Your Gateway to
Capital Intelligence
Home Culture Low Culture Essay: Natasha Carthew on the Elephant Fayre Natasha Carthew , April 24th, 2024 07:58

Low Culture Essay: Natasha Carthew on the Elephant Fayre Natasha Carthew , April 24th, 2024 07:58

As festival season approaches, writer, memoirist and founder of the Class Festival of literature Natasha Carthew looks back to the 1980s and reflects on the influence of the anarchic Elephant Fayre on her life and work. Images courtesy of Port Eliot

by Tunae

Elephant Fayre, my backyard festival, how I miss you; my own private oasis where I was first allowed to shed my skin and metamorphosis into whoever I wanted to be.

I first travelled the few miles from our coastal village of Downderry in Cornwall up to the stately house and garden of Port Eliot where the festival was held at the age of eight. To us working-class kids, the annual event on this aristocratic estate was like something from the TV, balanced precariously somewhere between Upstairs Downstairs and Tizwas.

Back in the day, let’s say mid 1980s (children always have a loose grasp of time), the festival that celebrated “benign anarchy” was a cultural phenomenon in our tiny corner of south-east Cornwall. Nestled within our circle of villages where very little ever happened, it was as if the love child of a 1950s circus and Woodstock had come to town. Me and my older sister got to go for the simple fact that my estranged ‘couldn’t give a fuck about family’ father turned up out of the blue with a couple of blagged kids tickets, tickets which he didn’t want to see go to waste. Except for in the huge vintage military tent that we shared with around twenty other people, we barely saw him all weekend. It was one of the best experiences of my young life.

The Elephant Fayre, held at the 6,000-acre St Germans Estate on the Rame Peninsula in South East Cornwall, is unfairly neglected in the British festival hierarchy. A “fayre” in every sense of the wild word, those few feral days for just a handful of years featured a horde of unique types of performances, media, experimental theatre and music, and for us kids, an extensive playground of precarious wooden structures, river water and muddy fields to get lost in. The first Fayre, held on the banks of the River Tamar Estuary, was pretty small by today’s festival standards, attracting about 1,500 revellers, but the crowd increased over the years as the organisers booked better known acts, including post-punk bands such as The Cure, The Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Killing Joke.

One summer morning dad pulled up outside our council house in his then girlfriend’s racer-green open-top MG. I couldn’t have been more ready, in my straw Stetson and plaid shirt. My sister on the other hand was worried. We didn’t know our dad and mostly had bad memories of him. However, because he was a drunk, the weekend for him was all about the party, which meant freedom for us.

When I close my eyes I can still picture the dense hedges and fields speeding by as we made the four mile run uphill to the inland village which I only ever knew as a fancy place with fancy buildings and a big church, St. Germans. I remember vividly the moment we arrived at the top end of the village, our speeding sports car suddenly halted by a steady stream of hippies who had not long disembarked from the Paddington to Penzance train, walking in the middle of the road.

This slowing down of time had a way of drawing me into the moment, pulling me toward the epicentre of what a festival was, what it meant, a stopping of the clock which let all the colours and smells of the universe tumble into one single place. Every time the MG crept a little closer, the heat-bounce beat of drums pushed back, strangers’ fingers tapping on the side of the car.

For an eight-year-old Cornish tomboy, the concept of celebrating music and camaraderie in a natural setting was a revolutionary idea, an anarchic world of other-nature. I couldn’t wait to dive right into it.

One of the main attractions for us kids was a giant wooden elephant which could be climbed via ladders that reached up through its middle. That elephant was a dream come true, made of wicker and scrap wood, and to my eyes it walked the muddy banks of the estate like an exotic circus escapee. I wanted to kick all the other kids off and ride it wild around the stately home lawns, imaginary reins in one hand, a bottle of flat cola in the other. I sometimes think that Elephant gave me the idea to build my own writing cabin, a tiny haven in my backyard that I constructed entirely from scrap wood. It wasn’t the only influence that the Fayre would have on my life.

Over the years the festival grew, attracting crowds of up to 30,000, but by1986, like so many small festivals of the time, it became a victim of its own success. The open-mindedness of the free festival culture of the 70s had started to come to an end, as New Age Travelers became a focus for disorder across the country. Despite the broadmindedness of the then Lord Eliot and fellow festival stalwart Michael Eavis at Glastonbury (known tenderly by festival crews as ‘The Good Lord and The Worthy Farmer’) rumour had it that the anarchic travellers put paid to Elephant Fayre by burning down one of the oldest trees in the park, looting the village doctors’ surgery and robbing stall-holders.

Hard drug use and vandalism might have played a part in seeing off my backyard festival, but I rather like to think that it came to a natural ending anyway. Although a chaotic spark flashed through the heart of the Fayre from the start, the vast majority of the adults who attended were hard-working locals, mostly law-abiding, even if they occasionally liked to flip the middle-finger at authority. Mostly the Elephant Fayre crowd was immensely positive, good natured, friendly and up for the laid-back few days in the beautiful surroundings.

Elephant Fayre came from a different time, more counter-cultural than most mainstream festivals today. For us in working class Cornwall, it meant more than just an escape from Thatcher’s Britain, it was a moment held in time, a moment and a place where folk could shout ‘this here, this land and these people are mine’ (if only for the weekend). It was a place where people could showcase both their intellectual and creative achievement while getting stoned together and in peace, no matter how ‘other’ they felt outside the dodgy perimeter fence.

In 2001, the Port Eliot Festival set up camp in the park and woodlands of the ancient estate in the exact same spot as its predecessor. On first impressions, it couldn’t have been more different from the humble, hedonistic beginnings of Elephant Fayre, a seemingly middle-class boutique arts festival, but on closer inspection many of us locals could still be found amongst the London literary elite. When I first appeared there in 2018 as a writer with my book All Rivers Run Free, I couldn’t believe how many people from the publishing world I knew.

One of the greatest institutions of the festival was definitely the riverside Caught by the River music stage, followed by the literary quarter that decamped to one of the secret gardens during the day. My favourite place to relax was down by the railway viaduct over the River Tiddy, where the Black Cow Saloon came alive as the sun went down for a foot stompin’, honky tonkin’ good time. For me as a working-class blue-collar storyteller, sitting around barrels of fire and singing ‘whatever comes into our heads’ poetry is what festivals are all about, impromptu and a bit dangerous.

If Wild West style wasn’t your thing, Port Eliot offered historic rooms in the grand house that transformed into restaurants, tea rooms, galleries and screening rooms; while across the site workshops took place throughout the day and night including astronomy walks, wild swimming, axe-throwing and archery, all the while aerial trapeze artists cast shadows against the backdrop of the historic buildings and church.

Cultural differences then and now are like two entirely different planets colliding, and our behaviour has changed since the 1980s. For one, hearing about an event like the Elephant Fayre now is completely dependent on technology, but back then everyone in our village pretty much relied on two things, word of mouth while drinking down the Working Men’s Club, or spotting one of the hand drawn posters that were tacked to various telegraph poles around the village with rusty drawing pins.

Cultural festivals are more than just a place to hear live music or hear writers read from their latest book. They can celebrate diversity, promote social change, and provide a platform for creativity and self-expression. They bring people together and create a sense of community that is hard to find elsewhere. This is what Elephant Fayre was to me, a cultural artefact that was reflective of the open-hearted, open-minded working-class society I grew up in, a culture that shared their peaceful, fun-loving values, beliefs and crazy collective identity.

This definitely had its part to play for me in later years, when my hatred of inequality and love of community forged me to set up The Working Class Writers Festival in 2021. I was sick of the unfairness that I saw in the line-up of pretty much every literary festival in the country. One of my proudest achievements was that I raised £62,000 to ensure Class Festival went ahead, through funding from Arts Council England and joint sponsorship from Hachette UK and Penguin Random House. With Class Festival I wanted to bust open the middle class ghetto that is the UK literary festival scene, providing a platform for other working class writers and making attendance more affordable and accessible to all. My mission was all guest speakers were paid the same, had travel and accommodation paid for, and all events and workshops were free, something that I leaned from the first year I attended Elephant Fayre.  My festival aimed to enhance, encourage and increase representation from the working-class writing community across the country, connecting authors, readers, agents and editors. I wanted to ensure that its wider engagement programme provided much-needed exposure to working class writers and brought inspiration to young people from similar backgrounds by showcasing stories reflective of and relatable to their experiences. In the end, it comes down to recognising not just what people want, but what they need – this to me is the true nature of a sustainable festival counterculture.

Elephant Fayre served as a bridge to connect us in working class Cornwall to our cultural heritage as a nation, allowing us to express our identity and share our stories. At the age of eight, with my dad absent and my mum working hard in our village hotel where many of the bands stayed, I was free to do and be what I wanted. That feeling of freedom fields has never left me; listening to people shout their views and read their poetry from soapboxes and discovering secret gardens in amongst the brier and down in the mudflats, promising myself that one day I too would stand on this land and read from my book at the festival by the river. The Elephant Fayre was a magical place that opened up that dream.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

Are you sure want to unlock this post?
Unlock left : 0
Are you sure want to cancel subscription?