The River Festival in Bedford is a bi-annual celebration of the town’s river, one which is now the second largest carnival in the UK, behind Notting Hill. Before we delve into the story of the river festival, let us just take into consideration that Bedford had a murder rate per capita last year that exceeded that in London. Bedford had the lowest rated Police service compared with the rest of the country in recent years, as well has having hosted a wonderful range of violent, racist and outright stupid criminals as a town. The headlines on the local papers going into this festival were about a spate of shootings that took place just days before. I once knew a young lady from Naples who, upon moving to Bedford went to have dinner in a Wetherspoon’s on a weeknight. To her dismay, upon leaving the establishment, she noticed the blood of a recently stabbed young teenager plastered all over the wall, he had been killed whilst she was eating her meal. Sadly she’s one of many who have experienced those feelings of disgust and horror after visiting this “would-be sinkhole”.
So Bedford River Festival, and in true reporting a festival for Yack! Style, we foisted ourselves up into the goings on by busking for an hour and a half prior on the outskirts. This gave us a good opportunity to eye up the locals from behind the screens of sunglasses, not letting on that we were in fact onto them. It helped to prolong the inevitable, too, as we’d had the customary breakfast beers, and didn’t need to get into that too hard so soon. The midday sun was beating down on us and the public were in no mood to part with their precious coins. The crowds were thick and the people dragged themselves towards the entrance point of the one way system which exists to help traffic slowly flow around the site, which is far superior to the Love Parade incident, so I suppose we should be grateful for it. We moved on and headed towards a place we knew where we could hide our instruments and take one final moment of peace and quiet.
After a moment of respite, we approached the festival via a side entrance, as we knew the dread of being pulled into the queue which from a birds eye view resembles a giant version of snake from your old Nokia stuck on the slowest speed setting. Through the backstreets, we found the crowds of people watching the music, and were greeted by the band who played on the Doritos adverts. The stage was surrounded by giant inflatable slides and it was here that we discovered, to our horror, strange devices that people were voluntarily paying to place their children in. Much like a hamster ball, the Child Microwaves that we saw contained young children running around in these sealed plastic spheres, trapped in pools of water, clambering desperately to stand up straight, whilst the sun bore down upon them and the temptation of water and fresh air was just out of reach as they’d tumble and roll around. Shocking to say the least, and this took place throughout the festival. I was skeptical of all of the food that was on sale as well, not only because of the extreme prices, but also I wondered which depths this town would stoop to in order to feed it’s ravenous public.
The music was wholesome and good, local promotion company The Pad Presents, who do a great job in encouraging great talents from around the world to the town whilst encouraging talent within the area, had combined the likes of Kuentu I Tamba and Symphonica alongside local act The Scruff. I was going to talk about the great performance of the band and say nice things about The Scruff, how their songs struck such a chord with the crowd and how they handled the occasion perfectly, that was something I’d earmarked to do for this review before I decided to write it, but their drummer viciously attacked me with a football as I drunkenly attempted to meander through a crowd he was part of later during the night, so fuck those guys.
The next day, after a few too many drinks, and leaving most of my worldly possessions lying around in among the previous nights collection of trash, we headed down the river to catch the final of the raft race, which takes place every two years, and teams from local businesses and pubs get together and try to beat each other. The sun was back after it’s brief break and frozen sangria was one of the best things we could bring with us as we finally gave in and joined the slow grinding crowd. The raft race was entertaining as ever, watching friends and strangers trying not to fall into the river. This is very much a family festival, there are games, food stalls, craft stalls, Child Microwaves, and all kinds of people just enjoying themselves in the sun, together. People who usually seem uptight really don’t seem to mind being stuck in close proximity with complete strangers, everybody seems content to just do nothing, and you can’t really do much but join in. Everyone finds a spot somewhere, and basically parks there. You wander around looking for other things to do, just taking it all in, venturing back to the spot you left, to top up on alcohol and see whoever ventured over to you in the mean time. It’s got a very lazy feel, the hangovers of thousands of people, converging under the hot sun, near a stage that either performs good music or doesn’t. Saturday is full of energy, Sunday is a day wherein you feel like you’ve achieved something just by getting to a spot and staying there a few hours.
There were some great bands on Sunday, bands I have enjoyed countless times, and who I would have enjoyed had they been on at a reasonable hour. So as a musical review, this kind of falls flat on its face. I will say, however, that the final act of the event was the act “Special Kind of Madness” who combined songs by the Specials and Madness. Their choice of tracks was perfect, and their showmanship showed a great deal of effort.
Finishing the festival up in a spot at the very front of the stage, I looked out and saw the magnitude of the crowd behind us. Drunk people dancing with the police, kids and young people singing along, with crowds of older people dancing away, remembering former glories. Everyone in the crowd was singing together, a chorus of “it must be love” echoed around as thousands of people joined in to drown out the band. A true spirit of love and enjoyment had overcome this normally violent and gruesome town, it was a sight to behold and one of rarity.
No sooner had the band finished playing, but the police were forced to intervene as the crowd became instantly aggressive, and waves of police officers approached from other locations to form lines within the crowd. Luckily things dispersed quickly, or at least I did. I was thick with a hangover, on my second pair of sunglasses, and long since relieved of the Sangria from the morning. Retrieving the instruments and then heading home to see out the rest of the day and pre-empt the morning’s hangover seemed like the order of the day. Reflecting on the power of seeing people united by a love of enjoying themselves was a moving and humbling experience. Bedfords artists wouldn’t be allowed to flourish so well were it not for the people organising the events, putting the shows on and attracting important talent to the area, this festival represented a beautiful combination of a well crafted and organised event, matched, for once by the turn out and appreciation that it deserved.
Words by Rich Taylor