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And so we get to Sunday morning, the beginning of the end, always a melancholy moment of any festival with its back to school feeling and two day suspended hangover. This one begins with the confirmation of what I knew was coming all weekend but didn’t want to admit; all of the girls are leaving tonight, which means I’ll have to go it alone if I want to stay to watch the Flaming Lips. The prospect of sleeping in a field by myself is a lonely one, but then they’re probably the only band on the lineup I have any interest in seeing. Plus there’s an offer of a lift on Monday from the boys who couldn’t fit in our car. I really don’t deserve it, but it’s tempting.
Over in the arena it’s déjà vu déjà vu. Again, not busy enough to organise anything so we drift aimlessly from one popup to the next, waiting for the annual comedy sports day to start. Sounds dreadful, turns out to be hilarious; run by Bearded Kitten the day starts with a cricket match, a freewheeling extended improvisation in bad taste where a man in an assless leotard known only as Monsieur Le BonBon encourages the children to bully each other and the adults to streak. The sunburn on his exposed buttcheeks inspires heated debate amongst the group; is it painted on, or is it real? Should we offer him suncream? More importantly, is anyone going to get naked? None of us are actually taking the idea seriously, or at least that’s what we think until one of our party throws caution, ankle injury and modesty to the wind and limps triumphantly onto the pitch, arms outstretched with naked pride like a wounded but no less majestic bird of prey. The commentator mocks her appropriately over the loudspeaker, the crowds are delighted.
It’s a spectacular performance that proves a tough act to follow. More ambling. A Bleecker Burger. Musical chairs at the sports day. Cheesy gourmet crumpets. Then the first of our party falls by the wayside, victim to two sleepless nights of camping. Another heads back to the tent to pack. Second wave of the end of festival blues, then active denial in the form of a Duck + Waffle soft serve and a couple of cold ciders. We head back to the sports day where naked wheelbarrow racing is in full swing. I’m on the verge of giving in to post lunch lethargy and having a nap on the lawn when all of a sudden, without a moment’s warning, the clothes are flung to the side once more as the wounded eagle marches forward, takes position and wheels herself to victory, aided and abetted by an equally naked stranger.
It’s crunch time, and I have to make the choice between going home to the comfort blanket of a warm bed and loving family or weathering the inbound comedown alone in a field. I do what any parent off the leash with a chance to extend their holiday would do and take the field. There’s definitely a moment, when the girls have dismantled their tents and most of the rest of the field has long since emptied, where I take a look at myself, alone and surrounded by empty beer cans and apple cores, and wonder if this isn’t some kind of Dickensian sign from the ghost of festivals future, a warning against a lifetime of bad decisions. It’s designed, no doubt, to inspire a Damascene conversion, but has the inverse effect. I realise I’m thirsty, crack open a beer and boost my flagging blood sugar with a healthy apple.
We meet the boys who have offered me a lift home tomorrow, and say our goodbyes to the girls, but not before witnessing Kate Nash lay waste to Starman and other assorted Bowie classics on the second stage. The Wilderness Orchestra do a brilliant job of rearranging the songs for a game crowd, but they’re let down by a woefully unprofessional performance that sees the singer forget the words on numerous occasions. How can you forget the words to Ziggy Stardust? What makes you think it’s acceptable to try and cover it by going “oooh-oooh-I’ve forgotten the words-ooby-dooby-dooby”? It’s embarrassing, but at least it makes choosing between Bowie tribute and headliner a far less stressful decision. Besides, if anything can make this whole festival worthwhile it’s The Flaming Lips.
So why have so many people already left? A band that have consistently proved themselves as one of the most inventive live acts around, playing the iconic The Soft Bulletin in full, The Flaming Lips should be one of the most talked about sets of the weekend. I’m stunned to find out how few people even seem to have heard of them, let alone care. As such it’s little wonder, but no less painful, to see the largely tepid reaction to their mind-bending light display on the main stage, the ocean of LEDs rippling to the distorted guitar solo on Feeling Yourself Disintegrate. They put in a typically committed performance involving gongs and LED tentacles, but if there’s one thing lacking it’s the perfect euphoria of just a song or two from Yoshimi which would finish the festival on a wave of joy. As it is, closing with the none more downbeat Sleeping On The Roof, the future doesn’t seem very bright at all.
So where does that leave me with Wilderness? Well, you can probably guess that I’m not particularly inclined to return. I enjoyed myself immensely, but my lingering memories centre not on the festival but the company; old friends I don’t see enough of, others I meet for the first time. And Andy, dear Andy, the ex-raver turned lake builder and former Masterchef contestant who I meet in the queue for The Valley on Sunday night after the others have gone to bed, who stalks the festival with me together in search of beer when all the bars have shut, and for whom no beat this festival can muster is filthy enough. I will forever remember the sight of you beating your chest like a gorilla and shouting “Raver ray-vah raaayyy-vahhhh!” from the gravel pit of your lungs as the bass kicked in. It’s true that the festival provides the setting for these reunions and encounters, but there’s no balance; it needs to provide the jaw dropping moments that you can’t get anywhere else as well. Good as the food is, you can’t spend the entire weekend eating, and once you’ve got your head around the concept of a field there’s nothing else here you can’t get in the city (and it is entirely geared to city dwellers). Fancy a play? Go to the theatre. Like a band? Go to a gig. Want an opinion? Read a newspaper.
Granted, it’s great for families, and I’m sure all the chefs and restaurants get a huge amount out of it as well, but from a regular punter’s perspective, as it stands Wilderness is too thinly curated to justify its four-day running period or cost of admission, a weekend of ambient accompaniment punctuated by the occasional jolt of electricity. There was more fluctuation in our car journey than the rest of the weekend combined. It’s a festival for people that don’t want to go to a festival, that don’t particularly care about the line-up, that need the extra comforts and can afford to pay through the nose for them. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a wonderful thing. This is the age of accessibility; even those that don’t want things should have access to the things they don’t want, regardless of whether it makes them inaccessible to the people that do want them, and that’s what Wilderness provides. In that respect it’s a remarkably progressive, inclusive and enlightening place to spend the weekend.
Now can we please stop pretending it’s the renaissance reborn again? Or at the very least get someone else to do your sodding PR.