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!

 

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Moist but Marvelous! A belated post about Bearded Theory…

I was very proud to be involved in the seventh Bearded Theory festival, which started off as organiser Rich Bryan’s birthday party in 2007, and launched as a very small festival in 2008, at the Knockerdown Inn near Wirksworth. It’s now a well-established festival, with around 5,000 ticket-holders. In 2014, for the first time, the mighty Oxfam Stewarding Team were providing their services at the festival.

This year, the festival was held on a new site, Catton Hall, in the most southern part of Derbyshire, near Burton on Trent. On a hot Wednesday afternoon, I drove down to the site and set up camp in Angel Gardens, which is the kids’ field at the festival, meeting old and new friends, and getting my aging tent repaired with Gaffer tape by some lovely fellow Angels. It was a beautiful evening, and warnings of terrible weather fell on deaf ears. The river Trent flowed right next to my tent, looking tranquil in the evening light. How could it possibly give me any worries? There were at least eight feet to the top of the bank. I was looking forward to spreading the word about my novel Outside Inside too.

I attended the Oxfam stewards briefing (possibly slightly confused, possibly showing off as a Bearded Theory afficionado), and then enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine and a chat with Graham, an Oxfam colleague who has recently acquired a lovely campervan. Before bedtime, I visited the awning of Keith Manuel, another Bearded Theory veteran, famous for organising the ukulele jam, and eventually settled down at our own Angel Gardens campfire.

It rained heavily during the night, but the sun had come out, with a much fresher feel, by the time I emerged from my tent, ready to string up metres of bunting and help to make Angel Gardens to look amazing. Angel Gardens is the best kids’ field on the festival circuit, bringing artists, craftspeople and performers together to provide some amazing activities and workshops for kids. This year, we even had mad scientists making slime with the children, a samba parade and a flash-mob with choreographed kids dancing in front of the main stage.

This year, we had big domes for the baby zone, and for crafts. As soon as the covers were on, we attacked the dome with bunting, making it look really pretty. Fortunately / unfortunately, at that time, the heavens opened, and I was trapped inside the dome in torrential rain, putting bunting up, standing on a step-ladder, which is actually a pretty cool place to be in the rain. But the roof of the dome hasn’t been sealed yet, so the water was pooling in flaps in the canvas and then pouring like a waterfall. Luckily no one was standing underneath each time it happened. Despite the downpours, the Angel Gardens field was looking wonderful and ready to be invaded by crowds of kids and their families. And the location of the field was next to the main stage, so we were in the middle of the action.

Creations in the craft dome!

Creations in the craft dome!

After a briefing, where I met the large Angel Gardens crew, doing everything from facepainting to making dreadlocks, some “early bird” bands were playing on the second stage, Tornado Town. I managed to catch the last part of Please Y’Self‘s set, the original punk skiffle band. I’ve known them all for twenty four years, ever since gutarist John Gill came to Woodlands Secondary School as a music teacher and musician in residence. If you’ve ever wondered why I’m Anne Grange in real life, and Anne Garage on Facebook, it’s because I used to perform in lunchtime concerts, organised by John Gill, called Garage Shows. They were 10p for entry, and were massively popular! So it was a real pleasure to chat to the band afterwards.

Thursday night’s bill was topped by Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs – yet more punk skiffle, but this time with much dirtier jokes, and Doctor and the Medics (one hit wonders with Spirit in the Sky in the 80s – but they insisted that they’ve had two hits!) They played some great covers and I had a really good dance.

Friday was time to start work in Angel Gardens, but working timetabled slots in different areas gave me more time to explore the festival. In the morning, I ran my first craft workshop, making beards (everyone at Bearded Theory takes part in a fancy-dress beard competition) and hats, and covering the “teen tent” in bits of fake fur and material.

Beard Surrealism

Beard Surrealism

After a lunch break (a delicious home-made veggie burger), I was back, running my first performance poetry workshop. It was a small group, but very productive, and we came up with some great poems.

I explored the site, bumping into a few friends, and I bought a Carter t-shirt (I didn’t actually own one in the nineties, having been too young to be allowed out when they played at Derby Assembly Rooms) and then it was time for my craft workshop, making puppets from toilet rolls. I’d made one earlier, in true Blue Peter fashion, but I was really impressed by the inventiveness of the kids who took part.

Halfway through my workshop, ska-punk band Culture Shock took to the stage. I’d bought their records while trawling through second hand record shops at university, and I was looking forward to catching the end of their set. Unfortunately, it started to seriously hammer it down with rain, and by the time I’d put away my craft materials and returned to my tent, it was absolutely lashing it down, and I felt a bit disappointed about the downpour.

But the cure for that is to put your waterproofs on, load your bag with cider and wine, and enjoy the music anyway. And the rain was stopping, in time for the Dub Pistols – one of those classic festival bands guaranteed to put you in a good mood with their combination of ska, dub, and anything else they fancy.

I had to leave their set a bit early to make sure I was in time for Poisoned Electrick Head at the Locked in the Woods Stage – a secluded glade with a stage, log seating and a bar. Poisoned Electrick Head are my partner’s favourite band from his youth in the North West – 90s festival legends, who perform their proggy space rock while wearing rubber alien masks! They were great. I knew quite a few of the songs, including their biggest hit “out of order”. Although the sound was a little muffled at first, they were a visual treat, with giant revolving eyes and silver jackets. Such a visual band would have been better later on at night, or in the darkness of the Tornado Town marquee. I hope they’re back next year!

Poisoned Electrick Head at Bearded Theory

Poisoned Electrick Head at Bearded Theory

I had to run as fast as I could in the mud to get back to the main stage for Peter Hook and the Light – Peter Hook is the legendary bass player from Joy Division and New Order, and when I reached the stage, I was immediately enveloped in an amazing version of ‘Blue Monday’. The whole set was amazing; one of my festival highlights. Peter Hook and his band really brought the Joy Division songs to life, making them electronic and more danceable. I was completely enthralled.

And headlining on Friday night: Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. Performing their last ever festival set. They’re due to play two London dates in November, and then they’ll split up on a high. For those who don’t know, Carter USM were one of the biggest indie bands in the early nineties (for my generation, anyway), and one of the most unlikely: two blokes with guitars and a drum machine, singing songs full of bitterness and loneliness and biting social commentary, at a breakneck speed, amid flashes of bright white light, silhouetting them on the stage. They are spell-bindingly brilliant, and arguably, even more relevant today than in the nineties, with their songs of media cynicism, class division and sexual exploitation. For an hour and a half, I was fifteen again, experiencing them for the first time.

Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine - their last festival gig ever!

Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – their last festival gig ever!

Nothing could top that, so after wandering over to Tornado Town to catch the end of Babyhead and chat to some Oxfam friends, I tucked myself into my tent!

Saturday morning dawned rather grey, but the Angel Gardens 10am briefing enthused me, and I chatted about last night’s Carter gig with Angel Gardens volunteer Dan, who was helping me in the teen tent and turned out to be a massive Carter fan. I watched the Red Barrows (a wheelbarrow display team!), listened to some fantastic stories told by “Raggedy Jack”, who turned out to be Trotsky / “Wino Tyrone”, the tea-chest bass player from Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs! Then I was ready for another crafting session, where we made swords and light-sabres, and teen tent leader Sadie finally worked out how to use the bubble gun with very pretty results.

Raggedy Jack the storyteller / Wino Tyrone / Trotsky - this guy gets everywhere!

Raggedy Jack the storyteller / Wino Tyrone / Trotsky – this guy gets everywhere!

On my lunchbreak, I enjoyed a delicious paella, and sat down to listen to a country and western band in the Something Else tea tent. I was enjoying their tall Texan tales and innuendo, all delivered in a very convincing accent, when I stood up, and realised that it  was Trotsky from the Junkyard Dogs again on guitar and vocals! Despite his gormless on-stage persona playing the tea chest bass, he was proving to be a talented all-round performer (and he can even do clean, smut-free material for the children!)

My performance poetry was a big hit on Saturday afternoon, as it turned into a collaboration with Jason, who was running songwriting workshops in Angel Gardens. Once I’d helped each (very talented) child to write their poem, Jason was working with them to set it to music. That’s one of the intended outcomes of Angel Gardens: “Angel” Sam, who runs Angel Gardens, brings artists, musicians, writers, and performers together to build a temporary community and collaborate with each other, and the spirit of working together leads to some really lovely moments for the kids too.

A proud young poet!

A proud young poet!

After my workshop, I headed back to the Something Else tea tent to watch Abdoujaparov (I’ve finally got the hang of pronouncing it!) which features Fruitbat from Carter USM. Named after a Russian cyclist, the band are much more “traditionally” punky than Carter, with some really catchy songs. The band’s set started a bit late, but I enjoyed hanging around at the edge of the tent, soaking up the warm, unexpected sunshine, while I was waiting.

Before my evening craft session started, I was able to catch most of Pop Will Eat Itself’s set on the main stage. Another favourite alternative band from the 90s, they reformed four years ago, with an almost entirely new lineup! Including their gorgeous and appropriately named guitarist Tim Muddiman, whose lacerating guitar playing really adds a new dimension to those PWEI songs, having played for Gary Newman. Former PWEI singer Clint Mansell is now an award-winning Hollywood film composer (top fact!)

My favourite member of Pop Will Eat Itself!

My favourite member of Pop Will Eat Itself!

Anyway, I was having a brilliant time until a line of very dark grey clouds appeared on the horizon and swept rapidly towards the festival, causing everyone to put their waterproofs on before it even started raining. In one song, we’d gone from sunshine to torrential rain, and I made a run for it into the craft dome. Luckily I’d already left my craft materials to the dome, and once we’d avoided a few drips and splashes inside the dome, I set up my craft workshop. There were lots of kids and parents sheltering from the rain, and making things was a welcome distraction from the downpour, even though it was difficult to talk, above the sound of rain hitting the roof of the dome, and Pop Will Eat itself still playing, not very far away on the main stage. It was good timing though, the craft session was very creative, and kept us out of the worst of the rain.

The rain had cleared in time for the Wonderstuff – yet another “grebo” band of the 90s, who reformed a few years ago now and have become Bearded Theory favourites. They played an excellent set, which I spent mostly drinking red wine and admiring violinist Erica Nockalls’ beautiful dress. I swear she’s had a new hairstyle every time I’ve seen the Wonderstuff. I didn’t manage to see the Wonderstuff in the 90s, although they reached stadium-filling status, but I’ve made up for it since. And they never disappoint, playing some great new material, as well as old hits. There were also a crowd of mud-covered revellers, hugging everyone else and spreading the mud around a bit – but I didn’t mind, although I had mud on my glasses for a couple of weeks without noticing!

The Saturday headliners were the Stranglers, a band who emerged in the punk era, but with a much wider set of influences, from psychedelia to jazz, all played with a gothic, yet witty edge. They were fantastic, and surprisingly good to dance to as they played a brilliant “greatest hits” show.

The Stranglers - a classic set!

The Stranglers – a classic set!

And the live music on Saturday hadn’t ended yet. I teamed up with some Oxfam friends in the dance tent, and we decided to go over to the Locked in the Woods stage to see what was happening. We were lucky enough to catch the secret set by 3 Daft Monkeys, a folky, stompy, wonderful festival band (one of my Oxfam friends, Roxanne, took the photograph for the cover of one of their albums, and is a massive fan of the band) so it was a brilliant surprise.

On Sunday morning, my crafting workshop ended up with me making a prehistoric scene with a boy who was obsessed by Jurassic Park, complete with a flying pterodactyl! I hoped it wouldn’t rain again, as the river Trent had risen higher and higher up its banks and was flowing very fast. But I decided to ignore it!

Jurrassic Park! Complete with Bearded jellyfish in the lake.

Jurrassic Park! Complete with Bearded jellyfish in the lake.

Grabbing some delicious samosas from one of my favourite festival food stalls, Ghandi’s Flip Flop, I caught The Ratells on the main stage, an indie rock band from Sheffield (so why haven’t I seen them before!), who reminded me of Bloc Party. They had great songs, skintight black jeans and a compelling stage presence, managing to draw together an initially lethargic Sunday afternoon crowd.

The Ratells

The Ratells

I had another great poetry and song-writing session with some very talented kids later that afternoon, and found out that one of my participants was excited about the ukulele jam, although she was beginning to feel a bit too grown up for her Sponge Bob Square Pants ukulele, although everyone else thought it was cool. One of my participants improvised a brilliant song about the festival, but we managed to remember most of the words and write it down.

It was time to grab my ukulele, tune it up, and head to the ukulele jam at the Tornado Town marquee. I pushed my way to the front, where other ukulele players were standing, and joined in with the mass jam, playing the chords for songs that were displayed on the screen above the stage. I was concentrating really hard, with my tongue sticking out and everything, and went from struggling to remember basic chords to playing fairly confidently at the end of the hour! And I was sharing the performance with some of the special guests on stage, including Mark Chadwick from the Levellers, Trotsky from the Junkyard Dogs (again – that man gets everywhere!) and Ken Bonsall from Ferocious Dog. The uke jam was one of my festival highlights, not only because it helped to revive my love of playing music (and it’s not rocket science – many popular songs can be played with a small number of simple chords!) But it was also a brilliant laugh. Oh, yes, and Tim’s Bez-style dancing! The only downside was that for days afterwards, the fingertips of my left hand were too sore to touch anything!

The much-speculated about special guests on the main stage on Sunday were another Sheffield band, last year’s headliners Reverend and the Makers. I hadn’t been that impressed with them in the past, but they were perfect for this slot in the early evening sunshine, with catchy, bouncy songs, and I look forward to enjoying them again. But for now, I returned to the Craft Dome for my final craft session, which was very busy. The kids seemed desperate for their last chance to make something to take home, and we were awash with glitter and PVA glue. I very nearly overran into the quiet storytime session happening afterwards, although goodness how it was going to be quiet, with Dreadzone cooking up a story (luckily this time not an actual storm) in the background. After stowing my craft stuff, I ran to the main stage and danced my wellies off.

Mud! Children! PVA glue! Glitter!

Mud! Children! PVA glue! Glitter!

Dreadzone were on great form, and I was also determined to watch UB40. By the time I was getting into music as a teenager, UB40’s output was very cheesy po reggae, but through listening to BBC 6 Music, I’ve discovered their earlier material: much more dubby rootsy than their over-polished 90s sound. And they didn’t disappoint. They sounded great, with a big horn section, and Ali Campbell was in great voice. I had a great time skanking around with Oxfam steward Helen.

As a finale, we squelched over to the Locked in the Woods stage to watch Mark Chadwick (from the Levellers) do a solo gig to launch his new album ‘Moment’. Much quieter and more delicate than the Levellers’ folk punk, it was a good way to wind down and appreciate the magic of the glade, and to celebrate the end of the festival. Some people moaned that he only did one Levellers song, but you can’t have everything!

But then it was over. And because of the Sunday night curfew, so was everything else. So I had the bright idea of heading over to the backstage bar, and met lots of friends from the Bearded Theory crew. We danced until dawn to cheesy songs on someone’s ipod (they played the same songs twice, but we didn’t care). While sensible people were tucked in bed, this was a great way to end the festival. Finally, I staggered through the mud to back to Angel Gardens, to find my friends there were still sitting around their camp fire. I sat and chatted for a bit, but I could barely keep my eyes open!

Monday morning was hot and sunny and we managed to take the bell tents of Angel Gardens down before the rain started again. We hugged each other and set off for home through the mud.

As you can tell from this mammoth blog post, Bearded Theory is really something special. A festival where you can happily wander around on your own and always feel safe and be among friends. There were a few minor gripes about the toilets not being as clean as last year, but “teething problems” are inevitable on a new site, and the Bearded Theory organisers really care about sorting these things out for their fans. I can’t wait for next year.

Just put your wellies on and dance!

Just put your wellies on and dance!

 

 

A Life Less Ordinary – and a lot more busy!

Opening the wine I was given a year ago when I left work! A ceremonial opening. It was a bit sweet, but a lovely moment.

Opening the wine I was given a year ago when I left work! A ceremonial opening. It was a bit sweet, but a lovely moment.

On the 26th April, it was one year exactly since I left my old job! a whole year of being a freelance writer and editor, and finding my feet in the teaching world again. I wanted to celebrate, but I’ve been too busy. If I thought April was jam-packed with work and project – and running storytelling courses with kids and their parents – then May has been insane. A year on, my new life no longer feels brand new, but just like the right way of life for me. The uncertainty of having enough money to pay the bills is what drives me on to make damn sure I’ve got that money.

On the actual anniversary of leaving work, I’d been busy running an Oxfam stall and organising the car parking for the Derbyshire Eco Centre Spring Fair, which raised over £700 for Oxfam. Weirdly, last year, it was where my journey to becoming an Adult Education tutor started, when I boldly volunteered to do some storytelling! I did some storytelling at this year’s fair, with puppets, dressing up as a bear and children coming up with their own ideas for stories.

 

I was feeling a teeny bit smug that I’d managed to get my car through its MOT, service, and given it a new tax disc and insurance without too much trauma – only to find that the petrol gauge got stuck! Something I needed to get fixed, pronto! And then I needed a new laptop battery, and the toner cartridge started going…and the latest thing is that the pump in the cellar that stops us from having a soggy basement, seems to have stopped working on its own and we have to prod it from time to time.

I’ve been really busy with teaching work – running another memoir writing course, helping parents in Chesterfield to make Story Sacks, getting apprentices at Sheffield College through Functional Skills English, and working with patients at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell again. In the first week of the new term, Derbyshire Poet Laureate Helen Mort came to read some poetry and chat to the patients. I transformed what we’d been chatting about into poetry, and Helen has put one of my poems on her blog! Brilliant. Here it is! And we’ve had the exciting news that our project has been awarded an Arts Council Grant, so before the end of the summer, the work I’ve been doing with the patients and staff will be published. Watch this space.

The cover of Outside Inside! Buy it now!

The cover of Outside Inside! Buy it now!

And talking about publishing, I’ve been working really hard on a new edition of my first novel, Outside Inside, and now it’s available as a paperback, as well as an e-book from all major retailers! And even though I was rubbish at marketing the old edition, and I’d got it on the Kindle for the cheapest price possible, in the hope that it would generate sales, this week, I received my first ever royalty payment for my own writing, for my previous two years of writing sales. It’s only £60, but it makes me feel proud of my achievement. Now I can confidently guide other people through the same process, and I’ve got another client’s book well on the way to publication. It proves that self-publishing is definitely an option for writers struggling to get noticed by the mainstream, or for authors who just like more control over how their book is produced and marketed. It’s hard work, but worth it!

The happy couple, and their minions!

The happy couple, and their minions!

And I’ve had time for some fun too. On the May Day Bank Holiday week, I enjoyed a unisex “Hag” do, with my Oxfam friends Graham and Gaelle, who are getting married in July. A big group of friends and family accompanied them to the Swingamajig festival in Birmingham, dressed in 1920s themed outfits – we could spot each other in the crowd with our feather head-dresses that had been made for all the “Hags”, and we saw some brilliant live music and danced until (almost) dawn. It was a real taste of all the festival delights in fields that we’re going to enjoy this year, set among the old railway arches in Digbeth.

Today I’ve been to the Insect Circus in Weston Park in Sheffield, another brilliantly surreal thing I’ve seen around the festival circuit. And of course, I enjoyed watching a bearded drag queen win Eurovision last weekend.

And talking of beards, it’s only two sleeps until the biggest and best Bearded Theory yet! I’ll be helping kids and adults to write performance poetry with the wonderful kids’ area Angel Gardens, and also dancing and drinking cider!

Hidden Histories

The new year has already been very busy and is full of possibilities. This month, I’m saying “yes” to gifts and opportunities that come my way, which seems to be very fruitful so far.

On Saturday, I decided to join a guided walk with a poet that would end with a writing workshop in a lovely real ale pub. But the walk wasn’t in the hills of the peak district. It was one of the “Unregistered Sheffield” walks, a project run by Art in the Park, an environmental arts organisation based here in Sheffield. I was curious about the format of the walk and the techniques that the walk leader, poet Bill Cooper would use on the walk and in the workshop (because I’m interested in leading walks combined with creative writing workshops too!) And also, for months, I’ve been intrigued by Wardsend Cemetery, a Victorian cemetery, abandoned for years, on the banks of the River Don behind Hillsborough. However, I’d been told that it was a bit spooky, so I didn’t dare visit it on my own! I’m a wuss!

Despite a downpour earlier on Saturday morning, it was bright and clear as I set off for the meeting point in Hillsborough. But the streets were already busy with Sheffield Wednesday supporters and alarming numbers of police, before a Wednesday vs Leeds local Derby match. However, by the tram stop next to the Rawson Spring pub at Hillsborough corner, it was easy to spot the walkers – people of all ages, dressed in cagoules and fleeces which weren’t in blue and white stripes! I was pleased to meet Zoe, a lady who had attended the writing workshop I ran in October. We set off towards Hillsborough College and Penistone Road, already feeling “different” than I do on my shopping trips and errands that I usually run around here. As we crossed the dual carriageway – where I’ve driven thousands of times, we stopped under the huge sign for Owlerton Stadium. Bill said that we had crossed an “invisible line”, away from the world of cars and business, and the walk started to take on its own pace. We talked about the church of St John the Baptist, and the Swann Morton factory over the road, which makes most of the surgical blades in the world!

A sculptural stack of tyres

A sculptural stack of tyres at Owlerton Stadium

We walked past Hillsborough College, Napoleon’s Casino and around the back of Owlerton Stadium, where we found this rather sculptural stack of old tyres filling a whole in the fence! For years, I had wondered what the roaring engine noise was that could be heard from Crookes and Walkley on still nights. The stadium has hosted speedway racing since it opened in 1929 and all kinds of motor sports, including stock cars and monster trucks (which might be where those tyres came from!) The stadium is also famous for greyhound racing, which can be a cruel sport for dogs who don’t make the grade. But Owlerton stadium does support the Retired Greyhound Trust. We rounded the corner, and crossed the river at the back of the Cadbury Trebor Bassett factory, which smelled delicious, like toasted chocolate. Bassett’s Allsorts are made here! It was lovely to chat to the other walkers: artists, writers and people curious about hidden Sheffield.

IMG_3724

The river Don, behind the sweet factory!

As we crossed the river, memories came back to me, of driving slowly the long way round to Coopers Car Spares in 2008, after our beloved Fiat Cinquecento had spewed the insides of its exhaust onto Penistone Road and wasn’t firing on four cylinders any more. My last sight of it before I scrapped it was of a very large man being laughed at by his colleagues as he tried to drive the sluggish car up the hill in the scrapyard. I hadn’t even noticed the cemetery then, ironically, as I was taking my car to meet its end! And the cemetery is right next to Cooper’s scrap yard, the mechanical and human remains lying in close proximity.

Wardsend Cemetery

Wardsend Cemetery

We gathered around an impressive Victorian memorial, and Bill explained the background to the cemetery. When someone said: “where did people buried here come from?” Bill mentioned that many of the graves were from soldiers stationed at Hillsborough Barracks (now Morrisons’ Supermarket!), but I spotted that the memorial in front of me was dedicated to John Register, of Fir View, Walkley, which caught my eye. He must have been someone important in the community, with his prominent marble grave, and several other relatives had been buried in the same plot. We were given twenty minutes to wander around the cemetery but I noted the engraving on John Register’s gravestone for a six year old child: “the mother gave in tears and pain. The only flower she had to love. Assured she’ll find it once again. In heavenly fields of light above”. I stood and noted the call of great tits, the shafts of sunlight, the delicious, waffly smell from the Cadbury’s factory, the hum of the nearby electricity pylons, a call of a jackdaw and a distant roar of traffic.

Eerie gravestones amongst the bracken

Eerie gravestones amongst the bracken

I hadn’t left much time to explore the rest of the cemetery, so I took pictures of old gravestones and the wildlife that had taken over. I made my way quickly over the railway bridge to see the graves on the other side – Wardsend was the only major cemetery in the country bisected by a railway line. The gravestones on the other side were an eerie sight – half hidden by crispy brown bracken as the land on the other side turns into heath. There had evidently been a fire – perhaps in the dry summer, which had blackened some of the trees into skeletons, but the gravestones had survived, stubbornly. When we gathered again as a group, Bill showed us the Obelisk, which commemorated soldiers from Hillsborough Barracks, who had died in the 1860s. We also found a broken column lying on its side – the gravestone of a young girl. The broken column represented a life cut off before its prime. Wardsend cemetery used to have its own chapel, until it was demolished, and the graveyard was abandoned.

Keep Out!

Keep Out!

We walked along Club Mill Road – it had been a “proper” road when I had driven my car to the scrapyard in 2008 – because the bridge we’d walked along had been swept away by the floods in the summer of 2007. But now the road has been blocked to traffic and it is starting to resemble a riverside path, abounding with wildlife. The river flowed swiftly and we saw how the Parkwood landfill tip is being landscaped, with trees planted. We walked past demolished factories and a lady who was one of the walkers said that there used to be cooling towers here, by the side of the river. There was a large, grassy mound there now, and a half demolished, grafitti-covered wall on the other side of the road, it’s “keep out” notices redundant now there was just a grassy hill on the other side, rather than a factory. We mused on how Sheffield evolves and re-creates itself, in the space of relatively few years. Nature is reclaiming this part of Sheffield.

The old mill and the tree

The old mill and the tree

After a while, we reached the point on the road where traffic is allowed, and there are various industrial units. We felt like we were returning to “normality”. But then we heard a cockerel crowing. In yard of a ramshackle taxi garage was a man feeding a small flock of fancy chickens and fan-tailed doves with bird seed. It was an unexpected and endearing sight. We could still hear the cockerel when Gary showed us the old mill, complete with a rusting metal water wheel. The ruined mill, behind a row of Heras fencing, had a really spooky atmosphere – and all of my photos of the mill have come out blurred! There was an incredibly large, twisted willow tree nearby. Near the mill, an angler sat serenely on the river bank.

The old gates of Hillfoot County School

The old gates of Hillfoot County School

One of the walkers was a lady who had grown up on the Parkwood Spring estate, which was demolished many years ago. She showed us the coke depot where people used to queue to scramble on the slag heap for nuggets of coke during World War II and afterwards, when fuel was still rationed. She showed us the gates of her old school, blocked by a young ash tree and buddleia and the scruffy wall of a corrugated factory, where there was once a Victorian School building. Barbara vividly remembered fights outside the school gates and running up the hill when she found out that George VI had died. There was more rubbish and detritus between here and the derelict Farfield Inn – a culvert full of tyres and rubbish bags, an unpleasant cave  full of broken things where a few walls of a demolished factory stood – evidently a hiding place for someone up to no good. The atmosphere became edgy and oppressive as the road became a narrow alleyway.

It was a relief to be on the industrial streets again, and we passed close by Neepsend Gasometer and its huge gas pipe, which I can see from Walkley, but I didn’t know what it was before. It used to be obscured by a huge art-deco factory which was demolished a few years ago, taking part of the building next door with it. As we reached the Gardener’s Rest, a real ale oasis in the post-industrial desert, we stopped to look at the old brewery building and the ingenious graffiti mural. Sheffield ia a virtual gallery of street art, with work around many obscure corners by artists who have become well-respected in the art world. Check some of them out here: http://sheffieldstreetart.tumblr.com/.

Graffiti mural in Neepsend

Graffiti mural in Neepsend

Once inside the warm, sunny conservatory of the pub, we ate lunch, enjoyed a drink (I had a pint of shandy), and chatted. Bill talked us through a series of writing exercises, asking us to list the things we had found charming, or sad or shocking on our walk. We listed verbs: “glitter, sparkle, splash, squelch, crunch, reflect, fester, cockadoodledoo”, and imagined conversations taking place in the cemetery, at the gates of the old school and at the garage where the man was feeding the chickens. We had time to draft a piece of writing inspired by one of the exercises. I’ve been writing more poetry recently, but I found myself writing a story about some sixth-formers from the college holding a seance in the cemetery, which I’ll try to finish soon! If it works, I might have a great Young Adult novel on my hands – in my head, it’s threatening to develop into something much longer.

The walk was a great adventure. It felt like we were exploring a hidden world, yet only a short walking distance from home. I met an interesting mixture of like-minded people – and I’ll definitely be going along to the Unregistered Sheffield celebration event this Sunday afternoon in the pavillion in Hillsborough Park. There’s always something interesting, stimulating and creative to do in Sheffield – and even in the midst of industrial decay, there is beauty and wonder – and amazing stories.

How I learned to Walk on the Wild Side

As a teenager, I was obsessed by music. I still am.  In 2013, anyone with a laptop and a wifi connection has access to virtually every piece of music ever recorded. Over twenty years ago, things were very different. My magpie mind was grabbed by many things, through random chance, and moments which shaped my musical imagination and changed the direction of my life. Here are just a few of those moments:

Hearing ‘Epic‘ by Faith No More in a car on the way back from a Christian conference called ‘Spring Harvest’. This was the first time I was absolutely blown away by rock music, pressed back in the black vinyl car seat by the power of the “You want it all but you can’t have it” chorus. Shortly after this, I realised that organised religion wasn’t for me, but rock ‘n’ roll was definitely the way forward.

Seeing a band called the Cramps on a music programme on BBC 2 called ‘SNUB TV’.  I was only thirteen, but they had a crazy looking man in makeup and PVC trousers, and a very glamourous woman playing the guitar. They were funny (ha! ha!) and also very strange, and had a song called ‘You’ve got good taste’. Later that year, a new music teacher started at our school. He was called John Gill. One of the first things he told us was that the Cramps were one of his favourite bands and lent me a tape of an album called ‘Off the Bone’. I started to learn to play the guitar. I sung their version of ‘Fever’ in front of the whole school, and it became my anthem, despite taunts from school bullies (who never dared to stand up and sing themselves!)

When I started at university, a shy young man in my lectures had “Thee Cramps” inked onto his army surplus bag. I commented on this excitedly, and we started talking. A friendship developed, forged over passionate discussions about music. Then we fell in love. We’re still arguing about music, eighteen years later.

I’m not sure when I first heard the John Peel show, late at night on Radio 1. There was too much music to absorb in one go, and it was great to lie in bed, imagining a glamorous life of record shops, gigs and late nights. Like many people, I taped as many shows as I could. One of the songs I listened to over and over again on my Tandy personal stereo was ‘Spellbound‘ by Siouxsie and the Banshees. I plugged myself into that personal stereo in the back seat of the car for every long journey with my parents, staring out of the window and drifting into day-dreams that fired my writer’s imagination.

Home taping was my lifeline.

Home taping was my lifeline.

It was the era of home taping. If you wanted a new album, you’d ask the small collection of school friends who were into music and you’d give someone a C90 cassette. Probably one that already had something taped on it. You could tape over something as much as you liked. And you’d eventually get a hissy recording of the album back. One of the best things would be that the person making the tape would often fill up any blank bits at the end of the tape with something else – which led to more wonderful music discoveries.

CDs were a luxury, and even though I had a record player, I reserved it for playing my second-hand collection from jumble sales and car boot sales. That was another way my musical tastes were growing, from old Motown classics (‘Respect’/’Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Reading from a Sunday morning boot-sale browse with my grandparents), psychedelic masterpieces (‘Disraeli Gears’ by Cream when I helped out at a school jumble sale), to electro (a worn-out Tubeway Army record from a flea market in Allenton).

The cover of Transformer

The cover of Transformer

I only bought new cassette albums when I had money from my birthday or after Christmas. I must have been given a Boots voucher for my birthday. In those days, Boots used to sell music and had quite a good selection of tapes. I browsed the racks of tapes and selected ‘Transformer‘ by Lou Reed. ‘Walk on the Wildside’ was famous, and the bassline had recently been sampled by hip hop band A Tribe Called Quest for ‘Can I kick it?’ I wasn’t sure if I’d even heard of the Velvet Underground at the age of fifteen. But it stood out because it looked different – the polarised picture of a face in stark black and white, the eyes so black, they looked like they were ringed in heavy eye-liner, turned away from a microphone, and a guitar which looked like it had been drawn on at the bottom. I’m pretty sure that the other tape I bought at the same time was the greatest hits of tragic jazz singer Billie Holliday. I listened to both tapes over and over again on a family holiday to France. In some ways, they went together perfectly.

The songs on ‘Transformer’ were different from anything I’d ever heard before. They told stories, in different voices. They sounded like they were being played at the end of a long night in a smoke-filled room, sung by a guy whose voice was at breaking point, who’d seen things I could never imagine, knocking back whisky. I was in Year 10, at secondary school in a small East Midlands city. I knew nothing then about debauched night clubs, transvestites (apart from my grandfather’s amateur drag-act, but that’s another story!) or pretentious artists (apart from Seymour Wright, my intellectual nemesis). I’d seen Andy Warhol’s soup tins, but I was yet to work out all the threads that pulled all these things together. All I knew was that I longed to experience this sophisticated, jaded grown-up world one day soon. I was too innocent to understand the lyrics properly yet, but I wanted to be part of that rock ‘n’ roll world. Every album I discovered; every music magazine I devoured from cover to cover brought me closer.

The Velvet Underground, Glastonbury 1993

The Velvet Underground, Glastonbury 1993

And just over a year later, as a reward for working hard on my GCSEs, I went to Glastonbury. Just me and two friends. It was a wonderful gesture of trust from my parents. Over those five baking-hot days in 1993, I experienced so many magical musical moments that my brain was overloaded for months and I couldn’t stop talking about it. I was hooked for life. One of the first bands I got to see was the Velvet Underground. We hadn’t worked out that the best way to get to the front of the crowd is to sneak down the side, and there were no big screens, so we stood at the back of the Pyramid Stage field, looking at a miniscule Lou Reed. I finally felt like I was part of the excitement.

It was a shock on Sunday, to discover that Lou Reed had died. He was still experimenting (I wasn’t too sure about his collaboration with Metallica, but I applauded his intentions). Lou Reed influenced and shaped music as we know it. He helped to define the image of “cool”, and then ignored it. He was one of the musical voices that shaped my mind, telling stories that were thousands of miles away from my own experience but still spoke to me.

Music has always inspired my writing. Lyrics jump out at me and make stories form in my head, the intensity of feeling in a song connects me with the emotions of my characters. Watching a band live can take me on an internal journey sparks the idea for a novel. I can’t help it, any more than I can help breathing.

Here’s writer Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Lou Reed from the Guardian. It seems that he was inspired in a similar way. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/oct/28/neil-gaiman-lou-reed-sandman

Wet, wonderful and downright weird!

My writing workshop at Off the Shelf!

My writing workshop at Off the Shelf!

On Saturday, I ran a writing workshop as part of Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival of Words – a literary festival which has now been running for 22 years. I had been worried about attracting enough people to my course, as it was on the launch day of the festival, and I was competing with lots of other events, including a writers’ group fair and humorous poet and ‘Just a Minute’ panellist Pam Ayres.

My workshop was listed in the Off the Shelf programme and I’d advertised it on Facebook, but I needed to reach the right people. So at the end of September, I decided to put in some serious graft. I didn’t think there was much point spending a lot of money on printing flyers and posters, so I ran black and white ones off myself and put them up in cafes and venues where literary-minded people might congregate. I wrote a press release and sent it to every media organisation I could think of in South Yorkshire.

My master stroke was to email every writing group I could find locally! Luckily, my local writers’ development organisation, Signposts (now Writing Yorkshire – more on that later!) has a list of writing groups to suit everyone. Within a few hours of sending my press releases to them, the bookings were rolling in. I’d made the workshop day really affordable at £10 including lunch – it helped that Sheffield City Council had contributed towards the cost of running the course too!

I’d already planned the writing exercises we’d be doing in the workshop. I called it “Open Your Memory Box”. It was designed to follow on from memoir-writing workshops I ran in May this year. Saturday’s workshop was designed to take biographical details and turn them into poetry, stories and drama. All I needed to do now was check the venue at Bank Street Arts – an arts centre and cafe dedicated to the craft of writing, and finalise the details for lunch. Everything was fine, although I was a little nervous.

Saturday dawned grey and rainy. The perfect weather for a day spent indoors, writing. Unfortunately, the participants had to travel through the rain, but everyone arrived safely, and after grabbing a coffee, we settled down for a creative day.

I had such lovely, interesting participants that the day was a dream. I’d asked everyone to bring along an object that held a memory, and I was soon sucked into fascinating stories of hair slides, old photographs, charm bracelets, money boxes, a twig naturally shaped like a wood spirit, a treasured sweet packet, a gold sovereign and gold watches lost under the ocean.

As the day progressed, we tried various writing exercises, and I was so impressed by the standard of the poems and stories that I’m going to be putting some of them on my Wild Rosemary Writing Services website.

We even had time to watch a miniature theatre performance also taking place at Bank Street Arts on Saturday, The Ice Book, a wonderful story created from projections and paper shapes on the pages of a magical book. The fairy tale theme tied in perfectly with the exercises we were doing on folk tales and archetypes.

Straight after my workshop in the cafe was the launch of Writing Yorkshire, the new name for writers’ development agency Signposts. The team are now dedicated to helping writers throughout Yorkshire. They’ve certainly helped me so far, giving me advice on setting up my courses and my editing business. Some of my workshop participants came to mingle with me. Amongst the long queue of people waiting for free coffee and cake were lots of people I know: writers from the novelists group I run, people from the Writing MA at Sheffield Hallam University, and my managers from my very first post university job, working for the theatre company which has now evolved into Point Blank Theatre who run the Riverside pub venue in Sheffield. It felt really good to talk to my old boss about my new projects.

After cake, there was a really interesting panel debate with local writers, on the theme of making a living as a writer (a subject very dear to my heart!) The panellists were Joe Kriss, who runs Wordlife performance events in Sheffield and Beverley Ward, Writing Development Manager at Writing Yorkshire, and a fellow novelist, who has given me a lot of support and guidance so far in my freelance career. There was also Daniel Blythe, a Young Adult novelist and writer of Dr Who novels, and Stephen May, the writing development officer from the Arts Council. I was really pleased that they were advocating a “portfolio” career – building up a creative career with lots of different aspects – in my case teaching, editing and at the moment, building up as much experience as possible. It certainly makes life more interesting than sitting alone all the time, trying to create a masterpiece! It would drive me mad, even though it’s worked for some people. I am spending more time on my own writing though – getting up in the dark to snatch a bit of time every morning to write my second novel.

Colm Gray at the Crookes Folk Club - sorry about the red eyes!

Colm Gray at the Crookes Folk Club – sorry about the red eyes!

Feeling tired but elated, it was on with my marathon day. I caught a bus to my old stamping ground Crookes for a gig at the Crookes Folk Club at the Princess Royal pub. The main artist was Colm Gray, a young folk singer and guitarist I’d seen at Bearded Theory in May this year. He’d managed to blag his way into busking backstage, and impressed the organisers – and the singer from the Levellers so much that he’s booked to play the main stage at Bearded Theory, and also to play the Levellers’ own festival Beautiful Days next year.

The Princess Royal is an unassuming back street pub. It’s weekly folk club has been running for several years now, with talented artists performing in the intimate upstairs room. The place was packed for Colm Gray, who was fresh from supporting Levellers singer Mark Chadwick in Derby the night before. Colm is a striking-looking young man with razor-sharp cheekbones, with an almost ethereal presence and singing voice. He played a mixture of traditional tunes and his own songs, such as Collie Dog Blues to a spell-bound audience, Originally from Kilkenny, Colm is now touring the UK, breaking into the conscience of the nation the traditional way, travelling up and down the country in a Transit van, playing folk festivals and charming his way onto festival bills. He’s well worth catching on his wanders – hopefully he’ll play Sheffield again soon.

Monday was another Off the Shelf day. The rain was heavier and the skies. At the start of the evening, I braved the wet to meet novelist Gavin Extence, author of ‘The Universe Versus Alex Woods’, a quirky yet moving book about an unlikely friendship between Alex, an isolated teenage boy and Mr Peterson, a lonely old man. Gavin was really interesting to chat to – and we had a really interesting discussion with him about the themes in his novel and his writing career so far. That’s a great story in itself – after gaining a degree in English Literature (from the University of Sheffield, just like me!), and then a PHD, he was struggling to get a job (this sounds familiar too!) Gavin’s wife suggested that he put all of his energy into writing (and presumably the household chores too!) The hard work and dedication paid off, as ‘The Universe Versus Alex Woods’ is now a best-selling novel, and certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year, funny and thought-provoking.

I had the pleasure of Gavin’s company for a bit longer as I was giving him a lift to Bank Street Arts for “Sheffield’s Got Fiction Talent”, a “fiction slam” event, where local writers competed against each other, each having a minute to pitch their novel in the first round. Gavin Extence was a judge, and I was a competitor. I was disappointed not to make it past the first round, where audience members voted for their six favourite pitchers, but the place was packed, with over twenty writers competing for six places in the second round. I put a brave face on it. The night was a great success – partly because two people from the novelists group that I run came joint second, and some very talented writers were showcased – and were critiqued by the fearsome panel (not so fearsome, it was all great constructive criticism)!

I went to bed feeling alright – pleased that I’d met some interesting writers, and only mildly disappointed. However, my mental vultures were already circling. Sometimes I can feel devastated even when I’ve got things to be happy about. it doesn’t happen often, but when the wrong circumstances combine, I feel really depressed. Minor setbacks, combined with fluctuating hormones, the way people treat me, for example, a small, easily mended tiff with the other half, leave me tearful and hopeless. A turning point came a few years ago, when I consulted a doctor and she suggested a prescription of antidepressants. I realised that this wasn’t the way to help myself. I’ve been determined to know myself; to get to the root of my problems and do something about it. I’ve been on a mission to get rid of those mental vultures, otherwise known as the “top dog” or the “shitty committee”, who tell me that I’m worthless and talented, and that everyone who sees me can look right through me and see that I’m hideous, stupid, insane and deluded. It’s pure craziness to think like this.

But every time I feel like this, the positive voices get stronger. I realise I’m no longer alone in thinking negatively about myself. My wonderful “free range” colleague Lotte Lane has written (and filmed herself) about exactly what I’m talking about. This struck such a chord with me that it brought tears to my eyes – not tears of self-pity this time, but tears of recognition and hope. http://www.lottelane.com/meet-shitty-committee/

Some people would shy away from mentioning the downs in life as well as the ups. But I want to be honest. By talking about things like this, it means that we’re no longer suffering alone. I’ve recognised my feelings and now I’m on my way to bouncing back, with new ideas and a refreshed perspective. We have to work hard to maintain and create the positive, creative things in our life, but they’re worth fighting for.

Totally Shambalic!

Less than 48 hours since I returned home from Beautiful Days, I was off again, to Shambala festival. It was less a case of unpacking than throwing the dirty clothes into the washing machine and adding more neon orange items for the fancy dress day. Stocking up in Morrisons, I discovered that they do their own boxes of vintage 7.2% cider actually made by Weston’s, the lovely Herefordshire cider makers. If you love cider, try this blog.  http://ciderpages.blogspot.co.uk/ The writer is on a mission to taste as many ciders as possible – and no, I don’t think it’s written by a tramp – that would be me at my current rate of sleeping under the stars and consuming alcohol!

Shambala is in an allegedly “secret” location in Northampton, but it’s made its home in the grounds of a beautiful country manor for several years now, using its beautiful lake, woodlands and views of the gently rolling countryside to create a magical wonderland. Shambala is a festival with much more than music to enjoy – and it combines a family-friendly atmosphere with all-nighter venues for the party animals. There’s something to suit everyone. It’s only a two-hour drive from Sheffield. I picked up a passenger in Loughborough and we arrived on a beautifully sunny afternoon.

We stayed in a new staff campsite which was in fields near the beautiful old farm. We’d turfed a herd of beautiful British White cattle off their field – they were confined into a barn for the weekend, but they had lots of company with stewards minding the farm gate all week and people coming to talk to the cows. They were lovely cows with black ears and noses, but if anyone upset them, they set up a choral “mooing” that went on for ages. Our new campsite undulated in ridges, typical of the medieval “ridge and furrow” field systems, and at the briefing, the Oxfam co-ordinators told us that we were sleeping on the remains of a deserted medieval village.

Setting up camp, it was strangely normal to be with many of the people I’d been camping with in Devon, just two days earlier. It felt as if we were part of a travelling circus! it was lovely to see my friend Fraser, who I’d not seen since Glastonbury, and he brought a giant hat made of carpet with him. It was far too heavy to wear, so it sat in the middle of our events shelter for the week and became a coffee table. The first night was the usual routine of drinking, talking to old friends, meeting new people, and attending stewarding briefings.

I wasn’t working on Thursday, so it was a good chance to explore the site and ease myself gently into Shambala. Fraser and I had a great wander. The only downside was the wasps, which were determined to buzz around everything: food, cider, people, bins, furniture. Even as a committed animal lover, they try my patience, but they do have their uses, as the RSPB explain here. Perhaps we should learn to be “at one” with the wasp after all. Maybe they’re just misunderstood (or maybe they’re little stripy stinging gits!)

On my Thursday wander, I discovered the Wide Awake Cafe, who do amazing foot-long veggie hotdogs, and even have a film made about their festival adventures. Veggie hotdogs have become my new favourite festival meal! http://www.karges-land.com/wide-awake-cafe-movie.html We then wandered into the Meadow to enjoy the healing fields. It was so relaxing in there, that we fell asleep around the fire pit for an hour – and woke up in time to join in with a shamanic ceremony to bless the festival. I played a djembe drum while people made a procession around the fire. We made a parcel of leaves, feathers, berries and seeds called a despacho, to be burned in a closing ceremony at the end of the festival. Taking part in the ceremony was a lovely, gentle experience. Feeling all spiritual, I persuaded Fraser to join me in a yoga class – Forrest yoga, which is designed to help with the strains and stresses of modern living. I used to do yoga every week and I’m a little rusty, which would explain why my core stomach muscles took days to return! We also explored the amazing disco-themed main entrance to the festival (which goes to so much effort for its ticket-holders!), and some amazing sculptures including a dalek woven from willow.

Later on Thursday, we watched ska and reggae bands at Chai Wallah’s, which is a beautiful, souk-style covered music venue and bar, rather than a tea shop! Eventually, we ended up in one of Shambala’s many secret venues, the Swingamajig Speakeasy, a 1920s themed venue accessed via a time machine! I headed to bed fairly early, as I had a daytime stewarding shift on Friday.

My allotted area to supervise was the accessible campsite and the artists camping and car park. Not bad at all. My only hair-raising moment was when a disabled man was stung by a wasp and he didn’t know if he’d be violently allergic to the sting. Fortunately, all was well, but the medics sped into the campsite on a buggy with their emergency kit within a few minutes. They found the patient calmly eating a sausage sandwich, which was probably the best reaction. I had enough time to chat to the stewards, and we were also able to watch the comings and goings of walkabout performers, such as a brass band, who were  always in very bright fancy dress; a mechanical horse on wheels who played Klezmer music and breathed fire at night; and the Police Rave Unit!

After I finished my shift, I took part in the Car Boot Bingo Disco, where participants learned a disco move for every ball drawn out, which eventually became a dance routine. I also caught the sparkling cabaret of top act Trevi Fontayne with his inimitable crooning style. I headed back to the campsite to recharge my batteries, have a nice chat and stock up with alcohol. I’d discovered that the wine I’d brought with me was completely hideous, so I bought some fruits of the forest juice to mix with it. It tasted nice at first, but by the time I’d got to the bottom of the bottle, I’d still drunk a bottle of cheap wine, which didn’t leave me feeling too good eventually! But that was a long time away, and I joined Fraser at the main stage to watch Dr Meaker and Friends, Skip and Die and The Skatalites (for the second time in less than a week!) If I’ve got one criticism of Shambala, it’s that there are so many small venues and soundsystems, that it tends to drown out the sound of the main stage, so even if you stand relatively close, you can still hear the thump of something else going on nearby. It was very atmospheric though, and a beautiful evening. We explored some of the secret venues, but they felt a bit claustrophobic.

After the Skatalites, we discovered the most far-flung secret venue, Naughty Morty’s Secret Ska Bar, on the far side of the main campsite. It was in a lovely clearing in the woods, with straw-bale seats and fire woks to site around, and a very random music selection, from The Wurzels and to classic disco. The terrible red wine was catching up with me though, but we had time to explore the enchanted woods with its late night music and amazing art installations, before bedtime!

On Saturday, I had my daily shower, then headed out into the festival. I was feeling a bit washed-out but I was energised by a contemporary dance workshop which was very freeform, and I overheard a man say to his small son: “some of these people haven’t been to bed yet, and they’re still dancing, but some of them have had a nice sleep and are having a dance to wake themselves up”. There were certainly a few people looking a bit wild-eyed, covered it glitter – but we’re all covered in glitter at Shambala and it takes days to wash off! Feeling invigorated, I went for a sit-down and some random conversation in the healing meadow. I had a deluxe veggie hotdog from the Wide Awake Cafe – there was so much salad in it that I couldn’t pick up the bap, and had to eat it with a fork! I listened to a discussion on the theme: “Love Conquers Everything”. Surprisingly, the motion was defeated – although love is powerful, sadly it was decided that love couldn’t conquer everything! Then I met some friends and did some knitting to contribute to a special Shambala blanket.

The last activity before my shift was one of my favourite things ever at Shambala! It’s the Dreams and Whispers 90s Dance workout crew. A gang of crazy people dressed in shell-suits and giant afro wigs, or a glitter body stocking, talk a large crowd through a mass dance routine. We Vouged, did angry punching dancing, Irish dancing and hip-hop dancing, culminating in a very silly choreography to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler, starting as seeds, growing into trees, crying and stroking each others’ faces. I think you have to be there to understand it! I didn’t take any photos as I was too busy laughing and dancing.

I put on my orange neon fancy dress – including tutu and pixie ears and went on shift. It was a shame to miss Saturday night’s excitement, but at least some of it came to us, with plenty of campers and artists in fancy dress. The shift went smoothly, even though it started to rain. I caught part of Amandou and Mariam’s set on my break, and we could hear it well from Accessible Camping. After my shift, I met Fraser, but he’d been drinking for hours so he was up for a dance, whereas I suddenly felt the need for a sit down and a chat. Luckily, I stumbled across the Permaculture area, and I had a lovely chat with some permaculture experts based in the beautiful Yorkshire town of Holmfirth for hours. It was also hammering with rain and I didn’t fancy moving from their cosy fire. I decided to have a solo wander when the rain died down a bit, and I rounded off my evening with a good dance to a mash-up of quality funk soul, hip-hop and big-beat tunes in the Social Club, one of my favourite venues at Shambala, with its cheery pink and blue striped marquee and proper wooden dance floor, having a great time boogying with strangers in fancy-dress to turntable trickster Jimi Needles.

I was determined to have a busy but gentle Sunday, as I had a night shift starting at midnight. We headed to the main stage for a mass meditation at midday. It was quite strange coming across hundreds of strangely-dressed people sitting cross-legged, but surprisingly relaxing. I had a bite to eat before another favourite activity at Shambala – the sea-shanty singing workshop! Sea shanties were work songs sung by sailors to entertain them and pace their work. The voice workshop yurt got a bit hot and stuffy, so we spilled out onto the meadow, and gathered an intrigued crowd of people. I love being part of a choir – some people were doing harmonies, but just the feeling and sound of a group of people singing heartily together always sends goosebumps down my spine – and it’s always better if the songs are about rum! Here’s a bizarre combination of sea shanties and anime I found on YouTube.

I had a final sit down around the fire in the meadow, before enjoying a camera obscura – and personal camera obscuras made from waste paper bins, which you put over your head, giving you an upside down, fish-eye view of everything! Very disorientating. Then Fraser and I took part in a mass wedding in another daft Dreams and Whispers dance workshop (shhhh – I haven’t told my other half yet!)

My musical highlight of the festival came next, with Dizraeli and the Small Gods (reviewed by me here), and there innovative mix of hip-hop and folk. It was the perfect music for a sunny afternoon. I then wandered over to the spoken word area The Wandering Word, where I should have spent far more time. It’s in an incredibly large yurt, with luxurious carpets and straw bales covered in material to lounge on. I thoroughly enjoyed the children’s poetry slam – young people had been doing poetry workshops all weekend, with amazing results. Hopefully next year, I’ll encourage more young writers in their own performance slot at Bearded Theory festival. It was very inspiring.

I enjoyed exploring the Enchanted Woodlands in daylight, with a gentle acoustic band playing, and families relaxing in the sunshine, before heading back to the campsite to gather everything I needed for my night shift. It wasn’t time to stop yet though. I enjoyed a reading of a play called “Spring Tide at Mablethorpe” by Julie Wilkinson – who is such a fantastic solo performer that I was completely sucked into her world. It’s about a not-too-distant future, when the effects of climate change are causing a massive flood on the Lincolnshire coastline. It was gripping and frighteningly real, but with a dark sense of humour.

I had a drink in the Wonky Cock pub with some Oxfam friends, and then we watched the “Big Burn” and the fireworks. The bonfire had been constructed in the shape of a magical castle and it made one of the biggest bonfires I’d ever seen. Our friends Graham and Gaelle had been looking after a honeydew melon with a face – Kevin the Melon – since Boomtown festival. He was now going a little soggy in the bottom and rather than face a slow, sad demise, they’d decided to sacrifice him to the flames so the organisers had agreed to put Kevin inside the house before the bonfire started.

I rounded my evening off by watching Tankus the Henge, a band who put on a brilliant stage show, combining ska, space-rock, gypsy punk – and a bit of Chas ‘n’ Dave, with a singer who plays a beaten-up piano and sometimes an accordion. They certainly got the crowd dancing enthusiastically.

My nightshift had finally arrived, which was very quiet. The main challenge was to stay alert and awake after all that excitement! We kept warm around the campfire in the accessible campfire and kept ourselves entertained by talking to increasingly “spangled” people as the night wore on. We were very tired by 8am, but very glad to get our Oxfam “Shambala Silliness” badges!

Shambala may be the end of the festival season for 2013 for me (although I’ve got my fingers crossed for a volunteer place at Festival Number 6 in Port Merion). It’s certainly been an epic summer, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventures. It feels like time to calm down, give my poor liver a rest and concentrate on my free-range career as a writer, editor (I can edit well, despite this rambling prose!), and creative writing tutor. I’ve already got some exciting things lined up for the autumn, and I can’t wait to tell you all about them!

Forty-year old blokes doing scissor kicks, old punks, gothic children and poems about poo! Definitely Bearded Theory!

The first festival of the season is in the bag – and it was a complete classic!

After last week’s post, the weather was really bad and apparently on Tuesday night, it even snowed, higher up in Derbyshire. On Wednesday morning, the sky was leaden grey and it was raining. As I packed the car on Wednesday afternoon, there was a cold wind  blowing and diagonal rain showers. I had a few misgivings about going to a cold, rainy festival, trudging around in deep mud.

As I drove south through Derbyshire though, the weather grew brighter, and by the time I stopped off at Morrisons in Belper, just a few miles away from Kedleston, it was warm and sunny and by the time I’d walked into the supermarket, I’d heard about three people calling each other “duck”, which is a Derby / Nottingham term of endearment. You see, I do enjoy coming back to Derby, but I prefer to have a leisurely drive on the A6, through scenic Matlock Bath.

(As I’m typing this, I’m listening to Matlock-oriented comedian Isy Suttie, which should give you some idea of the area and its exciting accent and dialect! It’s an episode about driving lessons on the A6!)

It was lovely to be back at Bearded Theory. In 2008, I turned up on my own to be a steward and met some lovely people. Also, it turned out that my old guitar teacher’s punk skiffle band Please Y’Self were playing, and they’ve played every year since (their set on Saturday night this year was amazing!) . When I arrived, I put up my tent, then helped to put up the bell-tents where we were running the craft and creative writing workshops in the Angel Gardens kids’ field. I had a lovely evening, catching up with the other Angel Gardens volunteers, including pirate Captain Dantastic who has entered a competition to go to space and was a winning contestant on TV’s dating show Take Me Out! It was brilliant to spend time with like-minded people; creative, independent-minded and slightly crazy!

By Thursday evening, Angel Gardens looked amazing. The people who run Angel Gardens have over two miles of bunting and half a kilometer of fairy lights! My bell tent was covered in bunting, flags and lights, there was a fantastic cabaret marquee, cafe, messy kids’ area, crafts and my creative writing area ready to go, with my books in an inflatable paddling pool, surprisingly effective as a pop-up library.

Everything seemed to come together brilliantly. Even when the National Trust stopped Angel Gardens from having the official duck race down the weir, a creative alternative was found by tossing the plastic ducks in a huge, multi-coloured parachute. Predictably, it started raining during New Model Army’s brilliant set (because their singer Justin Sullivan is a rain-god), but the weather stayed mostly dry. Not a drop of rain fell on Saturday, which was forecast to be a total downpour, and as the Quireboys, a cheesy old rock band, played their early-evening set, the sky cleared and it was really sunny. We’ve never had a warm Bearded Theory before, so it was completely befuddling to wake up on Sunday morning with slightly bleary eyes to realise that it was a really lovely, warm summer day! I even had to take my thermal vest off.

I really enjoyed working with children at Bearded Theory. My tent was probably one of the quietest areas of the kids’ field, with children concentrating furiously on writing or colouring-in. I’m proud to say that all the felt-tips were rounded up without losing any lids! I’m still gaining experience in primary schools, but it was great to be creative and totally myself. In fact, I there were about three hours on Sunday afternoon when I actually turned into a 7-year-old child, kick-starting the craze of “pegging” in Angel Gardens, getting children to write messages to stick to the pegs. Many unsuspecting adults discovered that they’d been wandering around with a peg stuck to them saying “I smell of wee and poo” or “I’ve got gas and BO”, which caused much hilarity. I had a very nice peg made for me which said “I love you Anne”, which I will treasure! My highlight of working in Angel Gardens was when I seemed to be the ringleader of a gang of gothic children: Kaine and Lillith and their friend Jasmine. Once we were bored with pegging, we created a story about diarrhoea (as well as a debate about how to spell it), and a very long story about my smelly feet (I’d just taken my wellies off!) and how everyone at Bearded Theory was crushed and suffocated by a giant baby. We read out the stories in front of the other children and adults in the crafts area.

The donations from the pop-up library in my tent raised almost £30 for Oxfam, which I gave to the lovely people from Belper, running the Oxfam stall at Bearded Theory. They were so lovely that they gave me a cider!

The line-up of the festival was brilliant (still mostly a retro-fest for us folk in our 30s and 40s). The first band I saw on Friday night were the Beekepers, who were briefly on the edge of the big-time at the tail end of the Britpop era, and I was pleasantly surprised by their muscular indie/rock sound and memorable songs. Their singer, Jamie East is the first person I ever fancied – we were at the same school. There was no point saying “hello” to him after the gig, because I was in Year 8 when he was in Year 11 at school, with chiseled cheekbones and a “curtains” hairstyle. He looks a lot more manly now but before I make my partner jealous, he wasn’t really my time anymore! I got a bit giddy about seeing Neds Atomic Dustbin, as I’d never actually seen them before, having been deemed too young to go to gigs by my parents in 1992. I think I’ve made up for it since then! They were brilliant, anyway, and included the best “last-chance-saloon” mosh-pit of the weekend, with loads of forty-year-old blokes charging the front of the stage to recapture their lost youth!

The Levellers rounded off the weekend with one of the best sets I’ve ever seen them do, spanning the best of their whole career. That’s quite an impressive thing to say because I’ve seen them about 30 times. Afterwards, I managed to give one of my novel flyers to the singer, Mark Chadwick, when I was in the backstage bar (ooh, Get me!) Mark even promised to read it!

On Monday morning, I woke up feeling a bit ropey, due to the cold I’d been fighting off with cider all weekend! I also felt sad that it was all over, at least until next year, and I had the task of untying all of the bunting attached to my bell tent. But, roll on the Trailtrekker walk for Oxfam next weekend, and then bring on Download!

It’s raining…must be the start of festival season!

Sonic Boom 6 at Bearded Theory 2011.

Sonic Boom 6 at Bearded Theory 2011.

The madness starts here!

This will be my last pre festival season post, so expect my posts to be more erratic from now on. It’s going to be interesting!

I’ve just come back from a weekend with many of the Oxfam festivals team, which has made me realise how proud I am to volunteer with Oxfam at festivals and the value of the work we do – this year the fundraising target is well over £1million, paid for by the festival organisers for our highly professional services – but we don’t get paid – all the money goes to Oxfam. This is so important this year, with the Syria Crisis – so far, a million people have become displaced and are in urgent need of shelter, food and water.

The Oxfam festival stewards in our orange tabards play an essential role in making sure that festivals are fun but safe. Hopefully all the ticket holders see are friendly faces in hi-vis tabards, putting on wristbands or pointing them in the right direction. However, we’re also trained to respond to crisis whenever they arise at a festival. I’ve been volunteering for Oxfam at festivals since 2006 and now I’ve got an amazing network of friends from all walks of life. Fancy finding out more? http://www.oxfam.org.uk/stewarding

It all kicks off next week at the wonderful Bearded Theory. Bearded what? It’s one of those classic festivals that started out as someone’s birthday party. The idea was that if everyone at the party was wearing a false beard, it would “break the ice” and get people who didn’t know each other chatting. The event was opened to the public the next year, in 2008 – about 500 people in a campsite next to a pub. I volunteered as a steward for about 6 hours and saw regular festival headliners Dreadzone in a gazebo tacked on to the side of the pub.

In 2009, Bearded Theory expanded into a “proper” festival. Unfortunately, the festival experienced terrible weather – torrential rain, horizontal hail…and then a tornado swept through the site and destroyed several structures, including the main stage! It would have defeated any normal people, but the Bearded Theory crew did a fantastic job and kept everyone safe. To cut a long story short, the festival survived and became festival industry leaders in the field of natural disasters and structures.

Thanks to wonderful support from the crew for my novel, Outside Inside, I’ve now been able to take off the hi-vis and put on a pair of wings and a tutu, working as a creative writing workshop leader. I’m returning for my second year in this role and I’m really excited about encouraging children and their parents to write stories and poems. I’m also creating a pop-up library. People will be able to browse and take away books for free! And I’m also looking forward to having lots of fun in the evenings. Lots of people I know are coming to Bearded Theory now; to work and play, and I feel proud that my constant rabbiting on about the festival has encouraged them to give it a go!

Also on the festival front, last Sunday night, I attended a gig by the amazing Allstar Revolution, fronted by K.O.G. My drunken confidence two weeks ago seems to have paid off. The band members are lovely and incredibly talented and hopefully I’ll help them to get some festival gigs before the end of the summer. Here’s a video of them at the Bowery in Sheffield last year. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMRaKwrHL9E

Things this blog is about…