Manchester's International Festival, a two-week long programme of cultural events, has just finished: it overlapped the Theatre Festival, is about to be followed by the Jazz Festival and, later in the year, the Literature Festival. This glut of celebrations may be beneficial to the city as a whole but, for the individual follower, it is surely the cultural equivalent of binge drinking - and may well prove to be a cause of future health problems such as cirrhosis of the critical faculty. Culture vultures are advised to pace their consumption, to "Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some, and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some". *
I dipped a toe into the festival waters by visiting a few of the performance/ installation thingies, but they left me feeling more irritated than intrigued. Perhaps I lacked the patience to wait for that video to move or for that blacked-out room to reveal its secret. I was certainly unwilling to follow that artist's instruction to "...stop and smile at a stranger" - although I may have done so in the 1960s when it all seemed more appropriate. I didn't hang around long: after all, days are short and there is all that dancing, singing, working etc. to get through...
And there is camper-vanning too. I was in the mood for a brief escape to the festival-free Lancashire countryside, much of which remains delightfully unsullied by the progress of civilisation. The satisfaction of driving from an urban environment to a quiet rural spot is progressively rewarding: after starting off in dense traffic, harassed by frantic, impatient and sometimes aggressive drivers, you turn on to a less-crowded trunk road, then a deserted minor road which leads to a farm track ending in a grassy meadow where, killing the engine, there is no sound but bird song.
On this occasion I sought out the farmer by following a hand-written sign "office" with an arrow pointing to a portacabin next to a run-down outhouse. My knock on the door produced no immediate response so I peered through the window at the most squalid room I have ever seen. Presently, from a couch in a dark corner, the stooped figure of an old man rose slowly and moved towards the door. He came out smiling - or was it grimacing? - to greet me. His thick thatch of white hair and bright facial complexion suggested rude health but his obvious neglect of personal grooming and eccentric clothing signalled a lack of social contact. He wore a thick, grubby woollen shirt over a greying vest, all tucked into a shredded pair of bottle-green corduroy trousers held up by a makeshift arrangement - a belt worn like a bandolier diagonally across his chest and one of his shoulders. Of course he may well have regarded my persona with derision - city type dressed in carefully co-ordinated, country-leisure outfit - but, like me, he was brought up to neither stare nor comment. City met country in a polite stand-off.
Later, having shaken off my festivalitis, I settled in to experience the straightforward, uncomplicated bucolic pleasure of a warm summer's evening in a tranquil meadow nestled in picture-book countryside - with a BBQ and a fine bottle of Yarra Valley pinot noir. Meanwhile, I imagined, the farmer was lurking in some grim recess of his lair, gnawing on old mutton bones and drinking potcheen.
The next morning, setting off for a therapeutic hike, I noticed a sign nailed to a tree. It advertised the "Great Mitton & District Ploughing and Hedging Festival". I am now concerned that this could be the start of a whole series of agrifests and that we shall see hoards of weirdly dressed countrymen coming to town to escape them.
*Robert Fulghum, author (b. 1937)