We'll do it our way: Should local festivals stay local?

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The Independent Online
The local festival liaison officer dashes gleefully out of The Spar to tell me that his parachute jump has been co-sponsored by John from the garden centre and Howmedica who make bone-setting plaster. Ashley from the flower shop agrees to provide flowers for the gallery opening, Jeremy from the kite shop needs another poster, Maureen's had a yes from Abney Park, they've got the horses for the procession but they're not completely black so Penny is going to dye the spots for us.

The Caribbean carnival is on. Fiona's artists have got the go-ahead to put an installation in the cemetery, the Jive Cats are confirmed for the Festival Hop in the assembly rooms, Martin from Steptoe's pub will provide bunting. Do we want bunting] The Kurdish dancing will go ahead if they can find the musicians. . .

The exciting thing about the Stoke Newington Church Street midsummer festival is that it is the people who live here who have made it happen, because we wanted to, because we believe we have something to celebrate.

No one has been paid to programme this festival, no one has been paid to promote it, or organise it. Its costs have been met by a modest community festivals grant, support from local businesses and from the fund-raising efforts of its voluntary organisers. It's 'bottom up', not 'top down'. Spontaneous combustion.

The spark was ignited last year (the first year of the festival) when the authorities were persuaded to close Church Street for the day, the sun shone and everybody had a great time. This year it has exploded into a dynamic and exciting event, unique to Stoke Newington, which, like the Quakers and non-conformists who have peopled the rich history of the area for centuries, is refusing to fit into available straitjackets.

It kicked off this morning at the non-conformist time of 5.30 with a dawn chorus tour of the beautiful Victorian dissenters' cemetery in Abney Park. Children will return there on Friday afternoon for a Life and Death Tour, exploring mortality through Victorian funeral ritual.

And before the street festival explodes into music and dance on Sunday, a ghostly 19th century funeral procession will wend its horse-drawn way up Church Street, followed by dozens of primary school 'mourners' kitted out in black Victorian bonnets and sashes.

The huge arts community, for which Hackney and Stoke Newington are renowned, has mobilised and redecorated a 'dead' gallery space in the library for which there was no council decorating budget. The festival exhibition opened there on 1 June, and Pause, an on-street exhibition, opens today in shop windows the length of Church Street.

The response to the Sunday street festival has been overwhelming: on the three stages there's a bit of everything, from a gospel choir to Thai boxing, Irish reggae, jive dancing, Balkan folk grunge, Egyptian dancing, hurdy gurdy. . .

There's theatre from Monday to Thursday (six different shows), classical concerts (two of them featuring new work by local composers and a huge fund-raising concert in the church on Saturday the 18th), playback theatre, performance installation, pub quizzes, falconry

displays, boules competitions, and a giant paper glider knock-out competition, along with throwing the welly during the Saturday picnic in the park. We've got the mayor - we've even got Jo Brand.

There, perhaps, is the rub. We have got Jo Brand. The festival is growing rapidly, already attracting national, as opposed to local celebrities. At the moment, the emphasis is on local people, whether they're national theatre directors or brown owls (or both]), whether they want to have tea on the church lawn, hold an evening of playback theatre, run a cake stall for the local nursery, or play gothic harp in the concert, but there's a feeling that we're on the cusp of potentially getting much bigger.

The community could easily support a full-blown arts festival. But do we want it? Is this how Notting Hill or Aldeburgh started, and are the people of Notting Hill and Aldeburgh glad it went the way it did? How do you get bigger and keep the special quality that this festival has at the moment? Fiona Fieber, writing in our brochure, stresses the importance of continuing to ask 'What do people want the festival to be?'

So far, we've been delightfully free from the pressures that come with major sponsors, big names. As an organising group we have relationships with all the individual traders, all the performers and contributors. It's not so big that we can't deal with every aspect of the festival in detail - we're even inflating our own helium balloons - and, because it's all been voluntary, everything is an achievement and pulls the community together. We're not professional organisers. We're local parents, writers, artists, a Scoutmaster, an ex-priest, a community worker, childminder, student, an ex-spin doctor from Lambeth Council, an architect, having a go at getting something special together in the place where we live and work. Any community can do it and many of them do. You usually don't get to hear too much about them though, unless you're a local or they turn into Aldeburgh, or Notting Hill Gate. As Janet Phillips from the local Festival support group said: 'Some festivals, I don't know how to put it, they're hard, but this one's lovely, soft somehow.'

I hope it stays that way, however big it gets.

Brochures and ticket information from 071-254 3735.

(Photograph omitted)

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