A back step and a two step
“I’m not a happy camper or festival-goer”, I hear myself say over again in the run up to the festival. But as a kid I went to festivals and camped a lot, so maybe that’s not strictly true. Maybe I’d just forgotten how to do it.
As we pack up the camper van we’re borrowing from my dad and stepmum I’m reminded of preparations for the folk festivals they used to take us to; the trailer packed to the brim, the sleeping bags curled on the back seats, the squirrelled packets of biscuits, the tins of tuna and aluminium camping pans. I’m reminded of leaving home in the early chill and dark, of hushed voices and shutting the boot quietly so as not to wake the neighbours.
It is early evening when we arrive at the campsite at Beautiful Days and join the queue to be allocated a pitch. A steward leans in at the open window, “It’s been bonkers,” he confides. “They’ve been queueing since 10am”. He pats the side of the van as we move off, “Have a good one,” he says. The next steward is grumpy and acerbic. Prompted by my fussing, Glen asks if we can be somewhere quiet. “We don’t do quiet,” he growls, “quiet is another place.” The final steward is already in party mode, “Don’t get me talking about your back doors,” he grins at me, “I’ll have to park you down by the motorway if you want to put your awning up.”
It is Thursday night and there is a newness to the site and festival vibe. But there is already the sense of kickback, a throwing over of ‘normal’ buttoned up life, alarm clock early starts, eating breakfast in the car, clean socks and packed lunches, paying attention in endless meetings. All bets are off. When we wander into the field in the 9pm dark the people gathering in the glow of the fire jugglers are sequined and glittered. It smells of the fair, of hot sugar and butter, and of all the festivals I’ve ever been to; crushed grass, weed, beer, damp canvas, patchouli, cigarettes. The coloured lights are sparkling and flashing, somebody is drumming, babies and toddlers go past in fairy-lit buggies and trucks swaddled against the dampening night, carried along like so many Antonys and Cleopatras. The excitement is building.
Beautiful young people greet each other in ball dresses and boots, shorts and fake fur, smears of silver across their faces. There’s a variety of headwear; floral cornucopias, headbands, horns. And a lot of Fez’s. I look and feel as if I’ve come dressed for the office. This is a space to be playful, have fun, where anything goes and everything is forgiven. We follow the music and find the Bimble Inn where we dance to Pulp and Nirvana alongside a crowd either nostalgic for, or just discovering, the 90s. A youngster, already partying hard, falls into us. We pick him up, half-steadying, half-hugging him, “Have a good one,” we say as he dissolves, grinning and apologising, into the throng.
It is a weekend of lying on sun-hardened ground listening to folk, dancing in rain-drenched clothes with strangers in the fuggy, charged air of the dance tent, remembering my twenties with my hands in the air worshipping at the altar of Bobby Gillespie in the middle of a field. In the safe festival space people are happy to be themselves; bearded late middle-aged men in shimmering dresses, two step to dub on a sunny Sunday afternoon, their cagouled wives bouncing at their sides. I think of an expression I learned recently, ‘Ladies, gentlemen and our friends beyond the binary’ and smile. This is a joyful place; it is easy to love everybody. But I notice too, that beyond the performers and festival crew, it is hard to find people of colour amongst the crowds of people moving like an ever-flowing tide between the stages, loos, stalls and bars.
The sense of joy is in the fairy-lit and flamingoed tents and caravans, in people’s attitudes and attire. I lost count and am unable to remember all the tee-shirts people were wearing that made us laugh. One read, ‘Jesus loves you, but I’m his favourite’. A larger man, red-faced, sways past us slopping two pints of beer in plastic cups. His tee-shirt reads:
Because a good story
never started with lettuce
We become more ourselves as we age don’t we? Going over to North Devon to collect Dad and Vicky’s motorhome ahead of the festival we found them relaxed, laughing at themselves, their quirks and inconsistencies. They’re forgetting where they’ve put things, the names of people, the days things have happened, what has happened. It’s like a portal into the future – a further stop on the journey I’m on as I try with friends to remember some detail or other from our mutual past. At times over lunch, conversations felt like catching hold of the end of a thread in a high wind as a spool unwound and tangled. But it felt playful and happy too. Perhaps my parents were unwinding, remembering themselves, going backwards into youth.
While we are away I think of them again – they are everywhere in the motorhome; their smiling faces in a photo tucked above the door like a lucky charm as we go in and out from the field. We were a blended family long before we knew to call it that, a scrappy band of seven – five children and two parents – working it out as we went. I remember children sidling up to me at school to ask if it was true, were my parents really divorced? We were forever setting off on adventures, squeezed in the back of the car, elbowing each other for space, fighting over who got to sit next to the window.
Vicky danced with an all-female Morris side called Mayflower Morris and Dad played the melodeon, jigging alongside in his black waistcoat, white shirt and red folk neckerchief. We were part of a band of Morris kids, camping at folk festivals and hanging around pub gardens and car parks at weekends while the adults danced and drank. I was jealous of the neat 2.4 versions of families eating scampi or chicken in a basket while we ate the dreaded tuna sandwiches on brown bread from the cool box. Now I can only think in awe of the preparation and energy that went into making sandwiches and packing up camping equipment, marshalling five squabbling kids into a battered baby blue Peugeot 504 to set off to whichever part of the country we were headed to pursue their passion for dance around full time jobs. How did they do it?
The festival vibe fades as we leave the safe confines of the fields on Sunday night and head out onto the roads, back out to normal life. “Get over you arsehole”, one of us says to another motorist, as the other chides, “Festival vibe, we love each other, right?”
Being in the other worldliness of the festival without any network connection I realise how much space and time ‘normal’ life takes up; the insistent lure of shiny screens and connectivity; the drudge of work; housework; gardens; bills, all the grown up, responsible stuff. I realised how little space there is for play.
When you’re camping you have to be mindful of what you eat, drink, how you use water, the loo. But in the space where normal life and responsibility usually sits you can remember yourself. What I remembered was the first career dream that was my own; to make my living from telling people’s stories; from travelling and telling tales. This is when I feel most alive; the rest is just so much stale air.
As I age I am learning, way behind the upcoming generations, that we can write our own rulebooks. I’m going to rewrite my rulebook. I’m going to make more space for play.