Picture the scene: you wake up in a tent. When you try to open your eyes you discover that your eyelashes are stuck together, but you have to open them because you are in sudden and urgent need of a bathroom – except there isn’t a bathroom, there is only some sort of vessel full of… well, it’s best not to dwell on that right now. You try to brush off the grass stuck to you and stumble out. It’s raining. You trip over several guy-ropes. Your forehead is clammy. Music pounds from speakers on the other side of the fence. You wonder why on Earth you’ve spent 200 quid to do this again. But then as the day goes on, you see a group of people all dressed as inflatable cows, and watch a trapeze artist at midday, and purchase a cold, fizzy pint, and then you remember why. You are, of course, at a music festival.
There are many ways in which to describe the quintessential British experience: eating fish and chips; standing in drizzle; drinking pints of lager at 6.30am at the airport (not to mention the maudlin political references: our “Eton mess” of a government; Plague Island; xenophobia). But for me, it’s here, at a festival, when I feel most patriotic. Yes, yes, Woodstock came before Glastonbury, and Monterey Festival came before that, but now in their place there is simply Coachella, a giant photo shoot for influencers. To me, the best festivals – the kind where you camp and queue and dance and wash with baby wipes – are British festivals.
Those early examples from the late 1960s were, of course, very different from the music festivals we are used to now. Tickets were cheap – the Isle of Wight Festival in 1968, the first in the UK, cost £1.25 to attend – and infrastructure was limited. Now, there are extensive crowd control measures and myriad ways to spend copious amounts of money (£8 for chips, I think, stretches beyond reasonable inflationary adjustments). And yet for all the bastardisation of the form, the spirit of the Great British music festival lives on.
I was at Green Man last weekend in south Wales, one of the last remaining independent festivals in the UK. If every festival has a unique vibe that all attendees can feel – at Latitude it’s lattes and literature, at Boomtown it’s ketamine – at Green Man it’s probably Seeing The Good In All Things. “This is such a NICE festival,” everyone says to each other all the time – and it is, partly because, unlike day festivals hosted in London in particular, it isn’t sponsored by a bank and doesn’t push Tuborg for £7 a pint. Rather, it champions localism, real ale, small artists (though there are big ones too) and a community spirit, while remaining a significant size with around 20,000 attendees.
Aside from these distinctive qualities – and at Green Man you don’t have to worry about your tent being torched, which is always a bonus – I am struck by how the festival culture is reproduced at every one I attend. There’s grumbling about the weather, but there’s also a sense of community, openness and freedom of expression that is somehow much easier to find when you are living in a temporary city. Suddenly, anything seems possible, whether it’s wearing sequins from head to toe, or making friends with a stranger. People look after each other, and they want to learn new things and create new experiences. Music festivals are not always apolitical – they can be the opposite – but there is a sense that within this contained environment there aren’t goodies and baddies, just people having a good time or a bad time.
This is to be expected when your biggest problem on any given day is which overpriced wrap to choose for lunch, or how many Bloody Marys you need to drink to stop feeling hungover. Yet at the Great British Festival I cannot help but feel a glimmer of hope for a UK that is, somewhere underneath it all, kind and accepting – even when the loo is an obstacle course away.