Monday morning, the head still whirling from a weekend of utter joy (amongst other intoxicants): the inaugural Festival Number 6 at Portmeirion. Out of the corner of my eye, I kept seeing ghostly flashes of yellow stockings striding by, as Clough Williams-Ellis pounded his trompe l’oeil manor, thrilled to see it come to such exuberant life.
Take Sunday as a dipstick into my oily sump of fun. It kicked off with a reading by Jan Morris, who fluttered as she sat down “well, I never expected to be performing at a rock festival at the age of eighty-six” before blasting a capacity audience into the stratosphere with an elegant, witty memory-monologue about Portmeirion itself, Clough, the jet set who made it their second home and the joy of Welshness. On the same stage, tucked in by the swimming pool above the shifting sands of the Dwyryd estuary, surf rockers Y Niwl took it up a notch and glided us into the day.
A walk up into the village’s central piazza, by now cowering under curtains of rain, and to the undercover stage at the back of Castell Deudraeth. We were after seeing Jerry Dammers do a DJ set, but arrived in time to catch a chamber quintet playing Mozart, followed by the sublime soundscapes of Rae Morris, a wild-haired elf from Blackpool, who, following a quick google, I now know to be only nineteen. Cow. Mr Dammers bumbled on stage next, all hat and no teeth, and cranked an aching, damp, middle-aged crowd to fever pitch with steamy dub, ska, reggae under a unexpected patina of pure camp. A quick detour to catch comedian Marcus Brigstocke rant about Jimmy Carr, George Osborne and the Daily Mail (yay! Guardianista bullseye!), and it was time for home. Had we been able to stay, there was plenty more, culminating in a set by New Order, that, judging from the reaction on Twitter, was actually rather good.
Ah, Twitter. Festival Number 6 was a multiple shuddering Twittergasm. I spent large parts of Saturday afternoon being thoroughly entertained by Grace Dent, Stuart Maconie, Andrew Weatherall, Caitlin Moran and John Niven in various conversational combinations on the main piazza, and the number of people live tweeting the references being made to tweeting fused into a perfect circle of digital onanism. “Twitter good, Facebook bad!” we were told, and a thousand thumbs flew across virtual keyboards in silent agreement. When, just before sunset on Saturday, the sun finally broke through to illuminate the far side of the estuary in a buttery glow and a perfect rainbow, you could barely see it for the wall of iPhones capturing the scene. For a moment, I was worried that Instagram might explode.
A truly brilliant weekend, and a huge hats off to the organisers. To pull off a first festival this good was a hell of an achievement. Portmeirion was born to host it, and even in the horizontal north Wales rain, it shone like the jewel that it is. My one caveat, and it’s one that echoes a few other festivals held in Wales, is that the Welsh content of the festival was shoehorned slightly awkwardly into the proceedings – a token off-peak stage here, a (delightful) male voice choir there. The organisers hail from Manchester, and it showed throughout. No criticism of that, for Manchester and the north-west of England have much to say, and it’s always good to hear. But the joy of this festival was that it felt like all kinds of dialogue was going on – musical, political, cultural, social. For many English visitors, it was the first time they’d come across any real Welsh culture, the stuff that barely ever crosses Offa’s Dyke. This was a festival full of the finest people from both sides of the border; things could get really exciting with a little more exchange of views and swapping of culture, to everyone’s mutual enjoyment and benefit. As Gruff Rhys sang from the Welshie stage on Friday night: “paratown am chwyldro, achos ni yw byd” (“get ready for a revolution, because we are the world”). By god, I hope he’s right. So let’s talk to each other and make it bloody happen.
(PS – my favourite Portmeirion anecdote: when filming one of my HTV travelogues, I was lucky enough to interview the late Micky Burn (1912-2010), poet, playwright, aesthete, Military Cross holder, enthusiastic bisexual and last living Colditz survivor. Even at the age of 95, he was wonderful company. Since the 1940s, he had lived just below Portmeirion on the estuary and become part of the glittering set that frequented it. He recounted a tale from the early 1950s when a gold Bentley full of wealthy Londoners had got a little lost trying to find Portmeirion. In nearby Penrhyndeudraeth – a slate-quarrying village of chapels and coal smoke – they’d spotted an old boy hobbling down the street. They slowed down in order to ask for directions. “Excuse me my man”, said one of them through an open window, “would you be so kind as to tell us the way to The Village?” The old boy crouched down and peered in through the car window. In an accent as thick as Gwynedd rain, he carefully said, “The Village is far from God”, and then shuffled off into the gloom.)