Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fun in the Sun at Camp Bestival 2009

Summer wouldn't be the same for me without festival season. The magical combination of random dressing up, musical discovery, people-watching, dancing on the grass and sleeping under canvas - you can't beat it. The first festival in my annual calendar is always Great Escape in May, which doesn't really count because it's not in a field and you get to sleep in your own bed at night - but it breaks you in gently at least.

Last weekend I went to the first full-on festival of the year, Camp Bestival down in Dorset. I'd heard good things about its mellow family vibe, and though I don't have littleuns of my own, I always find that their presence at such event makes for a more respectful, salubrious and less manic environment. We took advantage of the small 'non-family' section of the campsite so as not to be woken too early by excitable youngsters, but other than that, I welcomed their input to the weekend's proceedings.

Though it didn't have the edginess of more musically esoteric festivals like Green Man and End of the Road, Camp Bestival scored on many other counts and was a fun and relaxing (and mostly sunny) few days. The facilities were good - especially the compost toilets, which actually became something of a talking point amongst the kids (and some of the adults), who seemed to enjoy throwing sawdust on their poo. Everything felt very well organised, apart from the shortfall in programmes which made it difficult for those without one to find out what was on when.

One of my main gripes with other festivals, especially now that I'm getting on a bit, is the lack of somewhere to sit other than the grass. I love sitting on the grass, but it's nice to kick back somewhere more comfortable when the cramp sets in and the joints start seizing up. Camp Bestival had this covered, with four-poster beds, double deck chairs, sofas, daybeds and other snug reclining options dotted about the place. They also had a real ale tent, which despite its slightly odd location in the kids field, was a cool place to hang out, with acoustic gigs from little folk bands turning out to be some of the best music of the weekend.

On the main stage, Hayseed Dixie got everyone into the festival spirit with a foot-stamping sing-a-long set on Friday afternoon. All the cool kids ploughed down to the front for Florence and the Machine, who provided much entertainment with her flailing dance moves and slightly unhinged banter. Other main-stage highlights included Mercury Rev, Alela Diane, Nancy Elizabeth and 70s soul legend Candi Staton, who still glitters with showbiz brio 40 years after her first hit record. I was surprised to see some of the more popular acts including PJ Harvey, Bon Iver and Laura Marling appearing over in the Big Top, which meant that many disappointed punters ended up watching them on the screen from outside.

After-hours we avoided the big dance tents - from which non-stop 'boom-boom' house music was blaring - and instead got our boogie fix at a groovy little 'secret' bar we discovered that played lots of ska, jazz and funk, with the occasional live band. We also sampled the bawdy delights of the Time for Tease cabaret tent, where burlesque scene stalwart Des O'Connor (not that Des O'Connor) was doing his thing, introducing a variety of camp, coarse and sometimes just gleefully crap, acts.

On Saturday night we ventured into the Big Top for the Silent Disco, a first for both me and Harry. I remember peering into one of these years ago at Roskilde Festival in Denmark and being most perplexed at the sight of people bopping around in silence. They've since become more widespread but I'd yet to sample one for myself. You're handed a set of headphones on the way in, on which you have the choice of two channels from two different DJs, each fighting for your allegiance. It's hilarious to hear 500 people belting out their chosen track, obliviously out of tune and dancing out of synch with each other. Apart from the obvious benefit of being able to keep the party going for longer, Silent Disco is also great for us oldies who like to stop and have a conversation in between dancing. If it hadn't been for Harriet's dodgy ankle, we'd have stayed all night.

Beyond the musical entertainments, there were plenty of other activities to keep adults and kids entertained. We enjoyed a couple of giggly walks round "Dingly Dell", where a troup of very po-faced performance artists were acting out a literal struggle with red tape in some sort of political allegory. We also drew each other in the 'Trace a Face' tent, a simple but most amusing diversion.

The official fancy dress parade was on the Sunday, but this didn't stop folks from donning wigs, masks, face paint and all manner of wacky adornments throughout the festival. Unfortunately I hadn't had the time to create anything very special myself, and my half-arsed bat costume looked embarrassingly lame next to Steve's hand-felted doggy ears and tail, Linda's intricately painted leather bird-mask and fancy wings and Harry's glowing abdomen. But despite my fancy dress inferiority complex, I was well in the spirit with flowers on my face, good friends by my side, ale in my hand and a spring in my step. And that's what festivals are all about.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Looking Back with New Eyes

It’s been a curiously nostalgic and reflective week, thanks to a string of out of the blue, blast from the past encounters.

The first was a random Facebook chat with an old High School friend - someone with whom I’d had a passing but happy acquaintance before changing schools in the second year. Our bonding at the time may have had more to do with a sense of solidarity over the fact that we both had unusual names than anything else, but this is as good a reason as any to be friends when you’re 12.

Looking back at those days tends to make me feel slightly uncomfortable. I always considered myself an outsider, never having the right clothes or attitudes to be one of the gang, but also never wanting to compromise my convictions to fit in. That in mind, it was touching and somewhat heartening to be told by someone who knew me then that they’d always remembered me for not having followed the crowd, and now respected my then alien opinions.

Apparently I once told her (though I don’t remember this) that it was far better to be proud of getting a bargain than to show off about how much you paid for something. In the materialistic climate of the 1980s, this was revolutionary thinking indeed; these days it doesn’t seem so radical.

The very next night, another chat window popped up from one of my old theatre cronies - someone I’ve known for going on two decades. We shared many a crazy night back in the day, but were never really what you’d call bosom buddies. I was a few years younger than most of the crew at the time, and always felt that they tolerated my presence rather than embraced it. So it was nice to hear that he apparently thought my youthful pontificating and feminist views endearing.

How strange that the lingering insecurities of youth can be so easily dispelled by such spontaneous and unexpected conversations.

The nostalgia trip continued when on Thursday night I was in my local, getting ready for pub quiz, and in walked a face I haven’t seen since Sixth Form. We exchanged the usual ‘how’ve you been?’ ‘what are you doing now?’ formalities, then quite unprompted, he uttered the three magic words: “you’ve aged well”. I could have kissed him right there. As if that delicious little ego-boost wasn’t more than enough to make my night, Ant and I rather embarrassingly went and won the quiz with our team of two. And we hadn’t even done any research.

That night I slept marvellously and dreamed that I bumped into a friend from university with whom I have sadly lost touch. That is one era from which I don’t have any particular hang-ups in need of resolving, but it would be nice to see her again all the same. Sandra Borra, if you’re reading this, come out from hiding and join me on my trip down memory lane; it’s turning out to be really rather enlightening.

Monday, July 06, 2009

A Special Weekend in Sunny Sussex

The Annual Secret Beach Picnic

The only thing better than a picnic is a picnic on a sandy beach in the sunshine with good friends.

Last year I wrote about my long-overdue pilgrimage to a secret beach in Sussex on which I'd played and picnicked as a child. Together with a small gang of special friends, I'd rediscovered this magical spot, and we'd spent a happy day of munching, bantering and kite-flying. It was so lovely that I decided to make it an annual event, and this year I took a few more people, just as much food, and enough games and activities to keep even the most restless among us occupied for an afternoon. Once again we were blessed with beautiful weather, though there was not enough wind for kites (which was shame as we had brought three). Instead we played badminton, frisbee, Nerf ball and tennis; some of us even swam - though the water was a little like seaweed soup.

My freckles went crazy and a few of the boys turned pink, despite the suncream being forcefully dished out by yours truly. I think most people even enjoyed the mile and a half hike along the cliff edge to get there. The route along the rocky beach - accidentally taken by certain others who shall remain nameless - was perhaps less enjoyable, but worthwhile all the same. During the course of the six hours we stayed, there were moments of frantic sociable activity, and moments of quiet contemplative calm. After a manic few months of almost non-stop work (hence the lack of blog posts lately), it was the first chance I'd had to sit and really unwind since America. It was quiet and still and beautiful, and I felt truly blessed to be sharing it with such a lovely bunch. One small voice of mild hysteria emerged as the tide started to come in, but we all made it out alive - and if anything, improved by the day's experiences.

Hanover Day, 5th July 2009

The next morning Ant complained of aches and pains from our various exertions, but I felt fine and raring to get out into the still-blazing sunshine. It was Hanover Day here in Brighton - a mini festival in what is perhaps the steepest neighbourhood in town. Southover Street was closed to traffic and several stages had been erected about the place. Along the side streets, locals pedalled their bric-a-brac to eager kids with pocket money to burn. We bimbled about, bumping into familiar faces at every turn, and eventually settling down in the courtyard of the Hanover Community Centre - where my ex-yoga teacher's band, Gin Club, were playing.

After Gin Club's foot-stomping dirty blues spectacular, Kate's Kitchen Band took to the stage for a Ceilidh and poor Ant's heart sank at the site of accordions. But he gracefully agreed to partner me for a dance, and was soon Do-si-do-ing along with glee - even doing it with a four year old on his shoulders the second time around. I haven't done country dancing since my school days, and had forgotten what a riot it was. Unfortunately the combination of sweat-inducing hoedown and dry dusty courtyard made for some very grubby legs - but who cares if you look like an urchin, it's Hanover Day! As we strolled back up the hill past clusters of rosy-cheeked revellers lolling around on street corners, it became clear that most people were too cider-fuelled to notice anyway.

I had managed to make it through a triumphantly active and sun-soaked weekend without a hint of hangover, injury or sunburn. I even look a little less pale than I did before - and feel a good deal more relaxed. Weekends don't come much better than that.