It’s 12:05 on a sunny Friday afternoon in Stockwell and I’m on edge. I’m loading up a car that doesn’t belong to me with hastily packed bags from an upstairs flat in the gated mews I’ve gained access to, and it’s attracting the attention of staff working in the office below, which happens to be a private security firm. What’s worse, my partners in crime are stalling. One’s making a smoothie, another’s on the phone, and three of them aren’t even here yet. The car’s already rammed, and we’ve got to fit the same amount again plus bodies in a boot that forces you to choose between luggage and people. There’s no way we’re getting out of here in time.
I should be at Wilderness Festival, but a combination of toddlers, professional commitments and general lack of organization means we haven’t even left London, and my chances of hitting Patty + Bun for lunch are riding the exhaust fumes of the 345 and drifting down to Brixton. Thank God I bought myself an emergency pork pie on the way over. I had a feeling this would happen. A few idle minutes pass, and there’s an update: the three stragglers have decided to make their own escape from London. Being forced to hire another car at the eleventh hour certainly wasn’t part of their plan, but there’s no place for them here. Go your own way. I’ll meet them later for the first time, and they’ll turn out to be lovely, generous people who offer me a lift home to London when all seems lost. But for now, in a moment of pure egotism, I’m thrilled by their misfortune.
Moments later we’re on the road, but we don’t seem to be getting any closer. Like The Perfect Storm, reports are coming in of a tempest over Heathrow that’s stopping everything in its path. People are putting themselves in harm’s way, roads are blocked, traffic’s at a standstill, only this isn’t an evil cloud, it’s a #BlackLivesMatter demonstration. It’s right in the middle of our route, but you can’t argue with that so we welcome the inconvenience, check Google Maps for an alternative itinerary and move on, terrified that showing even the tiniest flicker of irritation will mark us out as heinous racists in front of God and all our friends1. Clearly, there are more serious matters at hand than my choice of critically acclaimed burger. I settle into the role of navigator and accept the inevitability of the pork pie.
My relief at having a contingency picnic is soon overshadowed, however, by the anxiety that follows when I start to consider the optimum moment for consumption. If I could eat the pork pie and be done with it everything would be fine, but it’s not that simple. There’s a delicate balance to be found, and timing is absolutely critical. I could eat it now, but I have no idea how long I’m going to be in the car. I could still be here tomorrow. If I’m not on the verge of eating my sleeping bag then it has to wait. But how long? What if I leave it too close to dinnertime and ruin my evening meal, yet another juicy burger opportunity squandered? I’ll end up getting hammered and choosing the nearest available option, which could be anything from a confit duck baguette to some hideous Mae Deli concoction made out of turmeric peel. It has the potential to ruin the whole weekend. My mind twists and turns. I weigh up each possible outcome, chewing the inside of my lip until my jaws clench, and then it occurs to me that perhaps I’m overthinking things. Hang on, aren’t I supposed to be navigating? Is that a red light?
There’s nothing like riding shotgun in a car that’s sailing towards a traffic light at speed limit and shouting “REDREDREDREDREDREDRED!” at the top of your voice, knowing full well you’ve passed the point of no return, to jolt you back into the real world. Mercifully the crossing is a minor one, no pedestrians are present and everyone is safe, but it puts the pork pie firmly back in the fridge of my brain for the time being, and for the next hour I gallantly volunteer the full wealth of my expertise on the M4 and how to get to your destination on time and in great spirits. On this particular journey this involves a thrilling last minute switch to the A40 via White City (highly recommended) and an enlightening debate about the emotional devastation hidden underneath the gloss-pop sheen of ABBA’s greatest hits. Finally, there’s a nerve-jangling trip to a service station where a beer is cracked open, the car almost gets filled up with the wrong fuel (only almost, phew!), and that pork pie finally gets eaten. It’s a heart-pounding thrill ride of an afternoon that hurtles from one emotional extreme to another, often within the same hour. Little wonder one of us passes out in the back seat as she plummets down from the soaring high that comes with eating popcorn at high speed on a motorway.
You might think this sounds like too much for one person to bear, and you’d be right. It’s too much for one lifetime, really, but the truth is that many of us have to deal with decisions, distractions and debilitations like this on a daily basis. I’m talking, of course, about busyness. Not business, busyness. It’s everywhere these days, and you don’t even realise it. Your mornings? Busyness. Desk? Busyness. Home? Busyness again. Thoughts? You might say sex, but even that’s just busyness dressed up as genitalia. Undiagnosed for so many years, recent scientific advancements have uncovered a busyness epidemic of potentially devastating proportions, largely affecting the population’s affluent city dwelling majority. But fear not, there’s a cure. That’s right, the creators of some of the UK’s finest and most celebrated events (their words, not mine) have worked out that all you need to correct the balance of the busyness is a little time in the wilderness. What does this mean? Well, it’s too pure for words, but if I tell you it means rolling back the steel fences and quietly asking people of all ages to live together for one weekend then that should give you a pretty good idea. And now, after almost three hours in the car, here we are at Wilderness 2016.
The Sceptic’s View
It’s at this point that I should make clear, if I haven’t already, that I’ve always viewed Wilderness with some degree of scepticism. If you were living in London in the run up to the summer you won’t have been able to crack open a loo roll without their oh-so-arty PR getting in the way of all that busyness you were trying to get on with. It’s everywhere, and by everywhere I mean The Guardian, Time Out, Picturehouse Cinemas and any other publication or media outlet favoured by the sort of well-heeled liberals who think a regular festival is beneath them, but wouldn’t dream of missing out on something cultural. It’s undeniably effective – in the five years since launching they’ve successfully managed to position themselves as a viable alternative to much bigger and more established events – but it doesn’t half take itself seriously. I’ve already pilfered a good deal of the website copy word for word above, but it really has to be seen to be believed. Call me cynical, but I find it hard to take seriously any person or event that congratulates itself on ‘striking a balance between relaxation and revelry, artistic refinement and simple pleasures’. If you have to tell everyone how sophisticated or spiritual you are, it’s probably because you aren’t. Then there’s the promo; five lifeless minutes of unmoderated twee, where trees rustle in slow motion to the strains of flimsy folk guitar as naked people splish-splash into shimmering brown lakes, too at one with nature to worry about Weil’s Disease. Men with beards engage in recreational archery, children forge iron over burning coal and strangers lie together in pastures of corn, closing their eyes as they soak up the wonder of their surroundings, because none of these poor, busy city folk have ever seen a field before. Everyone smiles and holds hands, and some people wearing face paint even look like they might have had a drink or two. But don’t let that put you off, because for every shot of someone letting their hair down there’s extended footage of worthy things like debating and contemporary dance, and when minds are suitably enriched everyone gathers round a table and nourishes their bellies and soul with a spoonful of something really, really scrummy. The message is clear: at Wilderness we can be fun and intellectual and enjoy high end food, all at the same time. Just don’t mention the camping.
The whole package comes on like a pot of weak herbal tea; totally harmless and yet totally unappealing. And staggeringly expensive; almost £200 for a line-up of mid-level headliners and largely underground acts across a smattering of stages, plus various talks and activities you have to book in advance and pay extra for the privilege of attending. Put into the context of Glastonbury (yes, a different beast entirely) or even Latitude (its closest mainstream touchstone), where £220 gets you literally thousands of artists from Coldplay to Crate Stack Challenge, all of which you can drop in and out of as you please, and a different picture emerges. At the end of the day surely festivals are there for you to kick loose without worrying about schedules and commitments, missing one band you meant to see and stumbling by accident on something far more exciting? Ask everyone to plan their timetable in advance, make everything a pricey optional extra and nothing gets left to chance. All of a sudden a weekend in the wild seems really rather, well, busy. Surely the PR team wouldn’t lie about something so pure?
Not that any of the above bothers me, I’ve just never bought into it. And yet…there’s no denying the quality of the food on offer. When popups from the likes of Moro and Quality Chop House constitute the lower end of the line-up and major attractions include heavyweights like Skye Gyngell and Raymond Blanc, you know they take this side of things very seriously indeed. It’s a highly impressive selection, and the only thing, to my mind, that justifies charging extra and planning your weekend around. If you’re into your food some of these popups, in particular Central’s Virgilio Martinez (No. 4 in the world, selon San Pellegrino), are once in a lifetime experiences. So, despite my ribbing of the concept of Wilderness I can’t help but feel curious every time summer comes around and people start floating the idea. Most festivals this year either clashed with weddings or holidays or sold out before anyone was organised enough to get tickets, but Wilderness seemed like fate; I wasn’t working, I had the money, and my lovely wife was kind enough to let me off childcare to spend the weekend with three other women. So here I am, a stinking hypocrite, arriving at the gates with an open mind, an empty stomach and just as much lager as the festival regulations will allow.
That’s right, there’s a restriction on how much booze you can bring in. Twelve cans of lager per person, per festival. Or two bottles of wine. If you’re there for the full four days that means a personal allowance of three cans of lager per day. I’d like to think it’s because they just want everyone to take care of themselves, but my inner sceptic can’t help but see it as a cynical ploy to ensure people spend as much dollar at the onsite bars as possible, presumably to mitigate some fairly astronomical overspending elsewhere on the budget. When Glastonbury so much as hinted at a limit of something like thirty cans per person a couple of years back there was a maelstrom of social media uproar that forced them to retract, but Wilderness is for respectable folk, so no one says a word, or if they do Wilderness simply ignore them. Yes, this happened to me. Well, for the record, it doesn’t get us off on good terms, leaving a sour taste that goes hand in hand with the irritation of realising late in the day that all those chefs’ talks I was planning on attending are either sold out or simply out of budget at anywhere up to £15 a go.
But there’s little point in dwelling on it. The forecast is good, the company first rate, and such niggles are sure to disappear in the wispy haze of a freshly rolled stick of hand crafted incense. Aren’t they?
 For the purposes of clarity I take, and have always taken this matter very seriously indeed. I am trying as best I know to present an honest picture of split second emotions going through my brain at this time, and am in no way undermining the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.