June 2nd – The Festival of the Vocavaroe Family Protection Squad

In 1714 the writer Joules Mendyr published his first children’s book, The Family Vocavaroe, and it has been a best seller ever since. Perhaps it is the essential naive beauty of the watercolour illustrations, revolutionary for their time, that has carried it this far. Or perhaps it is the wholesome themes, the warm characterisation, the gentleness of the story. Either way, having a festival dedicated to the books must help.

Perhaps it is not entirely true to say that the festival is dedicated to the book; whilst it certainly forms a large part of the festival, and whilst the festival certainly wouldn’t have come into being without it, the celebration, like many Buentoilliçan festivals, is perhaps more about a specific tree. Part of the genius of the books (for there were many sequels) is that they purport to be entirely truthful accounts of the life of the Vocavaroe family, a family of small green tree spirits who live inside what is now called the Vocavaroe Elm. ‘In the centre of Doubleman’s square, next to the bakery and the post office and framer’s shop,’ reads the first line of the book, ‘there is a large elm tree in which dwells the Family Vocavaroe.’

Well before the festival began, folk would take their children to see the elm tree, leading them across the cobbled square and pointing up into the verdant canopy, ‘did you see that?’ I think I saw one of the Family running across that branch!’ Children would climb up the tree, which at the time was easily accessible either from a window of the cafe in the first floor above the bakery (then Double Brother’s Bakery and Cafe), where one of the thick branches reached out, or from a running jump to a lower branch if you were tall enough. Once up there they would search for signs of the Family’s existence, of little doors and windows leading into the tree, but every time the Family saw them coming, presumably little Eidwine with his miniature telescope, and closed all the hatches.

And then, in 1777, the new owner of the square, Douglas Treidsham, decided that the tree had to be cut down; its roots were damaging the local buildings, and keeping the cobbles swept in the autumn was a nightmare. Needless to say, folk weren’t best pleased with this plan. They lobbied the local authority to stop him, but as the square was technically private land (it had five gates, one for each entry, which were shut for one day each year to maintain this status), and the authority could do nothing. Folk took the gates off their hinges, but apparently this didn’t help. They put out notice that any willing tree surgeons or lumberjacks to do the actual dirty work would face a boycott, but one was found nonetheless.

Yet when it came to the day of the felling, the first of June, the lumberjack found that there were five children in the tree, all reading The Family Vocavaroe, heedless to his calls to get down. By midday there were several adults up there too, feet dangling amidst the branches. By the end of the day a watch was set up, a rotation of people coming through the cafe (whose owners, despite the frustration they’d had over the years with kids running through their shop to get up the tree, were wholeheartedly in support of the protesters), all reading the books, so that there would be no time of day to cut it down. Eventually, Triedsham came out to see what the fuss was all about. Someone handed him a book. Three hours later he decreed the tree was safe.

Ever since that first year, folk have sat up the tree, reading their books in the dappled sunshine. The tree has grown to such an extent that two of the buildings have had to be rebuilt around the roots, and the bakery-cafe (still in business, but under the name ‘The Family’s Cafe’) has actually built a balcony which rests on the extended branch. Their waiters are specially trained and will carry drinks out to the revellers resting on the branches. A bookshop has opened across the way, where the framer used to be, which sells Joules Mendyr’s books most prominently.

Another new addition are the tiny constructions which have started popping up over the tree – little doors, storehouses of tiny crates slung in nets beneath branches, balconies, ladders, chimney pots, even a landing pad complete with feeder for the birds which the Family rides. Perhaps it is the work of local artists, or maybe, just maybe, the Family are feeling less shy nowadays.

Other festivals happening today:

  • Careful Dave’s Day of Half Price Brews
  • The Placement of Art is Tantamount to Success: a Rallying Talk
  • The Day of Listening to the Wind