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A FOOL FOR A FESTIVAL May 28, 2009

Posted by markswill in Navel Gazing.
4 comments

Although sorely tempted by this year’s line-up of old rascals, I’m not going to Glastonbury. In fact I’ve never been to Glastonbury. In fact the last such bash I attended was actually the Isle of Wight Hendrix-fest in 1970. And that’s because I hate being herded into a ghetto of faux jollity and cultural solidarity that, as often as not, involves mud, food poisoning and queuing for twenty minutes to take a dump, all of which might hideously coalesce to render the joy of squinting at your fave popsters drunkenly  strumming half a mile away no compensation for whatsoever.

And yet in less that two months I shall be traipsing around a festival site in a sleep-deprived, burger-induced trance wondering if my new favourite bands will have finished playing before I make it back from the bogs. However this won’t be a big-ticket outdoor wing-ding masquerading as a sun-kissed love-in, it will be a mere 3000 capacity deal on the fringe of my wee Welsh hometown that since 1993 has brought an improbable array of roots’n’world music, plus many local outfits to an enthusiastic and largely indigenous audience. Sheep Music, for that’s its name, began as a sort of picnic with bells (and Fender Strats) on and gradually developed into something much bigger but without the corporate trappings, probably because it is not run by a corporation but by a bunch of unpaid locals of which this year I am again but one.

 Actually, that’s not quite true, because although I’ve worked as a steward on several previous occasions, this is the first time I’ve been part of the actual management, responsible as I am for the emerging nightmare that is ticketing. In 2007 I was part of a team which had to cope with 24 hours of constant rain that started well before Friday afternoon’s kick-off and turned the whole shebang into a quagmire where mere survival remains a local badge of honour, not least because we had to uproot an entire canvas village encamped beside the swollen river that skirts the site. At night. With little illumination and only a couple of wheelbarrows. Understandably, that year’s Sheep Music so exhausted the team that had run the show for a decade or more that they decided to give 2008 a miss and by Christmas last they’d decided to hand it over to a new, and marginally younger management… I say ‘marginally’ because I am one of them.

 And because I have some experience of organising music events, albeit mainly hippy fund-raisers in the late ‘60s (which really doesn’t count), I volunteered to handle ticket sales. Which isn’t at all straightforward because there are a zillion different admission permutations, including all-weekend, Saturday, Sunday and/or Friday nights, camping and motor caravans, adult, yoof and kiddywinks, plus three different sales outlets some of which take plastic, some of which don’t. And because the acts are booked by a cunning maverick who keeps the cold cards of financial brinkmanship clutched closely to his chest, until this week it wasn’t possible to announce a line-up that in these credit-crunched times might persuade potential punters to come to us rather than the two or three relative upstart festivals within an hour’s drive of ours… both of which had trumpeted their bills of fare months ago.

Which is why as I write we’ve sold rather less tickets than we need to break even and why I’m frantically marketing the hell out of Sheep Music and sleeping badly. Not that I want you to roll up in your Winnebagos and your forty-quid Cath Kidston polka-dot wellies you understand, for to quote the League, this is a local festival for local people, a little gem whose very charm rests with the fact that it doesn’t attract the ticket fraudsters, fence-jumpers, smack dealers and other ne’erdowells that blight festivalworld’s big hitters. Mind you, and to my considerable relief, we do now have some cracking combos including the Welsh debut of Berlin’s cajun-cum-balkaneers, if misnamed, 17 Hippies  (there are ‘only’ 13 of ‘em),  sharp-suited reggae-meisters the Dub Pistols, the ska-tastic Maroon Town, New Orlean’s Hot 8 Brass Band and the Latin American-esque Banda Bacana.

However given the ‘60s hippie diaspora that much accounts for the areas’s wonderful cultural eclecticism, and despite over thirty top-notch bands, Sheep Music is distinguished by all manner of non-musical stuff (excluding face-painting). So we have a circus school, DIY cinema, a temporary village hall with village hall-type entertainments… much of it of course solar- or wind-powered. As a baptism of fire in large-scale event organisation this late in life, and for one who inherently hates festivals, this could get much hotter. Unless, of course, Sheep Music suffers another deluge and next year I decide to deploy my consummate managerial skills to booking gaunt young men with thinly-lapelled jackets in the British Legion of an occasional Saturday night. (www.sheepmusic.info)

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Our Fiends Electric May 10, 2009

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Media.
4 comments

For the last four years a Sunday in early May has meant watching several dozen dedicated eccentrics tearing around my home town on electric bicycles. Wearing a variety of fancy dress, naturally including a feminist in a fish costume, the competitors circulate the mean streets of Presteigne for an hour, or until their batteries and/or leg muscles expire, to achieve the most laps and win an imposing trophy finely-crafted from re-cycled tin cans.

And this being a ‘transition town’, you won’t be surprised that the race, or ‘rally’ as it must be known for health and safety reasons, has become part of a bigger, weekend long event –‘Green Wheels’. This year it became a kind of mini-alternative motor show where a wide range of electric and hybrid vehicles were displayed, some as eccentric as their sandal wearing constructors, others from pukka motor manufactures like Citroen, Toyota and most impressively, Morgan.

My loyal reader may know that for the last three years I’ve entertained launching a consumer magazine covering low-carbon powered personal transport, a notion piqued by last year’s oil price hikes but for all the usual reasons, financing has been impossible to find. And just as it inspired the idea in the first place, the Green Wheels weekend has once again rendered it a modest no-brainer: if nigh on a thousand people will descend on a remote Welsh border town to attend seminars, get legless at boisterous evening entertainments, race electric bikes and more importantly, buy them, then surely a lot more of them would buy a magazine three or four times a year to keep them up to, er, speed?

I won’t bore you with the numbers, but it’s hard to see how such an organ would work unless it received substantial sponsorship and that avenue, too, has proven a dead end. Interestingly (perhaps), this is not, as in so many cases of magazine launch lust, because the information is out there in abundance on the web… although of course it might be a few weeks time.  But my own completely subjective research around the Green Wheels green field site confirms that alternative transport enthusiasts want something they can read on the bog.

Be that as it all may, should a magazine of this ilk ever see the light of day – with or without me pedaling it – I’ll doubtless be accused of rank hypocrisy given that I own no less than four fossil fuel-powered vehicles. Attracting further irony, if not opprobrium, is the oldest of these, a gorgeous 1982 Lancia Gamma Coupe, which requires horrid leaded fuel and achieves barely 25mpg driven with a light right foot, which of course it isn’t. In my defence, I should say that I drive only a few hundred miles a year in the Gamma, a couple of these being to attend the nearest classic car show which again takes place in Presteigne a month after Green Wheels and enjoys about the same attendance, albeit mainly local residents.

The enthusiasms of the classic car world are well catered for by magazines, one of which I used to scribble a column for until I was replaced by the latest editor’s best friend on Christmas Eve (subsidiary thought: why do so many people get sacked during the season of good cheer?). My predictable ‘screw you’ reaction was to pursue an idea I’d long had for launching an  enthrallingly original new classic car rag, but that oxymoron also fell by the wayside when the business plan bespoke an All The Hours God Sent management requirement and rewards that wouldn’t keep a man and his Gamma in lead replacement fuel additives until 2012.

But men’s – and it largely is men’s – passionate interest in things that move is what unites the classic car and the alternative tyre-tread movements, and many other movements too. Unsurprising then that most of my scribbling and all of my successful (and some unsuccessful) magazine launches over the last forty years have involved wheels and engines. Equally obviously, some of my, and possibly your, favourite books also cover transports of delight, which is why I recently found myself returning to Winston O. Link’s extraordinary photographic record of ‘The Last Steam Railroad in America’ (published in the USA by Abrams) and am re-reading my late colleague L.J.K. Setright’s beautifully written ‘Drive On – A Social History of the Motor Car’ (Granta). You should do too.

The point being that whilst we are clearly and necessarily on the cusp of a low-carbon future, our appetite for things that move us – in both senses of the term – will not be diminished by either a dearth of petrol or the wretched homogeneity of vehicle design that the near collapse of the word’s car manufacturing industries will surely accelerate. What form the objects of our motorised desires will take in this uncertain future I dare not second guess, but I’m damn sure that someone will find a way of building a niche media around them.

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