I popped out of Oxford in 2002 with an extreme allergy to three things: books, work and careers. A chance encounter with a university reject who could sell sand to the peoples of Arabia, known in my industry as 'a promoter', led me incrementally into the world of festival organization. Its been a long trip (sometimes literally), and this opportunity to blog gives me a chance to recall some of the highlights and explain why festivals are less a job, more a crusade...
The Wettest Summer On Record
At the time it was pure misery but looking back through rose tinted spectacles the summer of 2012 will provide perhaps the best stories for the grand children. Wilderness, our beloved festival in Oxfordshire, escaped the monsoon by a hairs breadth. Secret Garden Party, the mothership that started it all, did not.
That quiet babbling brook, which no one had really noticed for the past ten years of the show and which cuts through the middle of the secret garden, made the surprising transition from stream to twenty-foot-wide tributary of the Amazon. The fields, which we thought would always stay as fields, turned into anaerobic swamps, a battle ground between blades of grass and underworld algal slime. We fought a month-long battle to build a city for thirty thousand people on the grass without damaging the grass, somehow forgetting that those same thirty thousand would people had feet... or mini ploughs... which instantly turned the landscape into a temporary Somme. It was, to say the least, a touch demoralising. What saved the day, of course, were the Gardeners: they got their wellies on, got their groove on, got very, very drunk and transformed that small corner of Cambridgeshire into a celebration of spirit, tenacity and comradeship.
Finding Out That Burning Man existed.
It's a cliché to say that a gathering, festival or celebration 'changed my life'. The statement usually ends with the suffix 'man' and the people listening quietly delete your phone number. Attending Burning Man in 2006, however, did exactly that. Here's how...
Fred Fellowes, Head Gardener, had purchased a plane ticket for me. At the time I was disaffected with the whole festival scene. Couldn't stand the site of it. Never wanted to go to another one. But... a free flight to America wasn't something to pass on. So I went. I was planning a two-week holiday, with a small and inconvenient visit to 'another festival' (yawn) in the desert (yawn).
I had done no research, had no idea what it was about.
So when our RV rolled into a neon city of cathedral-sized art works, populated by freaks of every incarnation, riding pirate ships across waterless lake beds, with the sole purpose of participating in this temporary community, who would ceremonially burn its most important edifices... I was, to say the least, dumbfounded. It was, and possibly still is, the friendliest, most inclusive, most empowering, most innovative gathering on the planet. It showed me, showed us all, what a festival is capable of achieving. I've never looked back.
Empathy for the Wilderness
That same promoter who saved me from a post-oxford career in the civil service (thank you, Tim Harvey), just happened to grow up a mile or two away from one of England's most enchanting, yet hidden, natural landscapes. Cornbury Park and the surrounding Wychwood Forest have no peer. There are grander parklands and larger woods, bigger houses and longer histories, but none of them quite grab hold of your soul. Tim gave us the opportunity to craft a festival in this hypnotic slice of arcadia. Wilderness was born.
The idea was to have the outdoors as much as a headliner as the arts. Both would shape each other: a dialogue between nature and culture. Gently, people would be reminded that our natural world was as important as our human world.
We launched the festival in 2010, doors to open in 2011. It was like giving birth to an elephant. The festival market was crowded and the concept was unproven. Tickets sold slowly. The curtain call approached. No one had any real idea who was going to walk through the door and if they were going to enjoy the show.
But they did. They fell in love with Wilderness, just as we had done when planning it. Swimming in spring-fed lakes, dancing under harvest moons, lazing under centuries old oaks, feasting on the land's deer: these are old rights, which us folks who live in cities rarely get to exercise. When we received letters from families telling us Wilderness had led them spend more time in nature, we were humbled.
So, three highlights, ten long years of service. If I was to say why I believe in festivals, why as a small team we have worked tirelessly to bring them from the fringe into the mainstream, it is because of their power to transform. Building temporary citadels dedicated to social interaction and artistic endeavor create a reality where anything is possible, where you can be who you want to be. These cradles of participation, in small way, can inspire our lives and help birth our future.
See you in the fields this summer...