Thursday, February 08, 2007

Elephant Fayre

Twenty five years ago, maybe a bit more, I did a couple of summer seasons as 'musical director' of a touring theatre company called Atlantic Union. It sounds quite grand put like that.

Atlantic Union was actually one of many 'experimental' theatre companies that burgeoned in the late seventies, run on a shoestring, artistically dodgy, and grubbing for whatever gigs were available. Here today, disbanded tomorrow. We toured the hippie fairs - Wrexham, Hood Fair, Narberth, Elephant Fayre - did the show and moved on to the next muddy field. We were based in Wales, and so some of the fields were very muddy indeed.

The company was directed by a guy called Pete Brooks. Pete was a great cook, and his idea for Atlantic Union was to run it as a touring restaurant-cum-cabaret. Not for us the impromptu performance on a couple of shabby gym mats. We were to carry a full marquee with tables and chairs and gingham tablecloths, portable ovens, proper place settings, the lot. God knows how Pete ever raised the sponsorship, or got it organised, but he did.

And it worked, sort of. We had a big old Merc van, that classic touring theatre prop, with the marquee poles strapped to the top, a list of venues lined up, and a tank full of diesel. The first summer was enough of a success for the floating company members to be persuaded to come back next year and give it another go. Second time around I enlisted different musicians - old mates of mine Richard Madelin and Pete Bendall - along with a percussionist whom we only ever knew as Cyrus.

The best stories of that time can't really be repeated in a blog that children might visit, but I can reveal that the band were a sodding liability. I doubt there was a single date where we didn't have to be dragged from some bar or other in order to come and play. We were supposed to be accompanying the floorshow, providing the background music to a performance that never made the slightest sense to us. You know the type of thing - three girls in leotards being the sea, whilst somebody else stands on one leg and chants the word 'turpentine' over and over. We took a sceptical view, unfairly perhaps, of conceptual art. Emperors' clothes and all that.

But we got to do sets by ourselves, just the band, and so that was fun. My favourite of all the venues we played was Elephant Fayre. This was set deep in the West Country, far from the quagmires of Wales, an event that had been growing for some years and which attracted some fairly big names. I think Siouxie and the Banshees were headlining the year we were there. Heathcote Williams was reading. Lol Coxhill, I remember, came and sat in with us for a set on soprano sax. It was a wonderful atmosphere, although a diet of hedge-clipping soup and donkey turds on a stick got to Richard and I after a while, and we had to keep escaping into the surrounding villages for cream teas and sanity.

Elephant Fayre grew too big to be sustainable, alas. There was trouble policing the event, and a year or two later it had to be shut down. A shame, because the setting and the vibe were wonderful, a real summer music festival in its heyday.

Twenty five years on, when a writer friend, Charlie Shields, told me about the Port Eliot LitFest, a few bells started to ring. There was something familiar about the name and the locality - St. Germans, in Cornwall. But it wasn't until I spoke to the organisers and got myself invited that I realised that this country estate was the original site of the old Elephant Fayre. The beast had risen again, reborn as a literary version of its former self, but still retaining the musicality of its origins. Brilliant.

The feel of the Port Eliot LitFest is young and lively, as it should be, but there are still plenty of old hands attending who remember it first time around. I'm very glad to be there again. (I'm very glad to be anywhere at all, of course.)