Lez Miserable: "Here's my second coming out: I hate music festivals"

Live music is great. But you know what's also great? Bands not sounding like they’re shouting into saucepans.

With light seeping in from outside, I can just about see my breath in front of me. My head is a pulsating hurt orb. Need painkillers. Now. Torch in mouth, I rummage around the tent, through bags of fermented socks. So many socks. No sign of pills. I think they’re socks now. Everything is socks. I drop the torch (my only non-sock possession) and sit in the dark with my head in my hands. Then the shivering starts. Uncontrollable shivering. I need to put on more layers, but I only have socks. I put socks on my hands. It’s a start. Swampy water has seeped in from somewhere and my sleeping bag is a giant, flaccid slug. The wind carries in the stench of raw sewage. Then come the Outside People. Grotesque human/traffic cone hybrids, silhouetted against the walls of my tent. They’re shouting something about burgers. Sweet Jesus: they’re hungry.

What kind of post-apocalyptic, dystopian nightmare is this? One I paid nearly £200 for, actually. The gangrenous trench foot-like smell of festival season is beginning to pollute the air. And I’ve realised that it’s about time I stop telling my friends that I’d love to go with them to Beefstival/Dick Party/Green Bidet. So here’s my second coming out: I hate music festivals.

One day, when I was seven, a filth-encrusted spectre waded in through the door. It spoke little and when it did, it was in grunts. Its hair was matted, its eyes were glazed and reddish. It was only when my mum addressed The Thing as “Ruth” that I realised it was my big sister. I learnt that she’d returned from something called “Glastonbury”. I vowed never to go there.

But I eventually forgot about my sister’s haunting, post-Glasto thousand yard stare. Nine years later, I went to my first festival. And my God did I pretend to love it. I pretended so hard, in fact, that I continued to go to festivals for many years. See, festivals have us all by the balls. Their organisers and sponsors have come up with a genius business model where they get young people with low self-esteem to spend hundreds of their parents’ pounds on living like medieval peasants for a weekend – wallowing in actual faeces – while vehemently declaring that they’re having “OMIGOD-THE-BEST-TIME-EVERRRRR”.

But what about the music? Sure, I love hearing live bands. You know what else I love? Them not sounding like they’re shouting into saucepans. Let’s face it; outdoor gigs sound atrocious. Imagine an hour of saucepan shouting. Imagine seven hours of saucepan shouting. Imagine three freaking days of saucepan shouting. Throw in some rancid, ersatz falafel and an armpit-load of anonymous bodily fluids and you have yourself a festival. Plus, in one of this year’s viral videos, attendees at the Californian festival Coachella-goers feign  interest in bands that don’t exist. This just goes to show that a lot of festival-goers don’t even know what they’re doing there – “Music? Yeah, great, I guess. I like that band with the guitars.”

These people have been inexplicably lured into a three-day-long masochism fest, worthy of de Sade. I’m beginning to wonder if festivals are manifestations of middle class guilt. Therapeutic weekend-long sessions in which we abandon comfort, in order to feel slightly better about spending £6.99 on single loaves of quinoa bread.  What results is an uncanny circus of young humans in animal onesies and “aren’t I adorably ditsy” flower headbands; each and every one of them pretending to have a fantastic time. To be fair, I hear that the ones on enough MDMA to get a giraffe doing the Harlem Shake are genuinely enjoying themselves. Isn’t it telling that in order to have real-life fun at a festival, you need to self-medicate with a delicious cocktail of class As? For me, drug-taking usually culminates in curling into a foetal position and/or being convinced that Robin Williams is going to murder me. So no help there.

When I got home from Field Day (a day-long festival in Victoria Park) last month I had sunstroke and about nineteen “Where are you???” texts from friends I’d lost in the heaving crowds. What seems like the entire day was spent on the phone to these friends, saying things like, “Err, I’m by a thing that looks like a thing.” Even safe in the knowledge that I’d sleep in my bed and not a soggy tent that night, I came to a life-changing conclusion: I’m too old for this shit. So, mates who invited me to Bestival this summer, here’s my honest RSVP: Not even if I get to share a tent with Natalie Portman.

Let's be honest - no one is really having fun here. Photograph: Getty Images

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear