Devizes Street Festival; Black Rat Monday Lives on….

There are two giant kangaroos hopping through Long Street in Devizes, one bantering to a passer-by in a mock-Aussie accent, “no, I’m not into bondage, you can’t tie me down, sport!”

Meanwhile a gypsy woman riding a quad-cycle with a double bass attached follows a dapper man in top hat and tails, playing a piano on wheels, adorned with flowery ornaments and mirrors, past the Nationwide on Maryport Street. This isn’t your archetypal afternoon in town, this is a scattered post-lockdown version of DOCA’s beloved Devizes Street Festival, and while this isn’t going to be quite as simple for me to angle this time around, it is, unarguably, something fantastic.

With the main stage outside the Corn Exchange missing this year, there was no centrepiece binding the annual event together, therefore from the outside looking in, one could perceive it being all rather mishmash. I feel this was intentional, to avoid crowding, and a wise move considering the circumstances. The crucial point is, the magic was still there, for all ages; side stalls, street food, fairground rides, static and wandering circus acts and street theatre all played as colourful and lively part of the street festival as it ever did, it was just dispersed around the town centre.

If the lack of live music was a shame this time around, least it drew attention to side attractions. I’ve a particular penchant for the offbeat street theatre, fondly reminding me of sunny Glastonbury festivals of yore. It is, then, precisely this, and the variety of side attractions, especially catering for children which spells out to me, this is so much more than the perceived monumental piss-up locals dub, “Black Rat Monday,” with its monocultured ethos of cider-swigging debauchery.

However, and this is a big however, if DOCA wishes to cast off this label, that is it’s prerogative to do so, but they should note the nickname is not to be taken seriously, it is all part of a running joke in true west country fashion, an inward banter of ironic overstatement. Folk know it’s more than the sum of downing as much cider as they can, that’s the joke. Backside of the coin, though, a large part of the community does want exactly that. Far from loutish behaviour, the spirit of eat, drink and be merry is imbedded in our history.

But, as of yet, there’s no indication DOCA wish to cast the namesake off, being despite informing The British Lion, after their mainstay position serving the apple poison about-centre for a mere couple of decades, that their presence is no longer required, they themselves sold Black Rat cider solely other than Pimm’s, at their own bar. I sigh at this, considered titling this piece, “a shame,” but supposed later, DOCA’s overheads must be ginormous, laying such a memorable and legendary event on for free, scraping a tad back from sales of said cider plays a small part and the need to do this is understandable.

I’m impartial on this one, not here to cast accusations or play a blame game, taking on board, and agreeing with much of the hearsay and rumours revolving through the natives, though. Local politics isn’t my bag, if there’s monopolising tactics at the root of this, I think that’s unfair and certainly not in the community spirit of the event, at all.

And there it lies, in a word; community. Keep the “international” in the title, by all means, I, and I believe I speak for most of us when I say bringing the worldwide stage to our doorsteps with a plethora of top world music acts is a wonderful idea and we love DOCA for it, but this doubles-up, and always did, as a festival for the community. DOCA abide by this with plentiful locally sourced side attractions, but personally I think we need to honour local talent too.

I’d welcome artistic director Loz to give me a bell come the time for booking acts, and be it from my own personal judgement or a Facebook poll, ask me to name two local acts who deserve to be on the main stage billing. And at least two do, those who’ve excelled through these challenging times and take a little piece of Devizes with them around the country. If it’s a mouthful to call it, “the Devizes International Community Street Festival,” then just “Devizes Street Festival” will suffice.

Of course, DOCA did take heed, and allowed a secondary local music stage in 2019, of which Pete and Jackie of Vinyl Realm completely funded and organised. This was something beautiful, and became a key feature of the street festival that year. But no matter how large this goes, it will always feel like a bolt-on, when what I’d really appreciate is the pick of local talent up on that main stage.

There, said my piece, and don’t wish to end on a sour note, not that it was, just constructive criticism. Children are trampolining in Sidmouth Street, while a couple of, what can only be described as “rock n roll slappers” entice passers-by to peak into their ‘peepshow’ wooden box at the other end. Limbo dancers outside the town hall, with a man rolling around inside an oversized metal hull-a-hoop, and a giant exoskeleton puppet wanders down the Brittox, stopping to sniff the hanging baskets. How can I possibly be critical about any of this? Rising against the challenges, DOCA made an absolutely fantastic show of colour, curiosity and entertainment, amidst vibrant atmosphere, this is a town-wide show unlike any other and should never be taken for granted.

I tip my hat to DOCA as a samba band play by the Market Place cross, but I feel impelled to check out the British Lion, all things considered, and that lengthy beer garden sure is alive with punters, those loyal to the Black Rat. Tom Harris, Pat Ward, Claire et all, play unplugged as a barbeque for Dorothy House sizzles and friends gather to mark their appreciation of “the British.” And that is the true meaning of “community,” it doesn’t need props and extravagant shows, it just takes hospitality and compromise.

That said I’m pleased to see those trampolines, extending the street festival out from the Market Place, as it’s a stone throw from the welcoming pub, and combined it into the event rather than making it feel out on a limb, and for that, for the whole bank holiday weekend, what with Full Tone frenzy too, Devizes is truly great, when it works together. The British Lion is an institution here in the ‘Vizes, the reliably stable free house has stood the test of time with little need to fix its unbroken charm. This is the only regular gig on their calendar which sees them gallivanting from their bar and making an appearance in the Market Place, something which has become equally as traditional as the event itself. It is a shame not to have them present this year. Competition is healthily, remember, a range of breweries can compromise and find a solution, of that, I’m certain, and look forward to the possibility it will be so in future years.


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