Festival of the Mind

I thought I would write a little review of all the things I have been to in this year’s brilliant Festival of the Mind, organised by the University of Sheffield.

Sounds of the Cosmos. This event, like other events organised by Stewart Campbell, was creative, inspired, with unusual collaborations and innovative formats. In fact, it was a fabulous opening to my Festival of the Mind, as it really did totally blow my mind. Holst’s Planets Suite, played by the Sheffield Rep Orchestra, was interspersed with talks by Professor Paul Crowther from the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the most fabulous visuals provided by all sorts of incredibly clever telescopes and other gadgets at NASA and other organisations. Accessible, but impossible to grasp (that’s a compliment), it did leave me feeling very perplexed. About the insignificance of it all. Not just that we are so ridiculously tiny, but also that the task of astrophysics is doomed as well. I wonder why a physicist doesn’t accept that we will never know (like I think a theologian does – or certainly like the sort of theologian I admire might do) and live happily with this unknowing, rather than keeping on developing a failed and impossible sort of knowing… What really is the point of it all?

So I suppose I couldn’t have had a better start to a festival which celebrates wondering and interdisciplinary thinking and engagement with the public. The matinee, a later add on after the evening sold out, was geared towards schoolchildren – which although a brilliant thing to do – did mean that it was quite a noisy and disruptive environment. I hope it blew some of their minds: we’ll never know…

The next thing I went to (on Tuesday afternoon) was a series of exhibitions at the amazing almost derelict Castle House, home to the former Coop which was still in existence when I first moved to Sheffield in 2005. There were many things in here that I loved. I found the exhibition about the history of the building fascinating. I loved Shaun Bloodworth’s ‘Save the Birds’ collaboration with Tim Birkhead to create films and soundtracks of the dawn chorus, sadly now much changed due to bird numbers decreasing.

Shaun Bloodworth and Tim Birkhead

Shaun Bloodworth and Tim Birkhead

I loved learning about the many languages spoken in Sheffield, the strange gaze-shift installation which shows what the brain does when it looks at shapes, some imagined castles created by school children, and a weird illuminous nerve tent. A real highlight for me as someone interested in sensory engagements with things, was the Tactile Image exhibition by Clive Egginton, a film-maker who lost his sight earlier this year on being diagnosed with brain cancer. Photographs of Sheffield people, and Sheffield things by both him and a few others, were fabulous and thought-provoking in their own right, but when paired with tactile versions, the effect was wonderful. Raised images also incorporating descriptive text in Braille tied in so well with an excellent event I had been to the day before at Kelham Island Museum, celebrating their ‘Access all Areas’ project, in which Patricia Dieng’s TacMaps were particularly exciting to discover. And also reminded me of a project I did at Kettle’s Yard back in 2001, making ‘In To Touch’ packs for visually impaired people which were raised heated polystyrene precursors to all these things. Everything is interconnected.

The Tactile Image

The Tactile Image

Please touch poster

Please Touch

Other projects I found fascinating were the immersive soundscapes for people with dementia by composers ‘In the Nursery’, some of which were really soothing. It was also fascinating to see the thermal images of some of Sheffield’s iconic buildings.

Thermal imaging

Thermal imaging

I absolutely love love love the Letters to Sheffield project, and although I was sad not to see mine when I first went to Castle House, this has since been sorted out by way of a few tweets to the lovely people at Our Favourite Places and at Site who found my missing letter and have now installed it into the exhibition. I spent ages when I went back the second time reading these: funny, sad, poignant, apart from the one which declares Sheffield to be ‘crap, crap, crap’ (!), they almost all reveal a deep love of the city and a real sense of pride of place. We are so lucky to live here. The accompanying book is beautiful and something that every Sheffield person will love.

My letter to Sheffield

My letter to Sheffield

Phlegm’s marketplace piece in the Sheffield Bazaar artists’ interventions section downstairs was fantastic – especially amusing to have the old haberdashery sign showing through. In fact I loved this about the whole building, which even though only closed for less than 10 years, seemed so much more ancient, forlorn and forgotten.

Phlegm market

Phlegm market

Fishmonger

Fishmonger

On the final Saturday, I went to the Turner Museum of Glass for the first time ever. What a hidden gem! Hard to get find, it’s a real reward to see the amazing collections, and, rather than to just appreciate the glass for its aesthetic quality, which is what I’d normally do, it is a whole new dimension to have it exhibited in the department of engineering (I think) where the focus is on the properties of the materials and how glass is made. There are some stunning objects – a bit of Lalique (a moth), a rock crystal Buddha, and glass mainly from various European countries, as well as some ancient Egyptian pieces. Fabulous collection. While there, I chatted to Lynne Fox, the university’s Heritage Officer, and Professor John Parker who is the curator, and hopefully there are plans to do more events, and even have a handling collection one day.

Turner Museum of Glass

Turner Museum of Glass

Later in the day, I returned to a lab in the same building (Robert Hadfield), for a fantastic glass-making demonstration in a seriously high-tech lab full of all sorts of amazing gadgets. It was very exciting, and the second time this year when I have been in a lab doing dangerous experiments! I had no idea what molten glass looked like. It really did remind me of the Mervyn Peake painting at Manchester Art Gallery.

Glass making demonstration

Glass making demonstration

Glass making

Glass making

It was amazing to hold a glass blob (a bit like a wiggly tadpole shape), for the ‘Prince Rupert’s Tear Drop’ experiment which shattered in my hand, and even though I knew it was going to do it, was still quite a shock! 

The final highlight of this year’s Festival were several bird-related events and exhibitions. Firstly, hearing the brilliant Tim Birkhead speaking about the decline of the dawn chorus in the Spiegeltent. As always, his talk was a source of all sorts of bits of new and fascinating information. Such as: bullfinches were as recently as the early C20th, trained to sing German folk songs, and can actually learn them but singing up a semitone(!); there are two particular notes sung as part of nightingale (I think) mating rituals, which can be recorded and replayed to make the birds breed; in the winter, Stoney Middleton is the place to see starlings in their millions. But also that the dawn chorus has fewer birds even than in the 1980s when I was growing up, as more and more of the insects eaten by birds are in decline due to intensive farming and use of land to grow food – all over the world. A massive problem. Made me think that not procreating is definitely a positive step for the planet.

Save the Birds

Save the Birds

After hearing some tweeting birds in the Milennium Gallery avenue, I then headed to Sheffield cathedral. As well as seeing the lovely new interpretation there, an exhibition entitled ‘Loomery Scrolls’ by Chris Wallbank, who was artist in residence with Tim Birkhead on Skomer, was absolutely fabulous – and worked beautifully in the cathedral. Vast scrolls of paper documented the birds on the cliffs, recording their numbers in many instances, and with different ‘experiments’ to record their habits. I loved it.

Chris Wallbank, Loomery Scrolls (the oldest guillemot)

Chris Wallbank, Loomery Scrolls (the oldest guillemot)

The oldest guillemot

The oldest guillemot

So, that’s my little Festival of the Mind. Thank you everyone involved. Sheffield is brilliant.

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End of the Road 2014

I have been back for just over a week since the amazing End of the Road festival. It never fails to amaze me how brilliant this little festival is – the most happy and friendly event of my year, and this year’s was no exception. I love it. There are always surprises, things that blow you away when you are least expecting, new discoveries around every tree, things that you find and think no one else has spotted, and firm favourites that don’t let you down. Oh – and just the small factor of the best music in the world ever. In fact this year, the festival was happier and friendlier than ever before, and actually there aren’t any words to describe my excitement – but more of that to follow…

I went with my friends Genevieve, Helen and Mark, but I got there earlier than they did (as soon as the gates opened on Thursday) because I am a geek and like making a nice cosy camping area/nest, and secretly I wanted the challenge of trying to do it all by myself. I left later than they did, staying until Monday (because I could). Four nights of excitement. I aimed straight for the place near the big tree (and the postmen) where I have camped before with Amy. This time with a ridiculous trolley which although I am proud to have built all by myself, did definitely not do the job on mud and long wet grass. Cue lots of assistance as I battled uphill, from friendly people, and a mental note that Mr Trolley is far better. Up went the tent. The gazebo was less successful – I battled in the wind, nearly taking off in the process, much to the amusement of my neighbours (already quaffing the cider) until they couldn’t contain their laughter any more and came to my aid. And then it was all set up. Complete with bee bunting from All Good Stuff.

Setting up camp

Setting up camp

And then I was off. If you haven’t been before, EOTR is held in the Larmer Tree Gardens, once home to the Pitt Rivers family, a magical Victorian pleasure garden with follies and grottoes and strange pagodas, and still full of peacocks and macaws. This year there were even little baby ones strutting through the crowds, seemingly oblivious to it all.

Three baby peacocks with peahen

Baby peacocks

On the Thursday night, there were a few bands playing in the Tipi tent for the delight of the early arrivers. Post Goan fish curry (the food is a real joy here), I saw Cheatahs and then Ezra Furman complete with dress and saxophone (I think, but after so much musical excitement, I may get muddled). I do my homework (yes, I said I was a geek!) beforehand and my little spreadsheet lists all the bands and a few comments and a score out of ten (!) based on about 20 seconds of pre-listening on Spotify, unless I love it, in which case I listen for longer. Comments include things like ‘stunning, Neil Young-esque’, ‘interesting folky musicians’, ‘lovely cowboy music’, ‘kill me now’, ‘bawl the eyes out’, ‘bit too noisy’, ‘let’s dance’, ‘Rockabilly I bet he has a quiff’…  It’s fun when I get it totally wrong and discover something fabulous, but it’s also reassuring and quite exciting when I get it right. Anyway, both of these first two bands were great but a bit less mellow than I usually like. I bumped into a friend at some point during the evening, Ken, with his group of friends who always have a press pass for photography for their music website The Rock Club, and had a few beers with them. So even though I was on my own, I wasn’t really, and EOTR is the sort of festival where people are so lovely and friendly that I would be quite happy to go on my own anyway.

Friday started with a hot shower (managed to have one every day and thoroughly enjoyed the walk back to the tent just wearing a towel(!), and this year, there were a few more than usual, and some beautiful flushing water loos too – and I’d like to acknowledge the incredibly hard work of the loo attendants, who literally worked their socks off all day and night to ensure the loos were clean and had never-ending supplies of loo roll!). I had some breakfast then went of for an exploration now the main site had opened. Amazed to see the cinema no longer in a tent, but in a proper building, I wandered off into the woods to see what I could find and remember where things were. I love the quirky art installations. Here are a few examples…

Flux by Jess

Flux by Jess

Pirate - David Shillinglaw?

Pirate by David Shillinglaw?

World Within - Tori and Joseph

Poo Lorry from ‘World Within’ by Tori and Joseph

The latter was incredible – a miniature version of the entire festival inside one of the buildings in the garden. Lots of very amusing detail. Continuing my wanderings, I headed to the library stage, a new invention as the previous woodland library must have outgrown itself. Here I listened to the very modest poet Will Burns, followed by a highly entertaining talk from music magazine editor Mark Ellen (who played in a band with Tony Blair and amongst other accolades told anecdote after anecdote about Live Aid and almost every singer since the 70s). And then it was time for the music.

I might get the orders a bit wrong – but I saw the fantastic Phox on the Garden Stage and fell in love with their bouncy tracks ‘Slow Motion’ and ‘Kingfisher’ – for me there’s definitely a twinge of something Merrill Garbus about these.

 

Loved the golden spandex catsuit of Arc Iris next up with their lovely cello playing:

 

And then I headed to the Tipi tent, after some delicious Tartiflette, to see Laish (singer Daniel Green). Particularly liked the solo acoustic song he was playing when I got there – lyrics something like ‘When I’m coming for you’ – but not sure what it was as this is a new discovery, and really liked what I heard of the rest of his set.

Then I saw the quite extraordinary Alexis Taylor, complete with his thick-rimmed NHS style specs and eclectic electronicky folky music. Loved this singalong one with lots of catchy la-la-las.

 

And soon after that my first friend, Genevieve, arrived – not before I had celebrity spotted Sheffield’s finest Richard Hawley checking in at the artists’ entrance. Genevieve and I did the obligatory squeaking and explorations in the now twinkling woods. Tibetan Momo for dinner, and then Helen and Mark arrived, built the tents and got ready for the evening’s party which consisted of British Sea Power at the Garden Stage (the third time I have seen them this year!) complete with their bear.

The day’s highlight was however, the Gene Clark No Other Band – this 1974 album (which I confess I had never heard until doing my EOTR homework and falling in love with it straightaway and buying the original) has been restaged by an almighty line-up of musicians including Daniel Rossen from Grizzly Bear, Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes and several playing in other guises at this festival. Having toured the US, this was the only UK performance – a proper once in a lifetime experience to be there, hearing this, in the Dorset countryside. It was absolutely magical and one to remember forever. I think I can hear myself squealing on this film…

 

And so ended Friday. (After a few cheeky ciders from my massive vat of the stuff from the quirky Owermoigne Cider Museum…)

Saturday. Little did I know when I woke up bright and early to cook my fellow happy campers a proper fried breakfast on my cooker (complete with toast!) that this was going to be the most exciting day ever…

One of my discoveries in advance was Nick Waterhouse, who was playing on the Woods stage first thing in the morning. I loved what I heard on Spotify, and guessed that this was a band to get us in the mood for a happy bouncy day ahead. Yes, he was the rockabilly one who I was not disappointed to see did have that quiff and the 1950s outfit.

Nick Waterhouse

Nick Waterhouse

He was incredible and had a truly wonderful band: two women included a really powerful, stunning singer whose bluesy voice had the audience totally enraptured as she wielded a variety of different tambourines and an amazing baritone saxophonist, and then there was the keyboards guy with a Hammond organ (who I am sure kept smiling at me ;o)), bass guitarist and drummer who all did their little jazzy turns every so often. ‘This is a Game’ had me dancing right from the start of the set.

At some point, lunch was from Moorish – an amazing plateful of deliciousness. Then Lau, three extraordinarily talented musicians whose proper folky tunes, accordion and fiddle were absolutely beautiful and mesmerising. I still want to know what the spoon and fork gadget they had on stage was.

 

I also popped in to Celebration (a bit loud) and The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, had a nice cup of tea (brewed for exactly three minutes!) and then saw the fabulous, highly charismatic St Paul and the Broken Bones. Lead singer Paul Janeway was spectacular – as almost gospel-like singer (definitely not the voice expected from a small rotund white man!) and as a brilliant dancer – a great showy front man in this seven piece soul band which again had everyone dancing around the grass.

And then came the utter highlight of my whole festival… I am not sure why I went for a wander, or how I ended up in the Rough Trade tent at this time. Serendipity is the most joyous thing. There was a big queue as I staggered in, and I looked into the corner to see who it was. I did a double take. He looked very familiar. It was JOHN GRANT! Should I stay? What would I say to him? Would I get any words out? (It could not be worse than the hideous Germaine Greer moment in about 1997). I got into the queue and met another lovely person called Louisa in front of me. We were both as excited as each other and it was good to have someone to talk to to alleviate the palpitations. (Another blog post to follow about my thoughts on all this).

Methuselah

Methuselah (and John Grant and me)

Well, I said ‘Hello John Grant!’, shook his hand, and was beaming from ear to ear as we chatted for what seemed like quite a long time. Anyway, like I said, this deserves a whole blog to explain the Methuselah caption and some of my conflicted thoughts about it all. Louisa took loads of photos for me, and I have never ever in my life had so much adrenaline pumping round my body. What an absolutely lovely man. Real generosity of spirit to be so seemingly friendly and at ease with a queue of complete strangers, all of whom think they know you, yet of course they don’t. After swapping emails with Louisa, I scampered back to the stage to find the others, and just couldn’t stop jumping, grinning inanely, smiling, looking at the picture he drew for me, squeaking like an idiot, and forgetting that the people around me were trying to watch another band… I remember lying on the grass wiggling my legs in the air. It’s been a long time since I have squealed so much and it was fantastic. Thank you John Grant.

I am not sure what band was playing at this point as it’s a bit of a blur… I think it was Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit and I think they were really good, but my head wasn’t really there. Fuelled by an early morning cocktail and several ciders, Genevieve and I went to the Photobooth to have our portraits drawn by Rosie Curran. I think her self-described 30% accuracy rate is slightly harsh as the picture did look vaguely like us, and she said she had done over 200 that day. This was followed by the tortured Perfume Genius but again, I think I was too over-excited to concentrate properly.

Tipi tent

Tipi tent

Back to the tent to put the socks and jumpers on. Then I wandered through Marissa Nadler in the Tipi tent and Unknown Mortal Orchestra (I think?) in the Big Top, before Gruff Rhys‘ inspiring American Interior set with a few favourites thrown in for good measure. Like ‘Gyrru gyrru gyrru’ (which I just had to look up how to spell). He is so brilliant live (miles better than the recording below). A fantastic set – so glad I made it.

And then my friends went off to see their highlight – The Flaming Lips. I didn’t. I only know one of their songs and despite hearing what a great show it would be, I knew I wasn’t going to see them. John Grant was my reason for being there, so after discovering a new bar next to the Garden Stage, I went to get prime position at the front of the stage all ready for the most amazing performance I have seen.

John Grant

John Grant

There were tears.

 

Not least during Glacier.

And there was still more that day/night. A meet-up with the others, who loved what they had seen and recounted tales of Flaming Lips in a zorb going into the audience. A bit of audience participation in some random people’s dancing activities (‘in in in the middle’ with Mark doing an incredible turn and a headstand!) in the food area. Then to Richard Hawley who was DJ-ing in the Woods disco, and a bit more staggering about looking at sparkling things, taking all sorts of random photos before falling into bed.

Twinkly trees

Twinkly trees

On Sunday morning I woke up super early, probably still slightly intoxicated, and had the most lovely walk around the completely deserted site, enjoyed a bacon bap at the Red Bus in the sunshine. Strange how there can be over 10,000 people there, but I was the only person on an early morning stroll.

Very early Sunday morning stroll

Very early Sunday morning stroll

The first band on Sunday was the brilliant The Melodic, again a discovery I had made during my homework, and who were strangely playing in the Big Top (which is usually a bit loud for me!). They really were melodic, a bit Andean in some ways, with three guitars and a mini mouth organ piano thing (what is that called?). Lovely first band of the day.

 

The next band was a real discovery, enhanced also by the discovery of a new secret garden, just near the Garden Stage – can’t believe I have never found it before, but it was a beautiful and peaceful place from which to listen to the gorgeous Futur Primitif. This made me very happy indeed.

 

I think Genevieve left at about this time to get back to her boys (I did note her conversation with Mr Trolley though about the mattress and fairy lights, so that bodes well for next year!) Then I pottered off to the Comedy Stage to see a fellow Dorset woman, Jessica Fostekew. Wasn’t sure to begin with, but laughed out loud and loved her by the end. Curry Shed for lunch (or was it dinner? I can’t remember but it was yummy whenever it was). Caught the end of something pretty remarkable in the Tipi – the eccentric Lonnie Holley, making things up as he went along, a rambling and strange monologic tune, and a real character. ‘Thumbs up for Mother Earth’ he sang, and we obliged and loved it.

Lonnie Holley 'Thumbs Up'

Lonnie Holley ‘Thumbs Up’

Stealing Sheep are always very jolly, and their Garden Stage set was fun with nice bashing of the bass drum. Then Daniel Rossen again doing a solo slot this time, a weird slot on the little theatre stage in the garden by Yo La Tengo which we couldn’t really hear as it was a Q&A with the audience thing.

My next surprise highlight was Radiophonic Workshop in the Big Top. These guys reminded me of my Dad, with brilliant between the tracks chatting with the audience, a whole load of 1950s/60s-looking gadgets, and white coats – the latter obviously a requirement for their inventions in sonic discovery. Just had to stay for the whole set, which of course included the Dr Who theme tune. Which I filmed, and might post to announce when I am a Dr. This meant that I sadly missed Tuneyards‘ rendition of Gangsta, first heard and loved at EOTR in 2011, but I enjoyed the remaining few songs in their set. Helen and Mark had to leave after this to get back for work on Monday, so I was on my own again.

Caught some of Andrew Combs in the Tipi which I really enjoyed. Proper EOTR style Americana. Then the legendary Richard Thompson on the Garden Stage. Totally exhausted by this stage, I made it to see the brilliant Tinariwen on the Garden Stage, and finally Wild Beasts headlining on the Woods and closing the festival although after so much excitement in such a short time, I was a bit too sleepy, and his opening comment ‘what are you lot doing here?’ annoyed me (must have been really tired!), but I did love Wanderlust.

And so, three and a bit days of lovely friends, intense and amazing music, happy people, delicious food, lovely woods, and a feeling of utter freedom, escape from the world, and joyful exhilaration like nothing else, it was time for bed and to leave the next morning (with a Mr Trolley this time!)

Thank you so much to Genevieve, Helen and Mark for such a wonderful sunny time, and to all the people who work so hard to make End of the Road the best festival in the world ever. To the organisers, musicians, backstage crews, artists, catering staff, Andy’s Loos, volunteers and everyone there for being lovely people, thank you. I left the site listening to Pale Green Ghosts on full blast (my picture clutched next to me on the passenger seat), crying my eyes out.

Tickets already bought for EOTR 2015.

Mark, Helen and Genevieve

Mark, Helen and Genevieve