Car free festival
The annual Bristol Harbourside Festival attracts hordes of people from near and far (some 250,000 this year, it’s estimated) to the wharves and waterfront cobbles around the dock basin which was once the city’s commercial heart. Stages are set up in naturally suitable nooks, squares and amphitheatres, and stalls line the paths, offering all manner of foods whose scents combine as you wander by, reflecting the historically diverse mix of people which this port town has always harboured. Numerous community and green organisations also have tents or sheds from which they promote their ideals and practical local schemes, all of which demonstrates what a centre for alternative ideas Bristol has become. One of the incidental pleasures of the festival comes from the closing down of surrounding roads, allowing the city to breathe, and creating a more relaxed atmosphere, free from the niggling tensions the constant, jostling presence of traffic creates. In fact, the blocking off of roads has become a regular occurrence in Bristol, once a semi-legal gesture towards reclaiming the streets from the choking tyranny of the car, and now given the official imprimatur of the mayor. No wonder Sustrans chose to set up their headquarters in the city.
Swindon Dance Urban Youth Dance AcademyThere was a sense of urgency about proceedings this year. On Saturday, the weather forecast confidently predicted that the skies would open sometime in mid-afternoon, so the onus was on enjoying as much as possible outdoors before having to seek shelter or find indoor entertainment. The dance stage is always a highlight for me, with some fine local groups performing in a wide range of styles. There were some amazing young dancers, whose commitment, control and sheer energy was a joy to behold. The Bristol-based Hype Dance company spanned the age range (and comparative sizes) of the teens and their street dance (please excuse an old fogie his imprecise categorisation) was vital and full of sass. CVS, resplendent in electric blue, spun and kicked high with swinging jazz styles. The teenagers of the Swindon Dance Urban Youth Dance Academy had great fun with some Hindi pop routines, all crouched postures and angularly raised arms. The pleasure which all these groups evinced, their enjoyment of their first moments in the spotlight, was hugely infectious.
Alejandra Velasco making flamenco shapesThere was also some fine flamenco from Alejandra Velasco, the Madrid-born dancer who now lives in Cardiff, where she also teaches dance (as she does in the Tobacco Factory and Cotham School Dance Studios in Bristol, as well). She was accompanied by guitar, violin and wooden tea-chest beat box, along with the odd outburst of polyrhythmic handclapping. Dressed in pure white, she threw some exquisitely sensual shapes, arms raised elegantly above the head before being flung down to the sides with angry passion. Her stamping feet provided their own rhythmic counterpoint, thundering out imperiously commanding rolls on the wooden boards.
Plague in a more restrained momentProviding a total contrast, the Plague street dance company brought their hip-hop styles to the stage for an explosive 15 minutes. Twice winners of the HHI (Hip Hop International) World Hip Hop Dance Championships, they displayed their effortless command of various forms in what amounted to a condensed history of modern street dancing, from breakdancing and robotic popping and locking through to contemporary styles. Some of their moves were astonishingly athletic, a kind of stunt dance which left you half wincing for fear of the damage which might be done, and then applauding when they pulled it off, cockily gesturing for due recognition. Other moves relied more on small and nuanced gestures, with co-ordinated group choreography rather than individual display. The whole was a breathless experience, and received a rapturous response.
The Thekla todayThere was music outside the Thekla, the massive German-built ship which used to haul loads of timber around the Baltic. It now operates as a music venue, and I was particularly keen to look around due to its association with Vivian Stanshall, ex-Bonzo Dog Band member and wild eccentric in the classically affected English style. Indeed, it’s entirely down to Viv that it’s here at all. A friend found it laid up in Sunderland in 1983, and discovered that it the owner was looking to sell it for £21,000. With the support of Stanshall’s wife Ki, the boat was converted into what was intended to be a floating theatre, christened the Old Profanity Showboat. Viv was in the midst of one of his troubled periods at the time, living on his own boathouse, the Searchlight (an old Irish Navy patrol boat), which was moored near Shepperton. He didn’t have much to do with the initial arrangements, even though they were being made with the ultimate idea of providing a space for his work to be rehearsed and staged.
The Thekla as Old Profanity Showboat, circa 85 - Vivian Stanshall, family and friendsThe ship set sail from Sunderland on 30th July 1983 and arrived in Bristol a few days later on 4th August. So this year marks its 30th anniversary as a fixture of the Bristol harbourside. Stanshall joined his wife and son on board in July 1984, having made something of a recovery, and also having lost his boat, which sank to the bottom of the Thames with most of his possessions (but thankfully not Viv) still on board. He set about writing a musical, Stinkfoot, which would launch the Showboat as a theatrical venture, and which was loosely based around children’s stories which Ki had written. Written specifically for the Thekla’s stage, and containing plenty of new songs, it was put on around Christmas 1985. Stanshall described it as ‘contemporary Gilbert and Sullivan; popular, optimistic, enormously visual’ (visuals which included giant prop lobsters, which were apt to break out into song). In the usual Stanshall manner, it was also gaudily surreal, cheerfully vulgar, nostalgic, occasionally revealingly personal, and delighted in wordplay and shameless punning. It ran from the 7th to the 21st of December 1985, and was a success with audiences and critics.
Forgetmeknot outside the Thekla, shortly before the rains cameUnfortunately, after that chaos descended, along with numerous hangers on who did nothing to help realise the Old Profanity Showboat as an ongoing venture. David Rappaport, the Time Bandits actor, came to stay as an uninvited co-inhabitant for a time. It was also during his time in Bristol that Stanshall first met Stephen Fry, who had come to see Stinkfoot, and would later become a great champion of his work. However, it soon became apparent that no-one was really in charge of the theatrical project or had any firm idea as to the direction it should take. The money ran out, and only a few months after Stinkfoot had brought in the first audiences, it lay abandoned once more. Happily, it’s now a thriving musical venue, and the old hold provides a natural place to house a stage, with a balcony to provide a more general overview. An upstairs bar includes a more intimate, acoustic stage, where local singer Aaron Douglas was playing his heartfelt and soulfully sung songs with dextrous guitar accompaniment and resounding foot stomp percussion. This leads out to the foredeck, where you can sit and sip your drink looking out over the harbour beyond. The ironclad sides give it a solid bulk which underlines its status as a permanent dockside resident. For the festival, a stage had been set up outside, where I heard Forgetmeknot playing. A largely female group (only the bass player and the drummer were men), they featured four part harmony vocals which harked back to the girl groups of the 60s, and had a similar feel of tunes tested and worked through on street corners or in successive living rooms.
Once the rains did come, it was time to head indoors to the Arnolfini Gallery to put around (or through) some ‘pieces’ on a crazy art golf course. Promoted as Adventureland Golf, this was the idea of Doug Fishbone, who invited a number of artists to create indoor crazy golf holes, using whatever theme they fancied. After all, there’s little sense of cohesion to be found in the typical crazy golf course, where you can find yourself facing Big Ben on one hole, a giant gorilla on the next. The emphasis here is on fun, but this being art, I feel compelled to wring some kind of symbolic meaning out of each of the six holes, and out of the experience as a whole.
Social decline in the model villageYou begin in the standard way by getting your clubs, balls and scorecards from the kiosk. Some people have been taking this very seriously, we were told, and there had been some fierce competition, presumably involving competitive dads. You start off at Jonathan Allen’s hole, which is like a rundown corner on the edgelands of a model village. A post-war prefab building is boarded up, and graffiti tags have already started to patch its walls. Tiny skips on either side are filled with its ripped out guts. I had assumed that this was some small scale factory building, but the accompanying notes informed me that it was supposed to be a library. The name of the contractor hired to tear it apart and dispose of its contents is stencilled on the side: Camborne, a conflation which fixes the blame in no uncertain terms. There’s no way through this building, no means of access. It’s set in the corner of an l-shaped run to the hole, so you have to ricochet your ball against its barred doors, as if battering against them with impotent frustration. Once you’ve turned the corner and left the abandoned library behind, there’s really no turning back.
The impossible dream - going for the fluke shotBrian Griffiths’ hole provides a seemingly sunny contrast to this scene of dereliction and spiritual decay, with a bright yellow, carpeted hump of a desert island, staked with a palm tree in the traditional manner. Around this, you put your ball around the calm, level surface of the deep blue sea, whose serenity is punctured by the ominous black sails of shark fins, which you occasionally bounce against. This paradise seems so close, so easy to attain, presented in such bright and enticing colours. But damn it if it’s not almost impossible to get that ball up on the golden mound. It just keeps rolling back down into the uncertain, shark-infested waters which surround it. The shorts hanging to dry on the palm tree mockingly attest to the fact that someone has already made it, and is revelling in the good life. But it’s going to take pure luck rather than skill or judgement to join them up there. The alluring images of an instantly attainable paradise, whether material, spiritual or a fusion of the two, are chimerae, shimmering mirages which recede the more desperately we reach out to grab them. The grass will always seem greener, or in this case, the sand a brighter yellow.
Circumventing tyranny - edging round the monumentDoug Fishbone’s hole is placed in the centre of the course, erecting a statue on a plinth as if in the central square of a town or city. The gesticulating, militaristic figure is continually taking a bowing fall, pulled down to earth from its elevated position like the statue of Saddam Hussein in the wake of the second Gulf War. It’s in the centre of the room in which the crazy golf course is housed, and also in the centre of this particular hole, the fake grass fairway parting around the plinth in a neat circle. You have to negotiate your way around this monumental embodiment of the dominant, tyrannous ideology, sneaking past and trying not to attract the attention of its enforcers. It’s a metaphor for the way people have always had to negotiate the tides of history in order to achieve the simple human goals of life (knocking the ball in the hole in this reductively symbolic version).
A forest of signsDavid Shrigley litters his hole with an excess of signage, placards written with a deliberately amateurish, childlike scrawl, as if these were instant thoughts, just this moment occurring and immediately scribbled down. They are singularly unhelpful, confusing, misdirecting and generally distracting. Some are also philosophical playful, such as the Shanklyesque ‘This is not a game’; some are banal, aphoristic nuggets of cod-new age wisdom (‘the ball is your friend’); and some simple emotional directives (‘be nice’). In a light satire on the all-pervasive maze of notices and announcements we have to negotiate and do our best to ignore every day, these signs are the physical obstacles we have to get the ball around on this hole. The temptation is to simply pick them up and chuck them to one side with a triumphant ‘HAH!’
Hitler holed - promenade dictatorsJake and Dinos Chapman offer more comic dictator capers, with an oversized seaside bust of Hitler which you have to knock your ball under (altogether now, ‘Hitler has only got one ball…’). The oversized führer has a uniformed and swastika banded arm hanging limply by his side which loosely jointed at the shoulder, allowing you to swing it up in a swift salute if you so desire. When your ball does pass under his bisected torso, he emits a cry of ‘nein, nein’. It’s either a frustrated outburst at his inability to prevent your passage (through France? To Berlin?) or a mocking comment on the number of bungling attempts its taken you to make it through (nine! Nine!). All amusing enough, unless you happen to be a German tourist, or someone who remembers the genuine suffering of the war. It maintains the fundamentally adolescent tenor of the Chapmans’ work, which doesn’t really get much beyond the level of heavy metal album cover art. You can almost hear them sniggering and snorting in the corner.
This is the end - the final fairwayThe final hole by Zatorski and Zatorski (sorry, Zatorski + Zatorski) strips away all the extraneous props and confronts us with the void. A smooth, speckled black surface provides a frictionless fairway which speeds the ball towards its final plummet into darkness. There are no obstacles to negotiate – the passage to the hole is all too easy. The polished basalt slab along which the ball glides could be the material for a gravestone. Or it could be some cosmic fairway, dark matter dimly scattered with weakly burning stars leading inescapably to the gravity well of a black hole. And once the bright white ball, which we have guided around so many of the obstacles on this crazy golf course we call life, goes down that hole, it disappears completely. Where does it go from here? Well, it makes its rolling Bardo journey through subterranean wormholes back to the booth, where you also go to return you clubs and pencils. And there they sit and wait, ready for the next time round.