Elbow. Australian piss fetishists. Depression. Escape from the festival. Recapture.
Friday we went to see Elbow and Tom Petty. More Elbow than Tom Petty. The real festival started today. Day tickets were available, more fields and stalls opened. The atmosphere was shifting. We joined the mainstage crowd toward the back and settled in. An Australian couple started talking to us. They told us they‘d been following Pearl Jam’s European tour. Both of them had seen the band more times than they could number. While Elbow sunk hits deeper into their set, the Australians kept chatting. A stream of pointless observations, anecdotes, opinions.
In Australia, you can wear a bikini at a festival. Not like here. They liked the American Office over the original. Bacardi was their alcoholic drink of choice. Energy drinks or coffee or orange juice when it came to soft drinks. Spiders in Australia ain’t so bad. They went on way past my point of interest and I side-stepped the conversation. The bastards. There weren’t many good bands playing this weekend and why the fuck would I care what version of the Office you like while one of them is on?
I might be one of the only people at this festival that came with music in mind. Everyone else seemed focused on the strange times part of the mission statement. With a line up like this I suppose they were the sensible ones. Anyway, Yuri seemed engaged. The Australians gave him a Bacardi and apologised that they didn’t have another for me.
‘It’s fine,’ I told them and got back to Elbow. I wasn’t bothered. A drink would act as a hook back into an analysis of the Office I wanted to avoid. You can’t very well ignore someone that just gave you a drink.
From the corner of my eye I saw the Australian woman’s Pearl Jam flag—she wore it over her shoulders like a cape—getting wet. Turning from light green to dark. The Australian guy was behind her. Liquid was spurting in a double helix stream at about waist height. I wondered, is he pouring away his drink and it’s hitting her? But the stream, when I turned my head, stealthy like, was clearly a stream of piss.
He was urinating on her in the middle of a crowd of thousands. People in each direction; walls of people, a maze of people all around. She didn’t seem to care. I tried to rationalise it but I couldn’t. Elbow were half way through their set and I was distracted. The only thing running through my head was, did he just piss on his girlfriend? Here? Why?
We’d already seen a meathead with a crewcut and dark green chinos pissing into a cardboard beer cup and pouring it away at his feet. Makes you question the purpose of the beer cup. And his decision; to piss into a cardboard cup, in front of hundreds of strangers, when there was a clear route to fences, where pissing could be done with comparative discretion, seemed at the time a hilarious absurdity. It’s almost as if he thought the sheer volume of people would conceal him from view.
There were always guys shoulder to shoulder pissing at the edges of the walk ways, through every temporary fence, wherever there was a lull in security. Around the campsite and especially around the toilets you saw footprints in the mud pooled with a murky yellowish water. You hoped that it was just dirty rain but your heart told you otherwise. There was so much urine around that by the end it became hard to say if the soggy, doughy mud had formed out of the heavy rains or from the constant torrent of alcoholic piss.
After the Australian guy finished pissing on his girlfriend, they carried on chatting. The woman didn’t look at or feel her cape. With eyebrow movements, head tilts and widening eyes, I tried to express what I’d seen to Yuri. He frowned at me. Then, no warning, the guy shooed the woman away and left. They didn’t say goodbye. Yuri tried to.
‘They. Are. Mad,’ I said.
‘I’ll tell you later.’
The guy appeared again, pushing through the crowd. His smile was gone. This time he came with a heavy stride and narrow eyes. He snatched back Yuri’s Bacardi and left without a word. I noticed that his flies were undone before he turned away. We were slightly bewildered. Elbow might have played the best set of their career, I heard it but I didn’t. I was trying to shake the growing concern that someone might piss on me.
The rest of the night drifted away to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
On Saturday I woke up depressed. Mud and piss everywhere. Images of the Aussie couple reverberated in my head. The festival was like an anarchic prison city with tunes. Mostly bad tunes. You see police in watch towers overlooking the campsites. There’s talk of thefts from tents. Kids still in primary school getting caught. At any given time in the tent you hear buzzing snippets of everyone else’s conversation. You feel like you would if you could read minds. The tents are at most a foot apart. Most of them touch each other. There are fairground rides in the adjacent fields cycling the same four bars eighteen hours a day.
We had brought a few disposable barbecues with us, along with a little food in a freezer box. Now seemed a good time to use them, so we packed up a barbecue, some food and water and started the trek off site. The feeling was Escape from New York. Getting outside, past the perimeter fences, the watch towers, the staggering lines of muddy festival goers and security, was a mission.
When we finally made it out, we were disappointed. Security were everywhere, there were no fields we could access and as soon as we crossed onto a small grass verge, a security guard told us to leave. I was too tired to argue. The festival’s authoritarianism was bleeding into the surrounding area, cutting down any stragglers from the site. All of us in our Wellington boots an immediate give away. We left the verge, stepped backed onto the pavement and plodded back the way we’d come. More irritable and pessimistic, our backs aching from the water and everything else in our hands and slung over our shoulders.
Five minutes down the path, we found a gate. The grass on the other side was orange and brown. Parts of the field were bald and large puddles filled indents in the ground. Weeds grew in prickly tufts. The dampness had a smell to it. We wanted to find somewhere else but there was nowhere to go. Tired resignation brought us over the fence. We headed for the far side of the field, near the tree line, and began to set up the barbecue. I hoped to get away from the festival but we’d ended up in a field adjacent to it.
To make matters worse we couldn’t get the barbecue lit. Frustration was growing. A malaise was coming over me. Too much piss, too few showers, too little food. The flame on our red disposable lighter kept blowing out. It stood little chance in the wind. My thumb started to blister from spinning the wheel. Eventually Yuri got it lit and begun to cook, I walked off to make a phone call. When I got back I learned from Yuri that he had been harassed by another security guard. They wanted to see his festival armband.
I flashed back to the festival brochure. Sunny photos without security guards or watch towers and superimposed with phrases in caps saying things like, ‘Enjoy the unique sense of freedom that comes with a festival experience.
For a while we sat in peace—or the closest thing to peace we could manage while the floor shook to trance bass—and ate bacon rolls. As the barbecue simmered and smoked, we watched two big muthafuckers, wearing all black, climb over the gate and start jogging toward us. Two more fucking security guards. They were the ‘Response Team’ and they’d been called, they explained, because there had been reports of two people trying to break into the festival. We were laying down and already had wristbands. We were trying to break out of the fucking festival.
‘Private land,’ they said. ‘You have to leave.’
Consider the ridiculousness. Private land. I understood the idea of land ownership in this sense, in any sense other than, ‘This is the land in which I reside,’ about as well as Geronimo did. The idea that you might own a thing—or a series of things—which you had no part in creating or developing and which exists completely independently of you is extremely unintuitive, to say the least.
Yuri stated our case to the younger security guard while the other strode ahead. He held the still hot barbecue by the edges while I carried everything else. The security guard said that he sympathised and he’d be doing the same in our position. Yuri reminded me later that his sympathy meant precisely shit. He kicked us off all the same. This is often the case with people. Sympathy isn’t sympathy when it’s manifest only as an abstraction.
Next to the gate was a house and a garden, and in the garden were people, older people. Mostly women. The details are hazy. I was annoyed and defusing my anger at the ground. These people cheered as we were escorted away. Us fuckers, the cheek, to go onto this private land and eat some food and then to lay watching the clouds. We’d left no litter. No footprints. If you hadn’t seen us enter or leave, it would have been like we’d never existed at all. But still, there are some places you just don’t go. And so they applauded and cheered. They’d done their bit for the community. They’d told on us and we’d been taken away. Their victory was as grand as it was final.
The two security guards climbed back into their four by four—black and marked ‘RESPONSE TEAM’—the younger one pointed to a spot where we could barbecue. It was a grass hill with a steep incline, bordered by nettles and very thin. We didn’t barbecue there. We did leave the barbecue there. Fuck it, if they’d left us to go about our business the barbecue would have cooled down and we would have taken it with us. We rested there and drank some water. Then, with what felt like great effort, we got up and trudged back to the festival site.