I've just spent a long weekend, and my first few nights under canvas in 2010, at the wonderful Playgroup Festival.
It was kinda special; Playgroup are a little collective of Brighton folks who put on interesting themed club nights (like the Blind Tiger Speakeasy). Somehow they managed to get the use of some land out past Crowborough, and constructed a small but perfectly formed event to hold on it. It was advertised in an unusual fashion: the line-up and location were both kept secret, the former until a couple of days before (I suspect they saved it to drive last-minute ticket sales), the latter right until arrival: we boarded a Big Lemon bus in Brighton with no idea of where we were headed.
Even the journey itself was a bit of an adventure: I met up with Ellen and we trundled down to the Pav Tav to collect our tickets. Arriving a little late for the bus, we bumped into Amy of Young Hanoverians fame and delicately applied the miniscule amounts of peer pressure necessary to persuade her to come along. Someone naughty had managed to find their way into a spare bus which had been abandoned by its driver, so we camped out there for a little while before mounting our actual steed, meeting and greeting a few of the other folks who were coming along.
The setting was idyllic: set on a rolling pasture surrounded by woods, with the borders less aggressively policed than some festivals I've been to. You could happily meander off and go for a wander, particularly if there weren't any security folks looking in your particular direction at the time.
The first night we camped out at the Victorian Freak-show which Jake Spicer and Ophelia Fancy were putting on. Amy kicked off the evening by shouting at everyone in German, reading a poem about fucking a dolphin and forcing us all to play stick-in-the-mud - a challenging game within the confines of a 20 foot square tent. Ms Dubberley Made Herself Apparent. Then the freaks themselves paraded before us, eliciting gasps of horror and whoops of approval, topped with the occasional inappropriate proposition from the less well-bred members of the audience. Bravo to all concerned.
I retired shortly after all this excitement, my nerves shattered and my mind twisted out of shape by the horrors I'd witnessed. Actually, I felt a bit ill, but it passed quickly and by the next day I was chipper once more.
Saturday started slowly, with a full breakfast from the cafe, followed by half an hour getting stuck into Soldiers and Ghosts back at the campsite. A short spell of rain tapping against the outer canvas set me snoozing, but I woke up in time to wander over to the clowning workshop, led by Danny and a few chums down from a clown school in London. We warmed up with some fun exercises, including "The Samurai Game" (which tickled me for aikidocal reasons), and producing an 8-person sex machine: a pulsing, synchronised loop of individual carnal motions contributed by each one of us, the speed of which was controlled by Danny "conducting" the machine. This all broke the ice and got us pretty comfortable in each others company, and was a great lead-in to the main event: donning the classic red nose and performing a song in front of the group, whilst slowly sitting down onto a balloon until it burst. This one was surprisingly tough - we were strongly encouraged to make eye contact with every member of our audience throughout our performance. There was nowhere to hide, no space for embarrassment over your vocal abilities to creep into. I've a new respect for clowns, cemented by a later conversation with one of the workshop attendees who'd been attending a militaristic-sounding mime school. 5 hours training a day? For 3 years? Jeepers.
I'd had a laugh, made a fool of myself, and warmed up physically, which really set me up for the rest of the day. We wandered back to the tents and got costumed up; like most Britons, we needed only the barest excuse to don animal outfits. Donkey and mouse soon busied themselves meandering from stall to band to stall to tent to band to stall. On the way through I drank my first chai (mmm chai), bumped into some Unexpected And Most Welcome Chums, and experienced the most sharply off-kilter experience of my life. Never again will I cradle a red pig wrapped in swaddling clothes to my ear as a French Fop sings beautiful songs about soup down a hose attached to its umbilicus. Then bands and dancing, with particular thanks to Carnival Collective, Brighton stalwarts who I'd never managed to catch before, and a couple of hours spent with a burgeoning crowd around a camp fire at the centre of the site. Here, as the hour grew late, a band struck up and were joined by individual musicians who'd fortunately brought their tools to the site, and regailed us all with song.
Sunday was a more relaxed affair, the morning spent alternating between book and tea and the afternoon dozing in front of a selection of bands and watching the world go past, before slowly packing up, saying goodbye, and taking the bus home. I don't think I've ever been on a happier bus.
Reading this back, I've missed out so much - the clockwork wonders that Peter of The Three of Clubs produces; the robot-dancing child; the Exciting Theme Park Ride; the Mad Hatters Tea Party; electro-metal at Bust The Box; the synchronised alien aerobics; the Giant Head; and much more. Those Playgroup folks know how to fill a weekend to the brim.
It was an absolutely magical weekend, and - like any great party - I ended it feeling exhausted, invigorated, and a few friends up. If you know me In Real Life you'll understand that from a cynical old curmudgeon like myself, there can be no higher praise. I'm already looking forward to next year, and thinking of things I can do to get involved and help out. Playgroup has a goal of "100% participation", and I can't help feeling that the high ratio of participants to attendees is one of the things that made it so great.