Leeds station on a warm autumn evening. Waiting for the train back to Scotland.
Festivals are hard work. This is as true for the hardened regular attendee as it is for the archetypal Glasto Girl (patterned wellies, straw hat and/or flowery headband, running about braying “Oh my God, I am sooooo WAYYYYSTED!” whilst watching Ellie Goulding and taking selfies). This year was my first Glastonbury, but I’ve done the majority of the big ones (Leeds, Download, T in the Park, Radio 1’s Big Weekend) at least once, a number of smaller events (Fynefest, Evolution, Bingley Music Live) as well as one of the increasingly popular large European ones (Sziget). The period after it all ends is almost always the same in my experience – a feeling of extreme tiredness and general melancholy washes over you – but it’s usually been almost completely worth it.
I’ve always assumed it a particularly misanthropic sort of person who doesn’t enjoy standing outdoors for long periods in preposterously inconsistent weather, drinking overexpensive cider and swaying nonchalantly to bands they may or may not know, retiring to an uncomfortable and often rambunctious campsite, and then repeating the experience multiple times over several days. At this precise moment, almost one week after Glastonbury, and two days after The Libertines at BST Hyde Park, my shoulders are clenched and stiff, my calves are throbbing and still have a bald patch from the near-continuous wearing of wellies in the mud, and my left buttock is an interesting shade of yellow, purple and red from slipping in the mud after Bryan Ferry and falling arse-first onto my camera (which then shattered). I’ve a general sense of fatigue and I keep having to violently clear my throat to loosen some of the 100 Marlboro Lights’ worth of phlegm I accumulated over the past ten days. Of course, I would do it all over again in an instant.
My first festival was something of an eye-opener for me, both to festivals and the states of extreme inebriation I would come to enjoy finding myself in over the next ten years. I’d had no real inkling to go to one before a friend asked me if I fancied going to Leeds (then branded the rather irritating “Carling Weekend: Leeds”), but the chance to see Green Day (at the time, my favourite band) swayed me. Thus at the end of August 2004, two weeks before I was scheduled to leave home for university, off we went. Upon arrival mid-morning I felt disgustingly hungover, having gone on a works night out the previous evening without packing anything beforehand; by the afternoon I had perked up, these being the days when it took more than a night of heavy drinking and little sleep to fell me for any real length of time. My recollection, such as it is, of Thursday afternoon until the following Monday morning is a heady blur of dancing, watching bands, wandering around the campsite talking to strangers in fancy dress, heavy drinking and smoking, and seemingly avoiding anything resembling food or nutrition.
This first orgiastic experience of festival life was concluded late on Sunday night by myself and a number of other gents of similar disposition and inebriation deciding it would be highly amusing to have a mud wrestling match, wearing nothing but our shoes and socks, in front of a small cheering crowd. From photographs I saw some time later online, the “small crowd” was probably in the region of a thousand people. Finding this amusing, it apparently became a pattern I repeated at other festivals as soon as I was drunk enough for it to seem like a really good idea. A notable example was at Sziget five years later. One night around 4am, after having slept for around an hour, I got talking to some Irish lads whilst wandering blearily to the toilet who suggested it would be a great laugh to strip off and dance on the tables at one of the nearby bars (bars are open around the clock at Sziget). And so we did, and got drenched in beer thrown by amused partygoers, and were led back to our tents by angry security guards, still laughing, forced to cover our modesty with our hands.
And yet – no regrets. It’s not real life. Festivals are another world, gated mini-cities living off music, excitement, alcohol, anticipation and the knowledge that it’s all only temporary. Glastonbury, with its enormous and impenetrable perimeter fence, is West Berlin – beer, drugs, counterculture, a vague sense of being separate from the world outwith the barrier. Leeds Festival has a constant atmosphere of something, somewhere about to kick off, with packs of teenagers roaming the hills looking for something to amuse/antagonise them in between the bands. The campsite at Leeds used to be something akin to a warzone come the early hours of Monday morning, with hundreds of bleary-eyed refugees trudging through the withered remains of tents and mountains of rubbish, fires burning all around, the odd explosion as gas canisters discarded on the fires finally blow. T in the Park is pretty much just Lord of the Flies with very drunk, generally very young “non-educated delinquents”. Sziget, in Budapest, Hungary, is held in the middle of the Danube river on Óbuda Island (“sziget” being the Hungarian word for “island”) and the sense of isolation from reality is palpable. Accessible from the rest of the city by only one bridge, Sziget becomes a surreal township all of its own during the week in August it takes place, drawing a multinational crowd and a roster of acts from around the globe as well as myriad other smaller events and enclosures, including a circus. As the crowds depart on the final day, they’re met by swarms of local vagrants who slowly draw in and try to scavenge the festival remnants for anything of worth.
There are, of course, obvious downsides to festivals. The weather can often make or break the experience. Download 2012 gave me a small taste of what people who live through hurricanes must feel like. The rain was utterly unrelenting and absolutely soaking, from the moment we arrived on Wednesday afternoon onward. We thought it would be a good idea to buy a gazebo, to have a communal area slightly shielded from the rain. The force of the accompanying wind was so fierce that it ripped the metal poles clean in half. We bought another slightly more expensive gazebo – it literally took off and landed some distance away from us. Everything was wet – every item of clothing I had on, everything in my tent, everything I had brought with me that was supposedly meant to be dry in my tent. The rain even soaked through the waterproof trousers and jacket I bought at the festival. As I am not a huge fan of metal music (I’d gone along to Download, as with the previous year, because the majority of my friends were going) the situation was hardly ideal. 2011 was intermittently sunny and rainy, and there were enough bands playing that I liked to keep me interested. In 2012 there was not. I like to consider myself as someone who just puts up and gets on with things in times of slight adversity. In particular I feel I’m someone who’s fairly resistent to bad weather – currently living in Scotland and having grown up in Northern Ireland and the North East of England, rain has pretty much always just been a fact of life – but the last straw came on Sunday morning when, having decided to go for a prison shower, I dried myself, got dressed in fresh dry clothes, walked outside and was immediately as soaked through as I had been twenty minutes earlier in my sodden clothes.
I bailed on the rest of the festival, ditched my tent, airbed, sleeping bag and anything else I could afford to leave behind rather than ram into a sopping wet bag, and went to stay with a friend in nearby Leicester for the evening. T in the Park 2005 was the exact opposite of the Download 2012 situation; I loved almost every band playing on the main stages, and the weather was actually really good. It was so unexpectedly good in fact that the low-factor sunscreen we’d brought with us was no match for the sun’s searing heat, and my friend ended up with liquid-filled blisters across her forehead requiring special lotion applied to them designed to treat third-degree burns.
The most obvious downside to a festival is the people who attend it. If it’s not the aforementioned horsey southern girl who thinks she’s Kate Moss at Glastonbury, it’s the pilled-up chav in “hilarious” fancy dress who keeps knocking into you whilst dancing around, arms flailing wildly. In psychological terms, it’s fairly obvious that if you enclose thousands of drunk people in an unrealistic, seemingly consequence-free environment, some of them are going to go mental. In my younger days it was all I wanted to attend festivals for, truth be told – random acts of insanity, heavy drinking, nice weather and dancing to bands I like. I seem to have mellowed (comparatively) in my old age, however. At Glastonbury, I kept my clothes on, I didn’t drink much at all on the final day, and actually came home with alcohol rather than blitzing it all over the five days. I was at The Libertines reunion gig in Hyde Park over the weekend just gone, and from the moment we arrived mid-afternoon, I could sense it was going to be a Leeds/Reading/T in the Park-type crowd as opposed to a Glastonbury-type one. The Pogues had to stop their set to allow an unconscious reveller to be pulled from the crowd and given medical help; The Libertines halted the gig in the middle of their second song so that people could be dragged from the crush at the very front of the crowd. They seemed to have deliberately slowed the tempo of their set from then on, but the show was halted a second and a third time as people climbed the delay towers either side of the stage and were implored to climb back down. Great gig however.
Admittedly, if you’re the kind of person for whom a hot shower and a daily change of clothes are a must, you might not get on as well as I do at a festival. If I’m not covered in mud from diving in it, I’ve got neon face paints on. If I’ve got a t-shirt on at all, it’s probably been on at least one day already that festival. Normal rules of cleansing are generally discarded at these events, unless you’re camping in the VIP areas available (but really, what’s the point?). I did shower at Download, just because they were there and easily accessible from my campsite, but they were showers of the kind usually seen in war films and American History X, i.e. communal. Luckily I have no shame whatsoever (as you may have gathered from this post) and so this posed no problem whatosever to me, however I’ve been told that some people take issue with such a scenario.
Finally – toilets. Whether they be long drop, compost, portaloo or otherwise, it’s pretty much guaranteed that toilets at festivals are going to be pretty unpleasant. If it’s not because of the smell, it’s because of the the fact that the people using them before you always seem to have been feral creatures whose experiences with sanitation of any kind have been minimal. The long drops in particular are especially unpleasant, the odour of bodily waste only masked by the unbearable chemical smell of whatever it is they add to it to make the toilets seem marginally more sanitary. The only exception to this rule that I’ve experienced so far has been at Sziget, where due to the heat at the height of the Hungarian summer, the plentiful and already relatively clean portaloos are cleaned and emptied every few hours. This was very much appreciated the year I attended the festival, as I’d eaten something that disagreed with me from a street vendor in Budapest city centre immediately before going out to the island, resulting in my first few days there being a grimly regular pattern of beer, cigarette, toilet, repeat.
I ‘m tired, I’m tanned, my wallet and left buttock have taken a bruising, my stomach and liver hate me, and my lungs are seemingly trying to cough themselves out of my body. If I were offered a free ticket to an upcoming festival however, I’d take it without so much as a second thought. There may come a time when I feel too old for it all, when the thought of standing outdoors getting burned, barely eating, smearing luminous face paints across my face, dancing until the small hours and then passing out on hard ground in questionable weather for five nights sounds like a bad idea. I hope that day never comes.
Top: The author, drunkenly wrestling naked in his misspent youth, Leeds Festival 2005.
Second: Some metal band or other.
Third: My view from one of Glastonbury’s compost toilets, 2014.
Fourth: Unrelentingly bad weather. Download 2012.
Bottom: The Libertines, from afar. BST Hyde Park, 2014.