‘We had two bags of grass, seventy two pellets of mescaline, five sheets of highly powered blotter acid…’ Thus began Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, legendary report of one of the most high-powered, drug addled weekends ever experienced in the twentieth century. It was clear from the outset that my trip was going to be somewhat different. For a start, there was no ‘we’ – only me. I was going alone, having been hired at the last minute to write a series of press releases covering the 2007 Latitude Festival, a relatively new experience in the Suffolk heartlands, only in its second year. It was a relatively new experience for me, too, as I was actually getting paid.
But this was no fear and loathing. In fact, it wasn’t even nearly loathing. A little like popping a Valium before meeting up with an ex-beau for a drink, I spent much of the weekend sinking into a steady state of indifference as events unfolded around me. As a festival, Latitude is so inoffensive at times you might feel as if you want to take it home to have tea with your parents. The worst thing that happened to me during the course of my weekend was being bumped from first class on the critically overflowing train that brought me to my destination. There were no further hitches. I quickly settled into the clean, orderly campsite and took a look around.
Billing itself as ‘more than a music festival’ Latitude places a heavy emphasis on performance, a fact that was immediately emphasised by the start of The Irrepressibles’ set in the woods between the campsite and the main stage. A real standout, the set went on for four days (with breaks, one presumes) with the aim of creating a complete performance of music and dance during that time rather than just the traditional one hour set of the indie music festival. There was definitely more to the festival than just music, though, with Dylan Moran and Bill Bailey headlining the comedy tent, a wide selection of films being screened in the film tent, a caberet tent, a theatre tent, and even two separate tents for literature and poetry. Latitude’s organizers were nothing if not ambitious.
But what about me? What was I there for? The prospect of being on my own at a festival for four days was somewhat daunting, but I’d made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t spend all my time hiding in the press tent talking to people on MSN. For the first two days, I even denied myself the lifeline of Facebook. I was completely on my own, surrounded by music and culture. I might have been more enthusiastic if there was someone there I could share it with, but as it was there was only one thing for it – I decided to get absolutely, terribly, utterly stinkingly drunk. I quickly succeeded, rolling around the festival seeing acts I’d vaguely heard of before, sharing drinks with complete strangers and generally protesting ‘but I am a proper journalist, I’ve got a badge and everything.’ Of course the sad fact is you can probably get a badge saying that you’re a writer by collecting tokens in cereal packets these days. Nobody has any respect for the writing profession these days: least of all me. The only time the literature tent really filled up was when everything else closed down. Likewise, to a lesser degree, the film tent was often empty, despite some truly great pieces were being screened. I caught a John Smith retrospective and an airing of Turner Prize nominated artist Phil Collins’ latst work. Then I went back to getting drunk.
Latitude is a small festival with big ambitions. On paper, it looks amazing, punching well above its weight in pulling in some really big acts – Jarvis Cocker and The Arcade Fire being the main highlights. But in another very important sense, it lacks that spark that makes festivals such an experience. There was none of the squalor or seediness you might hope to find at a festival, and absolutely no dance music whatsoever, pretty much meaning that the hippie contingent never showed up. This was a festival that had been cleaned up, not for the masses, but for the elites. I had somehow stumbled into a smiling, happy, family-friendly middle class holiday camp. Radio 4 even broadcast live from the festival over the weekend. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the entire cast of The Archers showed up for a weekend break.
Though none of this is a bad thing. Of course, I lamented the lack of any electronic music, but it was a great opportunity to see a lot of live acts in a very intimate setting. Standing in a crowd of maybe a little over three thousand, I finally managed to see what all the fuss over CSS was about, though I’ll still never, ever, ever trust any woman who utters the words ‘kiss me, I’m drunk,’ no matter how seductively she says it. Personal reasons. And I was jostled by a crowd of over-enthusiastic new ravers at New Young Pony Club in a tent so small that you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been pitched in someone’s back garden – but to my surprise, I found myself enjoying it far more because of the small size. I even bumped into some people I knew and spent hours catching up, sitting in strategically placed deckchairs beside a bucolic lake. The festival had its own flock of sheep painted in pastel colours. I’m not kidding.
There’s no doubt that this was the middle class at play. I bumped into a very pretty girl wearing some kind of evening dress who offered to sell me MDMA before realising that she’d left it in the boot of her car. Presumably it was a Mercedes C Class or a Chelsea tractor. I declined anyway – a man on drugs at this festival would have stood out more than, well, more than a pastel coloured flock of sheep. The sheep themselves were a testament to the true nature of the festival. Nobody tried to set them loose, nor did I notice any drug crazed acid casualties trying to bum rape them, as would surely have happened anywhere else. I heard a rumour that someone did jump in the lake, but he was fished out quickly.
As I said, this wasn’t even nearly loathing – I quickly settled down into the swing of things and treat the whole weekend like a dose of diazepam: calm, relaxing and utterly sedate. There was good music to be watched, good films to be seen, and terrible white wine to be drunk. By the end of the four days, I felt more refreshed than exhausted. There were a lot of families with kids there and I found myself playing with a few while I waited for Jarvis Cocker to come on. A very polite mother thanked me profusely for humouring them. ‘That’s okay,’ I said, because hanging round with the kids I finally felt as if I’d absorbed a little of the innocence that surrounded the festival.
‘More and more of my friends are talking about marriage,’ I confided to an old friend I bumped into on Saturday night. ‘Some of them are even talking about having kids.’ I think this fact used to scare me, partly because it reminded me of how old I’m getting. But life, a little like festivals, doesn’t have to be about drugs and debauchery. There’s an adult alternative, there’s growing up. When I left the festival on a sunny Monday morning, there was a smile on my face. At times it felt like Latitude was definitely a festival for grown ups, but for a brief moment I had seen the whole thing through a kid’s eyes. Everything felt new and exciting again and it seemed like a shame to be going back to London. Nonetheless, I boarded my train – it was packed, again. I was heading back into the rat race. Latitude had been a great weekend out of it, and I think I’d like to go again. Next time, though, I’ll take friends, and we can be middle aged and middle class together. Now, what’s on Radio 4 tonight?