002 – In The Swamp. IoW Festival 2012.

First Day.

Arrival. Meeting the neighbours. The Stranglers. Primal Scream. First impressions.

To get to the Isle of Wight you can take a hovercraft from Portsmouth. It shakes like a cheap shopping centre massage chair. Novelty value fades quickly. Especially after takeoff and before landing. The interior is cold industrial steel and blue stain proof seats. Paint flakes crumble off the hand rails. The sea itself is just about too dreary to look at.

This was going to be a long weekend and it started in the heavy eyed haze of an early morning. Generally speaking, there’s no real stimulating reason to be up within an hour or two of dawn, unless you’ve not been to sleep yet. It was about 8am when we arrived on the Isle of Wight. The journey was short. Probably about 15 minutes. We were ushered through the port and towards the buses by cordons and festival-hired and tired looking security staff. There was no rush though, we let the first few buses go. Our approach was chilled.

The Isle of Wight is criss-crossed with roads that go through old English villages, over rivers and through open land, all within five hundred metres. I’d been here before, as a child on family holidays, but it didn’t seem familiar. We watched the hills and the houses and the festival goers in flocks from the bus. The whole thing looked like a kind of surreal exodus, everywhere hundreds of people walking in long lines down the streets, overflowing off the curbs and into the roads. They walked with inflatable sheep on shoulders and carried bags with tents and drug stashes and coolers full of beer. The dress code varied from Hawaiian shirts and shorts to smart clothes—chinos and polo shirts—because any interaction with other humans is an opportunity to get laid.

In one of the long, loose queues outside the festival, boredom came to me. I was tired and my spirit was sagging. The bus journey, due to festival related gridlock, had taken more than two hours. Now we were here and somehow the grass had already turned to sludge. The place wasn’t open yet. It hadn’t even rained. It was like someone had shipped the mud in for authenticity. The Isle of Wight was holding the slack of Glastonbury’s off year and I suppose it wouldn’t have seemed legit without filthy news coverage. Wellington boots were the only true unifying feature of the people around.

We moved through the turnstiles slowly. One group at a time. Festival wristband inspected then onwards. The other side—beyond the temporary fencing, police sniffer dogs and army of security guys—the camp grounds opened up. A field that seemed vast for half an hour and quickly became a sodden, cramped mess of canvas and guy lines. The festival site was split into different sections; a few areas for camping then a cordon you had to cross to reach the stages. There was Penny Lane—kind of a long, open track that ran the length of the festival—Strawberry Fields and Tangerine Fields. Other areas were named for the stages they held.

Our pitching spot was picked with no real logic. It was the patch of mud we happened to stop at.Anywhere else would change the whole experience. This is where our small and short lived community formed. A group of Northerners set up behind us and pretty soon we were encircled. Lots of people brought snap-up, essentially disposable, tents. Two girls popped theirs up nearby. Twenty minutes later the place was filled and going anywhere required careful footing.

By mid-afternoon Yuri and I were set up and sheltering inside. The wind whipped the canvas about in pulses and whirled the smoke from our joint around in wispy globes as I wrote. There was a pitter-pattering rain that was blown in waves into the tent. Outside we could hear conversation and laughter. It drifted from under a gazebo that stood nearby in the mud sea of tents.

Before heading into the social abandon of the festival site, we met some of our neighbours. Victor and Cass were fumbling with carbon fibre tent poles, trying to feed them into the canvas sleeves of the tent cover. Cass had a cigarette in her hand and a beer propped close by. She didn’t help so much as criticise Victor’s progress. He fiddled with the equipment in a state of increasing annoyance. When his efforts continued to draw curses and head shaking, Cass called us over.

‘Hey. Yeah. Hey. You can help with a tent.’


‘You can help with a tent.’

‘I guess.’

The three of us set up the tent while Cass smoked. She laughed a lot—a wide, open-mouthed laugh—and struck me as a woman with a talent for avoiding dirty jobs. Things other people worded as questions she turned into statements. Victor told us that she’d been drunk before arrival. She took her free weekends seriously and this escape couldn’t start too soon.

I had a picture of Victor hunched over a steering wheel. He was in his second hour of a traffic jam, somewhere about three quarters of a mile from the campsite. Deflated. Glancing into cars and almost looking forward to getting into the mud, on his knees and sorting out that goddamn fucking tent. Cass next to him, half laying on the reclined passenger seat, beer in one hand, dropping a little speed packed in a rizla with the other, swallowing, and slapping Victor on the shoulder, saying, ‘Smile, you miserable bastard.’

The second time we attempted to leave, Lucy stopped us. The gazebo that had appeared earlier was hers, set up with the help of her friend. It stood in the area between our tents. Something was wrong with it, something to do with the legs, I don’t remember what. We went over and helped them out. Later on, when we were on our way to see Primal Scream, she caught up with us, grabbed our wrists and started leading us toward the festival. ‘We’ll go to the dance tent!’ she said.

On the way, we found out that this was her first festival. For forty hours a week she wore a nurse’s uniform and this was much needed blowout. No one here knew her and that might have been part of the appeal. Anonymity is a unique type of freedom.

When she discovered that we’d been smoking weed, she made an appeal to her authority as a nurse and told us that we were going to develop schizophrenia. She was quite sure. The voices in my head presented me with counter-statistics. I mentioned them to her but she didn’t find them compelling. She was only drunk and therefore could take the moral high ground.

Outside the dance tent, there was a steady stream of people in and out, weaving between one another and security fences. Three metal pillars rose inside and these created distinctive cones in the roof. The material covering the structure was yellow and blue, loud even when no one was performing. The ground rumbled with bass and fairground rides. One rhythmic and constant, the other fleeting, rushing. The vibrations ran into our wellies and up our shins.

‘Why have you stopped?’ she asked, still holding us by the sleeves. ‘Do you need the toilet?’

‘Yes,’ said Yuri.

‘No you don’t!’ She tugged again.

When we told her that we were going to see Primal Scream and, with all respect, fuck the dance tent, she walked away showing us middle fingers on both hands. We left the marque area and waded back into the current.

The Stranglers and Primal Scream played a more modest stage to more middle aged people. It was nondescript in comparison to the dance tent, the type of thing you’d see at a decent sized wedding. Being the Thursday before the festival proper, either Primal Scream or some dance DJ were the unofficial headliners.

The Stranglers played the type of glory-days set you’d expect from a band of 50 year olds. This isn’t a criticism. They’re an ageing band playing songs that have become part of the cultural mythos. It wasn’t a cover band performance. These are the Stranglers, they’re just old guys now. That always takes a little away from it. No one’s searching Youtube for performances of My Generation from anywhere past the 70s. We’ve always had a hard time separating the music from the musician.

They had a kind of second hand nostalgia for me. I grew up with their hits looping in my Dad’s car. No More Heroes was one of the first songs I was conscious of. Primal Scream were more immediate. A personal discovery. A band that could never have stuck if I hadn’t found them at the right time. They first caught my ear with a sample, ‘We want to be free, to do what we want to do, and we want to get loaded…’ I could have brought Screamadelica on the strength of that line alone. Then the beats came in. I was sold. That album came out in 91 but in 2012 it still felt live.

By the time Primal Scream were halfway into their set, a few hundred people had filled out the marque. More loitered around the edges. Nearly everyone was on speed, coke, E, ket. They had the vacant, often happy, vaguely lost expression that comes during a deep session. Time and space aren’t as they were a couple of hours ago. You’ve jumped and you’re already plummeting. You’ve seen how high you can get, now you just have to wait and see where you land. At exactly what point will you crash?

Everyone’s wasted. These animals are lost. They gurn as much as they smile. They stumble as much as they dance. This is a spiritual cleansing. These people are washing away the sins of their private lives and the tedium of their professional lives. Even if they don’t know it. For westerners with day jobs this is like the ancient rituals. It’s like the indigenous going into the jungle for three nights, tripping on the strongest hallucinogens available, or Yamabushi sitting under an icy waterfall all day.

About Luke Smith

I travel around and write about it. When I'm not travelling around, I write about whatever seems meaningful to me at the time; these are usually meditations on current events, finding ways to survive the crushing existential grind of modern civilisation or vaguely philosophical musings.
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1 Response to 002 – In The Swamp. IoW Festival 2012.

  1. Pingback: In The Swamp – Isle of Wight festival 2012 – Complete | Journeys Through Pre-World War 3 Britain

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