Monday, July 30, 2007

And liberty she pirouette, when I think that I am free

I knew that M really wanted to go to this year's WOMAD -- we used to go every year, but it got more and more complicated, coordinating children (his) and friends (both of ours), and setting up camp proper festival style with gazebos and flags and inflatable sofas and many tents. By 2003 I felt like a project manager (which is not how I want to feel on my holidays) and then 2004 was a wet year, and I just couldn't muster the enthusiasm after that. This year he offered me a low-impact 'just the two of us and a tent like the old days' option. I still wasn't up for it, my opinions are like ocean liners: they take a long time to build and nearly as long to turn around, but then I looked at the line up (Peter Gabriel, Isaac Hayes, Baaba Maal, Sheila Chandra, Asian Dub Foundation, something folky with Billy Bragg in) and the site (a move from tightly packed city centre Reading to grounds of Malmesbury stately home) and said yeah, ok, let's do it.

So we bought tickets. And watched the weather forecasts with increasing alarm. M drove us to Wiltshire in torrential rain, while I threw all maps aside once it became clear that the road we should be taking was flooded -- the last direction I gave was 'follow those WOMAD Diversion signs', though I was still calm, having indulged in a rare Temazepam the night before, figuring I needed a decent night's sleep, and I wasn't going to get one if I didn't suppress my anxiety somehow.

And on the bright side (and there definitely was one)
  • you could see what a beautiful site it could be if it wasn't ankle-to-knee deep in mud
  • our tent held water, and -- more than that -- held us very well, as it always has done
  • falafel, noodles, burritos, Madras Cafe thalis, Lulu's Cafe vegetarian breakfasts, and lots and lots of Gem by Bath Ales -- the finest beer I have ever drunk at a festival (Simon, more on this later)
  • mud makes you feel ok about being a thirty-something person with a camping chair
  • mud gives you licence to wee in a plastic pint glass in the middle of the night: who wants to confront something resembling the Somme in their pyjamas? (Hint to amateurs: if you think there's more than a pint in there -- and if you think there is, there almost certainly is -- then you'll need pelvic floor muscles that could stop a train. Wee half a pint, stop, pour it out the tent door, then do the rest. If you try to stop after a full pint, unless you have pelvic floor muscles that could stop a tank, you'll fail. And if there's one thing worse than trying to sleep with a full bladder, it's trying to sleep in your own wee)
  • even in extreme circumstances, there are still WOMAD Moments. The best one for both of us happened at the same time, yet was not shared... it was when Peter Gabriel sang Solsbury Hill (this is not Friday's version, but I'll replace the link as/when one appears). I remembered a New Year's Eve many years ago that I spent with my Significant Ex (before he was my Significant Other), Mr B, his scary friend W, and a girl whose name I forget. Mr B lived in Bath in those days. We had posh drinks with his parents, and then he drove us up Solsbury Hill in his rickety mushroom-coloured Mini. We made a fire, took various drugs, drank various drinks and listened to music on one of those cassette players that you used to find attached to BBC Bs. I remember the buttons clunking as we turned the tapes over. It was fucking freezing. I don't ow what we were thinking. Hearing that song live, about 20 miles away from Solsbury Hill, down the muddy front, mired and squashed and laden with camping chairs but still sort of dancing, I did shed a tear. Halfway through, I looked up at M, to find him sobbing like a child. I asked him why later, and he was crying for times past too.
But ultimately, WOMAD for me is about the incidental, the serendipitous... lazy warm evenings lying on rugs drinking hot cider and listening to Cubans or Palestinians or Sri Lankans or Malians doing their stuff, and imagining a world where it was like this all the time. The best WOMADs are dusty and magical, and bring belief in the redemptive power of song. You'll never hear any of them again, but that's ok, there will be more next year. You can do yoga in the mornings, and sneak off for a shower in the middle of the night, to beat the queue and for the joy of washing in hot water under the stars.

And this year couldn't deliver any of that. Getting around was murderously hard work and there was little relaxing to be done except up by the tents (and even that was a bit edgy thanks to a spate of thieving). I salute the people who worked their arses off to keep the show on the road and the toilets clean, but it was hard going for audiences as well, and there were lots of things they simply couldn't manage to keep going -- the water points ran dry, the running order was all over the place, the main thoroughfares were constantly being churned up by tractors doing urgent things. Keep smiling! a nice woman said to me as I nearly fell over for the millionth time (note to self: too-big wellies come off easily - this is useful for gardening but shit for serious mud). I tried, but when the severe weather warning for Saturday night was relayed round the site, I realised that I wasn't having fun, and would be having even less if it rained another drop.

We negotiated. It's not an endurance test, I said to M. The difference between us is that he kind of thinks it is, that there is honour in seeing a muddy festival through. He didn't want to give up. I didn't want to spend another 24 hours wishing I was clean and/or could sit down, or another 24 hours worrying that the car would be bogged down in the slurry left by the wheel-spinning of wiser people than us. I just don't love world music that much.

It wasn't an easy decision, not least because we were tired and fractious when we were trying to make it, but we left early. We trudged out to the car with the last load, following the steady stream of fellow campers who had made the same decision. Bye bye WOMAD! said a little girl behind me, and I turned round to say my own goodbye. The gate we were leaving by had a big cardboard sign reading 'Welcome to WOMUD'. I knew then it was the right decision.



Blogger Ben said...

I once accidentally went on a sailing holiday that I really didn't want to be on. When I got back, I learnt that my sister (who couldn't even name one of the man's songs) had been to see Peter Gabriel perform. Still not quite forgiven her.

8:49 am  
Blogger Jo said...

I would say 'how on earth do you accidentally go on a sailing holiday?' except that it's happened to me too, though fortunately without the Gabriel corollary.

It was a great gig though -- epic and crowd-pleasing, yet just on the right side of anything that might invoke thoughts of Sting or Bono. And it started bang on time despite the mud -- as I said to M, the great thing about older men is they don't keep you waiting...

11:05 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

As I recall, you once accidentally lived in Andover which surely raises the bar on what is accidentally possible ...

10:36 am  
Blogger Jo said...

I accidentally went out with someone for six months once. I just don't know how it happened.

12:15 pm  
Blogger Jeremy Dennis said...

Good grief. At any other festival somebody would have pasted the "keep smiling" woman's smile into the mud at some point but possibly womad is more chilled than that.

3:49 pm  

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