Wednesday again this year (thanks to Caroline for the lift, and Louise was also sharing the lift!), and although there were a few showers on the way, by the time we arrived at Escott Park near Exeter, it was a wonderfully golden summer afternoon. As soon as we arrived in the crew/artists camp site, we were surrounded by people we knew. It was impossible to know who to say hello to first, but the first priority was to set up camp and find out what shifts we’d been given. I was quite pleased with mine, as a “Response Supervisor”, which meant that I would be filling in wherever I was needed. I was working on Sunday evening though, clashing with the Levellers’ main performance, but I was optimistic that perhaps I might be needed most at the main stage at that time.

Over-excited arrival at Beautiful Days

Over-excited arrival at Beautiful Days

Fraser and Clare, who had come straight from working at Boardmasters and Boomtown, had saved places for our tents, and soon we were drinking ale to toast our arrival before heading to our briefing. I spent the rest of the evening catching up with newlyweds Graham and Gaelle, and lots of other people I hadn’t seen since Glastonbury or even longer. I shared one of my “mini kegs” of my local Bradfield Ale.

I woke on Thursday morning to heavy showers and I wasn’t feeling too perky myself due to the results of mixing ale with wine. After a couple of false starts, I finally ventured as far as the backstage area for a hot shower, and after a bowl of cereal, I joined my friends under the canopy of Lazyland – Graham and Gaelle’s event shelter for some rainy day activities. I’d volunteered to run a poetry workshop, but when I arrived, acrostic poems were already well under way, as was knitting and loom-band making. Graham led us in the arcane art of making ashtrays/candle holders out of old drinks cans, and there was even a rave workshop. To finish things off, we had a go at writing three line haiku poems, and here are some of them!

The Woodpigeon

“My toe hurts, Betty”,
Woodpigeon sings from the trees,
Warm after hard rain.

Lazyland

Pink loom band knitting:
Strand after strand of rubber
Sheltering from rain.

Silver Grass

The bird see-through cloud
Sky blue, silver grass floats by
Swoops up to sky.

Love in a field

Shiny smiley love
Tripping happiness, radiating
Within us forever.

After our poetry session, a large group of “Lazylanders” set off for a wander around the festival. It was still raining, but it soon dried out, and Graham was soon in his element, giving stewards new to Beautiful Days a guided tour of the festival. We stopped for a drink at the Bimble Inn, and once again, I sampled (just a half) the cider which had got me back on my feet on Sunday night at Glastonbury.

New fez friends at Dirty Davey's

New fez friends at Dirty Davey’s!

After a while, some of us went to the bar by the main stage, Dirty Daveys, to join the Beautiful Days Chat Facebook group’s Thursday night get together, with red fez hats as the theme. When we approached the bar, we were completely astounded by the sea of fezes, and we were soon chatting to fellow chat group members and having a great time. I felt under dressed, but I wasn’t sure whether I should join forces with the “anti-fez league”, who claim that everyone is an individual and shouldn’t conform by wearing a fez. I also met Jeremy Cunningham, the Levellers’ bass player, and gave him a flyer for my novel Outside Inside, which is named after a Levellers song. Jeremy was quick to spot this – and he promised that he would read the book. I hope he does!

Anyway, it was soon time to get to grips with reality and start my first shift, the Thursday night night shift. When I reached the Oxbox, Oxfam’s steward control, I was told that one of the supervisors was ill and that I had to replace him in the main campsite overnight, looking after the stewards on the fire towers and roaming around in the camp sites. We knew that we had to be vigilant: Thursday night is usually the worst night for thefts from tents at festivals, when people have relaxed and let their guards down. We did our best, but sadly, it was a large and mostly dark camp site, and there didn’t seem to be any security staff on the ground to back us up. We started to find tents that had been unzipped. It was an eerie feeling to find that perhaps you’d been just a minute or two too late on our rounds around the field. One lady reported that she’d been robbed while she’d been asleep in her tent. She was understandably very upset, and I called security to help us out and we reported the theft to the on-site police.

Later on, as dawn broke, quite a few campers near a fence line reported that they’d been robbed. I felt terrible that we’d been unable to stop the thefts. Reports came of four men, wearing black, lurking around between tents and running away when challenged. It seemed that they had broken in through a broken section of fence, and were going into tents, stealing bags and wallets from virtually under people’s noses. But the good news was that the police said they’d caught one of the suspects, and before the end of my shift, I managed to reunite a few people with their wallets – with the cards still intact. When my shift ended, I needed to wind down with friends, and gulp down some rum before I could sleep. I hoped that the thieves would all be caught and that the crime victims would be able to get on with enjoying the festival.

The most amazing camper van on site!

The most amazing camper van on site!

I didn’t get that much sleep on Friday morning. It wasn’t long before my friends woke up and started chatting. I almost joined in with their conversation, but I wanted to at least pretend to myself that I was sleeping. However, I felt reasonably refreshed as I headed to the Levellers’ acoustic gig in the Big Top to kick off the festival. Their set was brilliant – lots of obscure oldies thrown in, as well as big hits. Then we headed over to the main stage, where we enjoyed Skinny Lister. There was a bit of a disaster during their set when the PA system went down, but the band rose to the occasion with an epic drum solo and the other musicians disappearing into the crowd to continue playing, and then triumphantly returning onto the stage as the sound returned!

We had a group “date” to eat delicious woodfired pizza, and then went to watch Culture Shock. It was great to see them, as we’d been big fans of the anarcho/punk/ska band in my uni days, and I’ve got all of their albums on vinyl. Louise was new to them, but soon her “inner crusty” was fighting its way out and we were soon having a fantastic time. I was excited about the Undertones, as they are one of my favourite punk bands, with classic sing-along songs, including the rightly famous Teenage Kicks. They were brilliant, and I tried to start the most gentle mosh pit ever in their honour!

Watching the Undertones in the sunshine.

Watching the Undertones in the sunshine.

Then we had a crisis – our beloved Dreadzone clashed with the Bad Shepherds, featuring Adrian Edmonson. We’ve seen Dreadzone so many times that we stuck around for the first twenty minutes of their set before tearing themselves away heading over to the Big Top for the Bad Shepherds. It was worth it. The Bad Shepherds are the brainchild of comedian Adrian Edmonson, who decided to form a band to play 70s punk and new wave classics as traditional Celtic folk songs. It sounds like a crazy idea, but it works beautifully, and Adrian Edmonson now considers the Bad Shepherds to be his main career. The songs work perfectly on mandolin, haunting Uilleann pipes and double-bass, and you can really hear the lyrics when they’re not being shouted over a distorted guitar.

We stayed in the Big Top for the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I’d heard them play on the radio, and had listened to interviews with them, and they sounded interesting, playing bluegrass and American roots music from a black perspective. I really enjoyed their show – their music is entertaining, danceable – a good “hoe-down” as well as a history lesson. The 19th century banjo song was amazing – with a real African sound. They were playing a recreated banjo – the kind that slaves would have played, and it was a really haunting moment. Lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens really wowed the crowd, as she’s beautiful, amazingly talented and also funny, telling the story of how her luggage was lost in transit so she had to buy an emergency dress for the performance from Debenhams in Taunton. The dress was beautiful (I want one!) but I hope she was reunited with her suitcase. Definitely one of my Beautiful Days highlights.

We stayed around for a bit of the amazing Tinariwen, playing their desert blues from Mali, but I was feeling a bit sleepy after my night shift, and their music was putting me in a bit too much of a trance. We wandered past the main stage to check out Steve Earle, but it wasn’t really my sort of thing and it was a bit slow. I was in the mood for something a bit more lively, and we found what we were looking for in the Bimble Inn. Simeon Lenoir is a solo musician, strumming Latin rhythms on his guitar, spreading love and romance in his sparkly shirt, and calling up audience members to pretend to be various jungle creatures. Fantastic fun!

Bright and early on Saturday morning, I started my shift, after a rather epic shower where I lost all track of time. Luckily, there was no queue! The Oxbox were allowing me to take things gently after the stress and trauma of my Thursday night shift, and after chatting and making coffee in our marquee, I was dispatched to wander around in the kids’ field until the actual kids’ field supervisor started her shift. Then I found myself at a slight loose end for a while, awaiting further instructions, so I wandered between the arena, the band stand and the theatre field, finding time to chat to legendary alternative artist Pete Loveday, who had a stall at the festival, and also buy some 7″ singles from a charity stall! But I was soon back to work, helping out in the family camp site, and making sure that all the stewards up fire towers got their breaks. That meant that I missed most of Ferocious Dog’s set at the Big Top, but later on, I managed to patrol over to the stage – it was packed, but thankfully, my stewarding services weren’t needed, as everyone was having a brilliant time. If you’d like a full review of the gig, a fellow blogger has done an excellent job here. After the gig, I even met up with some of the organisers of Bearded Theory festival.

I was still actually on shift, so I was sent over to the main stage for a while (a terrible job, but someone’s got to do it!), and helped out while Tom Hickox was playing. It was very gentle music, so there wasn’t a massive mosh pit to supervise. I just had a pleasant time, wandering around and chatting to people.

After my shift, I decided to visit Escot Park’s most famous residents. No, not the Levellers, but the red squirrels, who have their own piece of woodland, safe from the competitive greys. Festival-goers are welcome to visit the squirrels, which are usually part of the country park at Escot (they also have beavers which have been introduced into the wild!)

Cheeky red squirrel!

Cheeky red squirrel at Escot Park!

I opened and shut the double gates carefully, and walked down the raised wooden walkway. The squirrels were quite active, digging in the undergrowth and running around, and I was instantly entranced. But it wasn’t until I was about to leave that I had my most magical encounter. As I leaned on the top of the fence surrounding the walkway, a squirrel shot up the fence post from the ground, looked me straight in the eye, then ran towards me to take an experimental nibble on my elbow, before shooting off. At first, I thought the cheeky chap/chapess might have tried to get into my backpack, as it contained flapjack in a Tupperware container, but it was no where to be seen. I was absolutely smitten. As I left the “squirrel encounter”, closing the door gently behind me, a squirrel (I’m not sure if it was the same one), ran up to the doorway and peered through the wire, demanding to be let out. But I knew that wouldn’t be a good idea, so I made sure it had scampered back down the walkway to safety. If it escaped, sadly it wouldn’t last very long in an area where grey squirrels thrive, as the greys carry a disease which is deadly to the reds.

I think this blurred picture of Seeed is really good, but you might disagree!

I think this blurred picture of Seeed is really good, but you might disagree!

Thrilled to bits, I returned to camp to fetch more ale and cider. It was going to be a big Beautiful Days night! We took it easy at first, drinking and chatting at the back while the Easy Star All-Stars played ‘Dub Side of the Moon’. Louise reached fever-pitch for Seeed,  a German reggae band. I was initially a little sceptical, but they were a lot of fun, with catchy songs, even though their choreographed dances were a little cheesy. And then out came the drummers – a whole row of guys with snare drums, dancing and twirling their glow-in-the-dark sticks with perfect timing. It was brilliant. A bit Kraftwerk, with their sharp suits and ties. Absolutely mesmerising.

The next part of the evening perfectly sums up Beautiful Days. Where else would you have to make the decision of what band to see: The Dead Kennedys (80s hardcore American punk band, famous for Holiday in Cambodia), or Steeleye Span (gentle 70s British Folk Rock Band, famous for All Around my Hat). I opted for the Dead Kennedys, but Fraser and Louise went to see Steeleye Span. The new singer of the Dead Kennedys annoyed a few people in the audience by thinking that he could win a British audience over by commenting on our politics, but when they played the well-known songs, the crowd went wild. I got chatting to some guys from Lancashire who’d been heckling the Dead Kennedy’s, so I’m afraid most of Seasick Steve’s set washed over me! It sounded pretty good, but I’ve seen him a few times now, and perhaps he’s a little too slick now, compared with his raw, charismatic performance at Green Man 2007.

After the main stage finished, I ended up in the main bar, where the DJ was playing funk and soul classics, and I bumped into my old school friend Mary, who now lives in Exeter and is a Beautiful Days stalwart. Then Fraser appeared, resplendent in his Rave Panda outfit, which was proving to be a big hit already. When we were “tatting” at Glastonbury, Fraser found a panda onesie, which was rather dirty and spray-painted with the slogan “Rave Panda”. I took the outfit home and washed it thoroughly, and Louise painstakingly sewed “Rave Panda” back onto the onesie. And a legend was born! It was certainly strange to introduce Fraser to my old friend as “hello, and this is Rave Panda!”. But luckily, Rave Panda went down well with Mary and everyone else he met.

We had a great time, raving in the Leviticus tent, and also the roaming “Village Disco”, until the wee small hours!

The official way to greet a  Rave Panda!

The official way to greet a Rave Panda!

Despite a late night on Saturday, I was awake bright and early on Sunday morning, ready to put on black and white fancy dress for the dressing up theme, and black and white nail varnish too!

But what I really wanted to do was to see the red squirrels again. So I managed to persuade Fraser to come with me. This time, we were lucky enough to coincide with the daily talk by one of the nature rangers – the lady talking to us about the squirrels brought nuts in her pocket and in a bag, and even though most of the squirrels seemed to be hiding (or maybe having a lie-in after a night of raving!), one cheeky squirrel was soon delving into the ranger’s pockets for her favourite nut, running off to bury it, and coming back to beg for more with a very dirty nose and paws from the digging. The squirrel kept doing this, and she even sniffed my newly-applied nail varnish and scampered over my hand! The ranger explained that red squirrels are actually really shy, and that if you picked one up, it would probably die of shock. They also have a very specialist diet, so bringing food for them into the enclosure is strictly forbidden and has actually killed squirrels in the past.

After our encounter, we had lunch at the Escot Park cafe in the old stable block, a brilliant haven at the festival, with sofas, and flushing toilets. Lovely! I must pay a visit to Escot Park when there’s no festival happening in it, to see all the wildlife.

Black Tar River - the winning fancy dress "outfit"!

Black Tar River – the winning fancy dress “outfit”!

We headed to the band stand, where the fancy dress competition was about to take place. Fraser had forgotten his Rave Panda outfit, so he felt very under-dressed, surrounded by hundreds of people in their black and white finery. Everyone who was in fancy dress had to parade in front of the stage, in front of the judging panel, which involved Jeremy Leveller himself. The winners were a whole family dressed as a road crossing, or a “black tar river”: named after a Levellers’ lyric, and a lady in a wheelchair dressed as a space rocket! We were also impressed by a chain gang of about twenty people, who really were chained together, and if any of them had to leave the chain gang (to visit the portaloo!) they had to do a forfeit.

Watching the Bar Stewards in appropriate knitwear.

Watching the Bar Stewards in appropriate knitwear.

And then it was time for the hotly anticipated set by the Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican, a comedy folk band who have been gathering supporters in huge numbers (including Frank Turner and Simon Friend from the Levellers). The black and white crowd was absolutely huge. Luckily, we were quite near the front, but we had a whale of a time, singing along to the daft choruses. The Doonicans are really worth checking out, and if you’re from my neck of the woods, you’re lucky, as they’re all Barnsley lads and play regularly.

It was time to start work again, and Oxfam were being gentle with me again. I was working on a wrist-band check point behind the theatre stage, telling people not to walk up a vehicle-only route back towards the exit. I didn’t even have a radio, so I and the steward I was working with had a relaxed time. As I’ve been a supervisor for Oxfam for a long time now, it’s strange to work without a constant buzz of radio traffic in your ear. We weren’t very busy, so we took turns to patrol in the arena and take breaks to see our favourite bands. I caught another great South Yorkshire band, Reverend and the Makers, before patrolling into the main arena to catch a bit of Jimmy Cliff and the Levellers. I could also hear the music from my stewarding position, so it was a good night. I even managed to be in the arena when the fireworks went off, which was excellent.

Off-duty Oxfam stewards in fancy dress  be very afraid!

Off-duty Oxfam stewards in fancy dress be very afraid!

When I’d finished my shift, it was time to round off the festival with a good old boogie in the backstage bar. At Beautiful Days, all workers, crew and artists are warmly invited backstage, and the music is always great. At 4am, we were finally kicked out, and we reluctantly made our way to our tents, not wanting the festival to end.

The Levellers round off the Sunday night of a magical festival.

The Levellers round off the Sunday night of a magical festival.

We set off fairly early on Monday morning, surprising even ourselves with our ability to pack our belongings and tents away quickly, but Caroline, the lady giving us a lift, had to drive all the way to Newcastle.

Sadly, later that day, we heard the news that two workers had been seriously injured later on Monday morning when a telehandler (similar to a forklift truck) fell over onto its side with a man in cherrypicker basket. I hope that they both make a full recovery. There are plans next year to raise money to the Devon Air Ambulance Service by the Beautiful Days Chat group.

Beautiful Days is the festival where I feel most at home. I love the music, I love the people who go to the festival, and I love the fact that as a worker there, I can swan about backstage, and mingle with the artists in the camp site too! But now I think that my favourite celebrities there are the red squirrels…

Here’s Louder than War’s review of Beautiful Days…which doesn’t involve squirrels: http://louderthanwar.com/beautiful-days-festival-live-review-2/

 

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