BoomTown Fair review 2012: Festival Intoxication and the Theatre of Play
The summer fair, or fayre as it was once spelt, purportedly began in medieval times for entertainment and the peddling of local wares. These celebratory gatherings, however, contain a more ancient tradition—a seasonal summoning of magic. They are theatres of play in which a circus of unbridled revellery and grotesque transformation release the inner daemons in a cacophony of hedonistic carnage. And it is the very play of this seasonal magic that prepares us for the coming autumn and our return to darkness; the grand narrative of the individual embarking on the process of nature’s renewal. So, without further ado, ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, mischief-makers, the small folk and the carnie too, welcome to the summer catharsis: BoomTown Fair 2012.
“Let me take you back to the beginning. Let me take you back to the origins of Boomtown, which began its life as a cluster of rocky hills in the outback of England’s West Country. Then one day a couple of hundred years ago, a prospecting geologist called Nicholas Boom was studying these hills and stumbled across a gold-bearing quartz vein threading its way through the rocky hills” – History of BoomTown
Some forgotten blazon sun-god had turned the global oven up high as I arrived at BoomTown Fair and there it remained for four days, creating a period of escape from an otherwise rainy summer. As I walked along Valley Road from Big Black Bush Camping, it felt like a post-apocalyptic wander into the remnants of a once prosperous town, which now lies surrounded by haphazardly put-up, emergency tents—tents filled with excited decadents enthralled by the carnivalesque allure of escape, which had grown like creepers over the valley. A helter-skelter cropped up on the horizon, along with huge blue and white marquees, tall and brightly coloured flags and strange misshapen sculptures. They all nestled together and gave off the impression of a hidden world; a place secreted away from society and running on a different circuit of time.
According to Tom Yardley, in Why We Take Drugs, the concept of forgetting is important for understanding time and intoxication. He wrote that when intoxicated “immersion in the present is manifested as a forgetting, of both the past and the future. This forgetting becomes apparent only at the point where self-conscious awareness returns and efforts are made to locate and account for time that has elapsed” (Yardley 2012, 59). BoomTown Fair had the same effect. I was taken out of ordinary time into a duration of festival intoxication, wherein a state of forgetting overcame me as I ceased to be in the bondage of the everyday social. “The necessities of everyday existence are at once exceeded and retained at the moment of intoxication, and it is at this impossible point that intoxication finds its meaning as a transgressive event” (Yardley 24). The manoeuvrability of self was quickly released by the BoomTown play as each of the players began to live out its theatrical experience of desiring otherness.
“Nicholas expanded the settlements and created a town which he named in part after himself, and in part after the sudden explosion of wealth his town enjoyed. He tried to bring order to the community of miners and merchants, but before long lawless rebels turned that order into chaos. Everyone wanted to be in control of the river of gold that flowed from Boomtown’s mines and most were willing to do whatever it took to achieve these ends. Nicholas Boom was found dead at the bottom of a gold mine one day and Boomtown fell into dystopian ruin; a society characterized by misery and oppression, disease and overcrowding” – History of BoomTown
Standing in the Town Centre on Thursday night, the time distortion was rapidly evolving and I saw a fine looking gentleman, dressed in garb from the turn of the nineteenth century. “Byron, I presume?”
“No,” came the reply and he flung me an incredulous look. “Percy Bysshe Shelley.” With a hint of panic in his eye, the romantic poet grabbed me and pulled me close, “I’m questioning everything I hold dear—anarchy, love and the everyday quality of the soul.” This was no simple reflection. It was the pulling apart of the romance he held dear, the revaluation of all values, and the challenge to think and understand differently. As one passing guy screamed at his friend, “We’re at BoooomTown, mutherfuckeeerrrrss!” Yes, we were and the transformative space, the theatre, had begun to dance with the players. Indeed, in the Town Centre, the past came shimmering into the present with fantastic gigs by The Skatalites, reggae Godfathers for over forty years, and Nineties ska-punk legends Capdown; old music that sounds fresh when crashing out live from a stage.
As I was wandered around BoomTown, I came face-to-face with the best and the worst of the “lawless rebels [who] turned that order into chaos”, and within the breathing backdrop of the fair there lurked all sorts of beings.
Great geezers of fire erupted from the ground, as mechanical monsters roamed through the Old Town and the shop windows, scattered across the walls, were displaying bits of dolls and hacked-up human body parts served in pies. One gentleman, hands clasped to his head, ran through Mayfair shouting that he’d lost his face; a flamboyantly green piskie-girl followed him, saying that she had seen it run away and not too worry, he’d find a new one. As I watched, a pair of invisible hands pushed me through a door, down a corridor and through a hanging curtain. On the other side was a pitch-black room with a Ping-Pong table marked out with aluminous lines. The glowing ball bounced from side-to-side, occasionally flying erratically and pinging off players hidden on the wings; like the theatre of that weekend one could find oneself flipping all over the shop.
Before long I found myself bimbling passed the Big Wheel and the Wall of Death, somnambulantly following two, red-jacketed, security guards. They talked quietly between themselves but as I ambled next to them I caught a moment of their conversation. “We better get on the bust, I need a smoke.” I would not have thought twice had they not continued beside me toward a friend who was quietly skinning up in a corner of town. They took his baggy, padded him down and left him with the jay he’d just made hanging out of his mouth. “Have a good smoke,” my friend shouted after them. “We will,” they replied. The elements of BoomTown’s prior dystopian times, “a society characterized by misery and oppression”, still lingered in some who roamed the street. Those who live in order to take what they want, in the name of a crackpot law they neither follow nor respect. Yet, regardless of ordinary time’s violent imposition on the festival intoxication and summer revellery, the magic transcends and the forgetting reaffirms the change. My friend continued his dance.
“Travelling musicians and wandering minstrels caught news of the fair and came from far and wide, bringing joyful music into the streets. As well as farmers from neighbouring villages and towns selling their produce came peddlers of exotic food and fine clothes from across the seas. The townsfolk had never experienced such an array of colour and sound tantalising every sense. Still more folk flooded in from the four corners of the country as they heard news of the merry gathering” – History of BoomTown
The duration of the play, the BoomTown intoxication, was a communal experience that provoked the desires of the players into a theatrical spectacular by “the formation of liminal communities” (Yardley 2012, 74). Whether that be sharing a chai and a slice of cake with the faces you’d yet to play with; stepping out of the sweaty, thumping, Bassline Circus, to share a smoke with a fleeting dance partner; shuttling into the atmosphere with a crew of trippers, all sharing the jolts and rises of spaceflight; or singing along to MDMAmazing with Beans on Toast on the Wandering Word stage; the rapidity of these liminal communities made BoomTown the desiring heart of the summer.
A glowing red staff rolled around an invisible body at the top of the hill. I was mesmerised by it and was enticed over. As I came to within ten feet, I saw the strange, black-clad, creature that wielded the staff; once hidden but now revealed by shadow. Two great horns protruded out of his head, either side of a mohawk, and he rolled his body over, contorting in order to manipulate the staff. As I came to his eye-line, he stopped and introduced himself. “Magpuss,” he said. “Servant of Mephistopheles, but today relinquished to BoomTown and servant to you. That is, if you’d only loan me your soul for the night?” I stuttered over my thinking, as though a little angel had appeared on my shoulder and was giving me the obligatory, contradictory advice. “This community is,” he continued, “very close to dimensional collapse and that is the point summer will turn over. You need to be prepared—take this ray of sunshine as a loan for your soul tonight.”
Before I could answer, sunshine flew out from the end of Magpuss’s staff and flew into my open mouth, sending me flying backwards and into Mario and Luigi, who were mushroom-hopping across BoomTown. Almost immediately I could feel a change coming over me. “To Eartheart,” Magpuss announced. “Quickly now, there the summer confrontation with autumn can take place, in amongst the jugglers, the little folk and the chai-guzzling monsters. The land can shimmer and transform and we can witness the magical twilight between worlds. The space that only becomes visible in the day-waking hours of celebration and the one in which decisions are thrust upon us.” I followed the daemon in and out of the dwindling crowds. Most people were unaware of us, as they headed back to their tents, while others threw strange and weird looks as we danced our merry-way away.
“A hot topic at weekly town meetings is the townsfolk’s reports of strange misshapen silhouettes on the horizon of the huge bowl in which Boomtown resides. Other residents have been spooked by low guttural sounds emanating from the surrounding woods of which no known animal could account for. Flickering lights unlike any natural phenomena or man-made aircraft skitter across the sky and vanish whenever you look directly at them.” – History of BoomTown
The strange possession whisked me toward the Eartheart chai tent. On the way, the tents filling the periphery of my vision began to blur and the dark mess into which they vanished, compounded by a timeless quality, reformed. Suddenly, a magic filled the air and fairies, glowing gently, floated in and out of once invisible trees. The magic that made up the spectacle of BoomTown was being laced within my senses. I could barely find my step; for all the sunshine I’d been given my way was not yet fully lit and I was firmly under the control of Magpuss. The daemon began to show me BoomTown Fair images, flashing experiences of past and future, the whole fruit of my being-at-the-festival. I saw Demolition Man going nuts on stage in the Lion’s Den and was whisked through to the Hidden Woods stage, where I felt the cool of the trees protecting me from the blazon sun-god’s fiery wrath; I saw friends I’d yet to make and felt every dub beat drum on my delirious ears. And then? And then I was in Eartheart, unable to speak, my own voice robbed and replaced with tales about ancient pathways and earth magic.
At dawn the little folk appeared, with their slightly pointed ears and their curiously mischievous eyes. Traditionally, one is taught that they are not to be trusted. In the morning twilight, however, as their dimension shuddered alive, I was left with nowhere else to turn. This is not the normal state of the summer fair or festival. Normally, real society rears its head at that time, with robotic BBC journalists and drunken punters unable to renew themselves for being too tied to the fiction that is there everyday existence. Not at BoomTown though; the little folk’s earth magic gave birth to the participatory celebration. It was no mere spectacle being organised and beamed into people’s bedrooms for them to blindly consume. It was play, not spectacle and the characters of the theatre were the creations of a process that has lasted for as long as the land has been inhabited by the hearts of two dimensions.
Later, as Magpuss led me round the far-end of the valley, passed the giant BoomTown Fair lettering, I could hear two of the little folk whispering in my ear: “You must pick a side,” they went. “Do you stand on the edge of otherness, lost and drifting from one end to the other, or will you pop out and renew?”
“The excruciating auditory bombardment hit a climax with a huge CRASH and the townsfolk fell like dominoes as a wave of energy smashed them to the floor. Then silence ensued. A high-pitched surreal sound began to take its place. This seemed not to derive from the townsfolk’s natural hearing though; it seemed to originate from within their heads itself. It was at this point that the townspeople who were still conscious uncovered their ears, opened their eyes, and stared in disbelief. They were staring at what could only be described as the outer rim of an alien spacecraft that must have collided into downtown Boomtown, decimating most of it. Arcadia had landed” – History of BoomTown
Arcadia is a monstrous, fire-breathing, mechanical monster, which at the end of BoomTown had eaten Far Too Loud. The players all swarmed underneath it and spilled up the valley side and into the fair, as Far Too Loud pumped out exquisite, ground-pounding beats—one of the finest DJs working today. Standing in the heart of this throng I happily gave wild dancing shapes to the ceremony, ushering the end of the festivities and the beginnings of a fresh seasonal cycle for the self. Fireworks peppered the sky on the horizon and the end was marked by a huge explosion that gave off a gigantic mushroom cloud that flew up, high above BoomTown. Thousands of smiling faces and flailing bodies moved in unison and, as the act came to an end, the play fulfilled itself in a brutally trippy, summer catharsis.
I woke up the next morning completely refreshed. As I hitched a lift out on Monday morning, I could see hundreds of people waiting in fields by the side of the road. I saw Magpuss gliding amongst them, whispering in their ears and distracting them with tricks—holding people’s attention with an apparently immovable crystal ball. As I turned away, my thoughts returning to social space-time and the intoxication of nine-till-five, his voice gently meandered across my ears: “The world ended while you were at the circus,’ he paused. “And the freaks are establishing the new world order whilst dancing in the ashes of the old.” Amen.
All photography by Mark Falmouth