I’ve never liked the idea of festivals. They require you to be literally always outside, continuously pummelled with sounds, surrounded by munted children, munted adults, and conservatives that think they’re socialists – and enjoy it to the tune of £250. Because they sound so awful, I’ve never actually been to one before now and thus my knowledge of festivals comes from those who constantly talk about going to festivals, and – a bit like people who constantly talk about their drug use (for which there is a huge Venn diagram to be drawn here) – perhaps don’t give the best impression of the overall world of drug- and festival-use. (There’s a smouldering, silent bloc of you that are alright.)
Hypocritically, then, I’ll join the rabble forcing their self-indulgent and narrow-minded experience of festival phenomena on you, and tell myself it’s only to balance the noise. But I do hope that for young overwhelms like myself who might one day be traumatised by a cheeky, non-committal fence-hop that accidentally lasts too long, or get peer-pressured into buying a ticket for a version of hell decorated by a Glastonbury shopkeeper, I will litter the following with all the instructions I can think of that allowed me to ‘enjoy’ mine and stop short of ‘spend £250 on anything else.’
Last week I went to Green Gathering. I was running the cinema there for the first two days, on behalf of a friend who had double-booked himself with Boomtown and had wisely recognised that it would be unwise for me, at this point in my life, to be Boomtowning. It is important to do your research, and choose a festival with which you are largely compatible. Green Gathering hates The Man, hedonism, and things that most normal people think are fun and/or necessary, so we were about as well suited as a festival and I could be. Working was key to optimum mental functioning; running the cinema not only gave me some much needed structure – there were no acts on that I’d heard of, so I had no itinerary (which, for two days in a field, is ludicrous) – but also provided me with a huge tent to live in. This made the journey to and from the festival slightly less stressful, in that I had one less item to throttle me and smash into my shins.
Before I left, a festival-seasoned friend (who only talked about it at my request) advised me that there are slightly different rules to socialising etiquette at festivals, and that you’re almost certain to get a good response if you begin talking to a stranger with an enthusiasm up to and including that usually reserved for adult-toddler interactions. As I got off the train with a bunch of other people carrying camping gear, I asked a couple (in the style of a children’s TV presenter circa 1998) if I could share their taxi. Since it was a small town it was only a fiver, and they didn’t ask for money (the next day they came to visit me in the cinema and watched a film about the inevitability of full ecocide due to rapacious mining and pollution – I felt we’d bartered ironically, if not well.) Almost immediately I got out the taxi and began hobbling toward the crew office, a woman dressed as a fire-breathing mythical creature offered to carry my bags for me the rest of the way to the site.
First things first, I unpacked everything, reshuffled it, and packed everything valuable into a smaller bag to carry everywhere with me (lest the socialist-cum-conservatives wheedle their way into my temporary home – they’re individualistic at heart, but all about distribution of others’ wealth when it suits them.) It is advisable to over-prepare on anything that is light, and carry that with you too. You’ll be able to get by without that 2 litre bottle of mixer, but when you forget nail clippers that hang nail is going to fuck you.
I ran into people wearing matching fake beards, who turned out to be theatre protest group BP or Not BP, a Rasta who also ran a macrobiotic food festival, and a teenager called Carl who would have charmed me right up if I hadn’t been ten years older than him. He didn’t so much shake my hand as much as he held it tenderly and squeezed it a couple of times as though we’d been friends for years, or my hand was a piece of bread that he was crumbing for a nutroast. I didn’t know teenage boys were capable of such gentleness/astute manipulation.
By that first evening I had talked to an optimum amount of other festival-goers (i.e. not that many) who were all perfectly friendly and had thus retained a lot of my energy. I screened my last film for the day, had a drink, and ran into some drum and bass. These munters seemed alright after all. I was relaxing, mainly because of the rum/drum and bass symbiosis but also because I was by myself, bouncing without limitation from one place to another, one impromptu mid-crowd circus performance to another, one eyebrow-flash of contentment shared with a stranger to another…
At some point some square ceased that particular fun, and I, being cool, made my way over to the only stage still playing. The fun I hadn’t anticipated having was cut short – it was nearing 2am, and the final laptop had died. Perversely, the DJ started making requests for alternatives – naturally, I had packed my iPod into my tory-proof rucksack and proceeded to play all the weird and wonderful songs I never thought I’d hear on a speaker stack taller than I am. (It was around Favourite Moment #36 of my life so far, but they often happen just out of my comfort zone where there are no pens, so I can’t be sure.)
Finally someone came and grumpily shut it down – the laptop had in fact died at exactly the right time and my illicit iPod dabbling had drawn a couple of organisers out of Festival HQ to bollock us, which I unplugged and slipped away for. It got relatively quiet – which I wasn’t expecting – but I still needed ear plugs to get some sleep. (And for God’s sake take an eye mask; daytime occurs about 4am because you’re living outside.)
In the morning I felt as rough and regretful as I usually do after having a lovely time, my mind full of uncertainty and my body lacking true rest. I made my way over to The Healing Field which, alongside massages for a (suggested) donation (of £35) and a tent in which you were invited to unlock the pain of your ancestors from your DNA (no, thanks) offered free yoga sessions. The session I went to happened to be all women, and led by a friendly, generous and normal-seeming woman who was all about my womb. This was nice, because I was on my period and someone was paying attention to my need to rub my stomach a bit and stretch in un-thought-of ways and grizzle a bit, and then she said kind things about my soul. She definitely wasn’t getting munted. I wondered how she was dealing with the whole thing, seemingly super happy living amongst the rain and the badgers and the soggy leaves, chanting and smiling at people while appearing to have all her marbles. She may have been an anomaly, but she was shattering my neatly-whittled stereotypes.
It was raining again and not many people were up yet, so I ended up cancelling the first screening of the day. My structure interrupted, I was immediately bored and antsy. I walked around the perimeter of the site listening to Boards of Canada (whom I no longer think are pointless but actually quite relaxing). I finally took shelter in the main tent, where all of the youngest children at the festival appeared to have formed an adorable gang and sat in a tiny row in front of me. Trying to ‘be’ and shit, I just sat. I sat and wondered whether as a toddler I would have relished the brightly coloured music farm, or whether all of the people and the rain and the blaring would have agitated me into a series of overtired panics. I wondered how much of my anxiety was inherent and how much was learned, how much of it will stay with me throughout my life, how much of it I deserved, how much of it was my fault, how I was supposed to be relaxing and being kind to myself and not overthinking things or asking questions with no answers.
The musicians started and I stared at them as they ran through a lengthy sound check. I enjoyed a change of scenery for my staring, away from screens. I enjoyed hearing literally no traffic. I enjoyed sitting in a public space with my eyes closed, smiling and swaying gently and still not being the weirdest person in the room. A woman sat down next to me and said hello, and after a short chat she insisted on buying me a chai and a piece of cake. I was so touched that I didn’t tell her I’d just eaten or that my nervous system has an intolerance for vast clumps of sugar, so though I drank all of the chai I chucked the cake over my shoulder while she wasn’t looking (like that bit in Good Will Hunting in the joke shop, but I was genuinely trying to outsmart her and I’m slightly more hench than Matt Damon.)
I was already flagging and I’d only been there 24 hours. That felt like several too many, and I had the same amount to go. I had no choice but to pay attention to the musicians, the couples around me enjoying a break from their routines, the children embodying abandon and how desperate I was to join them. (I haven’t yet figured out abandon, if anyone has, please tweet me.) I became ok just sitting, listening, flitting from place to place for as long as each one held my attention. I gave myself a grace period each time, so I didn’t flit too much or too little, then moved around some more. It was a designated break from what was usual, and I didn’t realise how much I needed that until I was sitting on a child-size wicker stool staring at a tapestry of elves.
It was still raining like fuck and only getting windier. I went back to my screening schedule, ate, ran back into Carl the teenager and then a man named ‘Compost John’ who told me he was polyamorous and was going to nickname me something ‘memorable, like Hot and Hardcore’. That made me uncomfortable so I said ‘well, that’s what my Mum calls me’ and he looked at me like he didn’t understand why I’d said something so literally true. I wondered whether his lack of sense of humour helped in his negotiating multiple sexual partners into his life. I showed my final film, about masculinity and violence in hip hop, followed by a short interview segment with Brother Ali. It was a good choice to end on. I liked creating my own schedule. I liked carving out a piece of the festival for myself. I now had freedom to roam and stumble upon an evening like last night’s.
My body was tired. I went back to the drum and bass bar; the music was great again, but I was unable to connect with people as I had 24 hours ago. I moved lazily, my eyelids rested half way down my pupils; I couldn’t lift my limbs as I had. I wasn’t smiling naturally. I defected to a calmer stage with a jazz band and after resorting to some sort of half contemporary dance, half amateur Tai Chi, I accepted that I needed a sit down.
At that moment the drummer whipped out a triangle, and started playing it like it was an actual instrument and not just a memory from my primary education. In his hands the thing sounded like a piano. I had no idea you could play the triangle well; I thought you just hit it or you didn’t. It struck me (pun intended) that there aren’t many places you can bump into someone excelling at the triangle. What else might I encounter, were I to do the unthinkable, and go to another? Had I had a good time? Had I just coped incredibly well? Had the goalposts of my life really moved to accommodate stewards dressed as magical frogs and shitting into wheelie bins?
The morning of my exit, the sun came out with force, as though Gaia had understood my need to leave and was providing me with the best atmosphere in which to do so, but also showing me how beautiful it was to be outside and amongst a community. The site looked achingly good in the morning light – I leisurely kicked my boots through the immaculately dewy meadow to get a cup of tea and breakfast, walked around the perimeter once more and found a giant throne carved out of a few tree trunks from which I surveyed the whole arena a final time. I suppose I could have stayed one more day; I was exhausted, but the sun began to feel like my own personal charger. My experience was now bathed in sunlight and hindsight, and the parameters of the experiment had been optimal.
I was also pumped full of excitement for my next trip, starting immediately: my brother was picking me up from the site to visit my family home and celebrate our birthdays. As I packed up my belongings, throttling and smashing my way out of the ‘best off-grid family renewable community sustainable festival’, I was happy. Happy I’d done it. Happy to be here. Happy to be leaving. And possibly happier than I’d ever been to get in a fossil-fuel powered machine that represents the undoing of our survival and the fragility of our understanding of future realities.
Fuck. Am I a conservative?