Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Rickmansworth Canal Festival 2008

As I mentioned in a previous post, my wife Dawn has been setting up her own business for the last few months and today was her first proper show; her first practice at setting up a stall, developing her sales pitch and banter and her first taste of what products sell. Or not as the case may be. She chose the Rickmansworth Canal Festival for her baptism of fire (or water) as it's a nice location and it's just half an hour away.

Where does that expression 'baptism of fire' come from anyway? Who in Hell would ever use fire at a baptism? Oh, I see. I've sort of answered my own question there, haven't I?

It was very picturesque down by the canal. However, Saturday (it's a two day event) was overcast, cold and it rained a lot so I didn't get any happy looking pictures of the narrowboats. Today we had better weather but whenever I went near the water, the clouds rolled in and the Sun hid itself away. So I've borrowed these two photos of last year's show (above) from a FLICKR gallery owned by Dr Pete. Thanks Pete! All the other photos are mine, however.

So, in between showers, we got the stall set up and it looked pretty good. Dawn sells luxury bath products so the stall smelled great too. We had a roller banner made up with the company logo, designed and executed by my good mate James Murphy which attracted a lot of positive comments. And so the show began. People strolled in and out of the stall, sniffing the bath bombs, oohing and aahing over the fancy soaps and - best of all - buying stuff. I soon felt like a spare limb and it didn't take long before I got itchy feet (I guess I must have been a spare leg?). So Dawn sent me off to wander around the show and see what I could see. She knows how much I enjoy a good mooch around.

The first thing I encountered was a bubble; a huge bubble the size of Clive Anderson's head that just came at me out of nowhere and burst on the tip of my nose, wetting my face and filling my eyes with what felt like very cheap Mace. Just a few stalls down from Dawn, there was a guy selling these special wand-shaped thingumies that allowed you to make giant soap bubbles. As he was running an almost constant demonstration - and also selling a few of them to the more hyperactive bubble-loving kids - there were large bubbles floating around all over the place like globular rainbow-coloured clouds. Most of the time they burst when they came in contact with anything (like my nose) but, a couple of times, they just clung to things until nature took its course. These bubble photos (below) are among my favourites that I took over the two days. In one, the guy looks like he has some ghastly kind of testicular outgrowth. In another, it looks as if the blue dolphin has blown the bubble above the browsers' heads with the intent of soaking them when they stand up. They're quite beautiful aren't they? The bubbles I mean ...

As befits a country show, there were plenty of stalls selling home produce like cheese and cakes and jams. There were plenty of hot food stalls too and a well-patronised beer tent with a reasonable selection of real cask ales. Hoorah. On the floodlit stage we were treated to a local 'Battle of the bands' on the Saturday night. Some were very good. Others were ... well, they were just noisy. I'm not my father and I don't condemn 'young people's music' out of hand. But I do insist on instruments being in tune and band members at least attempting to all play in the same key. Or close to the same key at the very least. Before this event, we'd been treated to Ricky's Got Talent, a talent show hosted by some rambling old octogenarian who rewarded the various acts with tins of custard. It was all very surreal. Oh, Dawn's just told me that he was a comedian. I am genuinely surprised to hear that. What I assumed to be senile dementia was apparently his act. Oh dear. On Sunday morning, we were treated to a selection of hymns, some choral groups and jazz. Nice.

There was a fairground on site with its usual wurlitzers, spinning cups, ghost trains, and dodgems. Dodgems or bumper cars? Is the point to miss the other cars or crash into them? I get confused. There were bouncy castles, tombolas and shooting galleries, coconut shys, and a demonstration of mediaeval cookery (with a free side order of cholera). And, to my delight, there was a 'Crockery Smash' where punters paid a few quid to lob wooden balls at a selection of charity shop china with the intention of smashing as much as possible. There were no prizes to be awarded - the gratification of pure unadulterated vandalism was its own reward - and was very popular. As I discussed in my post Welcome to Vandaland back in March, we all secretly yearn to smash stuff. It's in our natures. These poor guys (below) had the unenviable job of clearing up the mess after every chaotic round of destruction. Nice pants.

Talking of nice pants, I apologise right now for the unflattering photo of the young lady in the purple jodhpurs. But it was her choice to wear them, not mine. She was looking after the wonderful Shire Horse you can see in the photo. Mr Horse was a very popular attraction, as was the The Petting Zoo next door. It had nothing more exotic to offer than rabbits, sheep and goats but it still attracted more of a crowd than most of the bands on stage.

While passing the zoo, I overheard a great snippet of conversation. An elderly lady was telling her (presumed) grandson, 'You can tell the difference between goats and sheep because goats' tails go up and sheeps' tails go down.' Oh, so nothing to do with the fact that they look like two totally different species then? That's like identifying the difference between dogs and cats because 'one has a tail that wags when it's happy, the other when it's angry.'

Now, you can't have any kind of country show without Morris Dancers. And good thing too. I love Morris. When it’s done well, it’s incredibly entertaining. You go and see Bellowhead performing live with Morris Men or Sword Dancers and tell me it’s not a spectacle to behold. Morris should be energetic, fast-paced and violent; if you get twatted with a stick, it bloody hurts. And so it should! Morris is a stylised form of warfare set to music - the teams are even called ‘Sides’. I once saw a t-shirt at a festival that said ‘Only real men Morris’ . So why does it have such a dreadfully wet reputation? Probably because some old fuddy-duddies insisted on making it less dangerous. Which means that most people think of Morris Dancing as a bunch of beardy off-duty accountants prancing around in their cricket whites at school fetes and trying hard not to bark each other's knuckles.

No! No! No! That's not the spirit of Morris!

The origins of Morris dancing are confused, to say the least, but it's very probably a dance that celebrates the Christian war against the Spanish Moors. It evolved from the Morisco, which shares a common origin with the Fandango (How about that? Morris dancing so nearly gets a mention in Bohemian Rhapsody). In 15th century France, there was a dance known as the Morisque, which could have been the evolutionary step between Morisco and Morris. Older forms of the dance involved blacking the face with soot to mimic the Moors' dark skin. Sadly, Blackface Morris has fallen out of favour due to the PC Brigade completely misconstruing what it represents.

Morris should be about passion and conquest and conflict. It should never ever be boring or twee. By all means let’s have some safe displays to keep the hobbyists happy but let’s also embrace the spirit of Morris. This is a people's dance, a commoner's dance. It should not be bound by rules of convention. I’m pleased to say that there are now mixed sex sides, and all women sides, and sides that dress up as demons or bikers or the droogs from A clockwork orange. There's a side that jangles body jewellery and piercings along with their bells. There's even a nudist Morris side though I'm almost scared to imagine what they whack each other with.

This 'Ricky' Side were a mixed sex and mixed age group; very entertaining and energetic. And they had a nice take on props including what looked to be a basket-woven bird's head. Or maybe it was an earwig's arse? It was hard to tell, to be honest.

Lastly, I must talk about Fortune Tellers. There's usually at least one at an event like this and sure enough I soon found her tiny caravan - very reminiscent of the one in the Father Ted episode called 'Hell', as it happens. I won't embarrass her by naming her as she really was quite sweet in her own deluded way, but I will tell you all about the nonsense she tried to feed me. Promising that she'd help me 'go away with a contented mind', the fortune teller (let's call her Clair. Clair Voyant. Fnar.) was a kindly-faced, middle-aged lady with twinkling eyes and a bosom like two labradors hiding inside a duvet cover. She beckoned me inside and I went. Of course, I don't believe in any of this drivel, but I was keen to hear what she had to say.

Basically, what she said was .... bollocks. I paid my money (forget crossing palms with silver - it's all notes nowadays) and she held my hands and looked into my face. And the first thing she told me was that I was a kind man. Hmmm ... Now, I know how these people work. They start by offering you a series of bland, non-specific statements that could apply to anyone. They're usually quite complimentary and because we all like a bit of ego-stroking, we start to see ourselves in their words. Then, once they've warmed us up, they move on to the good stuff. By listening to our answers and watching for visual cues, they steer us along, appearing to become ever more accurate in their predictions.

She must have hated me. I wanted her to work for her money so I was deliberately coy and gave her next to nothing to work with. I hardly spoke, I put on my best poker face and I endeavoured to provide as few visual cues as I could. In terms of my body language, I was a mute. As the result, she floundered. She began a fishing expedition to rival any that was going on in the nearby lake. She told me that I was a good man. She told me that I'd die in my bed with my marbles intact at the age of 87 (as opposed to screaming in agony while some nutjob carves me into pieces with a bonesaw). She dropped in innocuous little questions like 'You help others don't you?' or 'I see water ... does that mean anything?' hoping to find anything she could build on, but she got no help from me. She fished and fished and fished and then, in the end, simply asked me, 'What do you do for a living sir?' She also didn't know if I was married or not. Having lost so much weight last year, my wedding ring is now too big for my fingers so I rarely wear it. Again, lots of fishing but, after several minutes, she asked me 'Are you married?'

'You tell me', I replied. 'You're the one with the crystal ball.'

Bless her, she was sweet. Mad as a bucket of hedgehogs, but sweet all the same. And she was canny. She soon figured out that I was giving her short shrift. So, in a final flurry of clairvoyancy, she told me that the next five years are going to be better than the last five years and that my lucky number is 19. She also said some lovely things about my daughter who was in the caravan with me. Except that she's actually my niece. Oh dear, oh dear. I thanked her for her time and left. Basically, I'd just spent over a tenner to be asked a bunch of questions to which she didn't know the answers. Hang on ... who's the fool here?

When you watch a smooth, experienced operator like this in action it's easy to see how people are taken in. But, as my 13 year old niece shrewdly pointed out, had she been sat having exactly the same reading, much of what 'Clair' had said would have applied to her too. It's all a game. A clever one, admittedly. But people like Derren Brown have clearly shown us how easy it to fool people. Which is why I have no time for fortune tellers, clairvoyants, mediums or Tarot card readers - no matter how big their bosom. I don't believe in their supposed powers. Some of them may genuinely may believe in what they do ... but I suspect that most of them just hope that we do.

So, an interesting couple of days. And thoroughly enjoyable. It's a shame that the weather was a bit crappy but it didn't seem to spoil it for people. And what a nice bunch of people they were.


The Factory said...

Have I misunderstood, or are you suggesting that Morris dancing is in some way related to the exploits of El Cid ? If so that's fascinating because I am kinda living in El Cid's battleground, in fact one of the main streets in Valencia is called 'Avenida El Cid'. I'd better get my bells out (insert ooer here if you like).

Makes me a bit homesick this post though, country fetes, jam, people sheltering from the rain, bizarre entertainment. Typicially British, rather wonderful and impossible to explain to anyone else. Nice.

Stevyn Colgan said...

As I said, the origins are a bit muddled and I've read theories ranging from fertility dances to war dances and everything in between - birth to death with bells on. But the 'Morisco' link seems favourite among aficionados at the moment.

For the record, I have never Morrised though I'd happily give it a go. I love watching a really good side in action.

If you want to feel even more homesick, there's a book I read last year called (wait for it) 'A Fete worse than death' (fnar!) by Iain Aitch in which he sets off to visit as many as possible. Very funny. Or try J R Daeschner's 'True Brits' where he (an American) tries to make sense of great British traditions like mob football, shin kicking, bog snorkelling, cheese rolling and carrying flaming barrels of tar through the streets.

The sun's is out here today. Yay.

The Factory said...

I wonder what the locals would think if I popped some bells on my knees, picked up a couple of sticks and went for a 'Morris' in the city centre as a tribute to their great hero, Charlton Heston ? I suspect I'd be beaten rather fiercely.

Raining here still.

Stevyn Colgan said...

I suspect they'd say 'Oh look. He must be British'. And then beat you up.

Raining here now. Sigh.

Blog Princess G said...

I particularly like the shot of the Frying Dutchman food van. I've only seen that reference on The Simpsons. As for the Morris dancers, we have a heap of teams here in Toronto. They get together at dawn every May day, and other days. I'd like to see a good, scary one. It seems waving hankies and slapping sticks together wouldn't scare anyone if this is about military scare tactics.

Lavinia Ladyslipper said...

I have an old book, "The Waterways of Britain".

I have always wanted to meander down the canals and waterways of Europe on a houseboat barge.

Thanks for the pics.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Lavinia - it's as gorgeous and serene as you'd imagine it to be ... except for the toilets. For my 40th birthday a few years ago, I was given a long weekend on a narrowboat. We chugged up and down the Hertfordshire chunk of the Grand Union Canal and it was wonderful. I have lots of fond memories and some great photos. I did write the experience up as a feature, so I may make it into blog post in the near future ... Summer's coming; we need Summery stories.

BritGal' Sarah said...

OMG where do you live? First of all Berko and now Ricky! I grew up in Bovingdon, then Chenies, schooled in Chorleywood, socialised in Chorleywood and Ricky until 2005 when I immigrated and lived in Watford for 10 yrs. I am so pleased I found your site!

I went to this fair for years and I was scanning your piccies to see familiar!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Bovvy, eh? I've been to the market a couple of times. Yes, I'm just down the road at Hazlemere - halfway between High Wycombe and Amersham - so all of these places are familiar to me too. I'm usually out and about so if you ever want anything photographed so you can see what it's like today, send me a comment or email and I'll snap it next time I'm passing.

Nice to have you on board!