As we rounded the corner to our tree-lined row of bungalows, something feathery twitching on the grass surprised one of my companions. He took a step back before leaning in to inspect the suspicious object. “Is that a . . . real duck?” he asked. You can take 6,000 young urbanites to rural Somerset, but they won’t become ornithologists overnight.
All Tomorrow’s Parties (or ATP) is ten years old now, but it was one of the first of a new breed of music festivals that swapped the usual tented mudbaths for holiday camps – in this case, Butlins (as it now styles itself), Minehead. Our hire car of seven Londoners may have gone west ostensibly for the music – an esoteric mix of progressive indie past and present, curated by those reformed 1990s legends, the Breeders – but more enticing were the local trimmings: weaving through the country roads of rural Somerset, swearing at Tory campaign posters (“Vote for Change”) affixed to five-bar gates, and marvelling at ducks and other basic British wildlife.
Indie rock, or certainly the literate, arty variant on show at ATP, is middle-class to the core. One friend brought an entire basil plant to the festival for use in his self-catering chalet. Well, the Butlins shop was hardly likely to sell stuff like that, was it? The less palatable side to this class incongruity is a certain squeamishness at the gauche playthings of the working class. It is common to overhear blithe comments comparing Butlins to a Soviet gulag which, besides reeking of snobbery, betray a worryingly slight grasp of 20th-century history. How many gulags had crazy golf, waterslides, or a “Lazy River” – a swimming pool that somehow negates the need to swim? (In Soviet Russia, river swims you.)
The main entertainment complex at Butlins, the Skyline Pavilion, is a huge, white, spiky marquee, apparently intended to look like the world’s biggest meringue, and it contained a trifle-like mess of competing themes and activities. Plastic trees, fast-food joints and slot machines surrounded the main stage, giant cloth butterflies hung from the ceiling, and 1950s American space-ploitation chic mingled uneasily with patriotic tableaux of three lions and royal weddings. In the bowling alley, hungover indie boys in retro football shirts leaned tired-eyed against a 10ft portrait of Michael Schumacher, beneath a cascade of random world flags, most prominently that of Saudi Arabia. It’s like tripping on LSD at Glastonbury, but without the need to go to Glastonbury or take LSD.
Festival purists see modern indulgences such as basic hygiene, beds and ceilings as unbecoming. Is this what people died for at Altamont, when Hell’s Angels bouncers killed audience members just for the craic? Whatever happened to hurling glass bottles of piss at the stage and contracting legionnaires’ disease? These youngsters don’t know they’re born. Baby boomers may talk wistfully about how it wasn’t about the music at Woodstock, man, but it still isn’t. Climate is irrelevant to the hardy perennial of collective joy: throw people together in the name of public festivity, and before long they will be sharing food, hospitality and intoxicants, indulging in games, costumes, music and dancing with strangers. The ATP crowd looked unerringly happy, mucking about on manicured grass with cans of Carlsberg and Marlboro Lights, kicking beach balls around and feeding the geese.
Many of the bands were eminently watchable, but the real fun came after-hours, dancing to the post-band DJs. On the Saturday, we flung our bodies around with ungainly zeal to early 1980s hip-hop. Then, as we returned to the chalet for a nightcap, something caught our eye. There were bright red fireworks (or were they flares?) coming from the direction of the beach, so we went to investigate. The Butlins nightwatchman, a German, seemed straight out of a Pink Panther film, leaning out of his sentry box to bark at us: “If you see ze people with ze fireworks you must tell zem to stop zis madness!! Ze police have been informed!” We laughed it off and sat on cold sea walls, watching the breathtaking blue gloaming creep from the east towards Wales and the Atlantic, punctuated by a reprise of the fireworks from a group far down the beach. The police never arrived.
Reading the West Somerset Free Press the following morning, I discovered that Butlins is already fully booked for the summer, with a whopping 60 per cent of reservations from new customers, and that the authorities are hoping this will help local communities stave off the recession. The council’s economic regeneration officer Corrine Matthews was very candid about the need to mop up Butlins leftovers: “If 20 per cent of those bookings hate it, they will look to the wider area, and that is what we want to take advantage of.” That afternoon we swaddled ourselves in wind-buffeting layers and looked to the wider area: striding out on to Minehead’s entirely deserted beach, chasing the tide as it departed across swaths of dark, damp sand, perfectly reflecting the clouds above. The beach is watched over by North Hill, a verdant beacon in the glowering rainlight, and we walked, heads down, through strong gusts to reach its shelter, taking cover in the Old Ship Aground, a delightful old pub perched on top of the harbour. There, looking east across the beach towards Weston-super-Mare, we sipped Western Bitter and ate ice-cream sundaes from plastic glasses, amid ships’ wheels and happy families.
I hope Butlins’s crowds of credit-crunching holidaymakers do explore Minehead this summer, but the idea that people might “hate” the camp seems baffling. What’s to hate? We left its cosy embrace on Monday morning to the sound of industrial Hoovers and worlds colliding. In the car park, bleary-eyed hipsters queued for shuttle buses to Taunton and Bristol. They looked like refugees from an indie war, the duffel-coated huddled masses, sheltering ineffectually behind pin-badge amulets, under sheets of British summer rain.
When you get back from a music festival everyone’s first question is “What was the highlight?” – in the expectation of a list of show-stopping performances. Well, there was lots of dancing, fireworks at dawn, waterslides, drinking games, long walks, windswept harbour pubs and more dancing. It were different in my day. We made our own entertainment.