Sunbathing and sautering on the Cote d’Bradfield. In November!

Hello! Long time no see. I’ve been having a whirlwind of a time recently, so I apologise for my lack of festival reviews, witty insights and updates about my life and my writing.

I was busy for Halloween last night, at a wonderful handfasting wedding ceremony. It was great – a very moving, entertaining ceremony. I’ve never been to a wedding before where most of the guests were in Halloween fancy dress!

This morning, I had a great lie-in and a cosy read and relax. I realised that the weather was too good to miss – clear blue skies and warm sunshine. After brunch, I jumped into my car and drove to one of my favourite spots for walking, Damflask Reservoir at Lower Bradfield, only eight miles away from the centre of Sheffield. The countryside is absolutely glorious, at any time of the year, and I’m sure that the village green, with its cricket pitch, should feature in a Yorkshire Tea advert.

By the time I’d walked around the shadier side of the reservoir, I’d stripped off to my t-shirt, and I sat basking on a bench in the village with a can of pop and a packet of crisps from Bradfield’s village shop. I couldn’t resist a bonfire toffee lolly either, and enjoyed it while strolling along in the sunshine.

Anyway, it’s now time for you to enjoy the photographs of an amazing afternoon, filled with mirror-still water, people enjoying the sunshine, and golden autumnal colours at their best.

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

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

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

Wednesday 20th May

Gorgeous skies at Bearded Theory

Gorgeous skies at Bearded Theory

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

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

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

Thursday 21st May

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

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

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

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

Friday 22nd May

The Bearded Theory School in full flow.

The Bearded Theory School in full flow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

People on shoulders for the Mission.

People on shoulders for the Mission.

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

Saturday 23rd May

Poetry in progress

Poetry in progress

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

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

New Model Army

New Model Army

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

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

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

Eat Static - with George the Horse

Eat Static – with George the Horse

Sunday 24th May

The magic of the typewriter!

The magic of the typewriter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next year!

A bonding moment watching James.

A bonding moment watching James.

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.

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…