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from The FPG Chronicles / the Festivals

Born without a clue. A lifetime later, situation largely unchanged. Nevertheless, one perseveres.....


Those early festivals

The hot summer of 1976 was crucial to my limited thinking in terms of whether to return to Canada or stay in the UK. It was a super hot summer with hardly any rain. It was positively Mediterranean. Hard cracked ground and brown grass everywhere. I began to think to my foolish self, “Heck, English summers aren’t so bad.”

But it was also at this time that I began to discover the English outdoor camping festivals. Not to be confused with the large, single purpose, rock music festivals developing around the same time, these were extraordinary events which involved trading stall-holders as well as performers and artists of all kinds - either on the multiplicity of small stages or roaming around among the punters. The stall-holders generated the income and paid the rent; the performers were supported to do their thing. We the punters had, for the most part, free entry and camping, and paid for what the stall-holders were flogging - be it tea and cakes, local produce, third world crafts, secondhand books, tie-died clothing, yoga sessions, massage, or, later at night, spliffs and brandy coffee. There were also “unlicensed” hawkers selling mushroom and/or hash cake, handmade jewellery, wooden sculptures, and generally unwanted items of every description.

One might pass a whole afternoon loafing on a straw bale outside a coffee shop just watching the wonderful counter-culture wandering by in all its forms of natural weirdness and outright shimmering beauty.

This watching would more often than not be flavoured by subliminal theatre troupes who might appear at first to be perfectly normal as they caught your gaze, but then expand into closely rehearsed or totally spontaneous routines which drew you down various rabbit holes. I recall watching what appeared to be a preacher with a modest following, slowly making their way towards me. They stopped under a tree to my left and I could hear the preacher talking about the “books from above”. I and his followers eventually glanced up as his rhetoric and gesticulations suggested we should and, sure enough, the tree was full of books!

On another occasion I spotted three gents in pin stripe suits and bowler hats coming my way, walking curiously in step. They were carrying umbrellas under their arms and reading newspapers as they marched. As they drew nearer I realised they were strapped into skis and that the skis were all linked, toe to heel. They came to a halt not far away and I could hear them conversing bizarrely in perfected BBC english above their newspapers. The lead skier was the most vocal and eventually lowered his paper and began to address the loose assembly of people who had been drawn in. It transpired that although there were three gents, there were four sets of skis. The empty set was positioned between the second and third gents and the lead gent was asking punters if they’d like to “get on the train”. A slightly intoxicated volunteer stepped forward and, under close instruction from the lead gent, strapped himself into the empty set. On a discrete signal from the lead gent, the train set off. It was achingly hilarious. The new initiate flopped and fell and struggled as the train stopped and started, accompanied by unceasing upper-class beratement from the other passengers. They lurched off, asynchronously, with a gaggle of helplessly laughing followers into the general melee of the festival throng.

One time I came upon an odd procession of foreign looking people with suitcases following a “guide”. This was my first exposure to the Natural Theatre Company from Bath. The people were almost normal, but, it became evident, with subliminal quirks of style and presentation, that they weren't. The guide was simply explaining to them what an English festival was, complete with “on the left you’ll see” and “on my right there stands”, etc etc. All totally improvved and completely in context. At one point the guide introduced the group to a passing St John’s Ambulance man as “St John” and followed up with a close and bewildering cross-examination of his life and duties.

A regular appearent in these settings and on the various small tented stages was a French mime by the name of Daniel. Wordless and magical, he might appear dressed as a baby, naked except for a large nappy and a frilly bonnet, his thumb firmly in his mouth. Ignoring adults, he would only look at the little children. Mesmerised, they would stare at this large apparition and he would stare back over his thumb, his other hand playing with strands of his hair. If the child smiled he would immediately mimic. If the child laughed, so would Daniel, big broad but silent belly laughs like Harpo Marx. If the child looked worried, so would Daniel. Extraordinary, lengthy engagements took place, with a growing gaggle of silent onlookers. Occasionally, if enough kids had gathered, he would take his thumb out of his mouth, pause, and say “Bottom”; followed instantly by creasing up in silent guilty laughter. The kids would explode with cries of empathetic shock and hilarity.


He was also a stunt man and would arrange for a speeding car to crash through a step ladder upon which he would be standing. The car and ladder would sweep by and Daniel would land, like a cat, on his feet precisely where the ladder had once stood. Sometimes he might appear as a harrassed commuter, going through an entire morning of preparations for getting to and on the bus, with no props but a chair. Or he might be juggling or balancing a child on a chair on his chin or silently playing with soap bubbles.

One late night he was on one of the small stages inside a marquee which happened to have a generous circular hole in the roof around the central pole. Through this hole you could catch a glimpse of the stars against the dark sky outside. Daniel was performing silent, exotic tricks with soap bubbles - bubbles within bubbles, smoke within bubbles, bubble chains - followed by an unceremonious bursting of the creation with a slap or a stick. Each time he did this, the watching crowd would moan sadly. Noticing this he began to be more and more brutal with his destruction of the bubbles, generating louder and louder moans from the crowd. He then produced a series of large but perfectly clear bubbles and spiked them one by one, each time defiantly facing the crowd, with more and more scowling disapproval on his silent face. When he got to the last beautiful bubble, he missed. I and the crowd murmured approval. He tried again as it rose elegantly, and missed again! The crowd hummed. He tried one more time but it rose out of reach and sailed with grace and perfection up and out via the gap around the central pole and into starlit universe beyond. I and the crowd were inexplicably but profoundly relieved, and then ecstatically jubilant. Daniel stood looking up at the hole as the lights faded and the applause rippled gently and then rose to rock the tent. Everybody slowly filed out, shaking their heads and covered with broad smiles.

The first of these outdoor fairs for me was Rougham Tree Fair, on the borders of Suffolk and Norfolk. On a broad spacious site surrounding an absolutely stunning avenue of trees, it became, for me, the epitome of the English outdoor festival. But it was supported by sister events at East Bergholt in Essex and other blossoming events of varying size and stature throughout “Albion” (the East of England) and I and friends would make our way to them for weekends of relaxed counter cultural bliss.

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© 2020 Deacon Martin