Saturday, 27 August 2016

My Bog.

I’m reading a book called The Little Paris Bookshop and I’d like to quote from it. With a few choice words it has finally given me the most perfect explanation for how I’m feeling, and have been feeling, since my knee surgery and leaving London. I couldn't find my own words.

In the book, the protagonist Jean – a middle-aged bookseller – is beginning to find a new life for himself, after years of struggle and sadness, and he is given this divine morsel of wisdom from a friend.

“Do you know that there’s a halfway world between each ending and each new beginning? It’s called the hurting time, Jean Perdu. It’s a bog; it’s where your dreams and worries and forgotten plans gather. Your steps are heavier during that time. Don’t underestimate the transition, Jeanno, between farewell and new departure. Give yourself the time you need. Some thresholds are too wide to be taken in one stride.”


Monday, 22 August 2016

The Festival.

There were only three things that concerned me about going to a 5-day festival in a field in Cornwall; sleeping, peeing and walking.

Sleeping is always a gamble. No matter how much you prepare; getting the perfect balance of comfort and practicality with your bedding and pitching your tent in the perfect location – close enough to all the amenities but far enough from the music tents – what you can’t control is who will camp next to you or the noises that emerge from their tents. Peeing is also a major worry for someone used to trotting to the loo several times a night. By the time you realise you have to go, the rigmarole of actually getting there begins; extracting yourself from your sleeping bag and duvet (I had both!), finding your torch, loo paper and wet wipes, unzipping and sliding yourself through the inner door, putting your wellies on, unzipping the outer flaps, and emerging from the tent without knocking the fly sheet and getting thoroughly drenched with dew, is a challenge in itself. Finding a safe path through a minefield of guy ropes, tent pegs, camping chairs, picnic tables and fire pits, is even more difficult. And after all that, managing to reach your wee destination before you actually wet yourself is miraculous. I desperately needed a plan B but I will go into that later. My last worry was walking. Actually being able to walk on uneven ground for 5 days without many opportunities to sit down, was daunting. A defunct titanium knee (awaiting a second surgery) on the left and a soon to be failing crap knee on the right made doing anything difficult, but I desperately wanted to go, and the excitement far outweighed the challenges, so a few weeks ago I found myself in a car with my friend Penny, on the way to the Port Eliot festival.

We arrived an hour after the gates opened, on the Thursday. The car parks were filling up and there were already hundreds of tents pitched but we had a major advantage... like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Golden ticket, I had a disabled parking pass. Now I know I shouldn’t brag about this because it’s a pretty awful thing to have to need one of these, and I am in no way saying that I deserve it compared to people living with disabilities on a daily basis, but I simply would not have been able to go to the festival if I hadn’t had help. I wrote to the organisers, explaining my inability to walk very far (especially up hill and down dale), sent them a letter from my surgeon saying what I’d had, and what I was about to have done, and they emailed me a pass. We sailed down to the front of the car park feeling very smug, only to realise that it saved us a grand total of about 10 metres, but it was something. Penny was an absolute angel, carrying most of the heavy stuff as I stumbled and lurched slowly down the hill. We veered off the main path and headed left, past a dozen portaloos, round the back of the mobile shower unit, deciding to set up camp in front of a posh teepee and yurt field, on a slight incline, but with good walkability to everything. Our reasoning was that if people could afford to pay £3,000 to stay in a tepee or a yurt, then maybe they would be more civilised and would be quiet and respectable!!! Ha. In front of us was a roped off area that looked a bit wet and boggy and to our right a beautiful big oak tree, so there was really only free space on our left and right. We congratulated ourselves on finding the perfect spot and began putting up our tents. Not being able to crouch or kneel meant poor Penny had to do a lot of the crawly stuff but we got there eventually and decided to explore for the rest of the day.

Port Eliot Festival is not Glastonbury, nor is it Latitude, Bestival or Wilderness. It is a teeny tiny festival created by the wonderfully flamboyant Earl of St. Germans, Peregrine Eliot (who sadly died a month ago), and at its heart is a stunning stately home and grounds. It actually began as the Elephant Fayre, a hippy music festival that was eventually closed down in 1986 after the police busted it for drugs, but 17 years later it was back... cooler, fresher and describing itself as having, “All the brains of a literary festival. All the soul of a music festival”. The first time I went, I was with my friend Polly and we were completely blown away by the beauty of the estate. It sits on a tidal estuary in the shadow of a stunning aqueduct, surrounded by ancient woodland and lush green hills. It has walled gardens, a maze and the oldest church in Cornwall, and it has grown from only 17 people in its first year, to 7,000. Compare this to 175,000 at Glastonbury and you get a better idea. They keep the numbers down so that there is space to camp, space to walk around and space to do everything and see everyone. And what a space it is. Port Eliot has become the foody, drinky, literary, muso festival of choice for the more discerning reveller. It is well behaved bohemia, naughty but nice, and one of the safest, kindest and loveliest places I have ever been. It attracts authors, actors, chefs, musicians and performers of all genres because they know they can bring their friends and families and walk around without being mobbed. But don’t get me wrong, being civilised doesn’t mean you are tucked up in bed with a mug of chilli infused Ecuadorian cocoa by 11pm. You can party til dawn at the secret disco or swill back bourbon at 5am in the Black Cow Saloon by the river. In fact, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t go to bed before 3am because the sodding music doesn’t end until 3am. So much for blissful peace and quiet. Can you shut up now PLEASE!!

We left our tents, happy and secure, and decided to go for a wander to get our bearings. Even though the festival didn’t really get going until the Friday there were still enough food and drink venues open to keep us happy, so we started off sharing a Burrito on the lawn of the main house as we read through the programme of events, then headed to the Sipsmith Gin bar for a very fine and much-needed cocktail as we watched the sun go down by the river. We then walked (limped) the perimeter of the grounds and passed wood fired hot tubs, oyster bars, champagne tents, bookshops, spa and yoga tents, and of course, live music stages. Penny went back to her tent to get some warmer clothes and returned with a bit of a long face, saying that our tents were now surrounded. Next to Penny’s was a huge 4-room tent with a picnic table and chairs at the front and several pushchairs and an array of plastic toys scattered around. Dotted around the table were rugs, and on the rugs, blissfully unaware of their suffocating proximity, were a very young baby, a toddler, three slighter older children and three adults, who all smiled pre-apologetically at Penny as she surveyed the scene! But I wasn’t to be left out because next to me was another family tent, pitched so close that their guy ropes were already in a full-blown relationship with mine. She counted 5 fold-up chairs! 5! There was nothing to do but go and eat and drink a bit more and try and forget about it, but by ten o’clock, no matter how much we tried to stifle the yawns, we decided to have an early night in order to be rested and fresh for the days ahead. I surveyed the neighbours tents in the darkness, swore loudly, and dug out the ear plugs.

At this point we had no idea that the large music tent, a mere 50 metres away, housed the loudest and most raucous of bands, finishing at 3am every night. I had assured Penny that everything shut down at midnight (God knows where I got that bit of info), and so by 11pm, I had gone for my last civilised pee in the portaloo, changed into my pyjamas, brushed my teeth, put in my ear plugs, and was lying there quite content, listening to the muffled music and the distant hum of laughter and chatter, knowing that it would all come to a stop in an hour’s time. Then the baby began to cry. The baby set off the toddler who screamed for 15 minutes in full tantrum mode, quietening to a heaving coughing fit for a few more minutes after that. Two people tripped over my tent and my next door neighbours returned, loudly and inebriated, just before midnight. They then decided it was the perfect time to shake out some sort of plastic tarpaulin next to my ear, which made one of them loose their balance, and I watched horrified as a hand, then a body bulged ominously into my tent from the outside, like a wayward cocoon. “Watch out!” I shouted, pushing at the bulge from the inside. “Sorry, oops, so sorry”, came the slurred and giggly reply. Impossibly, or maybe it was just the wind direction, the music seemed to get louder. I pushed my wax earplugs in further, which only seemed to intensify the bass line as it thumped and reverberated though my body. I looked at my phone and saw it was only 1am! Oh Bloody Hell, now I needed the loo.

I mentioned I had a plan B for the whole going to the loo in the night problem, and now I was about to try it out. I had read about She-pee’s, a contraption resembling a plastic watering can that you can sort of squat over, but the trouble is I can’t squat. My stupid titanium thigh and knee won’t allow me to bend my knee more than 90ยบ, so I simply can’t get in that position. Nor can I kneel and try it that way, because the one downside to a plastic kneecap, is that you can never ever ever kneel on it (something to do with the concrete seal cracking!! Lordy!) Therefore potties, old ice cream tubs, ziplock bags (goodness) and, in fact, any of the vestibules my fellow campers had suggested peeing in, I could not do. So I decided to buy the largest and most absorbent adult incontinence pads and go in those. I apologise if you have just had a visual snapshot of that but blooming heck, it works a treat. After much rustling and concentration, you simply put it back in it’s flowery plastic wrap, and bin it the next morning! Voila. Nighttime peeing problem solved. I highly recommend it!

I finally drifted off around 2:30am, only to be woken at 6am by, you guessed it, next door’s baby crying. This continued, with additional outbursts from from its sibling toddler, until 8am, when the other neighbours decided to get up and have breakfast. Once again, they rustled everything that was rustly in order to wake me up in the worst mood possible, and then began discussing their previous night’s events, as they sat around my tent. I think I actually told them to “Ssshhhh”, in fact I know I did, but it was no good, once several tent-holds wake up, then the free-for-all begins and you might as well join them. Penny and I poked our heads out of our tents, blurry eyed, dry mouthed and just the teeniest bit grumpy. Understatement. Most people that know me, know that if I haven’t slept very well I am an absolute nightmare, so it was safe to say that if I didn’t imbibe the strongest coffee and the yummiest food immediately, the whole trip was doomed!! Luckily this was as foody a festival as you could hope for and we found our breakfast nirvana... a large soft white bap stuffed to the gills with hot crispy greasy bacon, a handful of rocket and a generous spoonful of browned butter and salsa verde. Yum. Several double-shot lattes accompanied this delight and we were all good to go.

I had pre-booked several workshops that I thought would be fun, and our first was a survival course on how to start a fire in the wilderness. I love tales of survival and watch a lot of programmes where people are left deserted on islands, sent on extreme expeditions, or hunky ex-military men go and live amongst forgotten tribes (Bruce Parry) or walk incredible distances (Levinson Wood... sigh), and they all, at some point, have to make fire with their bare hands. Some make it look easy, some don’t, but I have always wanted to give it a try. We arrived in a clearing in the woods and found ourselves in the company of a dozen very eager pre-teen boys and three army guys. Penny and I sat in canvas chairs, the boys sat on tree stumps and the army guys stood around with their hands on their hips, looking tough, with big knives strapped to their thighs. Oooh. We were shown several different ways to make fire, from using a lighter and vaseline (slightly cheating) to metal flints to sharp knives, but the most impressive was the old rubbing of sticks together. I have never seen this up close and I have to admit, I was impressed, but of course I wasn’t content watching in hushed awe, I had to ask all the difficult questions. “What happens if there is no dry wood?” “What do you use for kindling when you’re in the snow?” “How do you start a fire in the rain?” “But what if you haven’t got a tarpaulin?” He deflected my questions by asking us to start our own fire... hurrah. I flung myself on the ground, which is the only way I can get down there without bending, and Penny and I began. I tell you, it’s not as easy as it looks. We both managed to get a spark and a flame and whooped with delight, but it’s keeping the fire going that’s the hard part. But we didn’t care, we were cavemen, we had made fire, rahhhhh!!!!

Next we went to the literary tent to see the delightful Michael Morpurgo. I’ve been to dozens of literary events and seen writers of all genres talk about themselves and their work, and it always amazes me how some are completely unfazed by a large audience and talk as if they are having a chat down the pub, whilst others are so excruciatingly shy and awkward, that the audience feels every cough and stutter and pause and can’t wait for it to end. Michael Morpurgo has a way of talking to the audience, children especially, that is so inclusive and generous and unpatronising, that the adoration for him is palpable. We left the tent feeling very warm and squidgy and decided the next thing to do was eat. When in doubt of what to do next, look 10 feet in any direction and you will find food. From Thai noodles to Indian thalis, Mac & Cheese to Venison burgers, sourdough Pizzas to slow-cooked BBQ’s, fresh seafood to Jamaican curries, there was something for everyone. I honestly think there were over 50 food venues, so Penny and I (both very much eating people) were in heaven. I then decided to fit in a nap. Lack of sleep, an aching knee and too much food meant an hour’s kip was very necessary, so I went back to the tent and did my best to get some shut eye. Trouble was, my tent had been sitting in the sun all day and was like a little steaming sauna so all I did for an hour was bake, sweat and get more dehydrated. Awful idea. I arose again, feeling slightly jet-lagged and light-headed, and met Penny back at the main stage to see the divine Dawn French... another person who makes you feel warm and fuzzy. In fact, if you could bottle Dawn French and Michael Morpurgo and have a little sip of it every morning, the world would be a better place. We then spent the rest of the night listening to bands, fending off hungry mosquitoes, and people watching. People watching at festivals is one of the highlights because there is something about the the fresh air and lack of home comforts that frees people to just be themselves. I know that sounds a bit hippy but put 7,000 people together in a few acres of land with no mobile phone signal, no computers, no TV, no radio, and only people entertaining people, and the kids go a little feral, the adults lose their inhibitions, no one washes for 5 days, you eat with your fingers and are exposed to all the elements, so you either embrace it or go home.

From utter exhaustion and the fact we knew what to expect, we both managed to sleep fairly well that night. The neighbours, and more importantly, the neighbour’s baby and toddler also slept through the night, so everyone woke feeling quite refreshed. Breakfast was, once again, a bacon and rocket bap and several delicious coffees and then off we went, back up to the literary tent to see the hilarious novelist A L Kennedy, followed by a chefs vs. critics food fight, followed by the brilliant milliner Stephen Jones recreating some of his more outrageous looks. More food, another (better) attempt at a small siesta, and then a re-group to see comedienne Sara Pascoe followed by my absolute highlight, Noel Fielding interviewing Bruce Robinson (infamous boozehound and writer of Withnail and I). I say it was my highlight because it should have been. Withnail and I is, without doubt, my favourite film in the whole world, and being the writer of that, Bruce Robinson is a hero of mine,  but what happened on stage was the most shocking and shambolic thing I have ever seen. Noel Fielding was sober, Bruce Robinson was not, admitting very quickly that he’d already consumed several bottles of cheap red wine before he came on stage and wasn’t sure why he was there or what was happening. Good start. What followed was the most expletive filled interview I’ve witnessed, with political rantings (Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn), demands for cocktails (the wine is shit), insulting audience members (white, middle class fuckers), bouts of hilarity, singing and then general awkwardness. Noel Fielding managed to keep it going for an hour. He was dying because Bruce was so unpredictable, and I totally take my hat off to him... being able to handle an inebriated and belligerent old man on stage, in front of 500 people, while staying charming and entertaining in his own right, was very impressive. The next morning apparently, Bruce Robinson did another interview and spent most of it apologising for his terrible behaviour the night before. But it was memorable, as was the rest of our Saturday.

Being a gorgeously warm Saturday night we decided to let our hair down, go up the hill to the walled garden, buy a bottle of Prosecco and watch the Denim Drag show. Denim are 5 trannies who I first saw perform at a wonderful cabaret lounge bar in the heart of Soho, called Madame Jojo’s, now sadly closed down to make way for a block of flats!! Gentrifying Soho is one of the worst things that has ever happened to London. No one needs another bloody block of flats or another coffee shop, they want the individuality that makes London so cool and unique. Grrrr. Anyway, their hour and half show was hilarious... part panto, part cabaret, in full drag, and the best thing about it was the fact that they would normally perform this in a nightclub at 1am to a drunk rowdy crowd, but their performance at Port Eliot was on an outside stage in broad daylight, in front of an audience of sober-ish men, women and children. The childrens reactions were amazing because they didn’t see anything peculiar at all about men being dressed as women, in fact they probably hadn’t even noticed (even though there were two with beards!)... all they saw were high heels, sequins and glitter, and they loved every second, clapping and screaming and laughing as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Several kids stormed the stage at one point to simply hug the legs of the main tranny who was pretending to cry. It was so adorable. I think the boys of Denim had an absolute blast too.

For dinner we went to the al fresco seafood pop-up restaurant in another part of the walled gardens. It looked so beautiful, lanterns hanging from the boughs of trees, candles nestled in between the plants, happy relaxed tables of friends, the most incredible food, and the sound of laughter and chatter. We filled our stomachs, ordered another bottle of fizz and decided to go to the disco... it was Saturday night after all! It was called The Secret Disco and all we knew is that we had to find a small purple door in a hedge somewhere, in the middle of the forest. We blindly headed down overgrown paths and through the darkened woods in the direction of the music until suddenly there it was. Through a tiny arched door was a circus tent with a dozen mirror balls, a DJ, a bar and a hundred crazed disco revellers. I tried to dance on one leg which was hard enough, but what made it slightly trickier was that the whole dance floor was on a slight slope. Our tent neighbour – a gay dad with 3 daughters – had told us all about the pitfalls of dancing on a slope, having been at the disco the night before. He told us to be careful because he couldn’t walk the next day after pulling all the muscles in his shins! This information was much heeded and instead of fully rocking out, we gently bounced around a bit. That night we managed to stay up until the eye-watering hour of 1am! Yup... completely crazy! Ha. We just couldn’t do it. It was the third day of surviving on only 4-5 hours sleep and it was doing us in. Plus we had another workshop the next morning at the ungodly hour of 10am!!

Even though it was Sunday, in the world of camping there are no lie-ins and we were woken at 8am. With slight hangovers, we wet wiped ourselves, got dressed and headed off down the hill for yet another bacon sandwich. Hey, no point fixin’ what ain’t broke ( or whatever it is our American friends say!) We then went along the river to meet our foraging guide. She was supposed to show us all the common weeds, flowers and plants that we could use medicinally, but seemingly a little hungover herself, she wasn’t overly brilliant. Understatement. In fact, one of the only really useful titbits I came away with was rubbing dandelion leaves on insect bites. The biting mozzies and midges seemed to be able to chomp through jeans so this was a great and free solution to a growing number of bites!! I even had 50% deet with me as well, which as most people know, is like rubbing acid on your skin and can eat through a pair of trainers in a matter of hours, but it didn’t put the buggers off. Penny had another remedy for all the itching. It was a little plastic bullet with an electrical current that was supposed to break up the antihistamine in your skin. Once bitten you were supposed to put the bullet on the bite and click away, sending shock waves into your body. Well, that’s what it felt like to me! Did it work? For about half an hour, yes, then the itching began again. So the dandelion leaves were a wondrous discovery.

We then decided to ease ourselves a bit more gently into the day by watching a few cookery demos. It began with 2 chefs from Rick Stein’s restaurant in Padstow, followed by the brilliant fusion Kiwi chef Peter Gordon, followed by Nathan Outlaw and his reluctant assistant, his 13-year old son. They were funny, charming and fabulous and gave us the chance to taste some exquisite restaurant food. I then went for a tour around the house while Penny went in search of some music in the church. We then had another workshop which was how to cook fish, 3 ways, outdoors. I loved this class... an open fire, some amazing enamel cooking pots and more delicious food to sample. It was taught by an incredibly posh lady and her equally posh husband. In fact, her husband’s only purpose seemed to be the fetcher and carrier, like most husbands really! “Darling, can you find me a serving spoon?”, “Darling, could you put another log on the fire?”, “Darling, could you find some more chairs for our guests?”, “Darling, could you get my leaflets for me?” Even though hubby was standing behind me most of the time, whenever I turned to ask a question, he would reply, “You had better ask my wife!” Bless. We did notice some interlopers at this class which got our backs up a bit. We had pre-paid for all these workshops but of course, being al fresco, it was impossible to stop people eavesdropping or loitering on the edges of the group, pretending to look at the trees while desperately straining to hear and see what was going on. The cheap hangers-on-ers did one worse with this class though, and actually took forkfuls of food as the plates were handed around. “Nooooooooo!” I wanted to shout, “Spit it out, it’s not your food!” I didn’t do this because I’m a lady. I just gave them a Jules death stare instead.

Moments after the workshop had ended we heard a bit of a commotion behind us and suddenly a giant paper boat came into view, carried on the shoulders of a dozen people. Ahhhh, I had read that there would be something created in the memory of Peregrine Eliot, and here it was... a giant origami boat. I decided to follow it with the rest of the crowd and see it launched in the river. Hundreds gathered on the river bank to see it enter the water, and then, at the last moment, one of Peregrine’s best friends leapt in and off they drifted. Oohs and aahs came from the crowd as the boat swayed one way and then the other, but the friend stood upright and proud in the stern, and soon the boat was gathering speed and heading downstream towards the open sea. We all watched until it was a tiny spec in the distance, and then suddenly there was murmuring from the crowd. What would happen next? Would he keep floating away, would he be rescued, would the boat capsize? And I’m sorry to say that I have no idea. Everyone I spoke to later didn’t know what had happened to him or the boat, so for all I know, he made it to France and is now sipping a fine Cabernet!

Penny and I regrouped for our final night of food, drinks and more music. We drifted from tent to tent and took it all in, from funk, to jazz, to rock, to disco, and fell asleep in the wee hours, happy and satiated. It was a fabulous few days and I’m already thinking about doing it all again next year, with a better performing knee hopefully. I don’t want Penny having to fetch and carry for me like I’m some decrepit old Aunt. I want to swim in the river and roll down hills without having to think how I will get up. I want to run and jump in meadows of wild flowers and climb tall stairs in the house to see beautiful rooms, without thinking I’ll hurt myself. I don’t want restrictions and I don’t want to miss out on anything. Well, maybe missing out on babies crying and toddlers wailing I could do. And maybe spending a bit more money so I could stay in a luxury yurt or an airstream I could do too! Other than that I wouldn’t change a thing!