Magazine article The Spectator

Sparks Flying

Magazine article The Spectator

Sparks Flying

Article excerpt

She lay on her side and watched the people coming and going from the tented stalls and music stages. I lay on my back beside her and stared up at the billowing ceiling.

We'd arrived at the Ragged Hedge Fair, put up the tent, had a series of unbelievably petty squabbles in the process, and were now paralysed by apathy. We lay in our tent, barely speaking, until it was dark.

The Ragged Hedge Fair, held in the Cotswolds each summer, is one of a growing number of small 'green' summer festivals springing up to cater for those disillusioned by the squalor, commercialism and criminality at Glastonbury. Power is supplied entirely by sun and wind, on-site transport by horse and cart. Generators aren't allowed.

Neither are dogs. Campfires must be raised off the ground on braziers. Film canisters are available from the information tent for smokers to use as portable ashtrays. 'Leave no trace' is the fair's motto.

Hunger and thirst drove us out of the tent in the end. It was so dark outside we couldn't see the ground or each other's faces. I'd forgotten to bring a torch.

Tongues of fire flaring out on the hill drew our attention and we headed towards it. A lively display of fire-eating and juggling was in progress. We joined a half-circle of onlookers. 'They're going to set fire to the wicker man in a minute, ' said a silhouette next to me. He spoke as though we were coreligionists. Sure enough, a sinister, 12-feettall silhouette was standing nearby, its arms stretched towards us in mute supplication.

And sure enough a few moments later one of the performers shoved a flaming torch into its guts and retired.

According to Julius Caesar, British Druids burnt people and animals alive in large wicker effegies to celebrate the solstices. As the flames spread, connoisseur-like absorption was inscribed on the fire-lit faces around us.

The wicker man was a raging, man-shaped inferno for about half a minute. Then he appeared to twist in agony before crashing head first to the ground in a shower of sparks. The twist and fall was strangely lifelike and drew uneasy murmurs from some of the more impressionable onlookers.

As the wicker man burned on the grass, the glistening fire-eaters recommenced their acrobatic display. Speculating on where I might get something alcoholic to drink, I stepped back for a moment to scan the tents on the far side of the darkened field. As I looked, I saw in the distance a strange, fantastically lit vehicle bumping slowly towards us through the night, its flaming propellor and revolving coloured lights illuminating a retinue of wild dancers. …

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