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.

A Spot of Urban Birding

My January has been fairly quiet so far. Instead of crazy nights out and lots of live music, it’s mostly been about settling down to work and creativity, and catching up with friends by going on bracing walks in the parks and countryside around Sheffield.

I’ve been swimming a few times at my local pool, dodging dive-bombing kids and people ploughing up and down. There have been a few pleasant nights in the pub, but more often, I’ve been watching episodes of Dr Who while wrapped in a blanket on the sofa while finishing off the Christmas cake. Very rock ‘n’ roll! And finishing off all those Christmas treats has cancelled out all the calories burned by the brisk walks. But it’s been a happy time of making plans and trying to establish good routines.

I’ve set myself a goal of spending thirty minutes of the day at least working on my novel. It doesn’t sound a lot, and there have been days when I haven’t even been able to manage that, but since New Year, I finally feel that the end of the first draft of ‘Distortion’ is very close. Just a couple of chapters to go, and I’m starting to tie up a lot of the loose ends in the novel.

I think the secret is to write a little and often, doing it first where possible, rather than leaving it until everything else is done – including chores like cleaning the bathroom and sorting out laundry! And when it’s just not possible to do any writing, I’ve prioritised it the following day, rather than beating myself up for “failing”. As humans, we seem programmed to be “all or nothing” – just as many people seem to give up on being vegetarian after giving in to the temptation of eating one bacon sandwich, I wonder how many aspiring writers lose faith in themselves after setting themselves a much too ambitious routine?

If you’re trying to write something and you’re feeling uninspired, or worried that you’re going to churn out a load of crap, just set a timer, get on with it, and don’t worry. A first draft is supposed to be rubbish. But a crappy first draft is better than a blank page. It’s something to tinker and fiddle with until you’ve got it right. Those rough words on the page can generate brilliant new ideas. The main thing to concentrate on is whether the words you’ve written have got you from A-B in your story.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch in Ruskin Park

This morning, I set off on a micro-adventure: a journey of discovery in my local green space: Ruskin Park in Walkley, Sheffield. Amazingly, this park is only about as old as me, having been created following the slum-clearance of Victorian terraced houses. In that time, the park has grown several copses of fir, ash, alder, willow (there isn’t a stream, but the ground must be quite damp in places with those species), hazel and elder. The playground is very popular with local families, and there is even a zip-wire! At the opposite end of the park from my house is the Blake Hotel, refurbished several years ago following years of lying derelict. Now it’s one of Sheffield’s favourite pubs with its wide selection of real ales. Ruskin Park also had a cameo role in blockbuster film, The Full Monty!

It was such a lovely morning – much milder than the snowy, icy conditions we’ve had recently, and there was a real feeling of spring in the air. I wanted to get out into the park, rather than sitting in the house, looking down into my tiny garden. I’ve spotted plenty of wildlife there in the past, but I wanted to get some fresh air and look for some wildlife.

I had a great time in the park, exploring the woods and paths, dodging dog poo, avoiding patches of remaining ice and snow and getting my boots muddy! It was worth it though. The park is full of signs of spring: hazel catkins, daffodils starting to push their way through the grass, and some elders in a clearing were putting out their first leaves. This morning, urban sounds mingled with birdsong and church bells. In the Big Garden Birdwatch (you’re allowed to do your birdwatching in a park too), you have to record the largest number of each species of birds that you see at the same time. It doesn’t say anything about birds that you can hear but not see, so even though I heard a robin singing and house sparrows chirping from a bush, I couldn’t count them!

Here’s the full tally from my hour of bird-watching – the numbers indicating the biggest number of each bird I saw at any one time:

Blackbird: 1
Woodpigeon: 3
Chaffinch: 5
Bluetit: 3
Crow: 1
Long tailed tits: 5
Great tits: 2
Bullfinch: 1
Goldfinch: 6
Blackheaded gull: 1
Starling: 8
Magpie: 1
Wren: 1
Collared doves: 6

And finally, here’s the poem that I wrote about the experience!

Bird Watching in Ruskin Park

In dense hedges, sparrows chirp,
A blackbird skulks by the path.
Children jump in the playground –
Chimes ring under their feet.

Collared doves call, complaining.
In the copse, blue tits call and scold.
Police sirens, a helicopter’s whirr;
My face warm to the winter sun.

A small dog barks, starlings chirr,
Crow surveys the view, perched high –
Comments with a hoarse caw.
Woodpigeon naps in a fir tree.

Dirty snow litters the ground.
Treetop nests from last year, stark
Against blue sky and white clouds.
Cold nips my fingers but doesn’t bite.

Like a burbling fax machine modem,
A cacophony of goldfinches in gangs
Perch on twig-tops of hawthorn and willow.
Long-tailed tits dart, poised; scruffily puffed.

The church bells chime; a robin sings –
Elders in the clearing burst into leaf
Hazel catkins tremble in the breeze.
Mud underfoot: footballers shout.

Chaffinches, launched like bobbing missiles:
Wings folded, cross the snow-flecked pitch.
A small plane chugs over the city; high above
The daring stunt-fliers in the winter park.

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

Blimey, I’ve got some catching up to do! What have I been up to?

Hello! I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog for several months. I’ve been really busy – teaching courses for Derbyshire County Council, and also editing and publishing several books for clients.

I have been blogging though – I’ve been updating my Newholme Dales Tales blog every week with poems and pieces of writing created in my sessions with older patients in hospitals in Bakewell, Buxton, and now Chesterfield too. I love doing creative writing work with the patients and helping them to tell their stories and be creative – and it seems to be paying off. In the summer, the Dales Tales poetry anthology was published, and in the New Year, I’m due to do more workshops and sessions in hospitals and Age UK Centres.

Crafting Christmas cards at Newholme Hospital

Crafting Christmas cards at Newholme Hospital

I’ve also been teaching a story sacks course with parents in Staveley, which resulted in course participants writing their own books for Halloween and Christmas, and I’m teaching Functional Skills English in Chesterfield, which I’m really enjoying.

Amazing Minion puppets and storysack created by a learner in Staveley!

Amazing Minion puppets and storysack created by a learner in Staveley!

I ran a Story Walk as part of the Off the Shelf festival of words in Sheffield. I led two family walks through the beautiful Rivelin Valley, and we discovered goblin castles, fairy caves and mysterious beasts. The children came back to the Rivelin Park cafe to write their stories and enjoy huge chocolate buns, while the parents had a cup of coffee and a nice sit down! It was a beautiful day in October, when the autumn colours were at their best.

The Rivelin Story Walk in October

The Rivelin Story Walk in October

As an editor, and a “self-publishing enabler”, it’s great to announce that some of the books I have worked on have now been unleashed on the world, and I’m very proud of them.

Joe Blow by Joe Ashton

Joe Blow by Joe Ashton

Former veteran Labour MP, Joe Ashton, has now published his memoir Joe Blow, which is available in the Sheffield Star shop: York Street, Sheffield, S1 1PU, which you can also order by calling 0114 2521299. Extracts from the book has also been serialised in the Sheffield Star and there are due to be more of them over Christmas. You can read the first one here.

The Woodhead Diaries

The Woodhead Diaries

Barnsley folk music legend Dave Cherry has been enjoying a big success with his novel The Woodhead Diaries, a historical murder mystery featuring the real life story of the construction of the Woodhead railway tunnel through the Pennines in Victorian times, and the 1950s detective who pieces together the mystery of the bodies which turn up during the construction of the third railway tunnel.

Legends and Rebels of the Football World

Legends and Rebels of the Football World

Football coach and former international football player, Norm Parkin, has also published his book, Legends and Rebels of the Football World. The book is Norm’s journey to meet and interview some of the biggest and most notorious football heroes of the twentieth century, and all the profits will go to the Philippines Typhoon Relief Fund.

Joan Lee is 91 years old, almost 92, and she’s as sharp and bright as she ever was while she was working as one of Sheffield’s most long-serving pub landladies! She’s now a publishing powerhouse, as not only has she published her memoirs, with fascinating stories from the Sheffield blitz and pubs from the East End of Sheffield to posh Dronfield. Behind Bars has proved to be very popular. Now Joan has published Gammon and Pineapple, a novella with a new twist on romance!

Cover design version 2

And as well as the Dales Tales poetry anthology, I’ve also published the first collection of poetry by Darren Howes. Poems from A Room Beyond Awareness is spiritual, thought-provoking and also humorous – an exploration of a path into Buddhism.

I’ve also had some time to have fun – which I’ll update you on in my next few blog posts. Then I’ll continue as I mean to go on, with shorter, but more regular posts! I’ve been working so hard to publish my clients’ writing that I’ve neglected my own writing a little bit, and hopefully I’ll do something about that too.

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!

 

Art and Decay: a walk home

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

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

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

Anyway, I hope you like my poem!

Walking Home

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

Things this blog is about…