Well, the annual culture-clash that is Ironfest has come and gone once more. This year, I went with friends and with more reasonable expectations than I did last year and, consequently, had a more enjoyable time. This time around, the event was held over two days rather than the two-and-a-half and three days of the previous years and I think that this shortened time frame meant that many attendees who would normally have shown up to spruik their wares were less willing to make an appearance. For instance, there were noticeably fewer Napoleonic tents on the main showground (not fewer Napoleonic recreators – plenty of people were present to get shot at in the melees – just fewer people willing and able to sleep out in a camp tent overnight).
Still, quality counts for something, and there was enough activity to celebrate Lithgow’s steel-industry heritage in a myriad quirky ways. The cosplay crowd were there with bells on (literally) and this year most of them had checked themselves in a mirror before leaving their homes. There were fewer wardrobe malfunctions in evidence (discounting the woman in the steel brassiere who simply could not keep the thing fastened, I suspect deliberately) and most of the costumes were of the type that were sturdy enough to withstand a weekend’s worth of parading. Best of all was the “clockwork fairy” woman whose wings opened and shut with the ratcheting of a large silver key.
The theme this year was “Gypsy Dreadnought” which, as I had suspected, was a bit of a sop to the Tarot-cards-and-belly-dance crowd. There was a fully-armed and armoured gypsy caravan parked at the front gate (probably doing double duty as a not-so-subtle reminder for the Sydney Goth-er-“Steampunk” retailers to keep their X-rated music down) and the air everywhere rang with the melodies of not only Abney Park (shudder!) but also Caravan Palace (yay!). (Apparently, the ‘Park have decided to tell the world that they “invented” Electro-Swing. It seems Captain Robert can’t tell the difference between “invented” and “appropriated”, but then, that’s pirates for you!)
The World War Two re-enactors showed up with some impressive examples of 20th Century wartime armour this year, including armoured half-tracks and tanks, and they put it all to good use during their mock-combat bouts. This year, the hallmark of the event was the constant cloud of gunpowder smoke that wafted over the event. I reflected that we were all pretty lucky to live in a country where, if loud explosions and gunfire suddenly happen, everyone in the crowd runs towards the noise to see what’s happening, instead of ducking and covering. Put that observation in your gun-law narratives, Americans.
The ironworkers were back and hammering fit to bust, making everything from giant sunflowers to tiny horseshoes. This year, there were many more steam hammers present and the place was merrily ringing from dawn ‘til dusk. You’ve gotta love an occupation which allows you to wear a top hat while you work!
Musically, the ‘Fest was back in form: the Lithgow Brass Band wasn’t in attendance, probably due to the fact that the annual Lithgow Fair had taken place a week or two previously, so marshalling performers for one event, rather than two would have been an easier prospect. To make up for them, there was a Scots pipe-and-drum marching band and the Medieval troubadour group Wayward with their hurdy-gurdies and crumhorns.
Much of the costumed craziness was diverted out of the general activity by some discreet LARPing that was going on in the background: a vast improvement over the open mic mistake of the previous year. Corralling the exhibitionists on the trail of LARP-quests was a vastly better idea than giving them a platform from which to warble while their body paint melted off under the spotlights!
The Guy Who Makes Frill-Necked Lizards Out Of Old Forks (you heard it here first, folks!) was back, but I paid him no mind. The Steampunk Modders were in the main hall with their woeful collections of welded-together lumps of crap advertised as “Time Machines” or “Galvanisers” (but which, ultimately, are only ugly doorstops); but, as well, I slid by and wasted no time with them. I have reached a stage where I know where to focus my energies with this event.
As the afternoon lengthened, groups of young men began to show up, probably coming straight from work to see what the fuss was about. Last year I noted the appearance of guys tricked out in makeshift capes and plastic swords, and this year was the same: one fellow artfully tore the box that his slab of Carlton Draught beer had come in and had fashioned from it a Roman Legionnaire’s costume. Points for enthusiasm and artfulness, if not authenticity.
I quickly lost track of how many copies I spotted of “Anduril” – Aragorn’s re-built sword from the Lord of the Rings franchise – made from both spring-steel and LARPing foam, and it dawned on me that there were lots of young people running about armed with sharpened lengths of metal. While existing laws about having to be over 16 years of age before buying blades were being observed, there didn’t seem to be any concern about fathers buying real, actual, sharp swords, and giving them to their kids. Seriously, one small person was lugging about a replica “Sting” that was almost as long as he was. It was either an accident waiting to happen or Evolution in action; I didn’t hang around to find out which.
Roving entertainment provided many amusing diversions and, since I was in the company of an adorable nine-year-old, our small group was targeted by many costumed performers out to engage the onlookers. The low-key but eminently talented Solid State Circus cut loose with several performances during the day specialising in death-defying acrobatics, hula-hoop pizzazz and the balancing of deadly objects on their faces, including a machete and a primed dingo trap. Don’t try this at home!
Medieval recreationists were present in force and again the SCAdians were pretty much outclassed by the local versions of the pastime which have flourished in the attempt to put the sour-taste of American franchise ownership behind them. In particular, the Europa group, which eschews bashing each other with sticks or iron bars in favour of cultivating the crafts and activities of the Norse tribes, was an illuminating gathering, displaying many fascinating activities from leatherwork, to archery, to hnefatafl. (That’s “Viking chess” to you and me.) Of course, the “Thwack! Clap!” of SCA biffo blotted the airwaves periodically, but it was easy to ignore, given the displays of actual swordspersonship on offer from the many metal weapons groups present. Not to mention the small children with very big knives!
Once again the overriding tone of the event was sheer enthusiasm. Let it not be said that Lithgow is a thriving community or economic powerhouse: it’s about as blue-collar as it comes and its glory days are well in the past. However, this event gives all the locals the opportunity to cut loose and just enjoy themselves for the weekend. Stallholders and tradespeople come from as far away as Tasmania to attend the festivities and there is a serious amount of craftpersonship and creativity on offer for all comers. It’s wacky and quirky, potentially catastrophic and just plain fun – I would recommend it to anyone.