From the first Stonehenge Free Festival in 1974 to the mega-millions invested in the current plethora of annual UK music festivals, the set-up may have changed, but it’s the human experience that makes each one memorable. Here are three festival stories.
My first comes from the summer of 2012. Gaynor and I were at Beacons Festival, a three-dayer in open fields near Skipton in Yorkshire, which we were covering for the music magazine R2, me as the writer, her as the photographer.
At one point, between bands, we took a break and headed for one of the beer tents. On the way there, we were passed by a women talking loudly into her mobile phone. As she drew level with me I heard her say “I’m heading for the beer tent to get weighed…” What? Surely I’d misheard her. But no, whoever she was speaking to can’t have heard her properly because she promptly raised her voice and repeated it. Who gets weighed in a beer tent and how and why? Intrigued, I sped up to keep pace with her. As she entered the tent, she shouted “Wade!” A bloke at the bar turned to her and said “Yeah?”
For the second story, we go back to the early 1980s when, as a performance poet, I’d be booked to appear at some of these festivals. At several of them, the Peace Convoy turned up. This anti-establishment post-hippie itinerant community had first formed around those free festivals of the 1970s. By the early 1980s it had become a much maligned entity which was gleaning somewhat sensationalised media coverage.
Moving from festival to festival over the summer months, this ever-expanding autonomous tribe would, welcome or not, take over part of each festival site. In true counter-culture fashion, they consistently courted controversy. At times, they’d prove intimidating and even parasitic. Within their ranks were a few who carried weapons, a number who lived by drug-dealing, a handful who survived through theft from fellow festival-goers, and others who’d end each evening drunken, drugged and aggressive.
The media devoted extensive coverage to these small factions. In my encounters with the Convoy I didn’t experience any anti-social activity. On the contrary, I found them friendly and welcoming.
One very hot festival afternoon, I was told that there was a sauna in their Peace Camp. It sounded good to me. What I found was a large makeshift tent constructed from a circular wall of straw bales which was entirely covered by black plastic sheeting. Inside, a few dozen naked people sat, backs to the bales, round a central stove that was hyper-heating the air. The nudity was in no way sexual, just made obligatory by the inside temperature.
I reckoned that this, followed by a cold shower, would be refreshing. I duly joined the sweating circle. In the dim light, someone passed me a spliff. I took a couple of drags and passed it on. More followed. Feeling suddenly highly heady, I asked the next person who passed me a smoke what was in it. “I dunno exactly,” came the reply. “They’ve put about twenty-three different drugs into it.”
A couple more tokes and I knew this stuff was too strong for me. Dressing with clumsied difficulty, I crawled away. As I struggled to stand, it occurred to me that food might help.
I found a stall selling slices of cake. Holding out some money, I managed to ask for a piece. “We’ve loads of different kinds. Which do you want?” OMG! They want me to make a decision. How…? I stood there swaying indecisively. “How about this one?” said the voice. “It’s got chopped nuts and sultanas in it.”
Seconds later, half a centimetre tall, I was inside the slice, crawling through a thick and sticky soil of cake, checking out the boulders of fruit and nut. The following day, those staffing the stall would tell me that I’d stood there for ages, wriggling strangely and waving my arms around.
The next thing I remember of that day was being tapped on the shoulder by a concerned stranger. Four hours had passed. It was seven o’clock in the evening. The sun was going down. I was bent over a running water-tap with a toothbrush in my hand.
I told the man that I was trying to remove bits of nut and sultana from between my teeth. “I think you’ve done that,” said the stranger. “You’ve been here brushing your teeth for more than an hour and your gums are bleeding quite badly.” My feet felt wet. I looked down. I was standing in a deep pool of tap water which was dyed dark red with my blood.
My final story, also set in the early eighties, concerns Gaynor’s best friend from her student days. She and Gaynor had hitch-hiked to Glastonbury Festival. In those days, it was a much more primitive affair than it is now. The toilet facilities consisted of a long deep ditch across which had been laid an arrangement of planks supporting seats with circular holes. This was one of those rainy years when the site had become a mud-bath. The sides of these ‘shit-pits’ had been gradually eroded, leaving gaps. Stoned and drunk one dark night, Gaynor’s friend failed to spot a particularly wide gap.
Stepping forward, she promptly slid from sight to find herself standing armpit-deep in a sea of human excrement and urine. Her friends were unable to rescue her and no one seemed willing to help. She might have remained there for hours if it hadn’t been for one courageous youth who risked his own safety to reach down, firmly grab one very brown and slippery hand and drag her out.
Cold-tap hoses offered the site’s only washing facilities. Though the poor woman subjected herself to numerous ice-cold dousings, these did little to reduce the persistently overpowering stench. That night, though cold and wet, she slept outside the tent. The task of hitching home the next day became a long and embarrassing one for Gaynor and her friend, as several of their lifts turned out to be brief ones with the driver stopping and telling the pair to get out.