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.

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Winds of change?

 

Powering the music at the Derbyshire Eco Festival

Powering the music at the Derbyshire Eco Festival

I’ve just returned from a weekend at the Derbyshire Eco Centre spring fair, near Wirksworth in Derbyshire. I was running an Usborne children’s book stall on Saturday, then camping overnight before spending Sunday co-ordinating the car-parking at the fair and collecting donations for Oxfam’s Syria appeal. I’m absolutely knackered!

It finally seems like Spring is on its way, but in Derbyshire, we also had lots of rain overnight, and woke up to some tremendous winds. Luckily, my friend Rhian’s new tent stood up the weather conditions brilliantly, despite the wind being so strong that lots of gazebos and stall covers had blown down at the Eco Centre.

Saturday morning was beautiful and sunny and it felt like Spring really had arrived. I’d never been to the Eco Centre before but I instantly felt at home. It’s a beautifully designed building, sitting in the Derbyshire Hills. It felt a bit strange to be at a spring festival with traces of snow still visible in the fields but the sunshine was warm and the smell of woodsmoke was in the air from the wood-fired open air pizza ovens. I sampled the pizzas (without cheese of course) later, and they were delicious.

I set up my book stall full of optimism. but then the winds started blowing harder and grey clouds formed overhead. The stall was around the corner from the main part of the fair and no one seemed bothered about looking at my books at all. I started to feel despondent; and started to think that nothing I did would ever be a success. I was sharing the stall with a friend though and she was managing to stay cheerful and give me some optimism. We took turns wandering around the event and there were some great things going on, such as cycle-powered Scalextric car racing. One of my favourite festival performers was peddling a cycle-powered sound system and playing her witty songs, accompanied by her trust accordion. Check her out: Hatty Hatstar. A community bellydancing group also got me in the mood for enjoying myself. The grey skies started not to matter so much.

Rhian and Tyler, two of my Oxfam volunteers arrived on Saturday afternoon and bought three of my books. That definitely cheered me up. Later on, we had a few ciders (well I did, anyway!) and watched a band playing at the Eco Centre. Their set was bicycle -powered too and Rhian and I took turns at peddling. The bike was rather big, so it was a slightly uncomfortable experience for me as my short legs stretched to reach the pedals! The band did some great cover versions of indie songs so I had a bit of a dance. I got chatting to a lady who worked at the Eco Centre and I told her about my book stall. She said that they were supposed to have a storyteller, but they’d been let down. I volunteered to do a couple of storytelling sessions!

This morning, I spoke to the staff and the eco centre again and I arranged to do the storytelling sessions. I explained that it’s one of the things that I’m hoping to start doing professionally as part of my creative writing business. I was a little nervous, but sure I could do it. I gathered together a large group of children and their parents and I really enjoyed telling fairy stories, reading some of my Usborne books, and particularly had fun making up a story using the children’s suggestions. It involved a vampire alien from Mars and Dr Who coming to save Earth. Maybe I’ll send it into the BBC! As I told each story, I felt my confidence grow. I’ve now got the details of the lady who runs courses at the Eco Centre and I’m going to send her my CV. My book stall might not have yielded many sales but I’ve had a great opportunity to develop my skills and may even lead to some professional work.

The Oxfam volunteering in the carpark today went very well too, with an excellent group of volunteers to collect donations and point people into parking spaces. Lots of people attending the event made extra donations and over the two days of the event, we’ve raised about £600 for Oxfam’s Syria appeal. Link to Oxfam’s Syria Crisis appeal

So I’ve learned some lessons! It’s important to talk to people; to make connections. Then things can start to happen. The winds may be fierce, but they are starting to blow from the right direction; and it feels like the cycle of life is entering a new, more creative phase.

Oh and the Derbyshire Eco centre is located very close to where my main characters live in ‘Distortion’, the novel I’m currently working on. I need to get cracking with completing my first draft but it was inspiring to be close to nature for the weekend – and close to my characters!

Link to Derbyshire Eco Centre.

Things this blog is about…