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.

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times