I have walked a mile in hot sun through the empty town. Now the welcome shady tree-lined drive up to the Abbey. Crossing the gravel car park, I stand on sharp stones and stop a minute.I hadn’t noticed: there’s a hole in my left boot. I think Terrific, that’s another fiver that I have to spend. And then I see a small sign nailed to a fence: green bubble letters, like something out of Woodstock, saying “Bardic Picnic”. It’s round the next corner. Kids’ hand prints underneath the words. The paw smudge of a dog as well? It seems to suit the tone.
On the south lawn of the Abbey, I find marquees: Green Party, Save the N.H.S. veggie food and beer. “Scribal Gathering”, from which much shouting comes, poetry, two girls on hesitant guitars. In the other corner, near the woods, a low tent spreads. Somebody camped out last night, perhaps they put the main stage up. A nearby stall paints faces, which all the children want.You’ll sweat it off one harassed woman tells a scowling boy in front of me.
Across the lawn a fire crackles. A skinny man with dreadlocks crouches, boiling water for a drink. A woman near him, with fabulous tattoos and glasses, stands beneath an oak. Is she his partner? She’s silent, strokes a tiny horse’s muzzle. The emcee on the stage said, as I entered, Later there’ll be rides for kids. None venture near the horse. They seem wary of it. It’s so doll-like maybe there’s a catch!
I find some shade – my epilepsy makes too much sun a risk. There I lay down on my bag and listen to the acts. Folksingers; a guy on didgeridoo ( I think they’re like Tibetan horns); the history of the English working poor, with dancers kicking clogged feet up and down.
Then the poets’ contest I had come to see: a teenager with long black hair reads something. The noise from the Scribal Gathering tent makes his mumbling quite inaudible. But the woman riffing on Malcolm X is clear, and her poem’s like a challenge to the crowd (though not presented with any provocation). It’s thrilling with all this harking back to bards and green woods, this friendly atavism – which I’m a part of – to get a jolt of NOW.
With the next band on, a few begin to dance: an inspired, folkie “Groove Is In The Heart”’s what gets them up, and many more join in. The rest sit in loose circles on the lawn. Some keep their backs turned to the stage, applauding absently what they haven’t seen. They’re here as much to spend time with their friends, as they are for poetry. And who could blame them? We won’t be breathing long. They’re here because the sun’s been blazing hot for days. Because the ambience is like a festival, without the crowds and hefty ticket prices.
I make voyages to the beer tent and the portaloo, past the inevitable jugglers near the ice cream van. Past beards, people with long hair and dirty boots. And gentle aesthetes too, old, in crisp, ironed shirts and trousers, weaving through the crowd with absent smiles, hands clasped behind their backs like wrinkled birds. Always I come back to my safe spot in the corner. I am feeling lonely, as well as scared the sun will make me have a seizure. Michelle, my girlfriend, is at work. And years in other places plague my mind, when my solitude has made me feel quite ghost-like, loathing my own sad skin. I text Michelle to show the crowd I have a friend, though nobody is watching and they wouldn’t judge me even if they were.
Leaving early, knowing that the heat will make the walk back hard, I wonder what I’ll miss, who’ll take the Bardic Chair. I only saw the first round of the competition. I learn the next day that I’d seen the winner: it was the author of the poem about Malcolm X, Caroline Hussey-Bain. I immediately message her to send me poems for Beatnik and she says she will.
I also learn I’m sunburned, chronically – “turkey neck,” Michelle says, with guilty laughter. Bathing in hot water makes me scream in pain, like Little Richard when he’s whomping out “Lucille”. But after that fades, the Picnic’s still inside me, a loosening of something that I needed. Perhaps Michelle will come if there’s another one, and we’ll stay until the moon peaks through the trees. I’d like to say we’ll sleep out somewhere quiet, but I know I’d only worry where to pee all night.
I did go back in 2012, and I was accompanied by Michelle. But I was still in pain from a near-death brush with pneumonia and a collapsed lung only a month previously. That, and a downpour of Biblical proportions, with scary lightning cracks, made me press Michelle for an early departure.
In 2013, as a member of the crew putting on the show, the worst happened: multiple severe epileptic warnings, with attendant body pain and hallucinations. My brain was so fucked up I thought one of the tents was on fire. I also thought someone had stolen my wallet (I found it under my bed a week later). I knew early that the physical exertions and pot-smoking of the previous day had done me in, and that if I stayed I would end up thrashing around on the floor like a dying fish on a riverbank in front of people who just wanted to listen to poetry. So I called my friend to pick me up, and went home to the safety of the Bard Gaff.
I should have told someone I was going but I was scared to go looking for them. That's the thing about epilepsy. It confuses the brain and makes you crawl into shelter. Underneath all our pretensions, we humans have the same survival impulse as pigs and chickens.
What a sad little tale!
As you can see, my own relationship with Northampton's premier cultural event has been an odd, stop-start, rather benighted one. But it's still a hell of a good show. Come down this summer and see for yourself, if it's on. (I'm sure it will be.) Shoe Town has been leading the way in high-energy poetry and music for a long time now, and we deserve to get some credit for it