Previously in "What I Miss Most": Live music.
I shouldn’t be here.
I should be face down in a field somewhere, listening to loud music and feeling the ground rumble beneath me. I should be staggering through mud, clinging onto my friend’s arm and trying to run to the next stage before the band starts. I should be sheltering from rain in a pathetic marquee or lining up to get into NYC Downlow as a drag queen in a leather apron taunts me in the queue. I should be baking to death in an unzipped tent or delicately hovering above a drop loo, holding a fanny pack and phone in one hand, bog roll in the other, with a plastic pint glass gripped between my teeth and my friend screaming my name and trying to find me outside the row of identikit toilets.
When I moved to the UK as a 16-year-old, I'd never been to a music festival. Then I went to Reading Festival, where I saw a teenage boy pull down his pants, jump on top of an open wheelie bin and take a shit in it, before Avenged Sevenfold took to the stage. I immediately felt, in that moment, that I’d learned more about British culture than I had during all those years of reading Enid Blyton and watching faded reruns of Mr Bean. The noise, the stench, the copious amounts of vomiting and the number of people I saw passed out in their own bodily fluids or gaffa taped to their folding chairs – it was like the last days of Rome, but with Strongbow and alcopops.
And that was before I even encountered the infamous riot night, where gangs of marauding teenagers lit everything on fire on the final evening of the festival, soundtracked by the primal screams of “BOLLOCKS” or “BUTTSCRATCHER”. All I know is that, on that Sunday, as I watched a mob of drunk kids celebrate the end of their A-Levels by ripping a tent out of the ground with its owner still in it, I was captivated.
I’ve probably been to at least one festival every year since. When I was younger, I worked bars; now I’m older, I have more disposable income to buy a ticket – but I still curse myself in the run-up to a festival: 'Why am I spending money to sleep in a tent? I’m too old to do this! I’m done!' Then, come Thursday night, I will have my arms slung around all my friends, swearing I'll do this with them until the day I die, or the year Fleetwood Mac finally play Glastonbury (whichever happens first).
This year, all UK festivals have been postponed to 2021 – including this weekend’s Glasto – because of coronavirus. While lockdown has eased somewhat this week and allowed some businesses to reopen, there’s no half-measures when it comes to festivals. You can’t exactly maintain a one-metre distance from strangers in a crowded field.
Riot night is long gone from Reading – festival organisers made the wise decision of banning Sunday campfires before someone lost a body part – but its spirit lives on in British festival culture. Coachella has LA influencers and manicured polo lawns, but an essential part of a UK festival is dirt and grime. I can’t think of another social event where it becomes a point of pride for people to not shower for five days, or fall over in mud, or shit themselves, or whitey somewhere around the Stone Circle and wake up on Sunday.
This is because, as far as I can tell, most British people value the following three activities above all else: 1) having something to complain about, 2) "having a laugh", and 3) getting wrecked – and nothing combines all three more than imbibing a near-fatal amount of booze and drugs over four days straight while listening to loud music and having limited access to clean bathroom facilities.
It is this, combined with any exposure to bright sunlight and temperatures above 25 degrees, that induces a kind of madness in the typical British person. Anything becomes possible and everything is justifiable because you are now "At A Festival", which is how a guy in my campsite once ended up getting consensually and lovingly fucked with someone's torch. This is why people build entire personalities around festivals (“oh him, that’s Festival Dave”) because, for one long weekend in the summer, in a field of 200,000 people, you can be whoever you want, even if that person is incredibly sunburnt and hungover.
Festivals like Glasto get ripped apart for being too expensive and elitist – why pay £265 to be in a muddy field, the detrators sneer – and yes, if you want, there are plenty of opportunities at festivals to do fire poi with men called Tristan who have undergone personality rebrands and now have names like Skye or Earth Bumble; or watch a Shakespearean improv troupe from Cambridge; or drink £11 Aperol Spritz cocktails out of branded plastic cups that someone will no doubt piss in later.
And there’s definitely a conversation to be had about the general overwhelming maleness and whiteness of festivals, both in lineup and in audience demographic, which once meant I spent one festival getting repeatedly asked if I was the Japanese-Swedish singer from Little Dragon when they headlined, even though I was working at a bar at the time and was not Japanese, Swedish or in Little Dragon. Then there's the relentless commercialisation of festivals, in which brands sincerely believe that people hammered on warm pints will be endeared towards their product if they make another DJ slowly lose the will to live behind the decks of another VIP area co-sponsored by Boots.
But festivals in the UK somehow, despite everything, rise above all this. Something extraordinary always happens when a seething mass of loveable riff-raff descend en masse on a site each year – the lads who get tickets working a grilled cheese van and magically disappear on the night of their shift; the students pulling pints at an overheated Ye Olde England-themed bar; the saucer-eyed teenagers in high-vis security jackets collapsed in folding chairs, dotting the campsite path like fluorescent jewels; the chancers who scale the barriers or buy castaway tickets off shifty men in local pubs; the NOS dealers with one tired balloon hanging out the side of their mouth; and the OG festival legends – grizzled bearded men in steampunk goggles who raved at free parties in the 80s but are now in deep and meaningful relationships with real ale.
I know there's the music, too, but distilling a festival to just "live music with some tents" doesn't do them justice. When you pass the two-storey high gates at Glastonbury, your stomach a twisted knot of excitement, you aren't just looking forward to watching some band or musician gallop about on a big stage. What you're feeling is decades of British culture, excreted by successive generations of attendees and performers whipped into a transcendent, neurochemical frenzy off a cocktail of their favourite music and preferred inebriants, deposited like a huge, magical shit on a ley line somewhere in Somerset. Culture is about the people just as much as it is the performance, and nowhere is that more obvious than at mass gatherings like raves or festivals.
This year, I miss them all: Scousers in bucket hats; the greebo with the arm-length collection of festival wristbands; the middle-aged dealer wandering through a crowd, muttering "coke weed MD pills ket" like the bassline to every song of the weekend; the gang of four to five men who always, inexplicably, turn up in matching OppoSuits; the girls who valiantly apply a full face of makeup before sundown back at their campsite for the “going out bit”, then resurface sometime around 4.30AM in a dance tent, makeup gone, friends gone, having the time of their lives. “Babes!” they scream down the phone. “Babes I can’t see you! Meet by the burger van?”
Sure, there are other things I’ve missed in lockdown. There are probably more important and meaningful things, too, and much more valuable things that people have sacrificed in quarantine. After all, a festival weekend only makes up a tiny fraction of the year. But when the sun hoists itself into the sky and the grass frazzles to a crisp – when you can almost fool yourself into hearing the sound of pulsating music across a distant field – I know there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.