Sunday, 14 December 2008

Festivals - I Love 'Em

Folk music festivals generally run from spring until autumn. Most take place over the weekends, and many are open-air; everyone gets very merry and stays up late. Each year, we Slaves look forward to playing at festivals. We take our hats off to the organisers, because there is always a fantastic amount of work to ensure all goes smoothly on the day. For the public there is loads to enjoy in terms of music, dance, shows, parades, stalls and so on, while a shiver of excitement is always experienced by organisers and performers alike, for of course the whole lot is in hoc to the British weather.

Those who go to festivals are a very mixed bunch, and some groups can be dead interesting if you are a people-watcher. Easy to spot are the weekend ‘hippies’, who don a few like er alternative clothes – often newly-acquired at the festival market – and, they believe, suitable characteristics on a Friday night. Nice office haircuts notwithstanding, they get into being chilled and toke a few ‘J’s’, swaying to the music and tenting it overnight (‘Toby, where’s the door in this thing?’), before reverting to Calvin Clones on Monday and scurrying back to the corporate cubicle.

Then again, it’s impossible to say what some festival-goers might do for a living that allows them to look so … well, mad. These are people you just couldn’t put in a suit and tie – or any other form of conventional clothing. It wouldn’t work, their overall appearance is too uncompromising. Characteristics include mental hair, piercings of every imaginable trailing-edge, bizarre body art, demented or menacing clothes, beards to the waist, and rolling crazed little pink eyes. Some perhaps are self-employed, others determinedly unemployed. Then, bingo – it becomes clear. They are, in fact, very senior software engineers, working for blue chip companies that waive every convention of appearance in return for employing their astonishing (though nerd-ish) skills. And good luck to them – enjoy!

Festival house PA (or ‘sound’) systems fall broadly into two groups, really good and truly awful; there isn’t much of a middle ground. Using a house ‘rig’ appeals to the Slaves; it's all set up for you, which is very grand. You don’t have to carry your own PA around, you just turn up, plug in to somebody else’s and off we go. The PA operator – or ‘sound man’ – does all the out-front and stage sound mixing, while you just play away to your heart’s content. On the other hand, you do have to put up with the engaging quirks of those in whom you put your trust, and musical reputation (if any).

One PA guy we encountered regarded the bands he ‘did’ as merely irritating encumbrances to his gloriously huge, powerful, expensive, sophisticated, complex and probably thrusting uh uh uh oh yes yes chimp chimp sound system. Perhaps he was right. Another strutted round dressed all in black, with a great macho set of huge keys clanking on his belt, as if he owned a medieval castle. Perhaps he did. One hopeless old tosser we met at an open-air gig had run the stage power feed through naughty bare wires, and when we lightly enquired as to safety, thought this would ‘probably be OK’. Right, oh look it’s coming on to rain …

Such rare tales aside, most festival PA guys are great. Unflappable, they take in their stride all manner of instruments acoustic and electric. They placidly cope with rapid change-overs of wildly varying ‘artistes’ - a bassoon, Mongolian nose-flute and Hawaiian guitar trio, followed by St Lundy’s Junior School steel band. Try to imagine that. Sound-men deal with drifting time-tables, precious performers, punters' dopey questions, and a vast multiplicity of equipment … so a big round of applause for the PA guys and many thanks for a great job - you know who you are!

Morris dancers of course form an integral part of many festivals. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they're part of our heritage. It’s just those ankle-bells chink-chink-chinking all the time, you can hear them tripping down the road from miles away. Perhaps it is meant to be a warning. That said, the more alternative sides are growing in number. At the Wimborne festival last year, a set of Turkish-looking gentlemen appeared dressed in fezzes and long striped robes, complete with (pretend) camel; they were good value and danced very spiritedly. Of course, they may have been taking the piss. Another group was bred from punks, who rather than skipping effeminately and tapping their staves, attacked one another with furious ferocity. It was absorbing though bewildering; we wondered which would sustain the most serious injury. But more power to your elbows lads, what’s left of them after the final dance; shout up yours in the face of tradition and let’s tear down those barriers!

Of course, food at festivals is usually disgusting and stratospherically overpriced, and the public health people would have a field day. You may choose, if you wish, to believe the vendors’ astonishing, fraudulent claims regarding nutrition and edibility. Alternatively bring your own grub. Enjoy a fine succulent picnic with cakes and everything, while loftily watching the less fortunate queuing for bloody scraps. This way, you will also have some money left to buy something that won't kill you.

The festival market stalls are much more interesting than the food side, and certainly less harmful. Many sell colourful and attractive clothes at good prices, as well as other nice fun stuff. Russian doll anyone? A hat made from a big leaf? Hand-made jewellery perhaps, some is really beautiful and you won’t see it much outside the festival community. There's always something to look at, haggle over and take home. If you’re after a good deal in the instrument line, the music shop stalls will sometimes negotiate quite generously if you can cough up on the spot.

So you’ve had a great day, a jolly and preferably alcoholic evening, but finally the venues are closing; you may have to tough it out back at the festival camp site. Festival camping facilities are often insanitary, with toilet and washing arrangements that wouldn’t disgrace a farmyard – indeed some sites seem to be positioned in farmyards. Do pack your own personal bog roll. In fact take a few spares; by the second day you should be selling them for £4.00 each.

Among the happy campers, there is always the over-excited nerd who wants to stay up half the night loudly ‘singing’ some dreadful earnest durge, while the sane are desperately trying to sleep. This is known as free expression, and such individuals must not be assaulted. Then there are the many pissed people who stumble over your guy ropes and fall on your tent during their nocturnal wanderings. Sorry mate, they mumble, which makes such clumsiness perfectly acceptable.

Of course, a nearby B & B is always an option, even if occupied by some hard-bitten landlady and her endless list of trivial or mad rules. At the B & B too, there will often be somewhere to park your car. This is much better than driving to the festival car park and arguing with some jobsworth attendant, who directs you into the far distance when there are spaces six feet away. Not driving to the festival – and more significantly, back again – also means you can guzzle booze furiously, which for many is a fundamental consideration.

With a rugged constitution and a bit of planning you can enjoy festivals to the absolute limit. You may go back to work in a semi-coma of fatigue (but where better to have a little rest?), your clothes will have to be incinerated, you may suffer partial memory loss, deafness, or internal ailments too appalling to detail, but miss the next extravaganza at your peril and always hope for sunshine!

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Salman Rushdie's Diary

I'm writing this with a feeling of sadness.

Today I completed the lecture sessions for the first third of my MA. The semester (referred to at UCF as a block) has truly raced by. Our course group has proved cohesive and I consider myself very fortunate to have come across such a friendly, positive set of people.

My sadness is because this is the last week we will all be together. Next semester we begin to specialise and split up into different groups. While we will all still get together once a week for a general course meeting, to an extent I will lose contact with some of my new friends. But ever onwards ...

My tutors have shone. Although I haven't encountered problems with the course so far, I know that in the future if anything came up, I would be able to go to any of them. Difficulties would be nipped in the bud. That's a nice feeling.

I have learned so much in these three months. When I say learned, to be truthful I mean I have received so much information. Not all of it has gone in, but I have doggedly typed up my course notes so I'll be able to refer back to them in the future with some degree of understanding, rather than having to pore over my scribbly notebook.

The subjects have been fascinating. I have been made aware of exciting structures and disciplines, and while I could claim to have been a writer in its broadest sense before I joined the course, I feel so much more ... well, educated in the craft. Without such information you can only take this writing business so far, that's for sure. And there's still so much more to learn.

As part of the course I've been required to create this blog, and also a personal website .
Before I started the syllabus I had no idea how to do either of these things. Now, I am enjoying them.

In fact our course relies heavily on the e-world, and the core of our work is built around a site called The Learning Space, on which we post our assignments, receive updates and so on. Just recently I feel I've been permanently on it, because I've had to complete a hand-in of my submissions for this Block, together with course assessment forms.
The Learning Space - a site for sore eyes. Yet it's now in my DNA, and I log on to it as naturally as I used to fire up my PC at work. Funny how things change.

Of course, all this grafting has meant that currently my social life is in free-fall, and now reads like Salman Rushdie's diary:

'Monday: stayed in.' And so on.

However, we hope to improve on this situation over the next few days.

Finally, a reflection on being a mature student. Many of my colleagues are perhaps twenty-five years younger than I, but I haven't been made to feel ancient, or excluded. They sometimes talk about things I don't understand or have no knowledge of, but that's natural and OK. Then again, some are more around my age, or a bit older. But there truly has been an unselfconscious intermingling of the course group. Backgrounds and age mean nothing. I am richer for it. Sounds cheesy? Try it, it's brilliant.