Writing and Publishing Distortion – Advice for writers

Source: Writing and Publishing Distortion – Advice for writers

A family walk down Cromford Canal

I’ve been keeping up my walking, arranged around my busy everyday life. I’ve realised that my overall carbon footprint must be going down as the miles I’ve clocked up is increasing, as now I’m looking for an excuse to pop to the local shops.

It’s my mum’s birthday tomorrow, and after a lovely lunch at Scarthin Books in Cromford in Derbyshire, one of the best bookshops in the world, with its own hidden vegetarian cafe. I had a lovely pie and salad, but we stood firm against the temptation of cake!

We walked back around the millpond, complete with resident ducks, swans and a heron, and crossed the busy A6 and walked past Cromford Mill, a world heritage site, where Richard Awkwright set up the first ever water-powered cotton spinning mill in 1771. The mill has now been restored and is open as a visitor attraction.

Next door to the mill is the end of Cromford Canal, which opened in 1794 and carried the finished cotton, as well as coal, lead and iron ore mined in the area. Nowadays, the canal doesn’t go anywhere, but is restored and used for trips along the stretch that is navigable. In its prime, the canal would have been a busy, industrial scene, but now it’s great for walkers and wildlife alike, although I didn’t see any of its famed water voles.

It was a lovely chance to catch up with my parents, and it was bracing, although the strong winds of earlier in the day had died down a bit. We clocked up 3.54 miles in today, which isn’t bad!

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There’s a stegosaurus in the woods at the garden centre on the other side of the canal. 

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Walking past Hillsborough Barracks

I was working today, in my new job as a project worker at the Burton Street Foundation, helping to support adults with learning disabilities. It’s the first job I’ve had in ten years that I can walk to! Now I’m wishing that it was a bit further away, because even with a walk to the shops of Hillsborough after work, I only managed to clock up 2.12 miles today, in distance anyway. Still, I did walk back carrying baking potatoes, sweet potatoes, an aubergine and a cauliflower.

I’m sure I’ll be walking around here a lot, and there is some interesting history in this part of Sheffield. One of the places I walked past today is Hillsborough Barracks. It’s a complex of buildings that many local people now take for granted, as in the 1980s-90s, it was redeveloped and is now the home of Morrisons Supermarket, various shops, a hotel, a job centre and part of Sheffield College, where I once learned about databases and spreadsheets! But it’s a Grade Two Listed Building and is the only surviving example of a walled barracks in the whole of the UK.

The barracks were built in 1848 and used up until 1930, and over the years, it gradually fell into disrepair before its regeneration. Thousands of soldiers, from officers to privates, lived here, and I’m sure I’ll find lots of links with it in my other walks around this area. It would be fascinating to step back in time and see what it was like in its heyday.

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The Chapel of the Barracks

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The main entrance to the barracks from Langsett Road

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The barracks has turrets around its perimeter

 

 

Back to Sheffield for a Wyming Brook Walk

On the last day of relaxation before the New Year begins in earnest and many of us go back to work, I decided to take a solo walk at Wyming Brook on the outskirts of Sheffield. The skies were blue and it promised to be a crisp, bracing walk. A quick drive through Lodge Moor, the highest suburb of Sheffield and out the other side towards Redmires showed that lots of other people were having the same idea – I couldn’t get into the car park and had to park on the road, which gave me more mileage. There was black ice on the road, but the rest of the route wasn’t so slippery!

It was a mini-adventure, walking down Wyming Brook Drive on the way down the valley, which actually used to be a proper road, so it’s fairly solid underfoot and winds down the valley. I came out on Manchester Road, the start of the Snake Pass, which actually wasn’t too bad, as there was a pavement all the way until I turned off onto the narrow road that runs on top of the Lower Rivelin Dams reservoir’s dam and then back up the course of the Wyming Brook itself. I can’t believe it’s taken me over twenty years of living in Sheffield to discover this magical walk – rather muddy and a bit precarious in places, but it was great fun.

I saw lots of wildlife – the robins are especially tame here, so I got a good shot in silhouette, and according to the Mapometer website I’m using until my fitness tracker arrives, that was a 4.03 mile walk!

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Walking 1,000 miles in 2017 – not all in one go!

Last year, I did an epic sponsored swim but it was all over in March and then I lost a bit of exercise motivation.

On Christmas Day, I gave my mum the pedometer she asked for and said that she fancied doing a challenge to walk 1,000 miles in 2017. She showed me a magazine advert and I’ve decided to sign up to it and give it a go! http://www.livefortheoutdoors.com/walk1000miles .

I had an unusual but very pleasant New Year’s Eve this year, on a friend’s new canal boat on the River Lea in North London. We could see the fireworks on the Thames from afar and it was a magical evening. We needed to walk another guest back to the tube station after midnight, so some of my miles were done on the towpath (slightly wobbly from Prosecco) but it all counts. Even though it started chucking it down with rain on our towpath walk later in the afternoon, the canal towpath is a magical world. I saw coots diving close up from the window of the boat, Canada geese, swans, gulls, mallards and even cormorants – click on the article as it seems they are moving inland due to over fishing at sea. I’d never seen them so far inland before.

Messing around on the river was a great way to start the year, and I clocked up 4.46 miles.

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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.

 

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.

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!

 

Red Squirrels vs Rave Panda at Beautiful Days 2014

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

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

Over-excited arrival at Beautiful Days

Over-excited arrival at Beautiful Days

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

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

The Woodpigeon

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

Lazyland

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

Silver Grass

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

Love in a field

Shiny smiley love
Tripping happiness, radiating
Within us forever.

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

New fez friends at Dirty Davey's

New fez friends at Dirty Davey’s!

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

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

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

The most amazing camper van on site!

The most amazing camper van on site!

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

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

Watching the Undertones in the sunshine.

Watching the Undertones in the sunshine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheeky red squirrel!

Cheeky red squirrel at Escot Park!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The official way to greet a  Rave Panda!

The official way to greet a Rave Panda!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching the Bar Stewards in appropriate knitwear.

Watching the Bar Stewards in appropriate knitwear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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