bored of excitement – the griefjunkie blog 

The Balloon Fiesta

Dear Rachel,

Put literally anything in a field with a beer tent and a chip van and play Solitary Sister loud enough, and British people will gleefully descend from miles around with calf tattoos and angry, fat, idiotically named children like it’s the second coming of Christ. As a British person myself, I have a suspicious disdain of the outdoors, until I find myself among it. When this happens, I tend to bound about offering astonished geological insights such as ‘Those hills are well big’ and ‘Look how messy those trees are’ until I can be made drunk enough to fall asleep.

It was, then, with initial reticence but mounting enthusiasm that I joined thirty thousand Bristol folk recently to witness some hot air balloons being inflated slowly in a field, to the accompaniment of turn-of-the-’90s dance music. This took place at Ashton Court, a former medieval estate across which deer freely roam, arranged around a seventeenth century manor house in the Bristol City half of town. The event was marshalled via tannoy by a man whose name I swear was Mike Gammon, and it was brilliant.

I’d only been to Bristol once before, several years ago in an event recorded elsewhere among these postings. On that occasion I was picked up from Temple Meads station and bundled into a minibus, whereupon I drank two bottles of wine on the way to a wedding over which I was implausibly presiding as vicar for the day. As you can probably imagine, with that kind of schedule there wasn’t really time to imbibe the cultural atmosphere of the place. However, I had since gathered enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that Bristol might be little more than a heterosexual Brighton – ie, full of ex-London middle class lightweights on a diet of anti-depressants and self-loathing, but without so many gay friends. The balloon inflating evening (or Balloon Fiesta, to use its proper name) was taking place during the festival season, so it’s possible that the Sophies and Lauras were all dancing to Mumford and Sons with their babies strapped to them somewhere else, I suppose. In any case I was struck by how important the Fiesta was to people who were actually from Bristol. Yes, there were a lot of buggies being pushed through queues for appalling food vans and such, but at least no one was obliged to talk to people with blonde dreadlocks called Ben or Josh or eat anything from an artisan bakery. I refuse to eat anything prepared by an artisan, and I suggest you do the same, because this madness has got to stop. Also, I didn’t see a single sign with the word ‘Yummy’ being used to describe any of the culinary fare on offer, and in many ways that made my evening.

I can’t pretend to speak for every British person, but as a nation I think we like things to be slightly shit. For example, I’d have been happier with the Olympics had there been feedback whining through the finishing times of the 100m, or if the medals were presented by the manager of a local car dealership, or if one of the events involved hooking plastic ducks out of a paddling pool and winning a non-fireproof Garfield windscreen accessory. The Balloon Fiesta is slightly shit, and therein lies its greatness. Nothing happens. Well, hot air balloons get inflated, but that is hardly edge-of-the-seat stuff. It takes about an hour and a half. Blink as many times as you like – you won’t miss it. And yet, as night fell over Ashton Court, I found myself turning to my companions and yelling ‘Why is this so exciting?’, because it was. By mid-inflation, fans of Chaka Demus and Pliers, Bitty MacClean, Black Box, Technotronic and Republika – which we’d suddenly all become – were well catered for by Mike Gammon and his impeccable list of British Outdoor Events Classics. With proceedings building to some ludicrous non-crescendo or other, I decided to nip off and spend a penny, pausing to dance briefly around a pushchair to Compliments On Your Kiss by Brian and Tony Gold (ft Red Dragon) with a lady from up the road, who was enthusiastically sharing candy floss.

Gentlemen wishing to relieve themselves could look forward to the pragmatic comforts of a Portakabin full of urinals. Or rather, they could when it was working, but the electricity had gone when I arrived, and I therefore joined a large group of men all wondering what the correct etiquette was in these circumstances. It seemed unfair to join the queue for the thirty-odd cubicles which comprised the Ladies’ facilities, as there were rather a lot of us – I estimated three hundred at the time, although with hindsight this does seem rather a lot. I pointed out a woodland area slightly behind the stricken Portakabin, and some of our number, unable to wait any longer, took advantage of it. I feared a general stampede to the woods but fortunately the electricity was reconnected to cheers and a resumption of the queue that had existed before it went off, preventing the whole event being carried away in a tidal wave of Bristolian piss.

I returned to scenes of revelry bought about by the introduction of coloured spotlights behind each balloon, now fully inflated, which went on and off out of time to Saturday Night and Rhythm Is A Dancer by Whigfield and Snap respectively. With Ashton Court a blaze of poor choreography and a hailstorm which chose that moment to pelt earthwards, Mike Gammon issued Land Of Hope And Glory and the Dambusters theme from the loudspeakers, spurring a spirited sing along among the thousands heading out into the south Bristol side streets. I noticed that the deer had a look of amused benevolence as they watched the happy trudge of people optimistically fashioning wet weather wear from carrier bags and so forth, in rain that would not have disgraced a North Sea squall.

‘Never mind,’ said someone, pointing to a non-specific part of the sky, ‘it’s clearing up over there!’, and with our sodden clothing hanging off us, we all cheered.

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Photards - This week’s random selections from the photographic archive are:

Top: Magic Alex, a fellow ex-Camden trader from years ago, with whom I now share a storage space at Greenwich Market. He is pictured here with the future Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Middle: Inside Cardiff Castle. Less than impressive from a military perspective these days, but everyone loves a ruin and I had two cream teas on the day I visited it. It certainly was an Eid to remember.

Lower: Drying socks on the dashboard.

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