A meditation on joy via a Welsh Elvis Festival
Somethingyousaid.com’s Tom Spooner spends quality time in Wales with some Elvis impersonators:
Joy takes you by surprise. It can hit you like a freight train or rise up inside you like bubbles blown in a child’s breath towards a watery sun. Joy doesn’t live inside you. If it did, it would spend its time dancing to Motown in a tent pitched in the space where your heart leaps when you see that special someone. Joy cannot be sought. It chooses you and it finds you.
Joy is the first time your eyes look upon your newborn son or daughter; a dog chasing its tail; a minor epiphany on a crisp autumn morning; a kiss that you’ve waited your entire life for; completing the crossword without Google; skimming a stone across a lake; baking a cake, licking the bowl; holding hands; dancing alone in the kitchen to a song you really shouldn’t love; feeling the weight of their head press down on your naked chest; finding an album; hearing that song; buying the perfect dress that you know you can’t afford; running naked across a field wet with dew; cutting into an egg and watching a bright yolk ooze out; that moment when you wake up at 9am and think you’re late for work but then remember it’s a Saturday; telling your boss to get screwed; listening to the cracking of ice-cubes in a tall glass of gin and tonic on a summer’s evening; realising, after forgetting for too too long that you are alive and that it is good.
Some people think that you can manufacture joy. You can’t. They think that you can somehow conjure it into existence by creating certain scenarios. Like getting all your friends together after years apart, walking to a secret place with a picnic, getting a kitten. These can make you feel a swelling of happiness, contentment, familiarity but not joy. This is pleasure. You can’t expect joy. Nor can you predict when joy will find you, just like I didn’t predict finding it in a small run-down Welsh seaside town at an Elvis Festival on a blustery autumn day. Joy takes you by surprise, like I said.
The town of Porthcawl sits on the south coast of Wales, not far from Bridgend. It is an unremarkable place. At one end of the town, a desolate fairground and stretch of beach bleed rust into the grey sea. At the other end, concrete and Cornettos trade off against faded Art Deco façades and balconies in need of a lick of paint. But then each year for the last weekend of September, Porthcawl hosts Europe’s largest Elvis festival. There is no rhyme or reason, it is just so.
The flat-roofed pubs and greasy seafront eateries become overrun by sideburns and quiffs, flared trousers and over-sized lapels, laughter and liquor and the songs of Elvis Presley. The impersonators come from all around the world to perform in a range of venues from gnarly drinking holes to grand marquees. The Welsh come in their hundreds: on mini-buses from the local estates, on coaches from the Valleys. The promenade groans in mock displeasure at the weight it must now bear.
All of these people like Elvis, but they like to get dressed up, get drunk and sing songs with their friends and families more.
Everyone wears some semblance of a costume. One item is all that is required to be accepted into the unique energy of the day – a pair of glasses, a large collar, a sequinned jacket, a quiff, a lip curl, a T-shirt, stick on sideburns, a Stetson. There are no rules other than to make an obligatory gesture to honour the King. Of course some people take it seriously, recreating historically accurate Elvises whilst others arrive dressed in inflatable King costumes.
The quality of the impersonators is varied. Some forget words, becoming so distracted by the attentions of the menopausal lushes that claw and coo up at them from plastic chairs that they repeat lines over like a skipping record. Others hit bum notes, trip and stumble around the stage in ill-fitting costumes, grown too tight in the intervening months, some slip comically between cod-American drawl and strong regional accents. Still they perform because they love the King.
The atmosphere is that of a carnival: a bawdy anything-goes cauldron of rough and ready hip-shaking where violence and lust and optimism bounce around like atoms in a molecule. I look around and see all of this in an instant. It is then that it hits me – joy has found me at last. I let my voice bellow out, joining with the chorus, becoming one with the hundreds that sway and clutch and hug around me as they sing. I thrust out my hip as I turn towards the bar. What you drinking, Joy? This one is on me.
Words and pictures by Tom Spooner.