Unknown pleasures

Tom Ravenscroft on what to look forward to at this summer's music festivals.

I may be about to put myself out of a lot of potential work by announcing that festival season is on the horizon - the busiest and most lucrative period for almost anyone who works in the music biz - and that . . . I'm not sure how much I like it. Festivals fill me with dread a little. There are so many in the UK now, ranging from small parties held in the gardens of the parents of bored rich boys to huge, rather soulless affairs organised by multinational companies that have no interest in music but rather enjoy selling you stuff.

Given their sheer numbers, there must by now be a festival perfectly suited for everyone in the country - there's probably even one called Tom in a Field and yet I still can't find one that's the perfect fit for me. The music is either too mainstream or too pretentious and the festival-goers are either too cool or not quite cool enough. The emphasis on good food and clean, ethical living and the excitement evoked by the word "shower" would make sense if we were planning on living there for the rest of our lives. I used to comfort myself with the thought that no one is really enjoying himself at any festival but just pretending to because everyone hates a party pooper.

In much the same way as I don't like watching films with large groups of people, I think I prefer listening to music in smaller numbers. There is also the issue of sound: the bigger the stage, the worse the sound seems to get. A slight gust of wind and, as at a festival I once attended on the Spanish coast, the only person who gets to hear the songs is a fisherman three miles out to sea. (I'm sure he liked the Wooden Shjips and was grateful for their accompaniment to his daily toil.)

In recent years, however, something has changed. The larger, more commercial festivals have become the musical equivalents of gossip mags, spitting out drivel at a billion watts into the faces of ripped-off teenagers. As a result, the variety of acts elsewhere has greatly improved. It is slowly removing my years of scepticism and is perhaps even creating a drop of excitement (so, this is what it feels like).

Listening habits have changed considerably: most people are no longer just being fans of, say, indie or techno, but pick bits they love out of an expanding range of genres. Festivals are increasingly representing this and, in doing so, are also reflecting my tastes better than they ever did.

To some degree, it isn't about festival programmers putting on things you like, but about them having the courage to put on acts you might hate. Audiences don't have to like everything they see over a weekend, but should be given the opportunity to discover something that's fresh and unexpected. It's that possibility of stumbling across your new favourite band that had disappeared a bit from the scene, with too much emphasis on buzz bands of the day or nostalgic acts you felt the need to tick off as "have seen". The Field Day festival in east London is a good example: despite its ability to house briefly almost all of London's twits, it packs into a single day a hugely diverse collection of noises. There are many acts I have no idea about and some I suspect I won't like.

This summer, I am looking forward to see-ing Bob Log III, Fools Gold, C W Stoneking, Health, SBTRKT, Jon Hopkins, Ducktails, Emeralds and the Horrors - but looking forward even more to the list of new acts I hope to have heard at the end of it. Music is rather brilliant at the moment and there is frankly more than one can possibly get through, so it can be frustrating when you see the same acts everywhere you go; it's a waste of all the talent out there. I hope things carry on in this vein - who knows, perhaps in the next couple of years a few organic food stalls might have been converted into stages for badly rehearsed drone bands from Long Melford. I'll stop now - I'm sorry to go on, but I don't get out much.

Fresh sounds from the BBC 6 Music DJ

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder