All Tomorrow's Parties is no more

Will artist-curated festivals become a thing of the past?

Before last week, the future seemed bright for artist-curated music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties. With a string of international events, including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs curating I’ll Be Your Mirror at Alexandra Palace, Nick Cave taking the ATP festival to a former NATO base in Iceland, and a positive spate of holiday-camp merriment set for 2013, the last thing anyone was expecting was for it to come to such an abrupt conclusion. The two weekend events at Camber Sands this November and December will be the festival's last.

ATP’s extraordinary, 13-year run started in 2000, when founder Barry Hogan persuaded Mogwai to curate the first-ever festival, bringing together acts such as Arab Strap, Sigur Rós and Clinic to the Butlins holiday camp in Minehead, Somerset. It proved a winning formula. Musicians liked the fact that it was driven by artists as opposed to promoters, and had a low-key, sponsorship-free atmosphere that stood in stark contrast to the bigger festivals such as Reading or Glastonbury.

For the audience, the fact that there were no separate areas for artists meant that going to ATP gave you a chance to mingle with bands over the weekend, as opposed to simply glimpsing them on a distant stage. Back in 2000, before the rapid mushrooming of boutique festivals, this was a pretty radical concept. And it took off. Within two years, there was a US version, and the British event split into two separate weekends instead of one. An ATP stage appeared at Barcelona’s Primavera festival and an Australian incarnation of the festival was launched. As if this wasn’t enough, a new series of one-day events were launched. I’ll Be Your Mirror – named after the B-side of the Velvet Underground single "All Tomorrow’s Parties" – is essentially the same format as the festival but minus the holiday resort.

Listed like this, the sudden end of ATP makes more sense: it has outgrown itself. Its charm lay in its DIY mentality – using a holiday camp as a base, allowing bands to dictate the line-up, and relying on a core attendance of dedicated music fans to support it. The sheer number of events has taken its toll on the line-up, which in recent years has seen a core group of regulars emerging. Although they’re undeniably good bands, the events have lost the freshness and diversity that characterised the early years. Added to this, as ATP has evolved into an ever more global affair, the grass roots element has been eroded.

Founder Barry Hogan’s desire to preserve the festival’s authenticity – by calling a halt to it before it has a chance to stale or mutate into another commercial-driven affair – is manifested in his unusual choice of headliner for the final weekend: eighties alt-rock band Loop, who are temporarily reforming for the event. In previous years, line-ups were selected by bands such as Portishead, My Bloody Valentine and Animal Collective, although the curators weren’t exclusively musicians – Jake and Dinos Chapman, Matt Groening and Jim Jarmusch have all taken a turn at the festival.

The two remaining weekends will be a swan song for All Tomorrow’s Parties. Pontins holiday park at Camber Sands will be a sadder, if quieter, place.

I’ll Be Your Mirror will take place at Alexandra Palace on 4 May

Karen O performing with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496