Published in the Times
The Isle of Wight, earlier this month, wasn’t, technically speaking, my first festival. Last year I attended Hay as a guest of a corporate sponsor, was put up in a mansion, drove to the literary gathering in an Italian supercar I was test-driving for work and promptly proceeded to have a bad time because, among other things, it’s no fun, when it’s 30C, to spend an afternoon in a marquee listening to an economist talk about whether modern Britons work harder than medieval peasants.
Also last year, I was a writer in residence at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, a job that required talking on stage a bit and then spending five days lounging around a five-star hotel, an opportunity that I once again resolutely failed to enjoy, this time because hotels make me feel disconnected and existential.
The reason I regale you with this information is not to illustrate what a glamorous life I lead, but to demonstrate how little the idea of a rock festival appeals. Being pampered at a sedate literary gathering is bad enough, but add loud music, binge drinking, drugs, audience participation, mud, rain, overflowing toilets, trench foot, dehydration, hypothermia, detention-centre fencing and miaow-miaow-addled teenagers to the mix and you couldn’t pay me to do it. Given a choice between, say, losing a limb and going to a rock festival, I’d go to the rock festival, but reluctantly, and with a very heavy heart.
And yet, this month, that’s what I did. I packed a Hi Gear Go Outdoors tent and sleeping bag into a large wheelie suitcase, bought a £1.99 raincoat from WHSmith in Waterloo station and, looking more like an executive off on a business trip to Copenhagen than a raver heading off to the Isle of Wight Festival, I got on a train to join 55,000 people at Seaclose Park in Newport for a weekend of warm beer, open-air football screenings, face painting, late-night conversations with men in leprechaun outfits, and being woken up at dawn by Durham University students playing the bongos.
There was a simple reason behind this uncharacteristically life-embracing act. An editor suggested that it would be interesting, on Glastonbury weekend, to consider why festivals continue to grow in popularity when people only seem to come back with horror stories, and I agreed. It is truly one of the great mysteries of our age that events such as the Reading Festival, T in the Park, the V Festival, the Latitude Festival and Womad have become as much a part of the British summer as rain, and that tickets for Glastonbury sell out in seconds, when all they seem to do judging from accounts delivered by hungover crusties in offices across Britain on Monday mornings in summer, is offer punters a chance to undergo some of the worst experiences known to man in the space of a weekend: in particular, pooing in a ditch and wallowing in mud.
And during the build-up to my departure to the Isle of Wight, the entire enterprise remained an utter mystery, not least because people wouldn’t stop banging on and on about … the poo and the mud. One of the strangest things about going to a rock festival for the first time is the torrent of unsolicited scatological advice that comes your way.Don’t forgot to take some bogroll and some wet wipes, they say. If at all possible, try holding it in, they warn. If you’re urinating and it feels hot, it means that your body is overheating, you’re at risk from dehydration and it’s important to drink some water, etc. This is what it must feel like getting pregnant for the first time: crowds of strangers proffering hectoring advice, the majority of which seems to involve urination or defaecation.
The obsession continues when you arrive, with most conversation and festival lingo being concerned with sewage matters: “bangers and mash” being the visible contents of an over-used toilet; “crapkins” being the burger-joint napkins that, when stolen in large enough quantities, double up as bog roll; and the “Glastonbury Tailback” apparently being the ability of some individuals to “not go” for days and days and days when lavatorial conditions aren’t ideal.
But the surprising news — and this is a basic point that the poet Simon Armitage missed when, in recently proffering various “unresearched theories” to explain the mania for festivals, he referred to “the new demographic (50 being the new 20)”, “the new eclecticism (anything goes)”, and “the new economy (no profit in products, only in experience)” — is that the mud and the toilets aren’t actually that bad.
Which isn’t to say that it was a particular highlight when, on leaving for the Isle of Wight, the BBC weather forecast warned of “heavy rain”. Or that it was amusing pitching a tent in conditions that a haddock would consider too soggy. Or that it was much fun queueing for a toilet first thing on a Saturday morning after a day of drinking; I’ve had more fun waking up from operations. But the only way the mud could have been as bad as everyone predicted would be if at some stage I’d found myself face down on the floor, choking on it. And the only way the bogs could have been as bad as everyone predicted would be if someone had tipped over the cubicle while I was in it. And this didn’t happen.Indeed, I would say that there are many worse things than the mud and poo at rock festivals. These include the sun (which came on the Saturday and made the toilets stink, left people with agonising sunburn and turned tents into furnaces), the endless walking (you walk for half an hour from the taxi stand to the campsite; you walk for half an hour to get from campsite to the stage; you walk for hours trying to find people you can’t locate because text messages take five hours to arrive; and you walk because when it’s muddy there is literally nowhere to sit down) and the queueing.
My God, the queueing. You queue for “bar tokens” so you can buy drinks at the bar; you queue at the bar to get your drinks; you queue for the overflowing toilets; you queue to have your phone charged (an activity that makes watching a kettle boil seem positively stimulating); and you even queue to get out. I missed the only band I really wanted to see — Doves — and Kanye West’s guest appearance with Jay-Z because I was queueing for drinks. And for the first time since the sixth form, I took up cider instead of wine, simply because a pint takes longer to drink and I wanted to spread out visits to the bar. All the waiting around makes festivals feel like wartime Britain. Or like Communist Russia. Which is weird because, at the same time, festivals also feel like Las Vegas: wherever you go there is someone trying to flog you some tat, whether it is a straw trilby, fairy wings or, of course, bog roll.
But this is meant to be a piece about the appeal of festivals, and to get back to the reasons why hundreds of thousands may be willing to endure such torment, I’ll concede another point: festivals offer a vaguely interesting way of discovering new music. This is something I admit with reluctance because I’m of the view that if you’re a proper music fan, you should get into an artist, listen to them obsessively, and then go to see them perform for a couple of hours, mouthing the lyrics as you do so. At about an hour long, most sets at festivals are just too short for true aficionados. And the idea of seeing lots of artists in the space of a few days is confusing. Just because you like Calvin Harris it doesn’t mean that you want to see Paul McCartney. It’s like expecting someone to like oysters because they once enjoyed a chicken tikka masala. From a distance it seemed to me that the average festivalgoer was the kind of person who, when asked what he’s listening to, replies “a bit of everything really”. Which is the same thing as saying: “I like nothing.” But I was wrong. To my surprise, I found myself enjoying Florence and the Machine, an act I had previously dismissed on the ground that the singer sounds like Cher, and Jay-Z put on such a surprising set that I’ve since bought a couple of his albums. So I admit it: there’s something to be said for the way festivals expose you to things you might normally instinctively avoid.
Another attraction of festivals: for a certain kind of person they represent a real holiday. What kind of person? Well, they are certainly not ethnic minorities: during my 36 hours on the Isle of Wight I counted a total of ten brown faces, and one of those was Jay-Z. It made Cheltenham look like the Bronx. And while I’m told that not all rock festivals are this monocultural, this makes sense: if you come from immigrant stock, you and/or your parents have probably come to the UK to escape dirt, bad sanitation and, in some cases, refugee tents, in favour of hot water, clean clothes and a warm bed, and the idea of returning to it for a weekend doesn’t appeal. And they are certainly not working class. It’s odd that seasoned festivalgoers like to complain about how festivals are becoming too posh, with punters spending their evenings on site sipping chablis in the porches of Cath Kidston tents, when a weekend in a field in the English countryside costs at least as much as a week in the sun in Spain — putting it way out of reach of lots of people.
Let’s face it, rock festivals have always been a white middle-class activity, and I can see why. Most of the year, they spend their time working hard in clean, sanitised, air-conditioned offices far from the natural world, their lives governed by rules, conventions and health and safety regulations, earning salaries that enable them to buy secure, clean comfortable houses in which they can listen to, eat, or see anything or anyone they want, whenever they like, in total isolation from the rest of humanity. But a festival offers a taste of the complete opposite: an opportunity to spend a weekend immersed in mud; exposed to the elements; crapping in a hole; being at the mercy of the weather; listening to unfamiliar music; and spending successive nights under a flimsy shelter alongside thousands of others. It has been said that the problem with holidays is that you can never truly escape yourself, but with a festival the middle classes almost can, especially when you combine it with … getting totally wasted.
And this is what, more than anything else, the whole festival thing comes down to. In preparation for my weekend away I had read tens of articles about people’s first-time festival experiences and was puzzled by how nearly everyone said they had a bad time but nevertheless stayed or came back for more.
“One of my friends went back to his tent, only to find that it had disappeared,” complained festival camper Harry Hardie in The Times in 2007. “Four of us ended up trying to sleep in one soaking-wet tent. With water running through it. But you know what? You have to go with it.”
Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, described something similar in The Observer, when he said his first festival, Reading in 1975, was the “quintessential awful festival experience: dreadful music, disgusting food, overflowing toilets, rain, mud denim-clad Quo fans and gallons of lukewarm bitter”. But did it stop him going the following year? “Of course not.”
Even the broadcaster Charlie Brooker, who can safely be described as the most miserable man in Britain, didn’t give up when he went to Glastonbury for the first time in 2007. After complaining at length in The Guardian about “staring grimly at smartarses who’d had the good sense to cart their stuff in a wheelbarrow” and being kept awake by “post-pubescent uppermiddle-class music-industry gitsacks … braying witless bulls*** at the top of their idiot lungs”, he ended his account with the improbable line: “at some point, I realised something was wrong with my face. It was smiling.”
Indeed, out of about 30 accounts, the only person who admitted leaving after having a crap time was the Radio 1 DJ Jo Whiley, who told The Independent that her first experience of Glastonbury was so atrocious (“It rained an awful lot, our tent was slipping down the hill”) that at about 5am on the Sunday she just said “sod this”, picked up her stuff and left.
Perplexing? It was for me until, in spite of myself, I found myself bopping along happily, in wellingtons, to an Aretha Franklin track at 1am in a tent on the Isle of Wight after an entire day drinking. And there you have it: if you consume enough booze, almost anything, up to and including a rock festival, can seem like fun.