Friday, 27 May 2011

Bloody Brilliant Britain: Summer Music Festivals

British Summertime is upon us. ASDA stores nationwide are stocking up on charcoal briquettes and '3 for 1' meat selections, the suburban contingent are scraping 12 month old burger residue from their BBQ racks, and pubs up and down the country are chiseling bird shit off their outdoor tables.

Summer is also the time that music lovers across the nation congregate together in huge fields to listen to their favourite artists and dress up like escaped mental patients.

I'm talking of course, about the great British Summer music festival:

As I have had the distinct privilege of attending several of these defining British events over the last ten years, I will attempt to provide you, the reader, with a guide to a festival weekend.
  1. Choosing a Festival
  2. Getting there
  3. Camping
  4. Festival Goers
  5. The Weather
  6. Food and Drink
  7. The Dreaded Toilets
  8. Navigation and Communication Tactics
  9. Campsite Shenanigens
  10. Going Home

Step 1 - Choosing the festival that's right for you

Some people go to festivals because of the line-up of musical artists, some go to experience the very distinctive atmosphere that a festival provides, while some are merely curious and wish to dip their toes into the proverbial waters.

Festival organisers are very conscious of the variety of factors that motivate people to attend, so each major UK summer music festival is quite different from the next.

There has been a real explosion in the number of festivals that occur during the summer months, the following is a list of 5 of the major ones:

1) Glastonbury
2) Reading & Leeds (Carling Festival)
3) V-Festival
4) Download
5) Isle of Wight

There are literally dozens, if not hundreds of other festivals. Sometimes they are small independent festivals that offer a more intimate festival experience. Many of these are well set up and some have reasonably 'big' names on the musical front, but what they lack of course is the overwhelming size and human-variety that you would associate with one of the major UK music festivals

Step 2 - Getting there

In short, getting to a major music festival is a right nightmare. When 50'000+ people are all trying to get to the same place, you know there's going to be trouble.

Travelling by car is a good idea in principle - squeeze all your camping gear into the boot, cram a few mates in the back and off you go. However, upon nearing the festival campsite the queuing is usually horrendous and can last for hours.

Also, most car parks are literally miles from the campsites (In the case of the Reading Festival - a boat ride away). Such distances mean that carrying all your heavy gear from a car to a festival campsite is one of the most arduous tasks that a festival goer will experience. This unavoidable labour is commonly known as 'the lug'.

Travelling by public transport is also possible - although as festivals generally take place in rural settings, it is not always that easy. Fortunately, the bigger festivals usually operate shuttle-buses to ferry revellers from nearby transport hubs into the festival grounds. Often (but not always), these shuttle buses are allowed to park a bit nearer the main campsites, thus reducing the dreaded 'lug' mentioned above.

Step 3 - Camping

Accommodation at music festivals is not exactly what you might describe as luxurious. There are no en-suite showers, no daily housekeeping services and you will almost certainly never find a mint on your pillow (having a pillow in the first place would be luxury enough).

Instead, your home for the duration of the festival is likely to be a small, cramped, garishly coloured tent. Not only will it be your main place of rest during the festival, it is your first line in protection against the uncompromising bitch that is Mother Nature.

Tents come in all shapes and sizes, from flimsy little 1/2 man domes through to monstrous, multi-compartment 'mansion-tents'.

In my opinion, the perfect festival tent is a 3 man, mid height dome tent with a canopy to protect the entrance.

This sort of tent (as modelled above in true catalogue style by my good friend Nick) is big enough for a couple of people and their belongings. You should always subtract 1 from whatever the recommended personage limit is - i.e. assume that a 3 man can only comfortably fit 2 people. A tent of this size will be relatively lightweight, and therefore less of a burden during 'the lug'.

Selecting an appropriate spot for festival camping is of crucial importance. Quite simply, a lack of planning in this regard can lead to outright disaster.

Fear not though, as I have three simple rules to aid this selection process:

1) Where possible, always camp on higher ground. In the event of torrential rain, people camping at the bottom of hills or in low basin-like fields will get flooded out.

2) For the love of God, don't camp anywhere too near a toilet block! We'll cover toilets in more detail later, but needless to say that camping near portaloos is only advisable for people with no sense of smell.

3) Don't camp near thoroughfares. Drunken revellers have a habit of tripping over guide ropes and crashing through tents. Camping near any sort of public walkway makes this potential occurrence a near certainty.

Of course, you should always aim to get to a festival early in order to ensure that you are able to observe these three rules. Latecomers to festivals will usually find that their camping options are limited to a ditch next to a leaky portaloo near the busiest thoroughfare on the campsite.

If there is a group of you camping together, you should attempt to arrange your tents in a ring like structure with little proximity between tents on the perimeter, but enough space in the middle of the ring to allow you to sit around a nice fire. It is quite useful to adorn your campsite with something recognisable to you, so that you are able to find your campsite amongst the masses of tents that are present at a major music festival. A great big flag with a phrase close to your heart, such as 'we luv tits/cock', would be sufficient:

Step 4 - The hardy festival goer

There is a spectrum describing festival goers known as the (fg) scale. At one end is the 'wreck-head' (fg1):

At the other, is the 'bear-gryllian' (fg10).

For wreckheads, most of what I have wrote in this blog need not apply. They simply turn up to a festival, make a half-cocked attempt at pitching a tent before fucking off on a multi-day mega-bender. The chances of them finding their campsite or ever seeing their belongings again are slim.

On the other hand, the Bear-Gryllian is the crack-commando of festival goers. They have a utensil for every occasion, can pitch a tent so perfectly that it would withstand Hurricane Katrina.

Whether you realise it or not, you will be somewhere on this spectrum. I would consider myself to be somewhere between an fg6-7. This is on account of being a bit more considered in my approach to festivaling (this post should give that away!), but always failing to remember a few key items and not being the most able fire-lighter.

What is true though, is that those at either end of the fg scale will enjoy the festival in their own particular way.

Step 5 - The weather

A wise man once said, "there's no such thing as the wrong sort of weather, just the wrong sort of clothing". Barring extreme weather events that are seriously able to "fuck yo' shit up", this is largely very true.

Providing that you are adequately prepared, it really shouldn't matter too much what the weather is doing:

Saying this though, there is definitely such a thing as perfect festival weather, which i believe is as follows:

  • 18-25 degrees C
  • A slight breeze
  • Sunny with ever so slightly cloudy skies to provide the odd moment of shade
  • 10-15 degrees C
  • Clear starry skies (perfect for zoned out cosmic gazing - I once saw a UFO at a festival - no shit!)
If you get these conditions at a festival, consider yourself very fortunate, for as you know UK weather is nothing if not unpredictable.

Very hot, sunny weather at a festival is problematic due to the fact that most of us Brits are pasty bastards and get 2nd degree burns from being in direct sunlight for more than 30 seconds. In addition, hot and sunny weather mixed with alcohol leads to elevated levels of drunkenness and doubles the subsequent effect of hangovers.

On the other hand, wet weather can be really miserable. Fields become sloshy, near impassable mudbaths and everything you own is permanently soggy.

For just such variations in weather, I have a list of the top festival essentials that will help you cope with these adverse weather conditions:

Wet Weather:

Wellies - the 4x4 of outdoor footwear. Stride through deep puddles as your friend searches desperately for their missing flip-flop.

Waterproof trousers - As your pal frustratedly peels denim from sodden flesh, bask in the glory of 'bone dry' legs.

Poncho - Your own mobile tent. Laugh outwardly as the rain bounces off your water repellent shell.

Hot Weather:

Wide brimmed hat - Live in the luxury of your own shadow.

Factor 3'000'000 sunscreen (Only necessary for pasty buggers like me) - Don't leave yourself looking like a well done lobster, apply a thick coat of white gunk to all exposed body parts.

Bottle of Water - keep a handy vile of Earth-pop on you at all times to alleviate the effects of 'spinning-head' and 'wobbly-legs'.

Step 6 - Food and Drink

Contrary to popular opinion, good quality food and drink are available in abundance at music festivals. From simple burger vans to organic vegetarian alternatives to aromatic Chinese food stalls, there is a wealth of top notch nosh about. Unfortunately, it's all bloody expensive.

You see, rather than competing with each other on price as would the case in any normal goods and services market, the crafty vendors get together in 'Godfather' like fashion with the festival bosses to agree on set prices that are over and above what you might find out in the wider world. Pure extortion.


You can, of course, bring your own food, but the hassle of carrying in the supplies coupled with the inconvenience of needing to return to your campsite every time you want to eat makes it rather impractical. It's best if you budget to spend a few quid and begrudgingly pay the high prices. At least you'll won't have to live on pot noodles and soup all weekend!

Alcoholic beverages are similarly expensive too, which is why so many choose to add to the pain of 'the lug' and bring their own. With this in mind, it's advisable to become a drinker of spirits during a festival weekend, as a few bottles of tipple along with a customary mixer, will keep you rosy cheeked and heavy of wallet.

If you're beer drinker like me, you'll just have to put up with 'humping' a crate to you campsite. I do still recommend sampling the odd draft beer though, at whatever cost, as I have quite unexpectedly stumbled upon some excellent pints while at festivals. In particular, the Carling served at Reading a few years back was 10 times better than any other Carling I have ever sampled elsewhere. Strange but true.

Step 7 - The Dreaded Toilets

So, you've helped yourself to one of Mr Wing's Chow Mein & Chips combo boxes, necked 5 pints of ale and are starting to feel a stirring in your belly. Suddenly, an involuntary fart heralds the news that you are soon going to need to 'drop the kids off at the pool'. But where do you go? What do you do? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WHAT DO I DO??!!

Calm down. It's going to be alright. Shit happens (mind the pun). Follow my instructions and you'll get through this:

First off, make sure you have some loo roll. You are not at the Hilton and there is no guarantee that you will be able to find any should you need it. Also, as you may be stepping into a confined area that has been previously used for defecation, you should also consider using an odour nullifier, such as a can of deoderant, or a smell reducer, such as a surgical mask or a menthol rub for your nose.

At a festival you may occasionally find fairly 'upmarket' temporary toilet blocks, with decent lavatories and even hand wash basins - unfortunately though, they are few and far between! What you'll usually be dealing with is the cramped, poorly lit plastic chamber known as the portaloo:

As portaloos at festivals are usually only emptied on a daily basis, for the majority of the time, they are filled with the waste product of hundreds of individuals. As such they all stink.

Some are far worse than others though. You can generally grade a portaloo between 1-5:

GRADE1 - Not bad. Clean surfaces, slight pong, bog roll still available.

GRADE 2 - Still clean. Even more repellent odour, no bog roll.

GRADE 3 - Very smelly, noticable clumps of faecal matter inside toilet bowl. No bog roll.

GRADE 4 - Eye wateringly pongy, piss all over seat, shit starting to block toilet drain.

GRADE 5 - Vomit inducing odour, shit on the floor, piss everywhere. Suspicious looking brown handprints on walls.

These are the usual grades of portaloo. You should make a mental note of these, and if you enter a 3 or above, feel no shame in leaving it post-haste.

However, there is one more grade of portaloo not on the standard list. If you are unfortunate enough to happen upon one of these, you have my deepest sympathies. I did once, and feel lucky to be here to tell the tale:

GRADE X - Satanic rituals were conducted in this place and formed an opening to the bowels of hell itself.

Two words describe the only GRADE X that I ever saw; nappies & blood.

Step 8 - Navigation and Comms tactics

If you're attending a festival with a load of mates, the chances that you will all want to stick together and do the same thing is unlikely. Due to the wide variety of entertainment available, you will no doubt find that your group splinters as individuals disappear off to go and watch different things.

The trouble with this is that finding your friends in an ocean of people is not the easiest thing to do. Despite recent technological advancements, mobile communication is often useless. This is mainly because:

1) Mobile networks are at breaking point and signal is often not available
2) Text messages take literally hours to receive
3) Even if you do manage to get 'on the blower', chances are that you won't be able to hear a thing anyway.

As a result of these problems, should you want to re-group, you will have to stick to a more traditional method. I call it GPRS - General pisshead recognition system.

General Pisshead Recognition System (GPRS)

Distinctive clothing (DC) + Recognisable Rendevous Point (RRP) = 90% Regroup success.

Wearing something that can be readily recognised by your peers is not a new concept. Soldiers have been doing it since forever. Unfortunately, brightly coloured garments alone won't always do the trick as festivals are awash an ocean of brightly coloured individuals.

Something more striking is required.As it can be hard to see through dense crowds, any distinctive item worn from the chest downwards may be hidden from view. As such, headwear works best.

Perhaps the best example of GPRS (DC) I have ever seen at a festival was sported by some friends of mine from the west country. Their adornments of choice were large straw hats with giant (possibly albatross) feathers poking out of the top. The beacon-esque nature of these hats meant that should you wander within a hundred feet of the individual, you would instantly recognise them. Job done.

DC is not quite enough though as it still demands a degree of proximity to the subject. The second element of GRPS must also be employed, 'Recognisable rendevous point' (RRP).

Suitable RRP cannot be determined by the usual linguistics of convening. Saying "I'll meet you by the main stage" is about as useful as agreeing to meet someone near a pine tree in the New Forest.

Instead, you need to agree on a small, named location. Stage areas and tents don't really work so you'll need to be more creative. It may seem obvious, but don't choose anywhere near toilet blocks or fences as you'll be stood sniffing freshly expelled urine for the duration of your wait.

Providing that you all know where it is, something like ' near Dave's Donut Stand' would be a good location. If it is in the proximity of a music stage, all the better as you can chill out and listen to some tunage as you wait for your friends to re-appear.

This is where DC comes back into play, as despite picking a good location, with so many people about it can still be hard to spot your friends. A tufty eagle feather or giant alien head will aid this task immensely (yes it's him again:)

Even with effective GPRS employed, success is never a 100% certainty due to the weird and wonderful paths that a day at a festival may present to you. So don't stress, grab a donut from Dave's stand and be on your way. An agreed RRP means you can always come back later to see whether anyone you know has turned up.

Step 9 - Campsite shenanigens

Other than FG1 Wreckheads, for most the time will come to return to the campsite to chill out and grab a few hours kip before starting a new festival day.

Upon returning to your campsite, one of the first tasks that must be undertaken is the construction of a good fire. Sadly, I'm no expert in this area, but my friend has written a recent blog post on this very subject, so i'll point you in that direction for some fire building guidance from a qualified(ish) expert:

'Talking a good game - Man vs Fire'

With your fire constructed, pull up a pew, crack open a can of warm lager, sit back and enjoy the warming glow.

Fires tend to have an uncanny knack of hypnotising people and this will often lead to a discussion about why exactly this is the case. My own explanation is that it is a reaction so primal that it dates back to the first time a human-being lit a fire. Namely, that the group of people who first lit a fire were so overawed by their creation that they were stunned into silence and their reaction has been passed down instinctively through the generations.

Once a fire has been built, there are two tasks required to maintain it that are usually passed around a group without dispute. Prodding and chucking.

A 'prodder' will have a handy stick to stoke the fire and a 'chucker' will periodically throw more fuel (i.e. bits of wood, cardboard etc) on the fire as required. Neither task is particularly labour intensive, but both are of crucial importance in prolonging the life of the fire.

A particularly good fire has the habit of attracting festival goers to your campsite like to moths to a flame. As a result, you will usually get one or two random visitors during the course of an evening. Fortunately, 99.9% of festival goers are decent sorts and merely wish to bask in the warmth of your crackling hearth and regail you with the tales of their respective days. Always embrace these passers by with open arms, as you may want the favour to be returned some day.

As the flames recede and the cold night air returns to envelop you, you may choose to retire to your tent and grab a brief few hours of shut-eye. However, unless you passout due to exhaustion or over-consumption of alcohol, you will be serenaded to sleep by a cacophony of sound very much akin to that of a rainforest.

You see, much like a rainforest, a festival campsite is occupied by all manner of creatures attempting to communicate over vast distances. Birds (as in the feathered variety) solve this problem by using a specific pitch of sound that is recognisable to others of their own species and indeed, so do festivalgoers.

The creatures of the festival jungle have their own unique cries and calls. For instance, at almost every festival i've been to, I have heard the cry of the "I am Spartacus" guy, which is always met with the customary response "NO! I am Spartacus!". As this reverberates around the campsite, 'Spartacus' is usually replaced with other more obscure references such as:

"I am Moira Stewart"
"I am the one armed man"
"I am Captain Horatio Hornblower"
"I am unable to use my legs"

Being at a music festival encourages many people also opt to take their own instruments, so you can usually enjoy a few impromptu musical recitals as you doze off. Although, as my friend James once proved, people will only tolerate so much before they express their distaste. His solo rendition of the 'Little Shop of Horrors' score proved so unpopular that he was told to keep the noise down by neighbouring campers- a request that I have never previously encountered whilst at a music festival.

The end is nigh....

So you've seen a bonanza of fantastic music, you've experienced the unique vibe of festival life, you've filled your mind and soul with an air of eccentricity found nowhere else....and you've probably gotten quite intoxicated along the way. Unfortunately it's now time to bid goodbye to your makeshift society and head back to the grey doldrums of normal, everyday life.

Leaving a festival can be a complicated, often frustrating and for some a heartbreaking experience. One of my favourite festival experiences happened at the Reading Festival in 2005, when upon leaving, I found myself having to console a young FG1 wreckhead who was massively distraught at the prospect of having to leave. He said that he hadn't slept in days but had had the time of his life and didn't think he could cope with life back in the real world. He had clearly been ingested by the festival gods who were now in the process of spitting him back out again. In classic good Samaritan fashion, I put my arm around him and told him it'd be alright, and that he'd be back amongst his kin for another tour of duty in a year's time. As he staggered off into the distance I can remember thinking that it would probably all be a fading blur of music and fire for him in a few days time, as he sat down to an evening meal with his parents and discussed his future employment options. Still, he would be back to rediscover his true 'wreckhead' self one day.

The knack of leaving a festival in the least frustrating fashion is either to leave absurdly early or extremely late. Either way, you will likely avoid the massive crowds and traffic jams that are commonplace when leaving at the normal times. Most festivals end on the Sunday night, with revellers packing up and going home on mass between about 10am - 1pm on the Monday. Naturally these are the times to avoid.

Leaving Early

Leaving early is a rather stange experience. It is best achieved, not by shooting off as soon as the final guitar string is plucked, but instead, at sometime between 5am-8am on the Monday morning. At this time, the campsite is largely tranquil and peaceful. Those not passed out in their tents are usually found wondering around talking to themselves, or sitting and staring into space, contemplating the wonders of the cosmos.

As such, for those motivated enough, leaving at this time is a crowd free and largely straightforward task.

Leaving late

Apart from being routinely hassled by stewards who want you to "get offe thar land", leaving a festival late can be quite handy as you are likely to miss the queues, you can have a nice chill whilst others are stressing and more importantly, it gives you ample time to indulge in the art of looting.

You see, at the end of any festival, the rules of taking another person's property are turned on their head and pillaging becoming rife. It's not so much that stealing is suddenly allowed, it's just that many people decide to abandon their stuff so as not to have to carry it back home with them. An odd concept I admit, but for some the benefit of an easy 'lug' home outweighs the benefit of them retaining their belongings.

So with the owners having left their camping goods at the mercy of the elements, the looter can begin their work.

The three most common items that you will find are as follows:
  • Tents
  • Camping Chairs
  • Beer
I've found everything from hiking boots to giant inflatable rubber mallets and strings of sausages (not fit for consumption i might add) in my time. Even if you don't take anything, it's worth a having a good rumage, as it appeals to our subsistence level roots.

The return to Normality....

As your homestead nears, take a moment to reflect on the good times you've had and vow to take on board the teachings of your festival days:

Mine are usually:

- Life is full of variety - so make the most of it.
- Most people are generally 'good eggs', so park the xenophobia.
- Good community spirit is well underrated.
- A good bed is a privilege, and shouldn't be taken for granted.
- A hot bath is a truly joyous thing.

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