The ‘world’s greatest soul event’

From a distance, the neat rows of massed caravans looked like orderly cemetery plots, but as we got closer, I noticed each of the graves was throbbing to a stereo turned to max.

At the entrance, a beefy security man dressed in black was raising a barrier to let in an S-reg Aston Martin. “Cheers Sparks, see yuh.” The words, unmistakably grown in Essex, were snipped by the smoked electronic window.

The Caister Weekender – “The world’s longest running and greatest soul music event” – was celebrating its 21st anniversary, but some of those queuing with me for four days of dancing, drinking and sweet soul music, hadn’t even been born when the first event was staged in 1979. Fortunately, there were plenty of wrinklies in line, even older than me.

The programme outlined the marathon ahead. Caister Weekenders have no live bands but 13 DJs would be playing classic soul tracks for 51 hours. The price, including four days’ “chalet” accommodation (for “chalet” read mobile home) was just £90.

Inside the main arena, men with a healthy disregard for fashion were rifling through boxes of collectors’ vinyls and CDs. Veterans cooed at early 70s Al Green, Howard Melvyn and Jimmy Ruffin sleeves. Those half their age oohed and ahhed at their own generation’s classics, released a decade later by the likes of the Brass Construction Company, Lonnie Liston Smith and Maze.

My own soul stripes had been earned in the mid-60s, in Manchester where the English Weekender music event was born. Back then, American soul music had seemed about the only thing bringing black and white, rich and poor together. Thirty years on, Caister was still showing this same positive face of modern Britain.

The atmosphere in the arena that first night was as mellow as at any British event I can remember. As early as 9pm, boys out on the floor – many shirtless – were already dripping from their exertions and soon, as newcomers packed in from work, every new track was being greeted with a knowledgeable roar. Some dexterous souls even managed to whoop, dance and balance a drink at the same time, though the trick became more problematic after the third or fourth double vodka and Red Bull.

By midnight, the dance floor was toffee, and we finally gave up wading around 4am.

The next morning at 11, I was woken by someone clanking a wheely shopping bag filled with bottles of hooch past my caravan. Heading in the other direction and dancing through the traffic was a conga of bleary-eyed revellers making for hangover fry-ups at Asda. “£2.79 for 10 items – you can’t beat that,” called Buster, one of the Morecombe Hatters. But I was distracted by a female in male pyjamas inviting me in for a drink at a neighbouring caravan.

Wafting out of the caravan door was the sound of Roy Ayers on the stereo and the unmistakable whiff of recently-eaten baked beans on toast. Debbie introduced me to her co-habitees: Selina, Lisa and Lorna. Two of the group were foreign-exchange dealers, one was an accountant and the fourth managed a gym in central London. On recent holidays, they had been cruising in the Caribbean and scuba diving in the Red Sea, and there had also been jaunts to New York, Cyprus, Brazil and Barbados.

These were Essex girls with the funds to fly anywhere but who wouldn’t dream of exchanging any holiday for their twice-a-year Caister jaunts in a cramped caravan living on vodka and baked beans. According to Selina, what kept drawing them back, apart from the music, was the cameraderie on site. “Everybody’s been coming for years, so the atmosphere’s always chilled and caravan doors open. It’s the Caister code.”

At the poolside party that afternoon, the Morecambe Hatters, armed with water cannon, were blasting members of Tina’s Hen Party from Brentwood (one of four hen parties, as well as a 30-strong stag party from Charlton).

Jean, 35 from Chalet 22, was dancing at the poolside to Tony Lee’s Reach Up. Jean had attended her first Weekender in 1979. “I had a massive Afro and was a wild child. Our party piece then was covering everyone in shaving foam. I’m much more mature these days,” she boasted as she pushed Buster into the pool.

“At clubs, I’ve started feeling my age but here the whole family just gets old together. We still share lipstick between us and squeeze round the same mirror.”

Four hours later, the party had moved back to the main arena and fancy dress was the order of the evening. Out on the floor, dancing up a storm, were bridal veils, bondage gear, wimples, police uniforms and an inflatable sheep attached to someone’s groin. Their owners were black, white, fat, thin, gorgeous, ugly, young and middle aged. Each belonged to a family within the bigger Caister family: the AWOL Patrol, the SAS Sisters, Private Parts, Brixton Front Line, Funkmaster Generals, Sax Maniacs.

On stage, one balding overweight DJ took over from another – “Sean French, ladies and gentlemen, a big hand but don’t let him near your chips.” I moved to the fringes to take a breather, but the chair continued to dance as if controlled by poltergeists. I had no choice but to head back out on to the dance floor as the biggest roar of the weekend so far greeted Chris Hill, the British Godfather of Soul who, at 55 years of age, has thinning hair and a face as lined as the Mississippi Delta.

“This track and Caister were born here 21 years back,” he said as he launched into his set with Ain’t No Stopping Us Now. The crowd exploded with joy, united by a common passion for soul music that transcended the fickle fates of jobs, relationships and wealth.

If Saturday is the wildest night of the Weekender, Monday’s Finale is its epiphany. For two hours, Chris presented his own version of Last Night at the Proms, dancing like a banshee, miming every instrument as he conducted his black-and-white choir.

As I watched him, I remembered what he’d once told me in a bar: “Black music has come closest in Britain to making us a classless and racially-harmonious society.”

I remembered, too, the Porsches and Aston Martins next to the Ford Mondeos in the car park, Selina and Lisa’s holidays, the open-door caravan policy and the queue for Asda breakfasts.

Cynics may sneer at this caravan park in Norfolk, but the Caister family has too good a time to worry. The steamy, funky soul played on. Chris yelled: “We are the family” as his congregation sang every word of every song. Instead of Land of Hope and Glory, it is Joy and Pain by Maze, Solo’s Blowing my Mind, Tower of Power’s It Really Doesn’t Matter, and the O’Jays I Love Music.

There’s hardly a dry eye in the place at the end. After four days of too much music, too much dance, too much laughing, too much junk food, too much drink and not enough sleep, the pilgrims gathered up their possessions and started shuffling back out the park shouting to each other as they departed: “See you at the next Weekender.”

The practicals

The next three-day Caister Soul Weekender will run September 29-October 1 at the Vauxhall Holiday Park, near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk (07010 702070, lines open Monday to Friday 2pm-8pm,

Mobile home accommodation and admission from £80. After this event, the next party will be a four-dayer on May 4-7 2001, costing from £90.

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