Friday, 18 July 2014

The Changes

In 1976, when I was 8 years old, BBC Children's TV broadcast one of the most terrifying sci-fi programmes ever made – The Changes. It gave me nightmares for weeks. Along with other classics such as The Children of the Stones, and various Public Service Broadcasts, graphically warning, amongst other things, of the dangers of flying kites near pylons, The Changes inspired a generation of Acid Folk bands, not to mention the ubiquitous Scarfolk. Apocalyptic, dystopian, the memory of it haunts me still.

In The Changes, a mysterious force causes people to run amok, smashing all technology. The heroine, Nicky, gets left behind when her parents flee, and she has to somehow find the cause of the changes. I watched through my fingers.

However, I'm delighted to learn that the BFI are finally putting to rest the conspiracy theories, that the programme was simply too frightening to be shown again, and are releasing The Changes on DVD.

For after nearly forty years, I might just find closure.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Glastonbury 2014

Telling the Bees played Glastonbury this year, two gorgeous gigs courtesy of the Toad Hall stage in the Green Futures field.

I took the family too but whereas I had to wait twenty one years for my first Glastonbury, Minka had to wait just six months. I don't remember much about mine other than that we camped in the King's Meadow (what's now the Stone Circle field). I wonder how much Minka will remember of hers?

We thought long and hard about whether we should all go, but as we were staying nearby at a friend's house, and as we tend to lurk up in the Green Fields out of harm's way, we figured it was ok. Minka slept through most of it.

Going to a festival as a parent is undoubtedly a very different experience but I've never had much interest in the Glastonbury you see on the telly. I didn't feel I was missing anything. I prefer to give myself over to the festival gods and let them direct me where they will. With so much creativity on hand, there are many strange and wonderful experiences to be had.

Three stand out. I'd not long arrived when I met a friend under the spreading branches of the King's Oak. In a moment of real connection we shared tea and sympathy. That encounter helped me arrive.

The next day I got chatting to one of the inventors of the Anthropical Organ, a midi-powered mechanical organ that plays drum 'n bass rather than the Victorian oompah music you'd expect. It delights me that there are people out there inspired enough to work for months just to make such an extraordinary device. 

And finally I met a man who was recovering from a major stroke. We got talking and he told me that as it happened he had a near-death experience. He found himself flying high over the fields of England in a state of utter bliss. Now he's lost his fear of death completely.

So I say, trust in the festival gods and they'll always smile on you. The Glastonbury magic is there if you look for it.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Summer Solstice sunrise

Sunrise from Nattadon Hill
The Solstice Horn

Sun over the graveyard

Back in the village

Friday, 13 June 2014


It's easy to miss the sign for Altarnun as you hoof back up out of Cornwall on the A30, just another colourfully named village that you know you'll never visit. In my case, however, I've been trying to get to Altarnun for years. Once I made the detour only to find that the way was blocked with roadworks. More often I've been in too much of a hurry to get home. Well, last week, and in spite of some less-than-helpful road signs, I finally got there. It was well worth the wait.

I wanted to look inside the church for in bagpiping circles it has totemic significance.

Why? Because on one of the bench ends there is a stunning, late-medieval carving of a bagpiper.

It was rather difficult to photograph on my crummy phone but you can perhaps get an idea of the detail. The pipes even have fingerholes. What has excited organologists is that these bagpipes have two chanters, so our Altarnun piper was probably playing rudimentary harmonies. That he is in Cornwall has led many to suppose that these were Cornish bagpipes, and consequently there's been a Cornish bagpipe revival with various attempts to reconstruct the Altarnun pipes.  

In fact – and with all due respect to the land of my forefathers – there's nothing especially Cornish about two-chantered pipes (event though there are several other examples in the Duchy). As representations of them are found across England (and in Wales too, I believe), they must have been a reasonably common occurrence before bagpipes started to disappear from the Southern soundscape. Not that this matters, as in my book a bagpipe revival is always a good thing.

Nor does it take away from the skill of the wood-carver, one Robert Daye (if wikipedia is to be believed) working between 1510-30. What I hadn't realised is that the church is simply brimming with his beautifully carved bench-ends - 79 in total.

My favourites included a fiddler (holding the fiddle just as they do in Eastern Europe today)…

…and a fool, so vivid you can almost hear his bells…

…and some kind of sea monster, like a modern tattoo…

They reminded me of a set of tarot cards, and like the tarot these carvings are little windows onto a forgotten world, one that's been quietly preserved in an enchanting Cornish church on the edge of Bodmin Moor. 

I should definitely make more time for detours.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Museum of British Folklore

I first came across Simon Costin's Museum of British Folklore a few years ago, when Telling the Bees played Festival at the Edge. Then, the Museum was just a beautifully decorated caravan, filled with rare objects from our islands' strange and colourful folk history. I could see that our heritage was in safe hands.

Now the Museum is looking for your help to raise the money for a permanent building to house its growing collection. Obviously, this is a subject that is close to my heart but I think such a museum would have national and international importance. It needs to happen. So check out this promo video, spread the word, and see what you can do to get this invaluable project off the ground.

Saturday, 7 June 2014


My first encounter with the bourrée was via Jethro Tull...

...and their jazzed-up take on J. S. Bach's Bourrée in Em.

Though you can't really hear it in either of these versions, the bourrée is, in fact, a French folk dance, especially associated with the Auvergne and the Massif Central. It exists in two forms – the two time and the three – but it's the three time that particularly excites me.

Whether played on fiddle, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, accordion, banjo or sung, musicians tap out the rhythm with their feet. (The fiddler is Basile Brémaud, should you wish to check him out.)

Trad French players aren't afraid to get a little tripped out...

...because there's something hypnotic about that relentless dang-dagga-dagga, dang-dagga-dagga. It may have started as a dance of flirtation or display, but in the right hands it has become something far more intense.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Helston Flora Day

My in-laws live in the gritty Cornish town of Helston and so I visit fairly frequently, but up until now I've never made it down for Flora Day to see the Furry Dance (on or around May 8th).

Locals and shopkeepers festoon the place with flowers (it is, apparently, the only place in Britain where it's legal to pick bluebells, so no letters please).

This is the famous Blue Anchor pub, home of the notoriously strong Spingo Ale. Here, I'm told, you can take the Spingo Challenge. If you can down, and keep down, ten pints of the stuff, and exit without touching the wall, then the pub is yours. Needless to say, no one has ever succeeded.

Flora Day actually consists of two events. The Hal-an-Tow starts at 8.30am. It's a curious mix. It's part 1930s pageant (which is when it was revived, having been discouraged by those humourless Victorians)...

It's part Cornish Nationalist rally, with a declaration in Cornish, some (good-humoured) jibes directed at the English, and plenty of Oggy Oggy Oggying...

It's part Mystery or Mummer's play, with tableau quickly enacted to illustrate the words of the famous Hal-an-Tow song, belted out with gusto...

And it's part neo-pagan ritual celebrating the return of the spring...

Despite the Cornish mizzle, I found it uplifting and moving. The enthusiasm of the participants and the delight with which they enacted their parts were infectious.

Then there is the Furry Dance itself. According to Ronald Hutton, the first mention of any Mayish activities in Helston is in 1600, but the dance is the last surviving Cornish Processional Dance (of which there were once many). It became popular, and formalised, in the nineteenth century, a legacy that remains, giving it the feel of something out of Trumpton

There are four dances throughout the day, each processing right round the town and in and out of select shops and houses. They're driven along by the Helston Town Band playing that tune.

If it's a contender for the most irritating tune ever written then that's only because some of us are old enough to remember Terry Wogan's ghastly 1978 chart-topping rendition of the song (which is a later addition). In fact the tune is full of pomp and brilliantly infectious. It echoes round the streets and does the job of spurring the dancers on.

All the local school kids appear in the Children's Dance, the teenagers with rather less enthusiasm than the youngsters.

But the main event is the Furry Dance itself. It's as if Ascot Ladies Day was suddenly and inexplicably possessed by the spirit of Pan.

In some ways I preferred Helston to Padstow. The boundary between insider and outsider was less rigorously defended and consequently I felt more able to partake in that feeling of festival effervescence. Yes, it's quirky and at times distinctly odd... 


But as ever, my heart lifts when, no matter the occasion, the bunting comes out and people take to the streets.