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Morning, campers

A Somerset holiday park makes a weirdly enjoyable setting for an indie music festival, finds Dan Han

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.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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