A starry night at the Peace Camp

I love days that end in a good way you could never have imagined when you woke up.

I was minding my own business on Sunday morning when the phone rang.  The outcome: at 11 o’clock that night, instead of being tucked up in bed, I was lying on a picnic rug on the Sussex cliffs, gazing up at a skyful of stars and satellites, listening to poetry and ethereal music emerging from an encampment of glowing tents, with the distant night calls of wading birds adding an extra dimension.

Peace Camp 2012 at Cuckmere Haven
Warm glow: The tents of the Peace Camp create an intimate atmosphere

This was the Peace Camp, a unique art installation combining poetry and sound and well, glowing tents. It was open for a few nights only, from dusk until dawn, at a handful of beautiful coastal spots around the UK.

As a fully paid-up Philistine, I don’t normally have much time for art installations, especially the sort the cleaner throws away by mistake. But this was something else:  art for insomniac, poetic, outdoor types.

It was reachable only by a half-hour torchlit trek down a pitted footpath, as the stunning scenery of Cuckmere Haven faded into midnight blue under a crescent moon.   Ahead you could glimpse the encampment of orange and white lights filling a triangular field like a distant coal fire burning on the cliffside.  Once inside, you could wander, or sit and listen as the sound of words and music filled the night air.

I had no idea the Peace Camp even existed until that excited phone call from my normally cool, calm and collected friend.  She’d just got back from watching the sun rise as the previous night’s showing came to an end.  En route, she hadn’t been sure whether it would be really naff or really amazing.   It had turned out to be really amazing.  It was a phone call of evangelism in its purest form: what I’ve just seen is so great I’d love you to experience it too.

She was right – it was a magical experience, and a beautiful starlit night was the icing on the cake. Lying on the Seven Sisters cliffs, looking up at the Seven Sisters constellation, it was a feast for the eyes and ears.   People sat or lay down or walked silently, silhouetted against the glowing tents.  It was inspired, imaginative; a health and safety nightmare, and all the more joyous for it.

Peace Camp Cuckmere Haven
The effect of poetry and music and stars was spellbinding

There were dead poets and living ones.  Bitter ones and enamoured ones.  Some of the editing was a bit controversial but the overall effect was spellbinding.  There were too many highlights to mention, but Stevie Smith’s The Frog was a thought-provoking new experience and Scarborough Fair’s real meaning suddenly emerged via its embittered reading.

But the biggest thrill came when I heard the lines I’d discovered years earlier in my father’s poetry book Other Men’s Flowers – WB Yeats’ poignant celebration of love and loss:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

To hear these words while staring deep into the Milky Way was quite something. Installation by Deborah Warner with Fiona Shaw.  Stars by God.  Awesome.

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