'It's not what you know, it's who you know': a phrase so boring it makes your jaw ache. Yet, when you think about things like how the last Prime Minister, previous Mayor of London and Chancellor of the Exchequer-turned-Evening Standard editor all came from one boarding school club friendship group, it's hard to deny the truth in it – which isn't so bad if you do know people, but what if you don't? What about if you're a guy who is less likely to be found taking minutes at afternoon tea, and more likely to be found sitting under the large tree on Peckham Rye at 8AM on a Saturday morning clutching a can of Tyskie and repeatedly saying "I don't usually do this"? It's hard to hoover up the crumbs left on the table if you don't have any idea where dinner is being served. I resigned myself to a life without achievement or ambition long ago. Recently, though, an opportunity for change presented itself: Alex James' The Big Feastival.
Taking place on the Blur bassist's Oxfordshire cheese farm, The Big Feastival is a delightfully middle class union of music and food dreamt up by Jamie Oliver and James. In previous years, the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, noted festival-lover David Cameron, and disgraced Murdoch darling Rebekah Brooks have made the pilgrimage to an event whose line-up this year boasts Toploader, Olly Murs, Embrace, Dick & Dom, and Jamie Oliver doing a cooking "set". Clearly, The Big Feastival is a chance for fans of Saturday Kitchen to soak up the unbelievable vibes and dairy produce on offer. I, however, see it as an all-you-can-eat buffet of opportunity. Think about it: it takes place in Witney, both Cameron's former constituency and one of the wealthiest in the country. Statistically, every person there can probably employ me in some capacity. So, I decided to throw my Tyskie in the bin and head to The Big Feastival 2017 to eat at the high table, and try to land myself a new career.
That's why I'm crammed onto an afternoon service from Paddington into the heart of the Cotswolds on a Friday afternoon, clutching a plastic wallet of four CVs. The four chances I have to change my life. Well, not exactly mine. Given that I'm a 'Google: Oobah Butler' away from blowing the whole thing apart, I've given myself a fake name: Clive James. But it's going to take a lot more than that to go undercover. I gather this from the conversation I overhear queueing at the festival box office. The gentleman in front – thirty-something, dressed in slides and a salmon V-neck shirt; looking like a regional manager of a Toni & Guy – is picking up tickets. The lady behind the desk is explaining how, though his tickets were gifted as free weekend passes, they encourage a charitable donation. "If I do," he says, "can you upgrade my passes to VIP?" The lady laughs, thinking he's joking. He is very much not joking. She explains why this isn't possible. He struts off without paying a penny. That's the sort of vibe we're dealing with here.
Passing through its hallowed doors, my jaw drops. Dodgy's "Staying Out For The Summer" sounds out across cartoon vomit green fields; dozens lay out on mats, centring themselves with a Vita Coco yoga class; champagne flutes are clinked on the Fever Tree veranda, absent from sound, because they're made of plastic. Forget Alex James' Big Feastival, this is Alex James' Big Society! Alex James' Free Market Buffet! Alex James' Tory Safespace! It is simply delicious. Even the people look delicious, like someone has been fattening them all up for this very occasion. Like if you slashed their arm with a penknife, blood would seep from the wound but – due to a lifetime of Porterhouse brunches and Chateau Margeux evenings – it would be the consistency of custard. It feels a bit like the market stalls of Dulwich Village on a Saturday: quaint in a way that is almost soothing until you look at the price on the jam jars filled with fruit you didn't know existed before and it's more than what you spend in a whole week on meals. Every tent is bustling with both brands and customers alike. Every tent, except this one:
Anyway, I've got a job on my hands – to get a job – so I must blend in.
I'm not dressed in an outfit that makes me look the understudy of a guy playing Mr Darcy in an Am-dram adaption of Pride & Prejudice for no reason. No, I'm dressed like an absolute prick. I'm dressed like every stock image that comes up when you search for "corporate enterprise". I'm dressed like the sort of person who goes to Thorntons to buy chocolate for themselves. When the upper 1 percent are their most relaxed, they're at their most vulnerable; if I look like them and act like them, I can fool them into lowering their guard, allowing me to hop over into their tight circles and break the wheel after all. Hopefully.
I don't know whether it's this glass of beautiful Dry White 2016 Cotswold Hills wine or the chat with a fellow from The Royal Agricultural Society, but I get into the swing of things pretty quickly.
"Oh isn't it a real pleasure to be here?" A gentleman in a cravat says to me, like I'm one of him.
"It really is! Any idea where may be nice for a bite to eat, chap?" He points over my shoulder, and I see it: my first target.
Having lost myself to the Hygge market décor, I'm awoken by a prosecco. Time to turn it on.
"Great spot you've got here," I stomp on the decking. "Thanks, sir," responds the manager, running a portable Waitrose.
"I'm actually a little interested in being involved, if you have any positions?"
His eyes are running the lines of my CV. I can't swallow, yet am trying to fill the silences. "Listen Clive, I'm not going to lie," my heart sinks. "This looks decent. Let me pass this onto the contractors, but I reckon you'd be perfect."
I'd been here for just over an hour, and I'd already been offered a job! Calm down dear, it's only a recession? Indeed!
Soul-searching on the 'Chill Zone' sponsored by Renault rooftop, seeing the beautiful big society at work, I begin to think how grateful I am. This world has offered me a spot, and I couldn't be happier! I've always wanted to work at Waitro… wait. I went for a job at Waitrose when I was 16 and didn't get it, so why would I want the same spot nearly a decade on? Waitrose wasn't the leap forwards that I was looking for, it was a step sidewards! This is not social mobility, it's eternal stagnation! I'm distraught.
Then, I hear it. The opening piano chords of Toploader's "Dancing In The Moonlight" sounding out from the Udder Stage. Looking at the near hundreds of disinterested dads watching, I get thinking: Toploader had no right for their cover of an obscure 70s track to get massive. The whole thing was about timing; they got lucky. I'd dragged myself all the way to The Big Feastival, maybe I can get lucky too? Incensed, I thank the manager for his time, hand him my CV and head towards the VIP bar I have decided my true fate lies within.
Before I walk in through the side entrance I begin a fake phone call to my supplier (?), hoping that will make me look busy and Important Enough to not be thrown out. Like a hawk, I wait for my moment.
It doesn't take long to arrive: A man with strawberry blonde hair buying a colossal round, making a joke with the barmaid about his round being just for him. I hang up and walk towards him, spluttering with fake laughter.
"Should be like Noah's Arc with this menu; two of each please!" He sees right through it. We continue, and he just seems confused as to why I'm talking to him.
"What do you do, anyway?" I ask.
"I run a scrap metal business in the West Midlands."
"Wow," I reply, pointing toward the stage. "I love metal!" Absolutely nothing again. I'm about to cut my losses, then I think: would Toploader give up? Or would Toploader trick 600,000 members of the British public into buying a lounge cover of a single that was big in America several decades prior? I pressed on.
"Oh! You want a job? That's why you're talking to me?" He looks relieved. "I'll take a CV, yeah. We often have bits and bobs come up."
This is amazing! I could be aspirational middle class by the end of the night, at this rate. With my work in the VIP bar done, I head to another area. One of the pumping nightlife hubs of The Big Feastival: Birra Moretti dancefloor.
Tens of people are taking part in a limbo competition; the Kent Business School 2007 alumni are doing shots of tequila; it's absolutely off the charts. I'm just about to get involved, when I see it. A gigantic, bright red head zooming past, looking like a globe of Mars that's been spun excessively on its axis: it's Alex fucking James. Now he could give me a job! I unsheathe my CV and sprint after him.
We're twisting at corners like free-runners, darting around cones and popping down tight passageways, but he's disappearing into the darkness. I come to a backstage bar I 100 percent shouldn't be in, but he's nowhere to be seen. I slump on a bale of hay out of breath and defeated. I'd been so stupid. Who was I to think that the Cheese Man himself or would be interested in me? What am I even doing here, surrounded by the richest people in the country? I am a man who literally arranges to go over to his friends' houses to eat their cream crackers. I feel a tap on my shoulder.
"Why you so somber, mate?" The man asks.
"Missed opportunity." I huff. He lifts both eyebrows and smiles: "Plenty more will come along, pal." He offers me a glass of wine. We get talking.
"So what do you do, mate?" He doesn't reply, wafting me away. "No, go on, what is it?"
"Well, people don't like this, but, investment banking."
"Investment banking?" My head switches into gear. "I'd love to do something like that." We continue discussing his job. He sells tech to the highest level bands, he tells me, for a "lot, lot of money". Here is my last chance.
"Hey mate, do you mind if I give you my CV?"
I'm talking him through it, and he cuts me off, calling his wife over.
"Darling, you know what this lad just did?" He launches into an explanation, incessantly slapping his leg, referencing the "cheek". "You know what, we have this raffle every 12 months, where each member of staff puts somebody forward for a new position." He explains. "It's a six-figure position." I laugh. "I'm not even joking – it's high, high up sales, basically. You've got to be bright to do it. Really bright. But, you know what?" He starts folding the CV. "I'm going to put you, you cheeky bugger, forward for it. Your gall is exactly the attitude that it requires." He inserts the CV into his pocket. "And I'm a mentor for the role."
Saying goodbye, leaving the festival as all of the bars literally shut at 1AM, the fourth wall is crumbling down around me. With a phone interview for a six-figure position selling software at Temenos within the next fortnight, I feel bemused. There are tonnes of people out there, probably within a five-metre radius, who didn't botch their GCSE maths exam and would be better than me at this job. But somehow, through behaving like an absolute wanker; poking above the lush green Taittinger parapet, I have earned this man's respect and possibly a place on his PAYE system. I am reminded, in this final moment, of Jamie Oliver.
Jamie fucking Oliver. How on earth did Jamie Oliver have a crowd on the Friday so large that – in relative terms – it mirrored that of Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury? Are people that desperate for his recipes? Do they care about the nutritional well-being of children nationwide? Come off it. The only thing he can possibly mean to these people is: any old bladdy git can make it! I guess that's the myth which keeps this dream alive for the middle classes, isn't it? That it's "hard work" that pays off and not, like, being born with a foot in the door or a spot on the guestlist. Well, maybe one day I'll be the next tale parents tell to their little Hugos and Selenas every night, of a brave lad who had nothing but a moon for a face and a name like a fruit juice, yet still managed to make his mark on the world. Spreading nonsense.
NOTE: If you're reading, Temenos, I take the whole piece back. The fact that I've written over 2,000 tongue-in-cheek words about employment shows nothing about me other than my commitment to work. I'm even willing to pretend my name is Clive James until retirement to save the gentleman above the embarrassment, such is my commitment. Please hire me.
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Photography by Peter Butler.