Poetry, Punk and Please Y’Self. It must be Bearded Theory!

Writing this in August, May’s Bearded Theory feels a long time away already. It’s always one of my favourite festivals, because I’ve been involved in it since it started in 2008. I’ve worked there as a steward, and for the past few years, I’ve worked in the kids’ field, helping out and running workshops. 2015 was to be a little bit different. I was to be a teacher at the very first festival school in the UK – parents could legitimately take their children out of school for a day of “education elsewhere” – head teachers up and down the country had given the go-ahead for pupils to attend our “pop-up” school.

This was to be Bearded Theory’s second year at Catton Park, still (just) in Derbyshire, on the banks of the River Trent. Last year saw some “interesting” weather hit the site, but what was in store for us this year?

Wednesday 20th May

Gorgeous skies at Bearded Theory

Gorgeous skies at Bearded Theory

It was great to get my bell tent up and to make it a home from home! I wasn’t sure about the crew campsite being so far away from the main part of the site this year – it was across the road from the festival site, but at least I would be near my car, and I made friends with another volunteer from the kids’ field, Simon, who not only had a bell tent, but a gorgeous VW camper van. We also made friends with Hilary, an intrepid camper who would be spending most of her summer sleeping in a tiny tent and cycling around Europe.

I had a great evening catching up with the Oxfam stewards who were camping a long way from me, and meeting up with various other crew members. I said hello to Janet, my new kids’ field boss, and found out where I was going to be working.

Bearded Theory has come a long way since it was 500 people in a pub campsite. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air as festival stalwarts greeted each other for the first time since last summer. Bearded Theory is the first major festival of the season for many people.

Thursday 21st May

I was soon to be teaching with this crowd-surfing man!

I was soon to be teaching with this crowd-surfing man!

A day of preparations – meeting festival superstars Scott Doonican and his amazing partner Amanda from the Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican. We were to be teaching together on Friday at the festival, and we ran through the plans for our festival-themed English lessons, with a bit of music thrown in. I helped to set up the “village green” in the children’s field, soon to be filled with sports-day fun, football sessions from Derby County, and dance performances. There was just time for a quick ukulele practise.

By teatime, I was ready to party again – a lot of the crew had finished work and were now relaxing at the bar, and I was also keen to enjoy a night of live entertainment, starting with the Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican. They were on top comedy form, with further hilarity caused by the British Sign Language interpreter, who really entered into the spirit of things, demonstrating the sign language for “vejazzle” and mangled gentlemen’s parts in the “Zipper” song. 3 Daft Monkeys also played a cracking set, and Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs were brilliantly entertaining – although cut short by the early site curfew.

Friday 22nd May

The Bearded Theory School in full flow.

The Bearded Theory School in full flow.

The Bearded Theory School was here! It was a whirlwind of activity. The day was fully timetabled, with lessons including maths – making fire towers out of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti and calculating the number of flags at the festival; mindfulness; science – making slime; history – learning about Catton Park’s past, as well as football with Derby County or can-can lessons.

Before we knew it, we were telling a large gang of seven year olds about sea shanties and how sailors/pirates used to sing them to give them a rhythm when hauling ropes and scrubbing decks. Even as experienced teachers and workshop leaders, it was a challenge – most of the children didn’t know each other, so we needed to incorporate getting-to-know you exercises and games to break the ice. We asked children for their favourite pirate jokes: ‘Where do pirates do their shopping? Arrrrgos.’ We started telling the joke: ‘Why are pirates called pirates?’ expecting the answer: ‘Because they arrrrrr,’ but one boy piped up with the answer: ‘Because they were bad people who sailed on the ocean a long time ago and stole people’s treasure.’ Indeed.

The aim of the lesson was for the children to write their own verses of ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’. Inventive verses included: ‘Feed him on squid and calamari’ (this suggestion was from a pre-schooler!), ‘Fight him like a baddie on Mortal Combat’, and ‘Make him dance just like my grandad’. The teenagers’ group had a different activity. They had to come up with inventive exaggerations about Bearded Theory (which is pretty good already), and we came up with tales of potent portaloos and armies of angry midges on the rampage, as well as heavenly music and food.

We rounded off the day with a story – reading ‘Don’t Mention Pirates’ by Sarah McConnell. The teachers were exhausted – but happy and satisfied that we had kept about 150 children entertained all day. The children all proudly received their certificates to prove they had completed a whole day of festival entertainment, and they were collected by their parents. It had gone remarkably smoothly. The most tricky moment was when the main stage did a very loud soundcheck – strangely, once the bands actually started, they didn’t sound that loud and just faded into the background.

One of the best things about the Bearded School was the commitment to SEN (Special Educational Needs) children. We had staff from a nearby special school in our team, and were able to support children with a wide range of physical needs, autism spectrum disorders and emotional and behavioural difficulties – and the best thing was that we managed this in a field, with volunteers and improvised resources.

I think we deserved to let our hair down for the night!

People on shoulders for the Mission.

People on shoulders for the Mission.

I watched a bit of Sonic Boom Six before having a rest back at camp. I was excited about seeing classic 80s goth band The Mission. I caught up with some friends and watched Gun, wating for the to do their cover of Word Up, although they were quite entertaining. Alabama 3 were great, and I caught a bit of dub legends Zion Train, before the headline band. The Mission were on great form and I had a brilliant time waving my arms in the air, completely mesmerised.

Saturday 23rd May

Poetry in progress

Poetry in progress

Over the weekend, I was working in the kids’ field, showing kids how a manual typewriter works and using it to write poetry. I was very busy all weekend. Children have grown up with computers, tablets and smartphones, so the idea that something could fulfil (some of) the same functions, but with real levers, buttons and ink rollers was totally alien to most of them. On Saturday, I had some brilliant young poets, and I had chats with children who are really keen readers. My highlight was when a boy of about nine had been typing away for ages, with a piece of paper in the typewriter, when he turned round to us and said: ‘Can I print it out now, please?’ He didn’t understand that he was printing out as he was typing. When I had finished, I was even treated to a glass of wine by a family I had been entertaining for most of the afternoon.

The worst thing about working in the kids’ field at a festival is that you’re so busy in your area that you don’t have much chance to explore the rest of it! There were some lovely ladies next to me demonstrating lots of craft with wool, and I made my own Japanese braid. There were activities and performances for children of all ages and teenagers too.

New Model Army

New Model Army

In the evening, I was treated to a stunning performance by New Model Army. Performing mostly material from their most recent album Between Dog and Wolf, they proved that they are still a vital force in music, after thirty five years.

After the intensity of NMA’s performance, the audience relaxed and watched Afro-Celt Soundsystem in awe – held spellbound by an aural battle between Indian Dhol drums and the Irish bodhran.

I rounded off the night by staying out late to dance to Eat Static in the Magical Sounds dance tent, enjoying the psychedelic décor and sounds.

Eat Static - with George the Horse

Eat Static – with George the Horse

Sunday 24th May

The magic of the typewriter!

The magic of the typewriter!

Sunday started off a bit colder and cloudier, after the warm sunny weather we’d been having (most unlike Bearded Theory!), but it was perfect weather for aerobics with Mr Motivator and the Beard Judging competition. It seemed like the entire population of the festival was dressed as a pirate, in keeping with this year’s fancy dress theme.

I took a break from the poetry to join the world fake beard record attempt, which was won this year by a man who had painstaking made a beard from tiny Lego bricks. My beard was made out of poetry, written on my typewriter.

I had some very keen young writers on Sunday, and together, we wrote some very effective acrostic poems. By 5pm, the sun had come out, and I read the classic story Harry the Dirty Dog to an appreciative audience of small children and their parents. One dad about my age said that he hadn’t heard the story since he was small.

Watching Please Y'Self in the woods with my poetry beard.

Watching Please Y’Self in the woods with my poetry beard.

I started the evening by going to see my old music teacher’s band, Please Y’Self. A comedy punk skiffle band – they’ve been defying genres and expectations since the sixties – at least, since they are two brothers, John and Rob, and sister Chris. It was wonderful to see them – they’re a fixture at Bearded Theory, always managing to play in in some capacity, and they’re always highly entertaining, finishing with their classic punk version of ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’.

The evening continued on cracking form with the Buzzcocks, and finally James. I’d missed out on seeing James in their 90s heyday, but I loved their performance of classic songs, topped off by a spectacular firework display. Later on, Special legend Neville Staple brought the woodland stage to a close with throngs of dancing people. In the small hours, we met members of rock band Electric River, who had been a surprise hit of the weekend, opening the main stage on Sunday. They were a great bunch of lads!

This really was a classic Bearded Theory – meeting friends old and new, brilliant music, a great atmosphere, lots of silliness, shock  horror – great weather. Most exciting of all, I’d been part of something new – the first ever festival school.

See you next year!

A bonding moment watching James.

A bonding moment watching James.

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Mamawe! May 2015

I have been a bit rubbish with this blog. Not that I haven’t been busy – I think that my posts had just got longer and longer, with more detail, and they were taking a long time to update. From now on, I think I will concentrate on shorter posts, with more pictures. I’ve been to a lot of festivals and events, and I’m also now editing my second novel, which is very exciting!

Here’s one I made earlier though. Back in May, my friend Angelina Abel ran the latest of her Mamawe Multicultural extravaganzas, combining dance and drumming workshops with a good night out.

Dancing is good for the soul

MAMAWE! 9th May 2015

The gloomy effect of the General Election result meant that I woke up on the morning of MAMAWE! with a heavy heart. The weather wasn’t doing its best either – but MAMAWE! was just what I needed – a day of African drumming and dance, and an evening of performing with dance group Mulembas D’Africa, reggae and boogying into the night. The title of the day, MAMAWE! was just right, as it’s a multi-purpose African expression of frustration, anger or triumph.

Sheffield based dance teacher Angelina Abel has been developing MAMAWE! for over two years now. Since establishing African fusion dance classes with live drumming and funky Angolan Kuduru street dance lessons in 2008, she has been on a mission to bring the best African dance and music teachers to South Yorkshire, and has built up a company of dancers who regularly perform at events such as Chance to Dance all over the region.

On Saturday 9th May, Angelina brought members of the prestigious Allatantou Guinean dance company all the way from Portugal to teach us in the colourful surroundings of the hall of the Sharrow Old Junior School.

Drummer Joao Russo taught a large circle of eager djembe players, from beginners like me, to some of Sheffield’s drum teachers and enthusiasts. For a beginner, it’s sometimes hard to keep up the rhythm – you get absorbed into it, and then suddenly overthink and lose the beat, but there were enough of us to keep up the complex drum-beats, and when Angelina started dancing along, I knew that the overall effect must have sounded good! Joao’s enthusiasm and friendliness was infectious, and he made sure that we played varied drum patterns. I was concentrating so hard, I was amazed that the two hours had gone by so fast, and the drum patterns stayed in my head all day.

There was time for a short break and to change into my dancing shoes before the class by choreographer Joana Peres. Her bubbly personality shone through the class, along with her love and passion for African dance. She threw us into learning a dance routine, and we were soon practising our moves up and down the room before putting it all together. I sometimes find that when I find dance moves difficult, I get frustrated in a dance class and think that I must be the only person getting things wrong! I felt a bit like that at MAMAWE, until I realised that everyone else was also learning and getting used to the steps – it’s all part of the process, and I ended the session feeling like I’d achieved something, not least conquering my own fears and hang-ups!

In the evening, the members of Mulembas D’Africa gathered in the Royal Standard pub beer garden to practise the dance routine we had been learning since February. Our last-minute rehearsal went well, despite the pub’s dog running circles around us! The area in front of the stage was cramped, but the audience crowded in to get a good view.

Joana Peres, Angelina and Mulembas D’Africa members wowed everyone with energy-packed samba-inspired dancing first, and then Angelina took to the stage to perform a poem about the vivid colours of Africa. The pub’s dog didn’t want to miss out on the action, and ambled up to smell the drum skins before being gently steered out of the way! Angelina remained passionate and professional throughout her recital. Our dance routine went smoothly, and we received appreciative applause before we scrambled out of our long grass skirts into our everyday clothes to enjoy the rest of the evening.
Reggae band Truly Apparent are becoming a firm feature of the Sheffield music scene – two female singers, backed by some great musicians. They sing their own songs, complimented by well-chosen covers, with a lovely inclusive sing-along feeling that had the whole audience bopping around.

After the band, DJs Papa Al and the Globologist played a set of funky world music from Africa to Latin America and Eastern Europe to round off the evening nicely!

Coming next…my belated account of Bearded Theory 2015!

Things this blog is about…