We are not really Festival People, The Duchess and I. Just seeing glimpses of the scenes at Glastonbury is enough to turn us into shivering balls of terror. There has always been something about the Port Eliot Festival however that has held something of a vague appeal, perhaps due to its relatively close proximity to home, and perhaps due to the fact that its setting always seems so bucolic. In a fit of mid-life-crisis-let’s-try-it-I-bet-we-hate-it hysteria then we spend our Christmas money on two adult weekend tickets (oo-er missus) and spend the following six months in various states of anxiety about What Will It Be Like and How Will We Possibly Cope. Then weeks before the off we learn this will be the last Port Eliot for the foreseeable and consider that Fate has played its hand. We spend the final week anxiously refreshing the Met Office website/app and entering a provisional itinerary in iCal. This is either A Sign Of The Times or a damning condemnation of the State We Are In. I cannot quite decide which.
During their Friday night performance on the Caught By The River stage, Geoff Barrow of the hugely entertaining Beak> makes barbed quips about Port Eliot being the most expensive festival in Britain (it’s true, food and drink prices are eye-watering) and about how everyone in the audience is from That London. Yet whilst there is certainly some truth in what he says, there are clearly many locals in attendance, both those genuinely from Cornwall and those ‘incomers’ from what my friend Rupert likes to call Kornawall. Our good friend Lizzie, who is kind enough to offer us a real bed in a real house (in the St Germans station) for the weekend (and in hindsight we willingly concede that without this luxury it is highly unlikely we could have lasted one night) grew up in the village and with her band Wurlitza takes us a through a nostalgic slideshow of the Elephant Fayre (precursor to the current festival) in the 1980s – as much a document of her childhood and teen years as a poignant full-stop on this particular festival chapter. It’s a lovely opener to the whole festival experience, and as the images slip past, and as I watch the people milling through the beautiful grounds of the Eliot estate over the coming days it occurs to me that whilst we can just about glimpse the ghostly presences of the transient travelling culture that Richard King writes about so well in his book ‘The Lark Ascending’ and that can be seen in Lizzie’s photographs, there is a much greater sense of this being one of the social meeting points that punctuate the year of the wealthy. It reminds me of something I read recently in one of Maigret’s cases (‘The Nahour Case’) in which he considers “people who were equally at home in London, New York and Rome, who took planes the way others took the Metro, who stayed in grand hotels, where they fell in with friends and established routines, whatever the country, and who formed a sort of international freemasonry”. At one point, as we stroll along one of the many paths through woods spotted with pop-up discos behind a trail of wagons festooned with fairy lights cradling bundles of babies, I spot a former Formula 1 team owner, sweater draped casually around his neck. Ah right, I think to myself, it’s THAT kind of festival. And of course it is, and it isn’t. Half an hour later we come across our friend Lizzie and her mate Frederick dressed as a boat, parading through the grounds complete with wind-up gramophone on deck. So, you know, it’s THAT kind of festival too.
Beak> then are certainly the most vocally cynical act of the weekend and perhaps it is no coincidence that they are also one of the best, delivering an incendiary, pummelling set of motorik rhythms and noises that howl and squeal like prowling rabid wolves. Self-deprecating and sharply abusive of their audience in the same breath, they could easily fall foul of their mouths if they didn’t sound so monumental. At times they make me think of Loop locked on a funky groove or Spiritualized with some anime. At times too they remind me of what Appliance might have grown into, had they been more open to freeform explorations or indeed had the time and opportunity that fate tragically took away. In any case, Beak> are a fluid maelstrom of noise and groove that locks onto our souls and swings us into the stratosphere. For a moment we believe in magic.
At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum but just as wonderful performance wise is Owen Ashworth, performing as Advance Base. I have loved Owen’s records since the days of Casiotone For The Painfully Alone (I quip to The Duchess before the show that knowing the name of that previous act should give a pretty clear idea of what to expect) but this is the first time I have seen him play. He is everything I could have expected. Charming, quiet and with that necessary intensity that comes from what one assumes to be an acutely introverted personality standing on stage performing. It’s that tension that invests Advance Base with the rare quality of mesmerising charm; a sound and structure so faint and simple you could so easily miss it. This is simplicity of song and performance that is so deceptively complex and difficult. Making something so close to nothing is the greatest challenge and Advance Base is as accomplished at this as any.
Not being entirely familiar with the structure of festivals I can only assume that elements of dissonance are somewhat fundamental to the whole experience. Certainly it is obvious when wandering the site, bombarded from all sides by seeping sounds of pumping beats, each ebbing and flowing with the passing of footsteps. And certainly that sense of disconnect is firmly cemented when Advance Base is followed on the same Walled Garden stage by The Loose Salute. We have been told they are tremendous and whilst the singer (draped in white silk) is perhaps just a touch overly vivacious and eager to please for my tastes I have to concede that they certainly are very good indeed. The programme has them touted as something akin to West Coast harmonic Pop but really they are closer to a country-tinged good-time bar band, and there is nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. Best moments by far for me are when the drummer takes the lead vocal role and only later, when I do some more digging do I realise it is Ian McCutcheon, formerly of the excellent Mojave 3. As we are wont to say, ‘it all fits’.
Vic Godard certainly seems to enjoy The Loose Salute, toe-tapping along in his deckchair, and we see Vic again the next day in what must be the most marvellously comic moment of the weekend when he wanders into the Caught By The River tent just as Jon Savage is talking about soft boys like The Subway Sect as part of a highly entertaining talk about his recent Joy Division book. It’s so well timed it just has to have been planned, yet it comes across as marvellously natural. The genuine warmth towards Vic from everyone in the tent is almost palpable, and even if many of us don’t actually make it along to see him play later that night we all wish him well.
Savage is, as mentioned, extremely engaging when talking about his recent Joy Division: An Oral History book. It may not be a book I have any great interest in picking up (I can’t help but feel I have learned all I really need/want to about Joy Division – a group I have always enjoyed but never been obsessively connected to) but Savage talks with confidence and obvious pleasure. For me the most intriguing points in the talk are when Savage talks explicitly about the presence of Curtis and of his connection/disconnection from the audience. At one point he describes hosting a session with a group of 16 year olds (presumably dragged along by their school as an attempt to invest them with some cultural capital) and how for the most part they listened and watched with an air of passive boredom (a look the Duchess and I both know so well from decades spent in classrooms). Only when they saw a film clip of Curtis performing did they all instinctively become animated, as though recognising some kind of Other energy that even through the medium of film and across the decades could throw out tendrils of power to tap into the very essence of being young, bold, anxious, invulnerable and fragile. Elsewhere Savage talks almost hesitantly about how he now believes Curtis to have been ‘channeling’ in his performance and writing, as in being a conduit to a spiritual realm. His hesitancy in saying this is understandable in this kind of broadly secular context, and goodness knows Savage must be keen to avoid being seen as some mad-cap loon who, like Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle believes not only in the spiritual realm but also in the reality of fairies at the bottom of the garden (in fairness, evidence suggest there are many in the wider Port Eliot audience who believe in the latter). Yet there is certainly too something about our age where a fascination with Otherness is quite compelling, however you might want to frame it, and there are surely threads from these notions of Spiritualism out into the realms of psychedelia and gnostic naturalism.
Sharing the stage with Savage is Lavinia Greenlaw, who proffers some eloquent memories of the late seventies ‘scene’ as a fan and participant. If her point about the lack of strong female voices in the received narrative of the Manchester scene is perhaps too quickly skimmed over, her quiet, carefully considered inputs are poised in perfect counterpoint to Savage’s more flamboyant and extrovert deliveries (at one point he hollers at some carousing, beer swilling lads outside the tent to “SHUT UP!” – and to their credit they do shuffle off rather sheepishly). I have to say I find her far more interesting in this context than when she reads some of her poetry earlier in the Caught By The River Poetry Hour. There is certainly something in the themes of her most recent work, “a meditation on the metaphysics of memory and loss”, that I want to engage with, but the reality is that I find my mind wandering, frustrated by the traditional sing-song-seriousness spoken word delivery that appears the default setting for any poet. It’s the same with Rachael Allen, although with Allen the content of the work completely passes by with barely a flicker of connection or interest. Of the three poets performing it is Will Burns who leaves the best impression, although this may simply because he is on first and because his work is succinct and short, giving less opportunity for the Poet’s Voice to grate. Admittedly the frustration with all of this surely says more about us than it does about the work but I cannot help think that it can’t just be the Duchess and I who feel this way. How many others are put off the very idea of poetry by stumbling on someone peddling those tiresome cadences in what feels like terminal repetition?
Onwards! Upwards! (interlude for gin and tonic and/or snooze in the shade of a tree looking down on the river Tiddy and/or a session in a hot tub with a glass of overpriced champagne because it’s THAT kind of festival
interlude abruptly interrupted by roving pop-up disco Land Rover blaring ‘Hot In The City’ and accompanied by Young People tossing a large dildo in the air because it’s THAT kind of festival too)
In describing his favourite Punk groups Jon Savage talks about how he always valued those who seemed to have an ambition that outstripped ability. Watching Stealing Sheep perform it occurs to me that this might be something that could be applied here, but in a less positive way. For Stealing Sheep have always left me somewhat confused, and always ever so slightly disappointed. On record they often seem to be on the verge of something terrific. The puzzle pieces are all the right ones, but somehow when they are all slotted together the picture is unremarkable and disappointingly underwhelming. In their latest incarnation Stealing Sheep invest their melodic psychedelia with a heftier sprinkling of Disco and the decaying half-life radiation of late ‘80s Rave. Presumably there is also a significant amount of reference to Contemporary Pop Sounds but I wouldn’t know about that, and anyway, whenever I click on a video clip posted by friends frothing on The Social Media about How Great (insert name of Young Person Making Pop Music) is I barely last more than half a minute before blankly switching off and thinking ‘is that all there is?’ and before diving headlong into the pleasurable depths of knowing That Time Has Come when I no longer understand, let alone remotely care about what The Young People Like and thank goodness for that, pass the Calvados and another Maigret novel and here’s to the End Of The World. Sometimes watching Stealing Sheep I do think this is like Pipettes when they Went Disco but without the tunes and my mind wanders and wonders what Bobby is up to these days and yeah, wouldn’t it have been cool to have had Gwenno perform something here (I’m pretty sure she’s been at Port Eliot in the past, probably in the Caught By The River tent). My feet do tap and my hips do swing however, so I’m clearly not immune to everything on offer and my soul is perhaps not yet entirely shrivelled and dead. Yet.
The Duchess tells me afterwards that she realises she has heard Stealing Sheep on the radio in her motor car (I do not listen to The Radio except on my visits to Mr Fred the barber who has ‘6 Music’ on in the background as he clips on the #1 guard and asks me about the cycling) and that they always initially catch her interest but ultimately lose it. Later still she describes their stage performance as being like a 6th Form Leavers party, which I tell her is quite harsh but pretty much on the mark. In other words it’s full of Big Gestures, Hugs, Squeals and Sparkly Outfits but ultimately it’s all A Bit Obvious and (I can’t quite believe I’m going to say this in the context of The Most Expensive Festival In Britain) a bit cheap and vulgar. We agree that the blue laser beam lights are quite cool though.
So as we mentioned previously, Jon Savage made mention of soft boys in his talk about Joy Division and so by probably not-so-strange coincidence we rock up to witness another highly entertaining set by Robyn Hitchcock. The venue this time is the beautiful St Germans church, which, being at one time known as the Cathedral of Cornwall, is a step up from the little church in Newton Abbott where we watched him play last summer (supported of course by the beguiling and brilliant Left Outsides). There has always been a singular strain of English eccentric humour in Hitchcock’s work, but he seems to up the ante for the Cathedral/festival crowd, slotting extended surrealist/psychedelic tales of his wonderful cat Tubby’s adventures as the keeper of Bryan Ferry’s quiff gel between songs, much to everyone’s great enjoyment. In some respects though it’s a shame because it deflects from the dark charm that also inhabits many of Hitchcock’s songs and threatens to consign him (in some people’s minds perhaps) to the Siberian outposts of comic/gimmick popstarts. And that’s not a place I would recommend to anyone. At least though it’s always a little cloaked and treading on uncertain ground (at one point during the terrific ‘My Wife and My Dead Wife’ from 1985’s ‘Fegmania!’ set an admittedly hammered posh bird in the row behind us gasps to her friend and asks awkwardly “is it meant to be funny?” To which the answer of course is No. Yes. Yes and no. No and yes. Of course. Have another gin and tonic dahling). It seems to me rather that there is something charming in seeing Hitchcock playing the part of the ‘could have been bigger than…’ troubadour, carefully balancing on the tipping point between unsightly self-pity and self-aggrandising arrogance (I admit it was only on recently reading Robin Dean Lurie’s excellent ‘Begin The Begin’ book about the early years of r.e.m. that I was reminded how, in that period around the mid to late ‘80s Hitchcock was being positioned as strong contender for being The Next Big Thing in the US ‘alternative’ market). Transitioning between guitar and electric piano (provided, it later transpires, by our friend Lizzie – you remember, the one dressed as half of a boat) Hitchcock wraps us in a warming cloak courtesy of songs that are filled with wit, wisdom and surreal whimsy. He closes with a couple of older songs: the always-and-forever classic Pop sunshine sparkle of The Soft Boys’ ‘Queen of Eyes’ and a take on ‘Brenda’s Iron Sledge’ that shows the song can still pack a punch stripped of it’s full-band rock backing (although Hitchcock invites us to imagine this in his introduction to the number).
Wandering out of the church into the approaching sunset we pass an impressively large queue waiting to see/hear Simon Armitage read some poems in the Big House and we begin again to hear the clashing thumps and hums of attractions competing for our attention and it occurs to me that what I would really like to do is to take each of these experiences and isolate them into singular moments. Take them apart and spread them over a series of weeks, months, years perhaps. Give them space to breathe. But that wouldn’t be The Festival Experience would it?
We are not really Festival People, The Duchess and I, and as we drift off back to our Devon garden and our own cats (like Tubby and any other feline you care to mention they do love a good box to sit in) we nurse our numerous insect bites and agree that whilst it’s probably not something we would want to do again (just as well then that it was the last Port Eliot for the foreseeable) We Are Glad We Did It. In capitals.
The Duke of Harringay