Many of you regular Wild Hare Clubbers will know that I have been banging on about Campfire for a while now. Well the time has come to report on the very first gathering - Campfire Convention 001 - which took place in and around The Bridge Inn at Michaelchurch St Escley last weekend. Like many others who were there, I am still getting my head around, (or in modern parlance processing for we are nothing if not digitally savvy us Campfire people), what was a very rich and very human experience.
Where to begin? Well the adventure really started when Stas (Mrs Hare) and I picked up Chrissie, a fellow volunteer crew member who we’d met at the June pre-meeting, and her seriously impressive pile of gear at Hereford Station on Thursday afternoon. Sharing a lift with people you don’t know so well is always exciting and it brought back memories of summers criss-crossing the country, hitching to festivals or to stay with far-flung friends. These days you hardly ever see hitchhikers, so much so, that when we spotted one outside Cambridge the other day I was massively disappointed to find out that we weren’t going in the right direction and so couldn’t pick him up and quiz him on whether he is trying to restart a hitchhiking revival. Well someone has got to do that soon because it’s ludicrous that, in the era of the mobile phone, people consider hitching too risky. Risk and perceived risk, two entirely different things. A lucky escape for the Cambridge hitchhiker then…Well, this time at least. Thinking about it, over the last few decades the number of hitchhikers on motorway slip roads has massively diminished, perhaps in inverse proportion to the increase in the number of red kites you see over the chalk cut on the Oxford to London road. Is there a correlation? Better ask Richard Thanki, Campfire’s tech whizz with planet-sized brain, but now I am getting ahead of myself. The point being that picking up Chrissie meant that we were not only sharing our vehicle (which is clearly a good thing) but also our excitement with a fellow traveller and that, dear friends, captures much of what Campfire is all about.
The drive to The Bridge Inn from Hereford is a lovely one, except of course when you meet an oncoming white van or black four-wheel drive that isn’t going to slow down. Ever. It’s ok we arrived safe and sound because we know that there’s a good chance that some maniac is going to be hurtling around the corner. Here perceived risk and risk are entirely the same which either proves the rule or means that risk and perceived risk are often very different but not always. Arriving in the pub car park it was obvious that most of the crew were already ensconced, but happily there was a space to pitch our tents next to Caroline and Karen who welcomed us like age-old friends despite the fact that we’d only spent a single day together a couple of months previously. This feeling of togetherness from our first pre-Convention meeting was tangible and rather wondrously continued to mushroom over the next couple of days. In fact, if I was to be asked as to how to characterise the feeling of Campfire Convention in a single word, togetherness would be the one I’d choose. This feeling of togetherness is not just the result of shared values but because the gathering, numbering a few hundred like-minded souls, was of a scale that facilitated communication.
Thursday evening with the bell tent pitched, complete with rasta coloured bunting made by my sister for our shotgun wedding party, we joined the team for a walk to familiarise ourselves with the site and have the highly efficient Cathryn talk us through our various roles and the rota. For anybody who has ever been involved in a multi-faceted event, then you will already know the true value of someone like Cathryn who makes sure that each cog turns efficiently and the whole machine runs smoothly and on-time. Suffice to say that Cathryn is a skilled mechanic.
A pub supper followed, during which we reacquainted ourselves with the folks we’d met at the pre-meeting and meeting some other people who had volunteered to help out. All very convivial. Later we moved to sitting around a brazier and star gazing for the 11th and 12th of August were the nights to look out for shooting stars and the Perseid meteor shower. I stayed up long enough to see several and most of us saw one of the best that I have ever seen, describing a shallow arc across the heavens with a glittery trail that I imagined I could hear crackling. A good omen, for who doesn’t still wish upon a star?
Friday was set-up day which is always exciting in a way that break-down day isn’t always but sometimes is. Task one erecting a gazebo next to the main stage for use as a ‘green’ room’. I suspect most of you are familiar with the trials and tribulations associated with trying to assemble a cheap gazebo and figure out exactly which pole fits into which plastic joining piece from a printed figure that does not fit the description of a technical drawing. Stas, Jeremy and I finally worked it out and had just put the sides on when a gust of wind caught it like a sail and with an audible crack we heard one vital joint go. Although I work on the maxim that there is virtually nothing in this world that can’t be fixed with sufficient gaffer tape and a large hammer, this was not to be the case and even after mending in this fashion, the flimsy construction was not to stand the Friday night wind. The moral of this of course is not to be tempted by the lure of cheap tentage, it is a false economy.
Some of the rest of the day was spent doing shifts on the car park and as usual I enjoyed talking with other members of the team, seeing the guests arrive with hugely differing amounts of kit and gazing over the lovely surroundings while a keening buzzard wheeled over the main site. Especially lovely was catching up with John Morgan who back in the 80s bravely brought a whole slew of great bands to Herefordshire. These included The Bhundu Boys who I ended up on stage with singing a Zimbabwean football chant and South African township legends Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. I may or may not have spoken to the DJ one Pete Lawrence on one of those nights at Wormelow. I certainly danced like a mad thing with Kate Doody at the former, because I remember the evening light on the drive down. So what goes around comes around, connections, connections.
Although it is less than a week ago, it’s all a bit of a blur because what came next was so intense for want of a better word. In short, Friday was a lot of running around
Saturday morning was all go, for Stas and I had been tasked with management of the main stage by Pete Blunt, the event manager. This was a remarkable act of faith on his part and I hereby want to say thank you and take my fedora off to him, because Pete worked tirelessly and with exceeding good humour all weekend to make Campfire Convention the truly memorable event that it was. Take a bow Pete.
The other Pete - Pete Lawrence – the man who dreamed Campfire up, the Firestarter if you like, was first up on stage with some welcoming words, outlining his ideas for the network and The Convention and then in no time it was time for one of the main draws of the weekend, Brian Eno.
I can’t quite place when I became aware of Eno, maybe from this great performance by Roxy Music on the Old Grey Whistle Test, but I know when I first really took note. It was when best friend Wol appeared with a copy of the Kevin Ayers and friends live lp, June 1st 1974 ’borrowed’ I believe from his brother and with a ticket from the actual concert at The Rainbow sellotaped to the cover. On this record was Eno singing and playing Baby’s on Fire. That song was different to the other stuff I was listening to back then and made a real impression. That Eno was a thinker came a bit later when I first became aware of the Oblique Strategies deck devised by him and Peter Schmidt, though it was to be many years before I actually encountered and gave the cards a try. Anyhow, Eno’s work and ideas have been on my horizon ever since, just like they have been for countless others. In other words, Eno’s a bit of a legend and consequently I was quite excited at the prospect of perhaps saying, ‘Five minutes Mr Eno’ before his going on stage. Little did I know beforehand that I might actually share a stage at Campfire.
Eno’s job as keynote speaker was to deliver a broad vision of how the world is and how it might be. This is no small task even for a polymath and Eno, clearly a massive reader, had a large sheaf of notes including many significant quotes. Everything was going swimmingly until a gust of wind, the same wind that had demolished the gazebo, picked up Eno’s papers from where they had been stuck with double-sided tape to the table beside his lectern and scattered them around the stage. Quickly I ran up, gathered them and placed them under his water bottle and returned to my place beside the stage. A few minutes on and it became apparent that this arrangement was not going to work and the great man invited me on stage to be his paper wrangler. This was all good until the point came when our esteemed speaker realised he was missing a vital quote and an observant member of the audience pointed out that the relevant page was probably behind the stage. Well there was nothing else for it but to get on my belly and reach down for it. Somewhat undignified I know, but I fished the missing page out from its hiding place and the show could go on. Embarrassing? Not really, it helped break the ice, make things real for Campfire isn’t about slick.
So if anybody has the photo of my boots sticking up and me actually stage diving with Brian Eno, do please share it. But it’s no matter if the photo doesn’t exist, it is after all about being in the moment, the story is there for the telling. You should also know that Brian and I are now on speaking terms though we have yet to thrash out the thorny issue of nuclear power yes or no, in the context of the climate crisis.
The rest of the day was made up of panel discussions interspersed with music and I am proud to say that with the aid of a cheap plastic clock taped to the side of the stage we kept pretty bang on schedule. Debbie’s inclusive and quiet chairing of the session grandly titled ‘Let the grand correction commence’ was a marvel and Marva, unable to take part in person, was beamed in on skype thanks to t’other Richard’s technical nous. Eno reappeared for the session on Universal Basic Income but the session that slayed me was the one on ‘Homegrown activists’.
On the panel for this session were Caroline Kerr, Rob Lawrie, Lea Beven and Neezo Swansea Dhan, each of whom had a very personal story of how they had become involved in helping with the refugee crisis. John Lydon once sang and Arundhati Roy once told me that anger is an energy and of course it can be a strong motivator for protest and campaigning. What was interesting for me is that these extraordinary campaigners were primarily driven by compassion. Their stories brought tears to many eyes but more than that inspired many to action. I won’t try and give a precis of all that was said but here’s something tangible that came out of the weekend. Rob Lawrie has a heart-wrenching story that some of you may have heard wherein he very nearly ended up in gaol for a long stretch because his emotions over-ruled his head. Rob attempted to smuggle an Afghan child from the Calais jungle to reunite her with her family in the UK. He was found out and the repercussions on his personal life have been immense but the French court came to a just decision and he was spared a sentence. Still determined to do what he can for the child refugees he spoke from the stage of his plan to cycle this week from Leeds to Calais as a fundraiser and his need of a support team to join him on his adventure. Rather marvellously this appeal didn’t fall on deaf ears. In particular they spoke to young Jack, a boy in search of adventure, who begged his Mum, Sarah, to be first in the queue to offer their services lest they miss the opportunity. Sarah, being the kind of person she is, thought, well we have six weeks of school holiday and no plan, so why not? Add in a documentary maker who wanted to film the event and now that particular party is on the road. This, in my books at least, is dead cool.
And so to the music, which as you know is a large part of what I’m about, because it’s not my revolution if you can’t dance to it and all that malarkey. Also note, and I’m with Kate here and I know Rachel agrees, it’s also got to be a laugh. Let’s all now solemnly swear to keep our sense of humour at all times…
Adrian Legg's lunchtime slot was a pleasure as anybody who has heard the guitar wizard play already knows – a technician with soul. I had never met Adrian before but for the record he is a true gentleman. Accordion and harmonica duo, Will Pound and Eddy Jay, were new to me but won me and many of the audience over almost instantly – again, just fantastic musicianship. What I loved about their set is how the dancing changed according to the musical style. The cheeky Charleston performed by a couple among the bales was a favourite as were the couple playing matador and bull to the tango. At one point in the set, Stas who is out front, signals to me and points to one of the dancers like I should know her. Increasingly myopic, it is not until I am standing right in front of the whirling dervish that I realise it is cellist, Julia Palmer-Price, in full festi-gal garb (plats and boots) and spirit. This is the first time she’s ever paid for a festival ticket, Julia tells me.
Go back twenty-five or so years to Glastonbury festival - surprisingly the last one I ever went to - it’s completely full-on, (but that’s another blog as long as this one) and the family is running the backstage bar for the World Music Stage as it was then. Not long before they’re due to perform, Edward II arrive; well most of them, for they are missing their drummer, somewhat essential for a band that plays traditional English folk tunes over reggae rhythms. Undeterred they appeal for a drummer from the crowd - one who knows the ‘one drop’. A bloke ambles up from the audience, a brief conflab, it’s ok he’s from Bristol, and they’re off – a true Glasto moment. Back to the present, I tell this story to Jon Moore, the band’s longstanding guitarist and he is delighted to have someone who remembered that gig.
Edward II are one of the most joyous bands I have ever encountered and were a fitting choice for headlining Campfire Convention, given their combination of the urban and the pastoral, the mix of cultures producing music with a particular hybrid vigour. Right now they are a band that are truly enjoying what they’re doing. It’s evident from the banter. While they were sound-checking, John produced a fake echo to Glen’s vocals, such that the singer got mildly confused causing delighted chuckles from his bandmates.
Announcing the band, I looked out at the most idyllic scene, lots of happy people, some beautiful countryside and a half moon, grown from the crescent that had hung over the wedding party I’d been at the week before. The set was brilliant, including most, if not all, of their songs from Manchester’s Improving Daily, their latest project that charts Manchester’s industrial heritage. It’s all there, the roots rock underpinning of David and Tee, Simon’s melodeon wending its way through the rhythms somewhat like Augustus Pablo’s melodica, John’s Rico-like trombone (I love a band with a trombone) and Jon’s plangent notes from his Fender sounding for all the world like prime-time Wailers. Everybody loves reggae and we all danced. Special mention must go to Jennifer Reid, the ‘Broadside Balladress’, who interspersed the band’s songs with a smattering of folk songs and a wonderful recitation of Victoria Bridge on a Saturday Night. (People you will be pleased to know that she will be coming to the Wild Hare Club very soon). By the time Edward II had launched into a rendition of sweet Gregory Isaac’s classic Night Nurse, there was a general feeling of natural euphoria which was to carry on into Greg Wilson’s tremendous DJ-set.
What to say? Greg Wilson is in a different league to most DJs and the set had everyone and not just Chrissie, who’s birthday it was, whooping it up. The woman in question was flinging her arms high and jumping up and down like a Mexican been while Greg hunched over his Revox and mixed the obscure and the familiar in a pretty heady brew that none of us wanted to end. When he did finish, we demanded an encore and were given the spaciest mix of Space Oddity that we could imagine and as we all sang along, I found myself seeing Thursday night’s shooting star again and once more remembering the man who fell to Earth.
Pretty tired and emotional, but not quite yet in the Private Eye sense, Chrissie, Stas and I followed the magical winding trail to the campfire, illuminated by a simple string of fairy lights. Here we hunkered down with Julia and her fellow musician friend, double bass player and flautist, Heather. Lying back, warmed by the fire and looking into the night sky framed by the tops of the trees, there could be no better place to be, though I was sorry to have missed their campfire improvisations. Then a bit later, a fiddle player appears, Julia whips out her cello and the tunes come spilling out, the sound of wood singing.
3 o’clock in the morning and we’re finally heading back to our tent, I was somewhat aghast when Chrissie suggested we look into the pub. To my amazement, Glyn the landlord was still up and beaming. No publican has a right to be that jolly after working so bloody hard. In fact, all the staff at The Bridge Inn were brilliant all weekend and a large reason why I didn’t hear a single word of disgruntlement over the entire Convention weekend. So back to the narrative: Chrissie and Rachel ordered a cider. Luckily, just as I was wavering, the rational me, guided by Stas, wrestled the one that hates to leave a good time to the ground and I bid them all good night. Still I will return to The Bridge Inn, as will some of you, because it is a natural home for The Wild Hare Club and Glyn is definitely up for it.
I’ll be honest, I was a bit washed out on Sunday morning, but that didn’t stop me being totally focused on the words of campaigners’ campaigner, Scilla Elworthy. Author of Pioneering the Possible. I had met Scilla the previous day and was delighted when she brought a big bucket of white lilies to place in front of the stage, only minutes after I had said we needed some flowers and should pick some buddleia to add that splash of colour/thoughtful touch. Synchronicity as Chrissie says. However, she seemed familiar and I was certainly aware of her work with the Oxford Research Group. Maybe I’d come across her when Stas and I were involved in the anti-nuclear campaigning of the early 1980s or during my first summer with Greenpeace when I went from protest to protest, from being locked to a truck carrying nuclear waste at a motorway service station near Sellafield to the French Ambassador’s roof, taking action against French nuclear testing. Scilla’s wisdom is extensive, but perhaps her key learning was that to effect change, you have to get to know why the decision makers act the way they do and to do this you must first listen. Only by getting to know what they think and what makes them tick can you truly engage and perhaps begin to unpick a warped belief or logic. It’s all about relationships – those were the words I always gave to new campaigners at Greenpeace.
Scilla’s talk was wide-ranging and full of inspiring stories such as that of the Congolese campaigner, Henri Bury Ladyi, who for years went deep into the forest with a herd of goats to negotiate with hungry militia men the release of children kidnapped to become child soldiers. Over the years, this extraordinarily brave man has struck thousands of deals, whereby goats were swapped for traumatised children who then need years of care to overcome the trauma and lead a normal life.
She ended with the idea that if you personally want to make the world a better, fairer place then you should see what truly breaks your heart and then apply your skills. It’s something many at Campfire have done already, especially our homegrown refugee campaigners. For me, these words were another prod that may just get the ball rolling on a project I have been thinking about for a couple of years, I hope so because those words are still resonating.
The rest of my Sunday was spent catching up and talking with the various friends I’d invited to campfire and then promptly neglected. But as Siobhan says, they’re all grown-ups and can look after themselves. When we did assemble it was interesting to hear of the connections they’d made. Danny, who Stas and I first met when we were all members of different London affinity groups carrying out non-violent direct actions against nuclear weapons is someone we had really lost touch with but had recently reconnected via facebook – (it has its uses). I suggested he meet us at Campfire Convention as I thought it would be up his street and so it has proved to be. Now a Professor in development studies based in Sussex, he stepped up to the microphone a couple of times and, as ever, asked some challenging questions, which is what we must do if we really want to develop a progressive community. Among the people Danny will hook up with is Scilla. Siobhan and Sam from Aberystwyth also enjoyed themselves even though Sam seemed tethered to Django (handsome Welsh collie) for the duration. Siobhan made her number with Annemarie to talk bees at greater length in the not-to-distant future and so the hive grows and the hum gets louder.
A mango ice cream cone from Juliette in the Shepherds van (not a long way for her and Martin to travel over the hill) and it was time to roll up the tent, gather Chrissie and her still not inconsiderable amount of luggage and trundle back home. Tea and scrambled egg and a gentle come-down around the kitchen table extended into an extra day of holiday on Monday, showing Chrissie the garden and forging the kind of friendship that will last a lifetime. The garden was looking its best in the August sunshine as a dragonfly hawked its way around the herbaceous border.
"One of those days in England with a sword in every pond
And birds in every garden in the land
One of those days in England when the passion never ends
A slowly moving season by the fire of my friends."
As the Roy Harper song would have it.
After dropping Chrissie back at the station, time came to go on-line after a happy few days of being in the moment, talking face-to-face with lovely, huggable, largely unwashed people. (Yes, I resisted hooking up into the miraculous network Richard Thanki had set up for the site – something of a doddle apparently for someone used to setting up systems with The Worldwide Tribe).
First up is a skype message from old Greenpeace mucker, Phil. Haven’t heard from him for a while I thought and opened it up, still humming “One of those days in England that you said could never end…” It was then that I read the words that told me that our friend Ilona had died the previous afternoon. Sweet Ilona, a gentle soul still to hold her 40th birthday party, the cleanest-living of all my friends, the quiet, contained centre of our international team of oceans campaigners. Ilona made so many things possible, mainly by graciously doing the boring but essential tasks that are more often than not, utterly thankless. I tried to remember to say thank you, especially when she got me out of a jam which was fairly frequently, but I don’t know if Ilona ever knew quite how much we all loved and appreciated her.
Ilona died of an aggressive cancer, I had only learned that she was ill the previous week. All so sudden and so unfair. Life is unfair and there’s nothing we can do to change that, but society doesn’t have to be unfair and we can change that. Ilona would have enjoyed Campfire Convention (she was due to come to England this summer) and I can picture her sitting, listening intently, on a hay bale or, more than likely, receiving or giving a massage in the healing field. She’d have appreciated the feel and underlying shared desire for a kinder world.
Next week two other members of our close-knit Greenpeace oceans family, Karli and Farah, are coming to visit. We will plant a tree for Ilona, tell stories and maybe, if the weather’s fine, stare into a campfire.
Look after yourselves and each precious other.