One Man's Madness / Part 06
Inspired by the magnificent Comtek Festivals in Bath and the “Bath Arts Workshop” model behind it and by the East Anglian fairs beginning to blossom all around us, I felt we should be trying to do similar things in our own locality. I talked it through with Wali and the others living there at the time and we resolved to set some things in motion. Foremost of these was having a shot at revamping our ad hoc mini-festivals and parties into a more “formal” annual festival.
Step one was to see if we could get any interest from stall holders, which gave me an excuse to go to even more festivals. The difference was that this time I had a purpose, and I discovered the importance of “purpose” in all these endeavours. Going to the festivals had always been fun, but having a purpose made me much more part of the much larger organism. Suddenly I wasn't just a passive observer, but an active participant. I wasn't just wandering around gazing at stalls full of arts, crafts, and random consumables which I had no intention of buying. Now I was actively seeking out the stallholder and discussing business.
I explained our situation and our location and the likely scale of our event and found many of them interested not only in taking up the option, but also in paying a deposit up front to secure a pitch. This meant we had a bit of capital and could invest in things like timber and tarpaulins and rope and our planning became more motivated and ambitious.
We'd had parties and such like in the field before but this time we set about much more methodically, with site plans and negotiations with neighbours and crude work schedules.
We acquired a load of wooden, heavily creosoted telegraph poles and dug about ten of them into the ground by the gate and scrounged a bit of timber and tarpaulin to create the rudimentary “workshop” itself. Others we took further down the meadow and lashed four of them into two “x”s. With a lot of rope and pulleys we hoisted them upright and dragged a fifth pole across the top to join the two “x”s, lashed them all up tight and strung out some stays and stakes. With a massive tarpaulin thrown over, we had a (probably not health and safety compliant) cinema!
Wali’s kiln was rebuilt up in the clearing and he also supervised the adaptation of a small horse shed into the “Main Street Diner”, complete with running water and a gas urn. Another tarpaulin and timber structure provided cover for a local publican to place his bar, a modest “long drop” for ablutions, and a closed off area in the northern corner for our “wild animal” display (our goat Margaret and five geese).
We realised parking would be a problem, so we sent Marge round to the neighbouring farmer with a bottle of whisky. He was charmed enough to let us have the small 3 acre wheat field next door on the assumption that nothing happened before harvest. This arrangement worked well for us over the next couple of years. We even sub-contracted the marshalling to a bunch of local ne’er-do-wells. We told them they could charge 10p a car (a lot of money in those days!) and keep the proceeds as long as they made sure everybody parked sensibly and there were no accidents. They did sterling service.
In terms of gate security, I asked my good friend and trusted neighbour Big Al if he would handle admissions. Al was an ex-blacksmith. Not an ounce of fat on him but big arms and hands and wide shoulders. An East Ender with a bit of alleged gangland experience, he said “Sure”. The only reported incident was when a bunch of hairy bikers showed up and approached Al on the gate en masse and said, quietly semi-menacingly, “We don’t have to pay to come in do we.” Al, leaning laconically on the gate, looked at them and said, “No, you guys don’t have to pay. You can stay out there.” A moment of stillness was broken by the bikers slowly reaching into their pockets for cash.
Quite a few of my events had been rained on in the past. Most notably in ‘76 - the summer of drought – when it only rained once all summer and that was on the day I had gambled everything on no tarpaulin cover at all. I had banqueting tables laid out across the meadow, complete with sheet table cloths, place settings, candelabras, and fruit bowls – all set out the night before. I awoke to heavy gusts and rainfall and went out to see the sorry mess in the drizzling morning. It looked like the grey aftermath of an enormous sprawling bar room brawl. Fortunately, very few punters showed up. The rainfall was conclusive enough evidence across the UK and sensible people everywhere stayed in their beds.
But the direct result was that I felt we should embrace the possibility of rain by calling our event The Umbrella Fair and let it be know that there were prizes for both the most and the least impressive umbrellas on show in the “umbrella parade”. Worked a treat! Everybody brought umbrellas and parasols or near facsimiles and really enjoyed the chance to parade. It also had the side effect of causing rain not to fall on any of our subsequent events….
The Land Ship
Alongside all this, I found an opportunity to indulge one of my major fantasies.
For some strange reason I’d always felt drawn towards combine harvesters. They were so huge and mechanical and the drivers sat so high up in positions of such oversight and majesty. From a distance, it always struck me that combines in motion out in the middle of vast fields looked not a little unlike ships at sea. The fact that they steered from the rear wheels enhanced this impression as they came about to start a new run.
About a mile up the road there was an Eastern Counties Farmers (a co-operative) outlet which sold everything from pitch forks and wellie boots to tractors and combine harvesters. At “front of house” they had vast arrays of tools, protective clothing, seeds, fertilisers, animal feed – everything a farmer’s heart could desire. In the large yard at the rear you could wander among the tractors and trailers and combines. Each year the manufacturers seemed to bring out bigger and bigger versions of all these, especially the combines. The secondhand market in combines wasn’t very strong. Older combines were less economical simply because they were smaller and, as the farms themselves were getting bigger too, the potential buyers of such small machines were also disappearing. These older combines, mechanically sound but just too small, tended to drift slowly to the back periphery of the yard, eventually to be forgotten altogether until they were scrapped for the metal.
On the periphery of the periphery I spotted a sadly rusting Claas Matador. It didn’t even have an enclosed cab – just a handrail running around the steering platform. The driver would be exposed to the dust and debris as they cut and scooped the wheat. No farmer in his right mind would ever again buy such a machine. I approached the outlet manager and asked him if he could possibly donate a combine to a local "arts workshop”. He was instinctively dismissive but said he would think about it. The next time we spoke he offered me the Matador at its scrap value, which was still in the order of several hundred pounds and I had to decline. But then I hit upon the idea of approaching the local newspaper to ask if they would be interested in a heart warming story about ECF donating scrap farm machinery to some local “artists”. They were immediately interested and wanted to know where to send their photographer. I went back to the manager and told him he’d have his picture in the paper if he would freely deliver the combine to us, just a couple of miles down the road. His eyes lit up and he agreed.
I’d negotiated access to a near by neighbour's unused and slightly ramshackle barn and it was agreed by all parties to converge at that point on a specified date. Come the day, we were all waiting by the barn with the local photographer and, true to his word, the farm shop manager came trundling down the road aboard the Matador. The entrance to the barn yard was a bit tight and steep but he managed expertly to get it up to us, switch off the engine, and climb down to greet the admiring gaggle below. We shook hands in front of the combine and had our picture taken as he handed me the keys.
After all the fuss had died down and everybody had departed, my first job was to see if I could back the thing into the barn.
Imagine my excitement and trepidation as I climbed up on to “the bridge” and sat down for the first time in the driver’s seat. I truly felt like a ship’s commander. I inserted the key and pressed the starter and the mighty diesel behind me coughed back into life and roared. I first engaged a forward gear and lurched ahead into the yard. I reversed back again, feeling ever so proud. I backed and forthed a few more times before I tried to back into the barn. As combines steer from the rear wheels, this was actually fairly straightforward, with only the wide cutter bar at the front coming close to knocking the barn down.
I’d applied to the local Arts Council for the funds to acquire some oxy-acetylene steel cutting and welding gear and, surprisingly, they’d agreed (I think assisted by the local newspaper coverage) so I was all set to go to work.
- One Man's Madness / Part 07
The story of one man’s 60 year love affair with 2.5 acres of Essex countryside.
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