Friday, 31 July 2009

Gardener's World


Here's my Review of the magical mash-up that was Secret Garden Party 2009, via Suit Yourself Magazine and my favourite photo of the weekend - a tribe of angry santas.

An elf, a robot and a barn owl walk into a bar… No, it’s not the beginning of a surrealist joke but an average spectacle at Cambridgeshire’s flamboyant celebration of all things wacky, Secret Garden Party. At few other festivals will you stumble upon mobile bicycle-come-piano concoctions, a main stage modelled on a snake’s ferocious jaws, shabby chic wonderland houses in the woods and more bizarre art installations than you could shake a kag-in-a-bag at. Audience participation is the name of the game so, whether it’s tag-team mud wrestling or early morning opera, sitting passively at the sidelines is never an option.

Not quite as secret as last year, the capacity doubled for 2009 to a still petite 12,000, but the head gardeners worked hard to keep the atmosphere of discovery and individual expression intact, as well as again providing plenty of green space for gardeners to relax, romp and rave. Once inside the site’s stunning landscaped gardens - complete with streams, woods and hillocks galore - rules are few and far between, meaning the duck-filled waters were ripe for swimming, boating and generally adding the aroma of pond to your fancy dress.

Opposing sides of the lake were this year separated into the two zones: the sensuous, hedonistic Babylon and the enlightened Eden. Either Edenite or Babylonian, festival-goers were encouraged to look the part, leading to plenty of appropriately, or in most case inappropriately, arranged fig leaves, a tribe of Babylonian whores, lions of said Babylon and in one case a bizarrely seductive lion-whore cross. Not ones for theme fascism, life size cornflakes packets, zombies, a mob of angry Santas and woodland creatures of every kind pranced throughout the festival, happy as Larry. Well, apart from the Santas.

In Eden the weary could rest their partied-out bodies with plenty of massage in the healing fields, enrich their brains by watching crazed professors attempt spellbinding experiments or explain astrophysics and get creative with life drawing classes. Entering through the back door of the conspiracy tent, you would find crowds of twitchy theorists preaching the gospel of underground plots. Over in Babylon, the Feast of Fools stage introduced many the compelling musical genre of Medieval-core – despite its wiki-absence it does exist, promise! – while the main music stages provided more conventional entertainment. A Saturday night fire extravaganza harnessed the primeval power of the feast, as everyone stopped to witness a wicker man inspired ritual conflagration. The lake’s central tower of Babylon was burnt to ashes, whilst a giant writhing snake led a procession of fire jugglers and drummers whilst fireworks whistled overhead and Chinese lanterns floated into the sable black.

Although SGP is never reliant on a one-stop-shop line-up to draw in the crowds, focusing more on the idea of festivities and artistic ‘action camps’, there’s always titillating new music to be heard alongside the squeaky breath of nox balloons. The bendy one himself, Mr Jarvis Cocker, performed a particularly energetic headlining set, while invisible handed Rodrigo and Gabriela strummed, plucked and drummed at the speed of light the following evening. For most, the festival hinges on abandoning a time table-wielding mindset and simply stumbling upon smaller talents - highlights this year included Caribou, Portico Quartet and Peggy Sue – listening to them if they capture you and moving on if they don’t. A party rather than a music festival, SGP will never rival other festivals for music. Instead the head gardeners have a charmingly genuine dedication to artistic expression, physical freedom and pure fun that most festivals forget about in their eagerness to book big names. It’s this exploration of the true sense of ‘festival’ that’s the secret to Secret Garden Party’s success.