As I was going up the escalator yesterday at Old Street Tube station, there were three men dressed in elaborate Victorian costumes, complete with riding boots, top hats and canes, handing out fliers for the Secret Garden Party. I giggled at them, and one turned to me and cried, “Ah fair lady, might you be interested in attending our soiree?”
I told him not to waste the paper on me – I’d already bought a ticket. I then tried to strike up a conversation with him about it, but it was quite difficult – he refused to break character. He just told me to make sure my to get the right tickets for the stage coach.
Aaaahhhh… English festivals. The Brits love nothing more than crowding together in a field, dressing up in sparkly clothing, getting trashed and making music. Every single weekend, all summer long, there are people in fancy dress drinking gallons of cider on a farm somewhere. Click here for a great little guide to the ones in July and August this summer. (I am especially looking forward to the “emotional baggage lockers” at Secret Garden.)
When I was fourteen MuchMusic – Canada’s original, non-MTV video network – aired a six hour special on the Glastonbury festival, hosted by Avi Lewis (this was back in the day before he did political journalism – MuchMusic has never recovered from his loss in my opinion). I was entranced. It looked like a haven of music, mud and madness. I taped all six hours and watched it over, and over, and over. I swore then and there that before I was 25 years old I would go to Glastonbury.
And I did, when I was 20 in 2003 – and again, when I was 21. It was at Glastonbury 2003 that I became got to know many of my dearest friends – as well as discovering that British festivals are the most fun thing. On the planet. Ever.
Here are some of my favourite photos that I took at the fest:
And these are from 2004:
I must add a congrats here to my friend Flo – I first got to know him at Glastonbury in 2003, and this year he got to actually play the festival as the keyboardist in Kid Harpoon. I was not at the Glastonbury this year, although some of my friends were. Click here for some great pics of the mud-bathed hell-hole that was Glastonbury 2007, from the flickr site of photographer Will Rose (he clearly brought a fantastic camera to the fest – I only dare bring disposables).
I mean, come on. Where else in the world do festival-goers see the mud, not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity? Only the British I tell you. These people know how to fucking party.
There is a way that people commune together and treat each other at British festivals that is just… well it’s just beautiful. I can’t help but gush like some flakey hippy, but I’m serious: it’s amazing.
You’re stuck together in this fenced-in park. It’s a huge mission to leave.
It’s filled with oceans of mud. Even if you have good rubber boots, walking through said oceans of mud is incredibly, horribly exhausting – and when it’s muddy there’s nowhere to sit so you’re always tired.
There’s no way to get clean without lining up for a few hours. And there’s really no point in getting clean because you’re going to get filthy again in a few minutes.
It’s a good half hour walk back to the cozy abode of your tent – and by the time you get there you can’t fucking find it because you’re standing in a field with 10,000 other blue tents.
When you finally find your tent you have to fall asleep in a cold, damp hellhole (it’s always cold in England at night – you can even see your breath, it’s ridiculous). Then you wake up as the HOTTEST THING IN EXISTENCE because you’re all bundled up in blankets (and a hat) in a down sleeping bag inside a tent that has acted like an oven, keeping in every joule of heat all night long. So you jump out and lie naked on the grass for 15 minutes (and you DON’T CARE that strangers can see you, you’re afraid of dying you’re so hot).
You constantly have to pay for food (or bring bags of nuts and dried fruit with you, which you never feel like eating).
You periodically experience some of the worst hangovers you’ve ever had.
And the toilets are… don’t get me started. Let’s just say that by Friday afternoon the portapottys (portaloos to the Limeys) are so full of feces that the pile comes up above the rim. So you either a) go often and spend several minutes a day boxed in with a couple hundred kilos of shit, or b) never go and end up with a stomach that feels like concrete.
But despite all these horrors – and often because of all these horrors – there is nothing on the face of the earth quite like an English festival. Nothing.
A spirit of camaraderie seems to take over everybody there. You’re all in it together. It brings out the best in people. Suddenly everybody becomes really, really nice – your friends will share everything they have with you: food, booze, clothes, toothbrushes. Complete strangers will give you pints and wraps. It’s amazing.
And, to their credit, English festivals really are trying to reduce their environmental impact. Typically a fest will leave behind the most appalling pile of garbage (not to mention rivers so choked with ammonia from people urinating in them that all the fish die). But increasingly they are getting greener and greener, with extensive recycling, compost toilets, plates cups and cutlery made from wood and bioplastics, and renewable energy powering the stages. Here’s a piece in The Guardian about how Glastonbury is getting greener and greener. And here’s a piece from The Independent about green UK festivals.
Last month I attended the Sunrise Festival, which claims to be the most sustainable festival in the UK. All the food is organic and local (with a few exceptions). All the cutlery and plates are biodegradeable plastics or wood. All transport on site is by horse-drawn buggy. They try to run everything on renewable energy – solar, wind, biodiesel. Granted, a couple of times the power cut out completely to the dance tent – but whatever, everyone just shrieked like camp ghosts until the power came back on.
And come on – does this not look like the most fun ever?
Genius. As my friend said to me, next to a thumping speaker:
“Hippies really know how to do it.”