Friday, 1 June 2018


On Saturday, as I returned from doing the weekly shop and was unloading the bags from the car, I heard the unmistakable booming sound of a heavily-amplified PA system drifting in and out of audibility on the wind. "HellOOo SouthAMPTOn..." This only ever means one thing: there is an event happening on the Common. Looking on the Web, I saw that a two-day festival, Common People, was getting under way.

Naturally, in the afternoon I headed over there to have a look [1]. These free fairs and festivals on the Common have happened most years since the 1990s, and when the kids were small it was fun to take them over there for some fairground rides, and to teach them essential social skills like how to deal with candy floss, and maybe even catch a band or two, pumping loud, muffled, wind-shredded music over the heads of an indifferent crowd. As they got older, they could hook up with their friends and get all the excitement of an Event, without the hassle of travel or camping out. Or, of course, the preposterous expense (I see that a weekend camping ticket at this year's Reading Festival is over £200). But, to my surprise, and despite the demotic title, this Common People festival was not free. In fact, there was a bloody great fence around it, and a day ticket cost £30!

It seems times have changed. So, I ended up wandering around the perimeter and, as it was a pleasantly sunny-but-breezy day, I sat for a while in some favoured elevated spots to listen to the music, along with dozens of others who were unwilling to pay the price of being among the hundreds on the more heavily-populated side of the fence. I think we had the better bargain, and the music was actually pretty good. I mainly heard the set of some band that had been allocated the unenviable 3 o'clock slot, and they did a fair rendition of what we might call "stadium sublime", that broad-brush genre pioneered by the likes of U2, featuring soaring vocals, uplifting chord changes, and complicated fills and flourishes for those standing close enough to the stage to pick them out of the aural mush. But that musical style is over 30 years old now; the only thing that has changed is that some bunch of young unknowns can do it just as well as its ageing originators. Which is both impressive and depressing. Get yer own music, kids! Inevitably, I was reminded of festivals past, live acts I have risked sunburn for, and why I can no longer work up any enthusiasm for them.

Now, I know several people of my age who still love their festivals: they have even invested in camper vans so that they don't have to put up with the privations of nights under canvas, and for them festival-going is a thing. They'll do two or three most summers, and will treasure the memories of favourite acts seen in live performance. It's no coincidence that these people are amateur musicians of some accomplishment, or at least sophisticated super-enthusiasts; festivals tend to specialise, genre-wise, and so the audiences of the longer-running ones become a genuine community of fans and practitioners. I mean, nobody is going to pay for a long weekend at, say, Cropredy or Cambridge who doesn't already love folk music to excess, and they return year after year, generation after generation, like swallows. Which is all very jolly, if your idea of fun is to be confined to a couple of fields for a day or two with hundreds of other people, with nothing better to do than stand around all day – all day – listening to music of varying quality, or queuing for drinks, food, and toilets. But, and speaking purely personally, I don't enjoy crowds, I like my music in small, hi-fidelity doses (preferably sitting in a comfortable armchair), and I need to pee inconveniently frequently [2]. Oh, and I loathe camping in British weather, though I must admit I could go for one of those all-mod-cons VW camper vans, if I had £20-30K to spare (and that's for a second-hand one).

So, festivals are for me a thing of the past, along with vinyl records, recreational drugs, and anything that prevents me being in bed by midnight. Or, indeed, easily getting out of it a couple of times during the night (my bed, I mean, not my head). Let the young people enjoy themselves, and let the young at heart congregate in muddy fields if that's their thing, but don't look for me in the crowd; I won't be there.

Mind you, my idea of what a festival is actually like is well out of date. I was puzzled by the concept of the "surrender bins" I saw situated next to the site entrance of the Common People event. In case you can't read the photograph above, here is what the notices say:
Please dispose of prohibited items here. No questions asked.
You may be searched on entry to the event site. Any items that may be used in an illegal or offensive manner will be confiscated. No responsibility is given for the return of confiscated items.
If you are in possession of illegal substances you may be arrested.

  • Illegal substances
  • Glass (of any kind) or cans
  • Spray cans
  • Laser equipment or pens
  • Gas canisters
  • Fireworks
  • Flares
  • Chinese lanterns
  • Klaxons / Air horns
  • Any item which may reasonably be considered for use as a weapon
  • Bicycles
  • Skateboards
  • Scooters
  • Roller blades
  • Personal motorized vehicles (unless a mobility scooter)
  • Large umbrellas or parasols of any kind
  • Chairs of any sort
  • Trolleys / Radio flyers
  • Wagons of any kind
  • No food or drink (customers are allowed to bring their own small bottles of water so long as they are unopened and sealed)
  • Any animals
Seriously? How many skateboards and bicycles can you get in a wheelie bin? And I believe that the more psychopathic martial arts teach how to kill with keys, pencils, stiletto heels, and even a tightly-rolled newspaper: all in the bin, please! And that prohibition on wagons and animals? That would account for the disappointed-looking wagon-train of settlers I saw heading west, back out of the Common onto Hill Lane, clutching their glass bottles of sarsaparilla and oversized umbrellas. I suppose, looked at through a contemporary lens of liability and litigation, a lot of it makes sense. The Common is a public space, and needs to be returned quickly to good order when the fence comes down; you don't want it covered in broken glass, trashed wagons, and dead livestock. But,"parasols of any kind"? And no food or drink? Sure, the "event" is presumably part-funded by food and drink stall owners who have paid for the privilege to be there and need to turn a profit, but ticket-holders have also already paid £30 or more to be there; having to dump your carefully-prepared vegan, kosher, or halal lunch in a bin seems pretty harsh. Not to mention your parasol. And to be searched? No, that is not a sausage, and no, I am not pleased to see you.

It's all a far cry from the chaotic, danger-filled, pioneer festivals I recall, when a poor act could be pelted off stage with horse-dung and planks torn from wagons, and young revellers could be knocked senseless by carelessly-deployed parasols – parasols of any kind – thus missing the main act, and waking the next morning amid the wind-blown rubbish of an empty field.
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom.
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Festival
Nick Bottom at Knebworth Festival © 1974 Martyn Cornell

1. If nothing else, a commitment to photography and to writing a blog encourages you to get out of the house, in the constant search for new material... It's like working for the most local of local newspapers.
2. It's hilarious, the things we take for granted as youths, that later come to dominate our lives. I have racked my memory, but – apart from a few unforgettable occasions, mainly travelling abroad – cannot recall ever being bothered about not being able to find a toilet during my first four decades.

[N.B. I am out of town for a few days: I'll deal with any comments when I get back]


amolitor said...

I find the willingness of our city fathers to rent out public spaces to for-pay events to be extremely annoying. In theory I suppose it defrays some taxes or something, but the other side of our august city fathers seems to be their ability to make money vanish to no obvious purpose.

Why yes, I AM a grumpy old man, why do you ask?

Gavin McL said...

I've only been to one "proper" festival Glastonbury in 1995. It was a sunny year and the whole place had a rather magical other worldly feel. It was a wonderful few days, at that time I was quite an enthusiastic drinker and I honestly expected to get rather drunk and watch a couple of bands but I ended up staying relatively sober as I didn't want to miss a thing and watched all kinds of bands, shows and films barley sleeping. I haven't been back or attended another festival partly due to a fear of "spoiling" the memories of that one perfect weekend and partly due to an inability to organise myself.