December: A Manic Month of Mayhem! (Time for a rest?)

If I thought there were lots of gigs in November, the pace was set to continue, with lots more gigs and events – and that’s on top of Christmas and the New Year.

During the start of December, I was working hard, and gently starting to prepare for Christmas. But that was all about to change.

The 11th December had been in my diary for months. I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the Manic Street Preachers, playing The Holy Bible album in full. It feels unbelievable, but 2014 was the twentieth anniversary of this harrowing, critically acclaimed and essential album, an album influenced by angular post-punk, rather than the glam metal and grunge of the previous two albums. In the months after its release, lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared from a London hotel room, and has never been found.

Against all expectations, the Manic Street Preachers continued as a three-piece band, and they have now released twelve studio albums. They seemed busier and more productive than ever in 2014, having released Futurology in July. A tour to commemorate The Holy Bible was fervently wished for by fans, but it was unsure if the band would want to revisit old ground that invoked such painful memories of their friend’s disappearance.

But in late September, the band officially announced the tour dates, and my friend Louise managed to get tickets for the  Albert Hall in Manchester. On a stormy, sleety afternoon (I didn’t dare to cross the Pennines by the Snake Pass or the Woodhead) we drove to Manchester, arriving in good time at Louise’s boyfriend Peter’s flat, where he cooked a lovely meal, and I opened a bottle of red wine as a reward for battling the rain and the rush hour.

The gig was everything I hoped it would be. The Albert Hall was build in 1910 as a Wesleyan Chapel (very fitting when you think of the Methodist upbringings of the young Manic Street Preachers and the religious title of the album they were about to play in full. Ornate tiles, stained glass and cast-iron pillars added to the atmosphere of the venue. There was no support band, and we enjoyed the DJs and drank beer with mounting excitement.

The band appear onstage. The thing that hits me first is the empty space – the space where Richey Edwards used to perform – front left. This space has always been left, but as they launch into ‘Yes’, the first track from the album, about prostitution and exploitation, it feels incredibly stark. The stage is draped in camouflage netting, and James, Nicky and Sean are wearing their combat chic, just like in 1994. Nicky is all in black, his face half-hidden by outsize shades, and James Dean Bradfield wears a black sailor’s top. The songs are tight and powerful, and in such an intimate space, it becomes obvious what an outstanding guitarist James is, and also how hard he has to work: carrying the weight of these songs about human suffering and cruelty. It was brilliant to experience The Holy Bible being performed live, but the gig went far too fast to take in.

After all the emotional intensity, the Manics then delivered a brilliant second set with songs from the rest of their career. A particular highlight for me was Dreaming a City (Hughesovka) from Futurology, really allowing James’ guitar heroics full reign. The Manics ended with their traditional closing number A Design for Life, before we were kicked out into the pouring rain. It had been an amazing night!

The next day, I was doing it all again, this time seeing another of my all-time favourite bands, Gogol Bordello at the O2 in Sheffield, with my friend Kirsty, her husband Mark and old uni friend Katy. After stopping off in Pennine town New Mills to take photographs for an adult education session, the drive back was a little stressful, due to a blizzard in the Peak District. I didn’t fancy taking any of my usual shortcuts on minor roads as it looked too slippery, but luckily, but the time I arrived back in Sheffield, the long way round, there was no sign of snow!

The O2 felt pretty chilly though, but support band Mariachi El Bronx, who combine punk with Mexican Mariachi music, including tiny and gigantic guitars, trumpets, violins, accordions and maracas! I think it was Mark’s Santa had and Christmas tie (he’d just come from his work Christmas party) that made the singer announce that he was feeling Christmassy for the first time! The band looked great in proper gold-fringed Mariachi outfits.

Gogol Bordello themselves were a riot of colour, attitude and fun. Singer Eugene Hutz is the only person I can think of who would get away with wearing satin boxer’s style shorts and pointy black and red cowboy boots. Since I last saw them at Download last year, they’ve had some line-up changes – a leather-clad accordion player called Pasha, and bald, Les Paul toting guitarist Michael Ward (Eugene Hutz lied in his announcement – he’s American, not from Sheffield!) They played songs from their breakthrough album Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, right up to their latest album Pura Vida Conspiracy. Gogol Bordelo have built up a big cult following over the years, with a devoted audience wearing the t-shirts and outfits inspired by Hutz’s off-kilter colourful sense of style. The place was packed, but the crowd were friendly and up for a good dance/mosh.

Their sound is fresh and still evolving, with heavier guitars combining with Latin rhythms. They are one of the most multi-national bands I know of, formed in 1999 in the cultural melting-pot of down-town New York; the vision of Ukrainian immigrant Hutz, who was hungry for success as a musician and actor. A Gogol Bordello gig is a very entertaining experience – each member of the band is a stunning musician, and although Eugene Hutz is one of the world’s most engaging frontmen, every member of the band has a chance to shine, and violinist Sergey Ryabtsev deserves a special mention for his virtuosity and on-stage antics. The first time I saw them, in 2006, at Rock City in Nottingham, I hugged him! That’s my claim to fame, anyway. He looked quite surprised! This time, we just left with smiles on our faces and our ears ringing.

I felt a bit wrung out after two big gigs in a row. I don’t know how I hack it when I’m at a festival, but going to see a band in a proper venue is always a treat. I concentrated on Christmas and went back home to stay with my parents and see family members on the next weekend – it was good to calm down for a bit!

My mum is a volunteer room steward for the National Trust at Kedleston Hall, and she recommended that I visited the stately home while it was open for Christmas. My dad and I went along and I’m really glad I did. The sight of Grecian statues covered in fairy lights really made me giggle, and I loved the atmosphere of the grand rooms lit only by flickering LED candles. Even when it was lit for grand dinner parties and balls, this eighteenth century mansion must have been full of shadows and mystery. It was really a visit to spark the imagination.

The next day was the winter solstice. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll remember that I spent the summer solstice up Glastonbury Tor. That was a long way away, so I suggested that we should wake up before the official sunrise (8.15am) and walk to Bunkers Hill, a viewpoint near the ridiculously posh village of Quarndon, a mile or so up the road from my parents’ house. The sky was already turning red as we walked up Woodlands Road up to the park, but we got to Bunkers Hill just in time to see the sun rise above the horizon. We were lucky, because it started raining just as we got back to the house. Later on, we met up with family members and went to my Aunt Marion’s annual Christmas party. It was lovely to see everyone. I’ll always remember the 21st December as the anniversary of my grandad’s death, thirteen years ago, so my mum lit candles in his memory, which was lovely.

On Tuesday 23rd December, I gathered up some friends for a Christmas dinner (nut roast with all the trimmings) and lots of mulled wine. Eventually, we made it out of the house in time to catch the folk train! It was rammed, but very good-natured. Some of my friends managed to get seats, but the rest of us were crammed into the corridor but we didn’t mind! On the way to Edale, local choir The Sheffield Folk Chorale entertained us with Christmas carols and gave out song sheets so we could join in.

I hope the customers having a quiet night at the Rambler in Edale were warned about the hoards of people who descended on the pub in one go, once we got off the train! It was like being part of a huge procession walking from the railway station to the pub just around the corner. Surprisingly, we got served fairly quickly, and found a corner with seats to drink our pints. In the main room in the pub, the choir conductor stood on a table, and the choir started singing! They did a great version of Fairytale in New York, as well as more traditional carols.

On the way home, the choir sung some traditional Sheffield carols, such as Sweet Bells, which is a version of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’ which originates from Stannington in Sheffield and has now been made famous by folk singer Kate Rusby. It was a beautiful moment. At the other end of the journey, the choir sang around the Christmas tree at Sheffield railway station before we all headed off to the Sheffield Tap for a final beer.

I spent Christmas Eve collecting holly for a touch of traditional decoration, and preparing a mountain of vegetables for Christmas, even though there were only four people eating, enjoying listening to the radio adaptation of Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, followed by a selection of rockabilly Christmas CDs played by my other half!

Christmas Day went smoothly, except for my dad’s self-timer on his camera not working, and then the batteries ran out, but we used my camera instead, and we went for a lovely afternoon walk in the local park and took the chance to have a go on the huge swing that’s popped up near us! Even my dad had a go!

On the morning of Boxing Day, we had a bracing, if a little foggy walk to Stanage Edge from Redmires Reservoir, which was popular with a lot of other people trying to blow away the cobwebs after a Christmas blow-out! And then at tea-time, it started to snow…and snow…and snow… until we woke up the next day in a winter wonderland /nightmare, depending if you had to get anywhere. Luckily, we fell into the first category, and the snow looked very pretty, with lots of families enjoying sledging in Ruskin Park.

A few days later, and the snow had turned very icy and slippery on the pavements, which is tricky if you live in such a hilly city, so we caught the train when we went to meet an old uni friend in Castleton in the Peak District and went down the Blue John mine at Treak Cliff Cavern, which truly has some stunning sights, and actually felt quite warm underground!

And so we come to New Year’s Eve! The pavements were still icy, but I headed out to the city centre for some early drinks with a friend. It was very quiet, but I was due at another friend’s house for a small gathering with wine and pizza (I supplied my own vegan garlic bread and some Christmas cake – which I always seem to end up eating myself!) It was all very civilised, and for a while, it looked like we were destined to enjoy Jools Holland’s Hootenanny and the Queen concert that followed on TV. But my friend Angelina was determined to drag us out to enjoy ourselves, so we put our boots on and slid out onto the melting ice and headed first to the Three Tuns, a lovely little pub on the outskirts of the city centre, where the party was in full swing, with DJs playing some great music.

After a pint…or was it two? I can’t remember, we ended up at the Dada bar, where the Dub Central New Year’s party was happening. It was a bit quiet, but we know the lady who ran it, and I vaguely remember a round of aniseed flavoured shots! This was probably the point where things got a bit hazy.

We’d heard about a party in the Wicker Arches, so a group of us stumbled out of town, towards the Victorian railway arches. Over the years, several of the arches and the tunnels underneath have been used as party venues, and we headed to the last place we’d been to a party near there, only to find it all very quiet. Maybe the party was in one of the arches further along? I have vague memories of walking along the “spider bridge“, suspended over the river that runs through one of the arches. And then we found the party.

It was in the old “Arches” nightclub, which I hadn’t been inside for at least ten years. Angelina and I met in 2004, working together in a building very close by. The nightclub was already closed then, and shortly afterwards, the new ring-road was built, right next to the railway arches. Then the dramatic floods of 2007, when the river burst its banks and swept down the Wicker, must have caused terrible damage. But there it was, like some kind of mirage from 1999.

When we were students, a long time ago in the 90s, the Arches was a by-word for a crazy night out. Headcharge played dance music of all kinds, but mostly house, techno and trance. Rough and ready, it was the place to go if you wanted to rave all night long, with the main club inside the old railway arches, and metal stairs leading up to the bar, toilets (always a bit crazy in themselves), and a weird, corrugated iron-roofed chill-out area. It’s all still there. I was amazed. We just walked in through the fire escape, and it seemed to be a free party of some kind, but it was packed, and lots of people we knew were there – and lots of other people who were also veterans of the club scene in the 90s, who’d somehow ended up here. It was like being in a dream – a very strange, euphoric dream. It had to be a dream- the toilets had toilet paper! The music was thumping… it was like we’d taken a trip in the Tardis (although it had actually just been some wine, several pints of ale, that weird aniseed spirit, and some rum). I can’t even find anything about it on the internet…It was like a mirage.

Eventually, we looked at our watches and were absolutely mind-boggled to realise what the time was. It was about to get light! We were absolutely shattered. Within a few minutes, we’d flagged down a taxi and were on our way to a terrible New Year hangover. It was worth it though. The only clue that my Wicker Arches adventures were real was the mud on my coat and all over my boots. In my drunken state, I somehow managed to get the dustpan and brush and the carpet cleaner out before I stumbled into bed.

After all that excitement, I’ve been teetotal so far in the New Year. I’m looking forward to an action-packed year, when hard work and creativity are combined with good times with friends and amazing music of all kinds!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

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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…