Red Squirrels vs Rave Panda at Beautiful Days 2014

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

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

Over-excited arrival at Beautiful Days

Over-excited arrival at Beautiful Days

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

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

The Woodpigeon

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


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

Silver Grass

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

Love in a field

Shiny smiley love
Tripping happiness, radiating
Within us forever.

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

New fez friends at Dirty Davey's

New fez friends at Dirty Davey’s!

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

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

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

The most amazing camper van on site!

The most amazing camper van on site!

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

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

Watching the Undertones in the sunshine.

Watching the Undertones in the sunshine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheeky red squirrel!

Cheeky red squirrel at Escot Park!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The official way to greet a  Rave Panda!

The official way to greet a Rave Panda!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching the Bar Stewards in appropriate knitwear.

Watching the Bar Stewards in appropriate knitwear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Louder than War’s review of Beautiful Days…which doesn’t involve squirrels:


All things bright and beautiful!

After WOMAD, I had a few weeks of catching up with “real” life – which thankfully isn’t as “real” as it used to be! Making fairies out of pipe-cleaners, talking to elderly people about fairgrounds and editing novels and getting paid for it is quite a lot more pleasant than sorting out someone’s flooded basement or clogged up shower. Early August is Lammas time, the ancient festival of the wheat harvest, and a good time to take stock of what I’ve achieved over the year! I’ve pleasantly surprised myself. Just before Beautiful Days last year, I’d reached the bottom of my overdraft – and I had a full-time job. This year, I’m keeping myself afloat, and I’ve completed one of my first novel editing projects. My networking and making links with people and organisations is working. I’m enjoying life a lot more than I used to, and I feel that I can be “me” all the time, even in a “work” situation.

It was time to travel to the next festival on my list, Beautiful Days. I was volunteering as a steward for Oxfam again. Luckily, I got a lift this time, with a lovely lady called Caroline, who was driving all the way from Newcastle! The drive went very smoothly, and by the late afternoon, we arrived at Escot Park near Exeter. We were welcomed warmly onto the site, and given our pink wristbands. The only problem was that it was tipping down with rain, so it was on with wellies and cagoules for the first trip to the campsite.

The Beautiful Days campsite is shared with other staff and artists. It’s the Levellers’ own festival, and as I’m easily impressed, it’s great to be sharing a field and its portaloos with celebrities! Not the sort of celebrities who miraculously have cellulite in Heat! magazine, but people who’ve entertained me at festivals and whose albums and books have influenced me. Famous people I’ve queued for a shower with at Beautiful Days this year include: Simon Friend from the Levellers, John Robb from Goldblade, who’s also a top music journalist. John Robb coined the term “Britpop” apparently! He also goes into the shower without a towel – very rock ‘n’ roll! I also saw the singer from 3 Daft Monkeys, who are on tour this autumn!

Away from the glamour and excitement of the crew field showers, I settled myself into Lazyland – my friends’ event shelter, which makes a lovely hub for stewards to camp and gather together. Many a pleasant hour was whiled away at Lazyland at Beautiful Days, drinking cider, painting my nails, waiting for henna tattoos to dry and chatting with friends new and old. There was also a small gathering of stewards after the briefing, and the vegan chocolate and banana cake went down very well. The first night was a great opportunity to relax and chat.

Thursday afternoon was spent having a pleasant wander around the site in the sunshine, taking photos, shopping and exploring. I was due to start work stewarding the kids’ field at 9pm, so I took it easy in Lazyland. The first shift went well – it was very quiet, but we made friends with the people running the welfare tent. They gave me a challenge – a lady in the welfare tent gave me a tea bag, and I’ve got to keep swapping it until I get something amazing. Apparently one bloke ended up with a piece of land eventually! Over the course of the festival, I upgraded to a pack of glow-sticks and I will keep you posted on what I end up with!

On Friday, I got to see the Levellers’ acoustic set, which always happens on Friday afternoon of every Beautiful Days. The big top was packed. I managed to meet up with one of my oldest school friends, Mary, who now lives in Exeter. It was brilliant to meet up. Before starting work again, I saw Sam Lee & Friends and really enjoyed it. It was quiet and atmospheric. I was lucky enough to be working at the theatre stage on Friday evening. I caught a bit of “An Evening of Trance and Rap”, which was a comedy performance about a Victorian seance! A stand-up night followed, starring Robin Ince. I had a little chat with Robin Ince before he started his show, and as we had a full house, I was able to watch a lot of his performance. It was very funny, but I did have to chase the buggy driver for a replacement radio battery! He thought I just wasn’t listening to the radio as I was engrossed in the show. After the theatre tent closed, we were sent over to the Big Top, where Clannad were just starting. It was beautiful, but a bit too ethereal and “wafty” for me, but it certainly beat wandering around between fire towers on the campsite, which was my job last year.

Saturday was my chance to see as much music as possible, as I was on the night-shift, starting at midnight. Unfortunately, the grey skies gave way to rain before I left the campsite. Despite the rain, Goldblade put on a cracking set of no-nonsense punk – and even made the rain stop for a few minutes. Unfortunately, it was pretty aquatic for The Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican’s slot on the Band Stand, but they didn’t let the rain put them off their set of hilarious Barnsley-related songs. I particularly enjoyed the one about Sean Bean always dying before the end of a film. It’s true – he never makes it to the end! I met up with Mary and her friends after the gig and although it had stopped raining, John Robb’s scheduled interview with Miles Hunt from the Wonderstuff had been moved into the bar next door. We missed it, even though we were standing next to it!

After faffing around in the campsite for a while, it was time to see another South Yorkshire band, 65daysofstatic. Definitely not a comedy band this time, their post-rock soundscapes were perfect for the damp, overcast skies. I stayed at the main stage for the rest of the night. This is something that happens to me a lot at Beautiful Days – the music they programme is so good that I usually stay put, partying with my fellow Oxfam Stewards. I was really impressed with the next band, The Living End, an Australian band who combine a rockabilly double-bass with metal riffs ranging from AC/DC influences to Rage Against the Machine. They put on a really great live show.

The Wonderstuff are one of my favourite bands. I’ve loved them since the very early 90s – or possibly the late 80s, when they first emerged onto the “Grebo” scene. They’re often compared to the Levellers with their folky sound and fiddle-led riffs (the stunning Erica Nockalls has now replaced the original fiddle-player, Martin Bell), but their sound is much more indie, with wah-wah laden guitars. They play a great set and seem very much at home at Beautiful Days.

Main stage Headliners Primal Scream are a band who’ve constantly evolved, embracing electronica and Stones-referencing rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve seen them many times live, and the experience can be hit and miss. Their performance of the Screamadelica album at Glastonbury 2011 was akin to a religious experience, but at Glastonbury 2005, singer Bobby Gillespie was drunk, incoherent and abusive on stage and ended up getting escorted away by security guards! It was very entertaining though. So before Primal Scream get on stage at Beautiful Days, I hope and pray that Bobby’s on form this time. And he is. The band pull off an awesome set, with songs from the new album sounding great alongside old classics. Bobby has been complaining about the commercialisation of festivals recently, but he must have approved of the anti-corporate, DiY feel of Beautiful Days and gave us a show we deserved. I had to tear myself away after a mind-blowing version of Loaded and I made my way up to the Oxbox (the Oxfam stewarding office) to start my shift. Here’s a review of the gig by John Robb himself:

We were “response” stewards, so we were pleasantly surprised to be sent to the dance tent and in charge of the silent disco between 2-5am. It was great fun watching people sing and dance to music we couldn’t hear – with off-key singing and people in various interesting states! After 5am, we were sent to the deserted kids’ field again. The highlight of that part of the shift was chatting to a lady from folk band Moulettes, who were playing the next day. She was a bit worse for wear but we had an interesting conversation about creativity. The shift ended with me struggling to keep my eyes open in the Oxfam marquee, reading Grazia magazine to the stewards. Eventually, the shift came to an end and I stumbled into bed! That was my last shift and I took proud possession of my souvenir Oxfam badge.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny – but with annoying heavy showers, so I got soaked in the shower queue! At least it was refreshing. I put on my leopard-print finery for the “animals” fancy dress theme, in a tribute to the Manic Street Preachers! The feather boa was a bit hot though, and shed enough feathers on the grass that one bloke asked me if I’d eaten a crow. We kicked off the day with Citizen Fish, a classic ska punk band with radical politics. We stayed around for 90s festival favourites Dodgy, whose music matched the sunshine. I missed the amazing Babylon Circus to see Dudley Sutton again – a fantastic veteran actor and performer, most famous as Tinker in Lovejoy. He put on a fantastic show and got a standing ovation, but the heat and darkness of the theatre tent had me struggling to keep my eyes open as I’d not had too much sleep after my night shift. After Dudley’s performance, I headed to the Big Top and caught the last song by the Moulettes. I was really impressed – and the fiddle player I’d been chatting to at 6am was very talented and looked beautiful.

I joined my friends at the main stage again. They were watching Steve Harley and the Cockney Rebel. It was all a bit jazzy and one of my friends said that life was too short for all the noodling around – but eventually, they played Make me Smile, which got the audience dancing again. The Skatalites are one of the original Jamaican ska bands and they had the crowd skanking from the very start in the last warmth of the evening sun. It was the perfect summer set, with the band and audience bathed in a lovely golden glow. Imelda May was a pleasant surprise. She was far better than I thought she was going to be – there was a real rockabilly vibe, the songs were really catchy and she’s a sexy, engaging performer – definitely one of the highlights of the festival.

The Levellers‘ headline set on Sunday evening was excellent. The Levellers have come a long way since they formed 25 years ago. Their discography is as long as your arm and they’re one of the hardest-gigging bands in the business. I’ve seen them more than thirty times. I’ll work out how many times exactly one day. It made meeting up with Mary all the more poignant, as it’s twenty years since we first saw the Levellers, in Leicester. Not much has changed, certainly not the energy of the gigs, but the band are more rugged, although singer Mark Chadwick wasn’t wearing his hat, proving he’s not thin on top!

Apart from trivial details like hairlines, the Levellers have stayed at the forefront of protest culture, supporting the SchNews alternative newspaper for years and speaking out on issues close to their hearts. They’ve supported up and coming musicians at their studio, the Metway in Brighton. Setting up the Beautiful Days festival in 2003 was a brilliant move – its reputation for quality music, great atmosphere and a sponsorship free zone now attracts people who haven’t even heard of the Levellers – and they’re often blown away by their performances and the passion of their fans. The Levellers now have three generations of fans – there are people who’ve grown up listening to their music and embracing their free-spirited philosophies. Beautiful Days is a festival where tribes gather in harmony: punk, hippy, folk and indie, and become one family. How many other bands can claim such a legacy?

It was another classic gig, but the night-shift had caught up with me and even the spectacular fireworks couldn’t revive me. It was time for bed. I went to sleep with the sounds of the backstage bar in the background, wishing I had the energy to party, but happy to have experienced another great festival.

Nothing is impossible in your own powerful mind!

It’s been a scorching week in Sheffield. Last Saturday, I ran a stall at Sharrow Festival, for one strand of my “portfolio career”, being an independent organiser for Usborne Childrens’ books. I haven’t had a lot of time to develop my Usborne business over the last few months, so a stall at a popular community festival on a sunny day would be a great way of getting  back on track. That’s what I thought, anyway. I ended up selling very few books, although plenty of people came to browse and I enjoyed demonstrating my “wind-up pirate ship” book with children.I ended up dehydrated, sunburned (despite lashings of Factor 50), and disappointed. I was fed up about spending the day by myself, missing everything else going on at the festival. However, it was a chance for me to examine myself. My negative mood was partly the product of the time of the month (not that you want to know!) but partly, I just needed to “get a grip” and take stock of what’s working and not working in my free range life. I needed to focus on the positive things in my life.

The stall at Sharrow might not have worked the way I wanted it to, but I’m visiting a local Surestart Centre with my books next week. I’ve ordered lots of pre-school books, and now I’ve done the required amount of orders to qualify for discounts for schools and educational groups, which should help things to take off.

I’ve also managed to complete one of my freelance projects; editing a novel. Now I’m just waiting for the author to give me the final few chapters and to perfect the ending for the thriller. The writer, Tom Webster, is eighty, proving that writing is a vocation for life. The novel is exciting, funning and sexy; about a man who gets tangled in a web of murders while helping an old flame he’s falling in love with all over again!

Another great thing that’s happened this week is my burgeoning career as a music journalist. I sent my review of the Allstar Revolution gig at the O2 to a local listings magazine called Toast. It turned out they’d already reviewed the gig themselves, giving the band a great write-up. However, the editor asked me if I would be interested in doing some live music reviews for them. My first assignment was last Saturday, so sunburned and on my own, I headed off to review the Sherlocks at the Leadmill. I quite enjoyed scribbling in my notebook and looking aloof! One of their fans, an older guy, who might have been the grandad of a band member, spotted me taking photos and asked if I’d give them a good review! I said the review would be great. They’re a really talented young band. I just wish that hopeful indie bands in Sheffield didn’t think that they have to sound like the Artic Monkeys. The Sherlocks suffer from this a bit, but are well on the way to developing their own sound – and they have a truly rabid following, which must help!

The editor of Toast liked my review and asked if I was available to review any gigs this weekend. I emailed the dates when I was available, and the dates when I’m going to be at music festivals! The editor, Si, immediately asked if I was available to review the Levellers gig in Graves Park in Sheffield on Friday. Of course I said yes – they’re one of my favourite bands of all time, and I’d been indecisive about getting tickets as I’m watching the pennies at the moment. And even better, my other half agreed to come with me!

So, on a still-boiling early Friday evening, we jumped into the rather erratically driven taxi I’d booked to Graves Park. Graves Park is massive. It’s on the opposite side of Sheffield from our house, so we’ve not been there very often. Sheffield is full of parks, but Graves Park is one the scale of one of London’s big parks, with woodland, lakes, a golf course and even its own farm with highland cattle! We found the big top venue for the gig easily and I was on the guestlist – that’s always an exciting moment! My name was down and I was definitely coming in! The event was called Under the Big Top, and it was like a mini-festival, with portaloos, food stalls, a bar, and the all-important Heras Fencing – and lots of interesting people. Inevitably, someone with dreadlocks was doing poi juggling on the grass! My other half isn’t used to festivals and thought that the audience were “a bunch of freaks”.

It was great to see Sheffield band Bison doing such a high-profile support slot. Bison have been going for almost ten years and I’ve seen them perform many party-igniting sets over the years, including an awesome set at Glastonbury in 2007. After a few years’ break (during which some of them have started families and settled down a bit!), they’re back, a bit older, but still delivering funny songs for dancing like a loon. Their ska-brass songs sounded great in the summer evening. My partner (I hate that term, it makes me sound as if I’m really smug! Suggestions on a postcard for a good name for a long-term boyfriend anyone!), anyway, my partner loved their hi-vis orange outfits, but he didn’t like the reggae sounding songs and thought they were a bit “wacky”. Their set seemed to win over a good percentage of the audience though, although the rest of the crowd were split between sitting on the grass in the beautiful dusk, or joining the half-an-hour queue for the bar!

The queue for the bar was totally ridiculous, and hopefully the bar capacity was increased before Richard Hawley’s set yesterday evening (as Richard H is known to like a drink or two!) It was a pain, but I chatted to a man I’d met at Beautiful Days festival (the Levellers’ own festival) last year, and at the end of our wait, we got to drink a pint of delicious local Bradfield Ale. The Levellers had actually started by the time our pints were being poured.

The Levellers played a brilliant set: hit after hit. I must have seen them about thirty times (I’ll try to work it out exactly one day), and it’s almost twenty years since I first saw them – 1993, the Granby Halls in Leicester. The Levellers have now been going for 25 years and are still one of the hardest working bands in the music biz. As well as their own festival, they own and run their own recording studio, The Metway, in their home town of Brighton. But they’re not just churning out the songs they’ve been playing all this time. Singer Mark Chadwick takes the time to engage with the audience, and each song is imbued with energy and passion. Bass player Jeremy Cunningham still does scissor-kicks – and still has waist length purple dreadlocks.  It’s impossible not to be carried along. I was singing to ‘Men an Tol’ with my eyes closed, and jumping up and down to the punkier songs. My favourite moment at a Levellers’ gig is when everyone punches the air during ‘Riverflow’, after the line: “I don’t know how you made it through all the smoke and brew you do. It sure has left its mark on you but you’re still with us today – hooray!” and I wasn’t disappointed. The band finished with their classic cover of ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’, and then we filtered out into the night. My partner’s verdict was “they’re f**king brilliant!” which is high praise indeed!

The other half and I got a little lost trying to get out of the park, but we managed to buy a couple of beers and get on a bus that stops a few minutes’ walk from home. What happened next wasn’t so great! On Queen’s Road, nearer to the city centre, some shadowy figures seemed to launch something at the bus. Something hit the bus violently, and I thought it was a brick. It seemed to have hit the bus just below my window. Then a couple of girls came down from the top deck, visibly shaken and saying a window had been broken. The bus stopped and the driver got out to inspect the damage. Luckily, we were very near to the depot, so a replacement bus was hastily arranged. The back upstairs window of the bus was completely shattered – on both sides. That meant that the attackers must have used a gun of some kind. We were all a little jittery after that! Sheffield usually feels like a relatively safe city, and I’ve stood chatting late at night, outside the Haggler’s Corner arts centre, exactly where we were attacked. If anyone had been sitting on the back upstairs seat of the bus, they may have been killed. Sobering stuff.

The rest of the weekend was exciting too. I’ve been to my friend Jaspal’s Indian “hen-night” – called a Sangeet. It was great fun, and involved her aunties singing saucy songs – unfortunately they were in Punjabi so I didn’t understand them, but we all ate ourselves silly with delicious home-made Indian food. With the weather so hot, it almost felt like we were actually in India, rather than Milton Keynes! The wedding’s next week – it’s going to be really exciting.

So this week, I’ve learned that the best antidote for being fed up is to get out there and enjoy yourself, seize any opportunities that come your way and also to make your own opportunities!

Here’s a direct link to the music reviews on my blog!

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!

Things this blog is about…