This is a chapter from my upcoming travel guide for the anxious (working title: Where Are the Nearest Toilets?)
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 who think they’re socialists — and to enjoy it to the tune of £250.
I’d vowed never to go to any, and thus — until recently — my knowledge of festivals came exclusively from overhearing arguments about whether Secret Garden Parties 2013 through 2015 were more or less sick than their corresponding Shambalas.
Being a middle-class, white Bristolian I’m frequently required to distract myself from these conversations, usually by internally debating whether or not the plural of Shambala is actually ShambalAE. (For that matter, depending on whether it derives from Greek or Latin the plural of Megabus might be Megabi. I’ll get back to you.)
So, hypocritically, I’m about to spend several minutes telling you about my experience of festivals.
But for the young overwhelms amongst you — 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 circle of hell decorated by a Glastonbury shopkeeper — I hope there might be some use in it. I will litter the following with all the instructions I can think of that allowed me to survive mine, and stop short of ‘spend £250 on literally anything else.’
Last year, after naively jumping at a friend’s flattering suggestion that I should “run a cinema”, I ended up agreeing to single-handedly man the film tent at Green Gathering. He had double-booked himself with Boomtown and had wisely recognised that it would be unwise for me, at this or any point in my life, to be Boomtowning.
Which brings me to DIRECTIVE ONE: It is important to do your research, and choose a festival with which you are largely compatible. Green Gathering is the friendliest, tamest, gathering of people playing and/or listening to music that has ever existed outside a public park in Totnes. It also hates The Man, unbridled hedonism, and things that most normal people think are fun and/or necessary, so we were about as well suited as a first festival experience and I could be.
The structure of work was also key to optimum mental functioning; running the cinema not only gave me a much-needed itinerary — there were no acts that I’d heard of, so no basis for a schedule or plan (which, for spending two days in a field, is ludicrous) — but also provided me with a huge cinema-sized tent to live in. Having a bedroom waiting for me on arrival made the journey to and from the festival slightly less stressful in that, as a non-driver, I had one fewer item to carry/throttle me/smash into my shins as I walked.
The Gathering takes place just outside the small, twee, town/village of Chepstow. Arriving in the daytime on a Thursday, the taxi fare from the station to the festival site would be around 18 pence, but when in Chepstow… en route to Green Gathering especially, I should share a taxi. Plus, everyone around me leaving the carriage was carrying camping gear, covered in glitter, and long-weekend-levels of jolly.
Before I left, a festival-seasoned friend advised me of the slightly different rules to festival socialising etiquette; apparently, it’s totally normal to approach strangers with an enthusiasm up to and including that usually reserved for adult-toddler interactions. So as I lingered at the taxi rank, I asked a middle-aged couple if I could jump in with them — in as close as possible to the manner of 90s children’s TV presenter Dave Benson-Phillips.
So mellow, English and highly-tax-bracketed were they, the couple refused my offer of contribution to the fare. And I felt we bartered ironically, if not well, when the next day they came to visit me in the cinema and I screened a film about the inevitability of complete ecocide due to the devastating effects of man-made pollution.
Exiting the taxi, I hobbled toward the crew office carrying all the protection I would need for 48 hours outdoors with self-medicated pseudo-socialists. Immediately, a woman dressed as a sexually active dragon cheerfully offered help carrying my bags the rest of the way to the site. I accepted, and mentally located the wet wipes in my pocket.
DIRECTIVE TWO: It is advisable to over-prepare on anything light, and carry it with you at all times. You’ll be able to get by without that 2 litre bottle of mixer, but the day you forget nail clippers that hang nail is going to fuck you.
After a necessities-only bag repack, I set out to explore the site. There was no need to jump off the deep-end, so I kept conversations short — but as I tentatively took a census, the festivalgoers I had smugly stereotyped appeared increasingly fascinating. I met a Rasta who had just returned from running his annual macrobiotic food festival. I encountered a handful of people wearing matching beards, who turned out to be environmental-protest-theatre-troupe ‘BP or Not BP’. And then Carl, a teenager, who would have charmed me right up if I hadn’t been ten years older than him.
Carl didn’t so much shake my hand as hold it tenderly and squeeze 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. In my previous experience, teenage boys hadn’t been nearly so gentle or astute in their attempts to manipulate me.
By the first evening I had talked to an optimum number of other festival-goers (i.e. not many) who were all perfectly friendly and thus, I’d retained a lot of my energy. I screened my last film for the day, had some drinks, and ran into some drum and bass. These munters might be alright after all, I suspected. 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 the drum and bass tent-goers went to bed. I, newly cool, made my way over to the only stage still playing. But the fun I hadn’t anticipated having was cut short — it was nearing 2am, and the final laptop across the entire site had died. The DJ [just some drunk bloke called Barry] started shouting his request for alternatives — naturally, I had packed my iPod into my Tory/Commie/munter-proof rucksack and proceeded to play all the weird and wonderful, and yes — sick — tunes I love, and never thought I’d hear on a speaker stack taller than I am.
I’d made a breakthrough. 2.15am in a field, tired without a hint of exhaustion, dancing on trampled grass with strangers to my personal playlist became Favourite Moment #36-ish of my life so far (these Moments often happen just out of my comfort zone, where there are no pens, so I can’t be sure.)
And then, suddenly and without warning, anxiety returned — slamming forth when my iPod, on random, began playing the soundtrack from best-selling PC game-franchise The Sims at full volume.
False sense of security dissolving, my entire body blanched as the familiar memory returned of every memory, when I was bad and wrong at culture; where the people I was surrounded by told me with a laugh they were not my tribe; and against the volume of their voices and their music I had no chance of hearing a familiar voice that might say a kind word.
But the jeering never came. One man looked at me with a jolly recognition, and another simply carried on regardless, never breaking stride from the exact moves he’d recently been making to The Chemical Brothers.
In the later early morning, it actually got relatively quiet — which I wasn’t expecting — but I still needed ear plugs to get some sleep. Enter DIRECTIVE 3: for God’s sake take an eye mask; daytime occurs about 4am because, and I cannot stress this enough, you’re living outside.
Day two, 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 populated only by women, and led by a friendly, generous and normal-seeming one 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 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 for days at a time, chanting and smiling at people while appearing to have all her marbles. She may have been an anomaly, but she was close to completely 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, realising then and there that they don’t just make random and pointless noises, as I’d previously believed.
I eventually 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’, or something, 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 directly 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 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.)
I’d only been there 24 hours, with the same number still to go, and I was already flagging. I had no choice but to pay full 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 @ me.) I became ok just sitting, listening, flitting from place to place for as long as each one held my attention. It was a designated break from what was usual, and I didn’t realise how much I needed it until I was sitting on a child-size wicker stool staring at a tapestry of elves enjoying the millennium celebrations.
It was still raining like fuck and only getting windier. I trudged 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 incredibly uncomfortable so I blurted ‘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 screened my final film. My body was tired. I went back to last night’s drum and bass tent; the music was still great, but I was unable to connect with people as I had 24 hours previous. I moved lazily, my eyelids rested half way down my pupils; I couldn’t lift my limbs. I wasn’t smiling naturally. I eventually 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.
DIRECTIVE FOUR: if you want to have more than one fun, keep your hedonism bridled as a horse’s face.
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 festival?
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 a frog-who-is-also-a-wizard and shitting into a bank of wheelie bins?
The morning of my exit, the sun came out with force, as though Gaia herself had understood my need to leave and was providing me with the best atmosphere in which to do so — but also suggesting that I might remember how beautiful it is to be outdoors 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 supposed I could have stayed one more day; I was exhausted, but the beating 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, which would start immediately: my brother was picking me up from the site to visit our family home and celebrate our birthdays. As I packed up my belongings, throttling and smashing my way shins-first 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 into a fossil-fuel powered machine that represents the undoing of our survival and the fragility of our understanding of future realities.
Hungover from the previous night’s self-medication, it was the day I realised I am actually well conservative.