Hovis in Wonderland at the 2008 Latitude Festival
The rolling landscape of Henham Park gives Latitude the ambience of a country fair, fully complemented by Hooray Henrys in cords, tweed jackets, flat caps, pipes and wellies. And that’s just the women boom boom! (OK pedant, Hooray Henriettas!). The most middle-class, middle-aged, politically anodine sell-out according to ageing punkster John Robb two years ago, has built on this unique selling point to create a niche event which actually sells out. Bring Grandad, I did. Cardigan and slippers? No problem. This is a real arts fest not just a music feast. Literature, film, theatre, cabaret, comedy, dance, poetry take up far more column inches in the comprehensive Festival handbook than music.
The Poetry tent (or “Arena” as I was dutifully informed by Caroline of Festival Republic, the promoters) organised by Luke Wright, featured over seventy readers over four days. Luke seems to have dropped his campaign to be next poet laureate (as he been got at by the poetry police or was he just being respectful to top billing readers Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy?) However he should get a gong or even a gold-plated bong for living and breathing poetry and for sharing opportunity with others. He put on the heavyweights and he put on the novices. He compered until he was hoarse, and he did a number of sets that demonstrated his growing maturity as a writer and performer. I won’t say every form of poetic style was catered for. It was a performance driven event with a lot of younger skilled performers who fell back on the Mike Skinner teenage confessions/ street wars style, but many of them were from the South East so why not? There was that coterie of seasoned performers who are moving up the establishment ladder through collectives such as Aisle 16 and the Urbanian Quarter. There were performers who were an unchallenging pleasure to listen to, being mature and confident enough to stick to what they do best, masters of the poetic cabaret, John Hegley, Attila the Stockbroker, Rachel Pantechnicon, and Elvis McGonagall. And then there were some well presented, sensitively reflective and minutely observed slices of life from skilled writers such as Adrian Mitchell, Aiofe Mannix and Daljit Nagra. Perhaps the only thing missing was more New World voices. It’s a hard call when you heard Saul Williams and Patti Smith perform 40 minute sets to 100 privileged people in 2006.
And what of Hovis in Wonderland I hear you clamour? We were programmed for 1.00 pm on Friday. The team was under orders to a) get off their lilos by ten o’clock, b) gargle with honey, c) practise team breathing coach Diane Crowcroft’s catarrh/phlegm shifting buzzing meditations, d) run through their scales to loosen up their vocal chords, e) arrive at the tent/arena by 12.00 noon in order to take in Elvis MacGonagall’s set, while Kevin and myself fussed around the stage organising the props and sound system. Technical support could not have been better. Our readers arrived on time understandably nervous but pristine in their newly printed Hovis in Wonderland T shirts. None of them dreamed eight weeks before that they would be reading at a national festival to a discerning audience which included John Hegley. Three rehearsals and endless time spent listening to the CD produced by the original cast coupled with their natural desire to deliver a professional and polished performance paid off with perfect delivery, pace and comic timing. Even though they’d never read in public before being headhunted for HiW, as experienced and accomplished musicians they brought a great awareness of public performance with them.
As for how it was received, the words curate and egg come to mind. To generalise the audience had three dimensions, young adults, or young parents with children, occupying the beanbags which filled most of the floor space, still half asleep from the excesses of the night before, for whom the speed and volume of delivery was probably too much to cope with particularly delivered in a foreign tongue; floating voters who were dipping in and out depending on the weather who were listening but wondering just what they got themselves into; and at the back a good number of knowing souls, who knew exactly why they were there, and who got every nuance, and fuelled the laughter accordingly.
We had some nice compliments but I was left wondering how much of Richard McFarlane’s doggedly North West humour and cultural referencing travels. It seems to work for Peter Kay but then no-one could accuse him of subtlety. Richard’s word play requires an alert mind and one attuned to the vagaries of northern life in the 90s. I have to say it’s a long time since I felt conscious of the North-South divide but on more than one occasion at Latitude when I had the temerity to break into unsolicited conversation with a fellow queuer for beer, food or latrine, I was completely blanked, as if a) I didn’t exist, b) I had just been clearing my throat or c) I was speaking Latvian. Those short vowels eh, what are they like? It was a bit like being at the Swan disco on a Saturday night.
Well I didn’t spend my entire time listening to poetry. I caught two very good plays, Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover which featured Ralph Little, and Crazy Love both of which explore the bizarre but immediately recognisable lunacy of infatuation and its limited shelf-life. In a spirit of entente we went out en-masse to support our camping neighbours (we were sleeping so close together we could have been family!) from Sadlers Wells who had contemporary, street and north Indian dance groups performing on the Lakeside Stage, and were well impressed with the fact that they performed at dusk in plummeting temperatures, dive-bombed by a thousand mosquitoes.
We were camping next to the main Obelisk arena so didn’t have to travel to see and hear Franz Ferdinand, Elbow, Seasick Steve, Death Cab for Cutie etc. The Uncut Arena yielded highly danceable Mali couple Amadou and Mariam, and the small but bijou Sunrise Arena in the woods had some of the most interesting new bands, particularly Liverpool’s The Maybes, and Russian-American singer-songwriter Anya Marina. Everybody found more than enough to do to meet their particular interests, the team spent an inordinate amount of time backstage at the Comedy Tent, but the highlight for me had to be a 55 minute set by a small plump momsy type blonde with a red beret like Sandre Clays who fronted an earth-shakingly powerful band which transported me to rockers’ heaven. I had been prepared to be disappointed by Blondie. I was there to pay homage to an icon. How patronising. It was kick-ass brilliant and had it played in the outdoor Obelisk arena rather than the mega tent of the Uncut Arena the 5000 people watching could have doubled and the kids would have had an equal chance of seeing a living legend alongside their parents and grandparents. Blondie with cardigans, that was Latitude for me. All power to its elbow patches.
At Latitude were Kevin Bates, sage, mentor, and sound engineer, the man who invented the wok fire ; Emily Cooke, Lisa Forrest, Chris Kehoe and Dan Lever, the voices of Hovis in Wonderland; Sam Morgan, wood gatherer and whittler extraordinaire ; Diane Crowcroft, setting new standards in alfresco cooked breakfasts; Louis and Joe, sherpas to the stars; and Dave Morgan.
This article first appeared in Write Out Loud July 2008