We won’t sit down. We won’t shut up.

This was my first gig since the terrible events in Paris last weekend. As we walked towards Sheffield’s O2, we noticed that the lightbox at the entrance to the Crucible theatre had glowing lights in the blue, white and red of the Tricolour in solidarity with the French people. It’s a moving gesture.

The crowd at the O2 are excited, a sea of Frank turner t-shirts, with a couple of Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican supporters too. Frank Turner’s audience are dedicated, and this gig is a solid sell-out.

We get there in time to see the opening act, Will Varley. One man and a guitar, he exudes a laid-back, slacker persona, but holds the audience captivated with his mixture of crazy stories, comedy protest songs and sweary charm. I’ll definitely watch out for him in future.

Skinny Lister have quickly become festival favourites of mine. I saw them at Glastonbury last year, and then at Beautiful Days, when the PA cut out halfway through their set opening the main stage on the Friday. A lesser band would have stormed off in a strop, but Skinny Lister led the audience in A capella seashanties and crowdsurfing. Their punky folk goes down well. We’re stood at the front, at the side of the crowd barrier, with a great view of Michael Camino launching himself into the audience on his double bass, a sight not to be forgotten. The worried look on the security team’s faces as he (and his giant instrument) finally climb back over the barrier is really funny, and their set ends with singer Lorna Thomas climbing up the double bass.

It’s only then that I notice that the stage lights of the O2 are also in the colours of blue, white and red. And when Frank Turner takes to the stage, he’s wearing a Tricolour sweatband on his wrist. In the wake of what happened last week, at a gig just like this, it suddenly feels important, an act of defiance to keep on doing what we do, coming together to share a musical experience, listening to songs that mean so much to the people here. Tonight, Frank’s message of togetherness, love and having a good time while you can take on an extra significance.

We watch the second half of the gig from the upstairs balcony, where you can watch the audience as much as the band. Their devotion to Frank is enormous – during the quiet bits, there’s a reverential silence in the room, becoming a mighty roar in the sing-along choruses. There’s even a round of star-jumps, led by a crew member.

I’ve always loved watching Frank Turner live. I first discovered him at YNot festival in 2008, and I’ve seen him at a variety of festivals ever since. I felt a bit ambivalent about him, having discovered how posh his upbringing was. But it’s not where you come from in life, it’s what you do.

And when Frank Turner talks about last Friday’s attack on Eagles of Death Metal gig at the Bataclan in Paris, and the death of innocent people, including merchandise manager Nick Alexander, everyone is listening. For me, and millions of others, a gig is much more than a noisy room where you can buy an overpriced pint of lager. It’s where you come together to meet the other members of your tribe, experience the magic and wonder of live music, and share those emotional moments with people who care about them as much as you do. We won’t sit down, we won’t shut up, and if growing up means sitting in our homes alone, being scared of terrorists, we certainly won’t grow up.

 

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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.

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!

Spring Starts to bloom

The Random Notebook has been a bit quiet recently…but that doesn’t mean that I’ve been quiet. For a while, it seemed like spring was very slow to arrive this year. The days were gradually getting longer, but it was still full coat, hat and gloves weather most of the time. I’ve been busy with my teaching and writing work, and I’ve been making sure that the blog for my work in hospitals with dementia patients has been updated: Dales Tales website.

After the Spring Equinox, we headed to Whitby to spend almost a whole week walking and exploring at the end of March. Actually, we’d visited most of the places before, but it was lovely to return and relax. As it was later in the spring than our usual trips to Whitby, it was a lot busier, especially on the Sunday, and we decided that we like the streets of Whitby better when they are quiet and atmospheric.

However, it was lovely to see the town in bright sunshine, with people and dogs enjoying the beach.

Whitby piers and some seagulls!

Whitby piers and some seagulls!

We had a great time looking around the abbey and taking photos from strange angles, and I bought a lovely hand-knitted beret for a bargain price from the church. I was glad of something to keep the hair away from my face, as our next stop was the East pier – quite dramatic with the tide rolling in. The piers in Whitby are part of the harbour for the fishing port, made out of rugged stone, with weathered lighthouses withstanding the winds.

On the Monday, we walked from Whitby to Robin Hood’s Bay. It really felt like spring and I photographed some stunning views over the cliffs. I was grateful for the “1,000-mile socks” that I’d bought the day before. Apparently, I get my money back if I get blisters while wearing the socks, and by the time I arrived in the picturesque fishing village, I was aching but my feet felt alright!

Tuesday was spend wandering around Whitby, having a lovely walk along the beach, discovering a strange alfresco sculpture garden, pottering around shops and enjoying chips and mushy peas from Robertsons (all the other chippies in Whitby seem to cook in beef fat rather than vegetable oil, which isn’t good for veggies!) We were under the watchful eye of some herring gulls standing on top of nearby parked cars, but they were more interested in a couple who had a battered fish. In the quaint bookshop on Church Street I spent my book token on the excellent Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor – a novel that brings to life the long gone world of the fishing village.

In the evening, we hit a few local pubs: the Duke of York, which overlooks the harbour, and on the other side of the river, the Little Angel, which serves great ale, and the Granby, where I unexpectedly won the pub bingo!

Wednesday was our only chance to explore the Mulgrave Estate near Sandsend, just a couple of miles further north than Whitby. The estate is only open at weekends and Wednesdays. In the middle of this wooded private estate, lie the ruins of a medieval castle. This time, we thought we would also check out the waterfalls marked on the map, and the remains of an older Norman motte and bailey . We found everything we were looking for, but the paths marked on the OS map didn’t seem to coincide with reality, and we got ourselves a bit lost and muddy into the bargain! We did find the atmospheric ruins of an old water mill though.

We managed a quick trip to Whitby museum in the afternoon, savouring the gruesome “hand of glory”, a desiccated human hand used by burglars, and learning about the First World War torpedo raid on Whitby and Scarborough in a great new exhibit.

When we woke on Thursday morning, the sunny weather had disappeared, to be replaced by heavy rain showers and leaden skies. There was just time for a final walk around Whitby before heading back to Sheffield.

The Easter holidays officially started with several days of grey, gloomy weather, which was very wet, filling the streams and reservoirs. Maundy Thursday was bright and sunny – the Queen even visited Sheffield, but I kept out of it and went for a lovely walk up to Ringinglow on the edge of the Peak District instead.

Good Friday was terrible again, but the weather started to pick up on Easter Saturday, when we walked around Damflask reservoir and laboured up to Higher Bradfield to look around the medieval church that was bustling with people creating floral displays and Easter decorations.

Easter Monday was a beautiful day – more like summer, and I joined friends at the Endcliffe Park duck race, an annual event to raise money to restore Forge Dam, a pond further up the river that has become badly silted up. The event has quickly become a Sheffield institution, with thousands of people buying ducks and watching the race. We walked to Forge dam later on in the afternoon, and I had one of their legendary chip butties!

I’ve been catching up with some freelance editing work this week, and it’s been great to be able to work outside again on my laptop – it’s great for concentrating too, as my internet connection is poor to non-existent at the bottom of the garden.

This Saturday was much cooler, but the evening held something exciting in store. Scott Doonican, the singer from one of my favourite festival acts of recent years, The Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican, was playing a sold-out solo gig in the intimate surroundings of the Lantern Theatre in Netheredge, Sheffield. The gig was a triumph, showcasing hilarious songs from their new album as well as old favourites. If you like comedy folk bands and witty covers, they’re the band for you, and the friends I took along with me are now firm converts.

But we had to be up early this morning! One of my new “Dooni-fans” from the night before was taking part in the Sheffield Half-Marathon, re-launched this year with a new route that stretches into the Peak District. The weather was quite sunny, but so windy that I was almost blown off my feet several times, as we waited for the runners at the side of Ringinglow Road. There was a great atmosphere, as athletes jogged past, having just completed the dramatic hill climb out of the city. As spectators giving encouragement to the runners, we weren’t going anywhere as far or as fast – in fact, we just returned to the Forge Dam café for another chip butty. I’ve now mentioned chips a record three times in one blog entry – that’s truly Northern!

It’s been good to change the pace of life and work a little for the start of spring, but for now, the whirl of teaching and writing begins again in earnest. But with warmer weather, lighter nights and great music, festival season is just around the corner!

Sheffield Take Over the Wardrobe!

On Saturday, I followed my friends Hot Diamond Aces up to Leeds, to play a gig at the funky Wardrobe venue – where I’ve previously seen Seun Kuti, so they were definitely amongst good company. The Wardrobe is a great venue – with a large bar/restaurant at street level, very close to Leeds Playhouse (in fact, The Wardrobe used to be its costume department), and a spacious basement venue downstairs. The whole ethos is around great music, so everyone there is going to be a big music fan, or a musician themselves.

Apart from the first band on, who were from Leeds, it was a night where Sheffield got to show its big neighbour up the road what it’s made of!

Apparently, this was only Tough Crowd‘s second time playing live together. They were great – two suited and booted MCs rapping about being polite and considerate, with an accomplished jazz/funk backing from seasoned musicians. The lyrics were funny and engaging and the music was an antidote to hip hop with backing tracks. I think we’ll definitely be hearing more from them in the future.

Tough Crowd - playing to quite a nice crowd in Leeds!

Tough Crowd – playing to quite a nice crowd in Leeds!

By the time I’d bought myself another drink, there was no room to get onto the dance floor for Hot Diamond Aces. Luckily, there was lots of space at the side of the stage, raised up well so that I got a good view. I was glad to be there, as I could see the crowd dancing, throwing jazz shapes (yes, really!) and enjoying themselves as they heard the funky tunes of Hot Diamond Aces for the first time. Combining funk, jazz, afrobeat, and big beefy tunes, they really made a big first impression on the people of Leeds.

IMG_5579

Hot Diamond Aces wow the Wardrobe!

For the last song, my friend Angelina came on to dance. Her energy and passion totally blew everyone away. This photo didn’t quite come out as planned, but I think it’s brilliant – very psychedelic! As you can see, Angelina was moving so fast that there are two of her – and two of Dan’s guitar!

IMG_5583

Woah! Far out, man!

Finally, The Renegade Brass Band showcased their 8-horn hip hop sound. Featuring James from Hot Diamond Aces on trumpet (he was exhausted, doing two gigs on the trot, but didn’t show it!), the Renegade Brass band deliver tunes in a way that’s as bold and brassy as their name suggests, with a great MC who really knows how to work a crowd! Craig Charles has recently called them “probably the best brass band working out of Britain”, and they’re, quite rightly, one of Sheffield’s most hotly tipped bands at the moment.

They’ve come a long way in the five years since I first saw them, at Bearded Theory festival in 2010, playing mid-afternoon on the Baar stage!

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The Renegade Brass Band – a wall of brass!

Seeing a night of first-class home-grown live music at the Wardrobe was a great way to start celebrating my birthday, and well worth a trip up the M1! I’ve got plenty of live music treats to come, so I’ll keep you updated with lots of short posts!

December: A Manic Month of Mayhem! (Time for a rest?)

If I thought there were lots of gigs in November, the pace was set to continue, with lots more gigs and events – and that’s on top of Christmas and the New Year.

During the start of December, I was working hard, and gently starting to prepare for Christmas. But that was all about to change.

The 11th December had been in my diary for months. I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the Manic Street Preachers, playing The Holy Bible album in full. It feels unbelievable, but 2014 was the twentieth anniversary of this harrowing, critically acclaimed and essential album, an album influenced by angular post-punk, rather than the glam metal and grunge of the previous two albums. In the months after its release, lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared from a London hotel room, and has never been found.

Against all expectations, the Manic Street Preachers continued as a three-piece band, and they have now released twelve studio albums. They seemed busier and more productive than ever in 2014, having released Futurology in July. A tour to commemorate The Holy Bible was fervently wished for by fans, but it was unsure if the band would want to revisit old ground that invoked such painful memories of their friend’s disappearance.

But in late September, the band officially announced the tour dates, and my friend Louise managed to get tickets for the  Albert Hall in Manchester. On a stormy, sleety afternoon (I didn’t dare to cross the Pennines by the Snake Pass or the Woodhead) we drove to Manchester, arriving in good time at Louise’s boyfriend Peter’s flat, where he cooked a lovely meal, and I opened a bottle of red wine as a reward for battling the rain and the rush hour.

The gig was everything I hoped it would be. The Albert Hall was build in 1910 as a Wesleyan Chapel (very fitting when you think of the Methodist upbringings of the young Manic Street Preachers and the religious title of the album they were about to play in full. Ornate tiles, stained glass and cast-iron pillars added to the atmosphere of the venue. There was no support band, and we enjoyed the DJs and drank beer with mounting excitement.

The band appear onstage. The thing that hits me first is the empty space – the space where Richey Edwards used to perform – front left. This space has always been left, but as they launch into ‘Yes’, the first track from the album, about prostitution and exploitation, it feels incredibly stark. The stage is draped in camouflage netting, and James, Nicky and Sean are wearing their combat chic, just like in 1994. Nicky is all in black, his face half-hidden by outsize shades, and James Dean Bradfield wears a black sailor’s top. The songs are tight and powerful, and in such an intimate space, it becomes obvious what an outstanding guitarist James is, and also how hard he has to work: carrying the weight of these songs about human suffering and cruelty. It was brilliant to experience The Holy Bible being performed live, but the gig went far too fast to take in.

After all the emotional intensity, the Manics then delivered a brilliant second set with songs from the rest of their career. A particular highlight for me was Dreaming a City (Hughesovka) from Futurology, really allowing James’ guitar heroics full reign. The Manics ended with their traditional closing number A Design for Life, before we were kicked out into the pouring rain. It had been an amazing night!

The next day, I was doing it all again, this time seeing another of my all-time favourite bands, Gogol Bordello at the O2 in Sheffield, with my friend Kirsty, her husband Mark and old uni friend Katy. After stopping off in Pennine town New Mills to take photographs for an adult education session, the drive back was a little stressful, due to a blizzard in the Peak District. I didn’t fancy taking any of my usual shortcuts on minor roads as it looked too slippery, but luckily, but the time I arrived back in Sheffield, the long way round, there was no sign of snow!

The O2 felt pretty chilly though, but support band Mariachi El Bronx, who combine punk with Mexican Mariachi music, including tiny and gigantic guitars, trumpets, violins, accordions and maracas! I think it was Mark’s Santa had and Christmas tie (he’d just come from his work Christmas party) that made the singer announce that he was feeling Christmassy for the first time! The band looked great in proper gold-fringed Mariachi outfits.

Gogol Bordello themselves were a riot of colour, attitude and fun. Singer Eugene Hutz is the only person I can think of who would get away with wearing satin boxer’s style shorts and pointy black and red cowboy boots. Since I last saw them at Download last year, they’ve had some line-up changes – a leather-clad accordion player called Pasha, and bald, Les Paul toting guitarist Michael Ward (Eugene Hutz lied in his announcement – he’s American, not from Sheffield!) They played songs from their breakthrough album Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, right up to their latest album Pura Vida Conspiracy. Gogol Bordelo have built up a big cult following over the years, with a devoted audience wearing the t-shirts and outfits inspired by Hutz’s off-kilter colourful sense of style. The place was packed, but the crowd were friendly and up for a good dance/mosh.

Their sound is fresh and still evolving, with heavier guitars combining with Latin rhythms. They are one of the most multi-national bands I know of, formed in 1999 in the cultural melting-pot of down-town New York; the vision of Ukrainian immigrant Hutz, who was hungry for success as a musician and actor. A Gogol Bordello gig is a very entertaining experience – each member of the band is a stunning musician, and although Eugene Hutz is one of the world’s most engaging frontmen, every member of the band has a chance to shine, and violinist Sergey Ryabtsev deserves a special mention for his virtuosity and on-stage antics. The first time I saw them, in 2006, at Rock City in Nottingham, I hugged him! That’s my claim to fame, anyway. He looked quite surprised! This time, we just left with smiles on our faces and our ears ringing.

I felt a bit wrung out after two big gigs in a row. I don’t know how I hack it when I’m at a festival, but going to see a band in a proper venue is always a treat. I concentrated on Christmas and went back home to stay with my parents and see family members on the next weekend – it was good to calm down for a bit!

My mum is a volunteer room steward for the National Trust at Kedleston Hall, and she recommended that I visited the stately home while it was open for Christmas. My dad and I went along and I’m really glad I did. The sight of Grecian statues covered in fairy lights really made me giggle, and I loved the atmosphere of the grand rooms lit only by flickering LED candles. Even when it was lit for grand dinner parties and balls, this eighteenth century mansion must have been full of shadows and mystery. It was really a visit to spark the imagination.

The next day was the winter solstice. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll remember that I spent the summer solstice up Glastonbury Tor. That was a long way away, so I suggested that we should wake up before the official sunrise (8.15am) and walk to Bunkers Hill, a viewpoint near the ridiculously posh village of Quarndon, a mile or so up the road from my parents’ house. The sky was already turning red as we walked up Woodlands Road up to the park, but we got to Bunkers Hill just in time to see the sun rise above the horizon. We were lucky, because it started raining just as we got back to the house. Later on, we met up with family members and went to my Aunt Marion’s annual Christmas party. It was lovely to see everyone. I’ll always remember the 21st December as the anniversary of my grandad’s death, thirteen years ago, so my mum lit candles in his memory, which was lovely.

On Tuesday 23rd December, I gathered up some friends for a Christmas dinner (nut roast with all the trimmings) and lots of mulled wine. Eventually, we made it out of the house in time to catch the folk train! It was rammed, but very good-natured. Some of my friends managed to get seats, but the rest of us were crammed into the corridor but we didn’t mind! On the way to Edale, local choir The Sheffield Folk Chorale entertained us with Christmas carols and gave out song sheets so we could join in.

I hope the customers having a quiet night at the Rambler in Edale were warned about the hoards of people who descended on the pub in one go, once we got off the train! It was like being part of a huge procession walking from the railway station to the pub just around the corner. Surprisingly, we got served fairly quickly, and found a corner with seats to drink our pints. In the main room in the pub, the choir conductor stood on a table, and the choir started singing! They did a great version of Fairytale in New York, as well as more traditional carols.

On the way home, the choir sung some traditional Sheffield carols, such as Sweet Bells, which is a version of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’ which originates from Stannington in Sheffield and has now been made famous by folk singer Kate Rusby. It was a beautiful moment. At the other end of the journey, the choir sang around the Christmas tree at Sheffield railway station before we all headed off to the Sheffield Tap for a final beer.

I spent Christmas Eve collecting holly for a touch of traditional decoration, and preparing a mountain of vegetables for Christmas, even though there were only four people eating, enjoying listening to the radio adaptation of Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, followed by a selection of rockabilly Christmas CDs played by my other half!

Christmas Day went smoothly, except for my dad’s self-timer on his camera not working, and then the batteries ran out, but we used my camera instead, and we went for a lovely afternoon walk in the local park and took the chance to have a go on the huge swing that’s popped up near us! Even my dad had a go!

On the morning of Boxing Day, we had a bracing, if a little foggy walk to Stanage Edge from Redmires Reservoir, which was popular with a lot of other people trying to blow away the cobwebs after a Christmas blow-out! And then at tea-time, it started to snow…and snow…and snow… until we woke up the next day in a winter wonderland /nightmare, depending if you had to get anywhere. Luckily, we fell into the first category, and the snow looked very pretty, with lots of families enjoying sledging in Ruskin Park.

A few days later, and the snow had turned very icy and slippery on the pavements, which is tricky if you live in such a hilly city, so we caught the train when we went to meet an old uni friend in Castleton in the Peak District and went down the Blue John mine at Treak Cliff Cavern, which truly has some stunning sights, and actually felt quite warm underground!

And so we come to New Year’s Eve! The pavements were still icy, but I headed out to the city centre for some early drinks with a friend. It was very quiet, but I was due at another friend’s house for a small gathering with wine and pizza (I supplied my own vegan garlic bread and some Christmas cake – which I always seem to end up eating myself!) It was all very civilised, and for a while, it looked like we were destined to enjoy Jools Holland’s Hootenanny and the Queen concert that followed on TV. But my friend Angelina was determined to drag us out to enjoy ourselves, so we put our boots on and slid out onto the melting ice and headed first to the Three Tuns, a lovely little pub on the outskirts of the city centre, where the party was in full swing, with DJs playing some great music.

After a pint…or was it two? I can’t remember, we ended up at the Dada bar, where the Dub Central New Year’s party was happening. It was a bit quiet, but we know the lady who ran it, and I vaguely remember a round of aniseed flavoured shots! This was probably the point where things got a bit hazy.

We’d heard about a party in the Wicker Arches, so a group of us stumbled out of town, towards the Victorian railway arches. Over the years, several of the arches and the tunnels underneath have been used as party venues, and we headed to the last place we’d been to a party near there, only to find it all very quiet. Maybe the party was in one of the arches further along? I have vague memories of walking along the “spider bridge“, suspended over the river that runs through one of the arches. And then we found the party.

It was in the old “Arches” nightclub, which I hadn’t been inside for at least ten years. Angelina and I met in 2004, working together in a building very close by. The nightclub was already closed then, and shortly afterwards, the new ring-road was built, right next to the railway arches. Then the dramatic floods of 2007, when the river burst its banks and swept down the Wicker, must have caused terrible damage. But there it was, like some kind of mirage from 1999.

When we were students, a long time ago in the 90s, the Arches was a by-word for a crazy night out. Headcharge played dance music of all kinds, but mostly house, techno and trance. Rough and ready, it was the place to go if you wanted to rave all night long, with the main club inside the old railway arches, and metal stairs leading up to the bar, toilets (always a bit crazy in themselves), and a weird, corrugated iron-roofed chill-out area. It’s all still there. I was amazed. We just walked in through the fire escape, and it seemed to be a free party of some kind, but it was packed, and lots of people we knew were there – and lots of other people who were also veterans of the club scene in the 90s, who’d somehow ended up here. It was like being in a dream – a very strange, euphoric dream. It had to be a dream- the toilets had toilet paper! The music was thumping… it was like we’d taken a trip in the Tardis (although it had actually just been some wine, several pints of ale, that weird aniseed spirit, and some rum). I can’t even find anything about it on the internet…It was like a mirage.

Eventually, we looked at our watches and were absolutely mind-boggled to realise what the time was. It was about to get light! We were absolutely shattered. Within a few minutes, we’d flagged down a taxi and were on our way to a terrible New Year hangover. It was worth it though. The only clue that my Wicker Arches adventures were real was the mud on my coat and all over my boots. In my drunken state, I somehow managed to get the dustpan and brush and the carpet cleaner out before I stumbled into bed.

After all that excitement, I’ve been teetotal so far in the New Year. I’m looking forward to an action-packed year, when hard work and creativity are combined with good times with friends and amazing music of all kinds!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

November: a Levellers double-whammy!

On the first of November, I belatedly got my “spooky” on, and went to a brilliant Halloween party at Hagglers Corner, a wonderful arts venue set around a courtyard. My friends’ band The Hot Diamond Aces were playing. The band combine funk with Afro-beat and jazz and are, as they describe themselves “the ultimate party band”. They are amazingly talented musicians with a gift for getting the audience’s feet moving. If you like infectious grooves and hot horns, then they’re your thing. This sounds like an advert, but they really are that good! We had a fantastic time, dancing and drinking real ale in our costumes. Angelina had particularly scary latex zombie make-up, but it all peeled off when she started dancing!

As the weather got colder, and the nights got darker, I managed to fulfil one of my artistic aims for the year and completed my triptych of three canvasses for my dining room wall. They are all collages, and all Neil Gaiman quotes, to inspire me as I live and work. Now the pictures are up on the wall, they look great and really make the room vibrant and arty.

The first collage is from the Sandman graphic novel Brief Lives , and it’s all about change. The quote, cut out of newspaper letters, ransom-note style (which took blooming ages!) is positioned around concentric circles made of gold wrapping paper and a green collage, made out of cut-out pictures from the RSBP’s magazine, Nature’s Home, including an otter (the otter isn’t green!), and a green lighter which was found in the stomach of an albatross! The other smaller canvas has the quote: “Writing is like flying in dreams”, from the front page of Neil Gaiman’s short story anthology Smoke and Mirrors. This canvas has pictures of birds, from Nature’s Home magazine, and also real feathers, gathered over the year.

Finally, the huge canvas has the slogan “Make good art“, which was the theme of Neil Gaiman’s speech to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts graduates when receiving his honorary doctorate in 2012. Since giving the speech, the video has become viral on the internet, and has also inspired a lot of beautiful artwork. Mine is just one example! Before I left my sensible 9-5 job and ever since, I have listened to the speech at regular intervals, and I’m listening to it right now. His advice and experience is priceless and reflects everything that I’ve been through as a creative person. I wanted to create a piece of art that would inspire me and cheer me up when I lost faith in my way of life, so I cut up festival programmes for images to remind me of the times when art and creativity have created the most thrilling experiences and memories. Life would not be worth living without the creativity of others – or your own creativity. And I’ve been lucky enough to build a new career out of creativity, which is truly amazing.

Make Good Art

Make Good Art

This November was also about seeing the Levellers twice as well! The first time was in Birmingham, en route to another gathering of Oxfam stewards in Tewksbury. Louise and I did battle with rush-hour traffic and the one-way system of Birmingham, and we only missed a few songs by support band, the legendary two-tone band, the Selector. Singer Pauline Black is full of attitude and sharply dressed, and the other singer, Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson was also very energetic – so much so that his suit was dripping wet by the end of the show! I enjoyed having a good skank, dancing around until Louise managed to find Fraser. Oxfam friend Alexa was also there, and it was a great mini-reunion.

The Levellers were on great form, blasting through their “Greatest Hits” set. The O2 in Birmingham was packed, and people were crowd-surfing to the front – mostly middle aged men, re-living their youth! We had a great view of everything from the side, right near the front, and we danced around being silly. I didn’t even mind that all I could drink was a couple of shandies.

After dropping Alexa safely off home, I drove Louise and Fraser to our log cabin weekend in Tewksbury! We got there safely, to find the others enjoying the end of their party, which for some reason involved Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts. I was exhausted though, after all that driving!

On Saturday morning, some of the others were busy having a watersports session on the lake, which involved a giant swan-shaped pedallo, canoes and a wind-surfer! I love doing things like that, but for once, I was pleased that I hadn’t signed up for watersports. Even though the participants were wearing wetsuits, it looked very cold. So Clare, Jez and I went for a short walk, and we were rewarded by finding a £10 note on the grass verge, which we took straight to the pub!

After a leisurely lunch, a group of us went for a wander around Tewkesbury and the Abbey. Tewkesbury Abbey was really special and spiritual – I don’t think anyone could help but to be moved by such an ancient, beautiful building. The atmosphere of the golden stone and soaring arches was enhanced by a rehearsal of the Elgar concert, A Dream of Gerontius. Wandering around with the sound of the instruments and voices reverberating around the Abbey was very moving, and as we sat in the pews to listen to the singing, I even wrote a couple of haiku poems. Susie Morley has the only copies of those, as I wrote them in her notebook!

Walking down the medieval streets in the twilight afterwards, I started to feel Christmassy, and the decorations were already up in the half-timbered pub where we stopped for a couple of ales, before heading back to our log cabins at Croft Farm. The staff there served us up a lovely meal, and then we had a brilliant disco, fighting it out using Spotify to choose the songs we wanted. We had a particularly stupid time dancing to “Ra Ra Rasputin”, pretending to do Russian dancing on chairs! Towards the end of the night, I even managed to put on some old goth songs!

On Sunday, we drove into Tewksbury again, and I bought an awesome Russian army greatcoat from an antique shop (I must have been subliminally influenced by “Ra Ra Rasputin”!) We had a lovely lunch at a big Wetherspoons pub, all the Oxfam volunteers sitting along a really long table we cobbled together from several little ones. Eventually, it was time to head for home.

The week afterwards, it was time to do the whole Levellers thing again, for Kirsty’s birthday! This time, we caught the whole thing, really enjoying The Selector. We got much closer to the front for the Levellers, and the Sheffield O2 seemed very busy but much less packed than the Birmingham gig, so we got a great view from the front, while still being able to comfortably dance around. The Levellers are a band that have a very close relationship with their fans – I think I’ve had conversations with all of them, and certainly camped in the same field with them at Beautiful Days. Being at a Levellers gig feels like being part of a big tribe – it felt like that when we were sixteen, and it still feels like being truly with kindred spirits, even twenty one years later.

I can’t take credit for these pictures – Kirsty took them, because she’s taller and has a steadier hand! I think she did a fine job.

October: tea-towel raves and woodland walks

At the start of October, my working life was getting busier. At the beginning of the month, the Oxfam stewards gathered for the post-season briefing in the Forest of Dean. It was also time to say goodbye to John Picken, one of the Oxfam Stewarding managers. He’s starting a new, freelance career, and to celebrate, one of the volunteers had made him a very rude, but beautifully decorated cake. The attention to detail was quite astounding. Look away if you’re easily offended (by cake!)

A very rude cake for a man with a very dirty mind!

A very rude cake for a man with a very dirty mind!

After our top secret debriefing, we tried out the bouncy castle, played silly card games, such as Cards Against Humanity, and the evening culminated in a rave to Music from the Jilted Generation by the Prodigy played on an i-pod, with everyone waving fluorescent dusters around. I think you had to be there, but it was definitely fun!

A tea-towel rave!

A tea-towel rave!

In mid-October, I made a very brave move, and got a tattoo! I’ve already got a small one, but I decided it was time to make a personal “statement of intent”. I booked an appointment at Q Tattoo, one of the best tattoo studios in Sheffield. I felt a bit nervous, but it was something I’d wanted to do for years. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt too much, and I enjoyed watching it take shape. Over my right shoulder is the line “Libraries Gave Us Power“: the opening line from the Manic Street Preachers’ song ‘A Design for Life’, and a statement about my belief in knowledge and education. The peacock design is the logo of Peacock books, the former Young Adult imprint of Penguin Books, special to me because of some of my favourite books, such as ‘I Capture the Castle‘ by Dodie Smith, published by Peacock.

Anyway, here it is!

Me with my tattoo!

Me with my tattoo!

On the 18th October, I led a really exciting event as part of the Off the Shelf festival of words in Sheffield. I organised the Rivelin Story Walk, a walk with families through the Rivelin Valley. The Rivelin is now a haven for wildlife, but in the nineteenth century, it was full of forges and mills using the fast-flowing water.

Luckily the weather stayed dry and very warm for the time of year, and the autumn colours were glowing. This was a walk designed to stimulate children’s imaginations, so the ruined mills became goblin palaces, and the remains of mill ponds were deadly enchanted swamps. We found fairy caves, magical trees, and the children loved exploring. A couple of children got a bit wet at the stepping stones, but everyone enjoyed the walk, and returning to the cafe for huge chocolate buns and writing about and drawing the things they had seen and imagined. It was great fun, and I’d love to do something like that again!

The children were very sensible when it came to wildlife – one little boy squealed a bit when a bulbous garden spider abseiled down from a tall tree and stopped right in front of his face, but then we all stood around and watched the spider at it climbed back up its web again. At the end of our walk, we found an amazing Pale Tussock Moth caterpillar on a bench, and everyone just looked at it in awe!

In half term, I and a group of friends had a great night on the folk train to Edale. It was a bit of a crush to get onto the train, as the folk train seems really popular these days, but we had a great time.

On Halloween, we didn’t have a particularly spooky time! I went to Clumber Park with my friends Kirsty and Katy, and Katy’s two dogs. It was a wonderfully warm autumn day – we were in t-shirts once we’d started walking, and there was lots of wonderful colour on the turning leaves. The only downside was getting slightly lost – hey, it was an adventure! And also, we started our walk later than planned because I was waiting for what seemed like forever for my chip butty in the National Trust cafe! I also found out that a beagle doesn’t make a particularly effective guidedog when I shut my eyes and let little Agatha lead me along when we were in sight of the car. I thought she knew where she was going, but it turned out that she didn’t! I don’t know where she was going, but both dogs had a great time.

I got back in time to hollow out my pumpkin, make some soup and settle in to watch ParaNorman, a great spooky animated film!

 

September: A whole lot of cider, art in Sheffield and a goth legend!

September was so warm and dry that it felt like summer was continuing, even though the nights were a little colder and it was starting to get dark earlier. I succumbed to the temptation to help out at another festival. Fellow Oxfam steward Jon Scott and his partner Sian had organised their own festival, the Bo Peep Cider Festival near Adderbury in Oxfordshire. My friend Alexa came too, and we travelled down on the Friday night, arriving in the dark to put our tents up and sample some cider from the bewildering selection!

There were over 100 ciders to try to sample!

There were over 100 ciders to try to sample!

We watched some excellent local bands and enjoyed some fruit-flavour cider. A few more Oxfam stalwarts were also helping out, and we had a good catch-up.

On Saturday, we did some gentle stewarding. I wandered around the main field, making sure that everything was running smoothly, and even helped out with a giant dragon on parade!

Here be dragons!

Here be dragons!

In the evening, we drank cider until it came out of our ears and enjoyed more music. The cider festival was the last stand for George the Horse before his rest and recuperation on the Continent. He will reappear on the festival circuit next year with his woodwork and stuffing in fine fettle. So, feeling slightly creaky, George enjoyed rocking, but gently! We watched festival favourites Leatherat, and had a great time.

George enjoys a final outing of 2014 with his foster dad Graham.

George enjoys a final outing of 2014 with his foster dad Graham.

On Sunday morning, we reluctantly said goodbye to the Clydesdale horses who had been giving rides (and the remaining barrels of cider), and drove back home. It had been lovely to have a final taste of the festival world before buckling down to an autumn of hard work.

A big 'orse

A big ‘orse – bigger than George the Horse!

Later in September, I explored Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind, an  explosion of art installations, performances and thought-provoking events around the city. My favourite part of the festival was the Sheffield Bazaar, an art take-over of the old Co-Op department store in Sheffield City Centre. It was a chance to see the craftsmanship and pride that went into this stunning 1960s building with sculptures, stained glass, fine woodwork and its beautiful spiral staircase.

I used to shop in Castle House for shoes and towels, and it was the end of an era when it closed down four years ago. It was great to see its doors open again, full of weird and wonderful things: an experiment in living, where a group of people were living in a temporary space inside the department store for the ten days of the festival. There was also a castle built out of cardboard, graffiti art combined with living plants, small spaces to watch films, virtual reality helmets to try on (they made me very dizzy), a tent with an installation about the human nervous system, photography, lectures, and even a poet who could write you a haiku to order!

There was a great atmosphere in the city while all this art was going on – unexpected things happening everywhere, and the weather sunny and warm. There was also a mini “Chance to Dance” event on the Moor in the city centre, and I performed with Mulembas D’Africa.

We also enjoyed the first gig of the autumn season: Wayne Hussey from the Mission (one of the biggest goth/alternative bands in the 80s). He was playing a solo acoustic gig at the Greystones on the outskirts of Sheffield. It was a brilliant, intimate gig, and Wayne did a brilliant job, swapping from ukulele to mandolin and many beautiful guitars. The gig was slightly marred by a drunken idiot, shouting “Wayne!” and stumbling around and pushing into people. Thankfully, he got thrown out, but not before Wayne Hussey swore at him!

It was good to go to a gig with my other half, as this was one of the rare occasions when our musical tastes converge and we want to do the same thing at the same time. As we left the pub, the rain started to fall – it was the start of Autumn proper at last.

Wayne Hussey with Simon Hinkler

Wayne Hussey with Simon Hinkler

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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