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Festivals, Socrates and me

As you read this, I will be luxuriating in a birthday hot tub, knocking back cheap fizz, encrusted in glitter and hairspray. Where will I be lapping up such luxuries? At a spa resort before a night on the town, perhaps?

Err, no.

You will find me at Green Man, that most bucolic of all the summer festivals. There, my friend Sarah and I – separated only by an H, our genes and not much else where our approach to roughing it is concerned – will be living it up in the on-site spa.

What better way to mark the passing of thirty-eight years than by lolling around in gallons of assorted festivalgoers’ scum?

Whatever. It beats making small talk in the shower queue with some guy called Dan from Bristol, wearing last night’s make-up and a palpable sense of dread (both of us). Trust me.

The hot tub booking isn’t even the half of it, this year.

We’ll be drying off in bell tents, in the ‘glamping’ area, making full use of the teepee provided for plugging in hair straighteners, complete with Hollywood-style illuminated mirrors.

We will sip our evening’s refreshment from a glittery gin bottle-shaped handbag that cleverly doubles as a genius bluff by concealing, wait for it, A BOTTLE OF GIN. Have that, so-called ‘security’.

Anyone who remembers risking the ire of police sniffer dogs while sneaking over the Glastonbury fence in the early 90s, feel free to hate away. I know, I know. CALL OURSELVES FESTIVALGOERS?

I don’t, actually. I call myself a live music enthusiast who enjoys the convenience of seeing loads of great bands in one weekend. I also hate waking up in a plastic greenhouse with a creaking back and a mouth like a long-neglected food waste bin. I’ve paid my dues. Life’s too short for a perfectly good weekend in the great outdoors to be ruined by actual camping.

I’m old and ugly enough to know that by the mid-way point of this weekend, I’ll feel as if the festival forces are defeating me. In reality, all I will need is a cuppa, a bath, and a lie down before I’m ready to go again. So I’ve planned my weekend to ensure I can access all three easily. What of it? **Gallic shrug and innocent glance camera left**

I was recently at Latitude, a festival notable for being disgustingly middle class. If you’ve never been, all you need to know is that there’s an on-site Co-op supermarket and a drinks lounge sponsored by Next. It’s also impossible to find a chip that hasn’t been triple cooked or infused with rare truffle shavings.

Even I, with my lax approach to festi-authenticity, was surprised at the whole Chipping Norton-set-in-a-field vibe. The line-up couldn’t be more obviously targeted at over-earning professionals desperate to cling on to the last vestiges of their youth. Quaffing warm cider and fist-pumping to George Ezra while little Sky snoozes in a 4 x 4 off-road wheelbarrow and ear defenders is ONE way of achieving that I suppose.

I spotted one reveller with a ‘Boobs’ neck tattoo, before later spying him scrubbing it off with a wet wipe. I guess he was going back to his day job in accounts the next day and decided it wasn’t a good look.

So Latte-tude, then. Woodstock, it ain’t.

The thing is, despite my lack of girl scout inclinations I bloody love a festival, as do increasing amounts of us. The average age of festivalgoers is going up too, to 39, with one in five Glastonbury-goers aged over 45.

Rock music festivals began as gatherings for the young, and as cradles for the counter-culture. So what happened? These days, you’re as likely to be offered a retail loyalty card as badgered to join Greenpeace at a festival, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

What I do know is that festivals fulfil a need in us so-called adults to re-connect with our teenage selves. While teenagers go to festivals to behave beyond their years, grown-ups go to escape the drudgery of the 9-5, mortgages or child-rearing.

Festivals create spaces where we can eschew the silence and wariness of strangers we have become accustomed to in our everyday lives, and forge an alternate reality. One where we talk to people we don’t know, dance in muddy puddles, sing, dance, get dirty and glitter our cheeks/beards (delete as appropriate).

And why does this matter? The American sociologist Ray Oldenburg writes about the importance of ‘third spaces’ for a functioning civil society and our mental wellbeing.

Third spaces are anywhere where we congregate other than work or home, such as pubs, churches or libraries (which are all closing at a rate of knots).

By the purest definition, these spaces should be free to access. But festivals – with their hefty price tags – have become playgrounds for a generation raised to worship at the altar of hard work, consumption and status symbols.

Whether you choose to slum it with the £49 Eurohike tent masses or have your chi-chi bell tent pre-erected by a minimum wage student, it’s all about escaping the rat race and re-connecting with your inner child. It’s cheaper than therapy, if somewhat muddier.

Festivals have been allowing people to turn on, tune in and drop out since ancient Greek times. So this weekend I’ll be following in the spiritual footsteps of Socrates and his mates, before scrubbing off the last crumbs of glitter, snipping off my wristband and returning to mind-numbing conformity. Until next summer rolls around, that is.

This column first appeared in The Western Mail on Saturday 17th August 2019.

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