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.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution