Will Self: My Festival Hell

One writer takes his underage son to Reading Festival and endures a day thrashing to System of a Down. He is unlikely to go back

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It'll happen to you one day – if it hasn't already.

You wander downstairs from your bed, frowsty, unshaven, your battered head wreathed in last night's terrible dreams – anal intercourse (your anus, that is) with a creature that has the body of Katie Price and the head of Mervyn King – and as you concoct your coffee in the kitchen you become insistently aware of a disturbing presence.

First, there is the intensely musky, sweaty, cheesy, almost faecal, odour – one that, now you come to think of it, you've noticed around the house quite a lot recently, but dismissed as an olfactory hallucination related to your turbid dream life.

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Then there's an odd sort of grunting, groaning and grumbling noise, such as might be made by a feral creature... You stiffen, the hairs rise on your nape… You turn, and there he is: the beast!

He stands higher than your shoulder, his fur is matted and tangled, his fangs are yellowy and horizontally bisected by steely wire; his expression is at once surly and quizzical – as if he were on the point of asking you a question, and, if he doesn't get an answer he likes, tearing your head off and shitting in your neck.

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Stunned, it's all you can do to make a guttural warning noise of your own.

Grrrngrrrnhrrr! you say.

He replies, Rrrumpberummp, before returning his spotted muzzle to what appears to be – and in fact is – a giant basin into which an entire box of Cheerios and two pints of milk have been poured. Realising that he won't attack while he's feeding, you back away, careful not to show any fear although your poor old heart is hammering, and you are also close to tears.

Yes, tears, because this… this… thing was once an adorable bundle smelling of nothing more noxious than talcum powder; next, it was a hilarious little slapstick comedian who tottered around the house on rubber legs; soon enough it was a surrealistic wiseacre who said the funniest things; and after that an adventurous tyke who climbed trees and kicked footballs and got covered in mud – yet still smelt sweet to you.

And at every stage of its development you've felt nothing towards it than the most intense affection – why, you've barely been able to clap eyes on it without wanting to clasp it in your arms and cuddle it.

But now… now… there's this sort of hormonal mist separating the two of you, a mist through which you can still see – although you're still backing carefully away – the sickening travesty that time has wrought on the face of your beloved… your beloved little… son.

Because, yes, it has become time to confront the hard facts: darkness – and a hell of a lot of testosterone – has fallen, and never again will the ass (that's you) lie down with the lion (him, in case you hadn't guessed). In fairness to the two of my three sons who have reached adolescence so far, for the most part they are polite, funny, engaged and thoughtful – but they wouldn't be young men if they didn't want to off the old one from time to time, now would they? 

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Of course, in our culture this action has mostly been pared-down to a purely symbolic act (just as the other term of the Oedipal equation has become scanning Milf porn sites on the web), and the main form it takes nowadays is certain lifestyle choices: clothing, body-decoration and music.

You can probably gather that Chez Self, a political rebellion would be difficult to pull off: if one of my offspring said, "Mix me a Molotov," I'd reach for the high octane.  Even a religious apostasy is a tall order, because behind my haggard and much abused features lie the receding chin and watery pale-blue eyes of a committed noncommittal C of E vicar. 

If they were to say: "Dad, I'm off to Iraq to take part in the festival of Ashura by flagellating myself until my back is raw," I'd probably say, "Jolly good, darling, I expect it'll be awfully interesting – but do take some Sudocrem."

Music is, however, a different matter.

I may, over the years, have veered away from the Sex Pistols – Johnny Rotten's well-lubricated butter ad was the kiss-off – and towards Sibelius, but like all middle-aged folk, I still cleave to the sounds of that summer – in my case 1977 – and view pretty much everything that came afterwards as the flickering into darkness of the pure white light of rebellion.

Still, I like to think I remain catholic – rather than Anglican - in this sound garden. Trance? Certainly. R'n'b? Why on Earth not? Trip-hop? Yes, indeedy. Power pop? Well… if you absolutely must. 

My eldest son, bless his well-tailored cotton socks, confined his rage-against-the-paternal-machine to other lifestyle choices.

(Indeed, I had to restrain myself on several occasions from observing that he was listening to exactly the same music I was grooving to a quarter of a century before.)  But his younger brother, displaying truly estimable patricidal fervour, developed a passion for almost the only genre of popular music I simply could never see the point of - I refer, of course, to metal of the weighty variety.

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True, throughout what has seemed a very protracted – and extremely noisy - 18 months, he has diversified his tastes; firstly into all the many sub-genres of metal – death metal, black metal, thrash metal, funk metal, nu metal, glam metal, dog metal (actually, I made the last one up) – and now into the wider realms of rock, but it was a metal flagpole that he first ran his flag up (the skull and crossbones one, that is).

Sensing the sneer in my tone whenever the subject was raised – a sneer that was usually accompanied by such outright condemnations as: isn't that what carrot-crunching web-feet in the uttermost sticks listen to? – my son took it upon himself to educate me widely in matters metallic.

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We had to watch a long documentary on when the music was first smelted: its origins in grand opera and the machine shops of the West Midlands; and I concede, that while I haven't exactly come to love the sound of men with long, permed hair in tights yodelling over cacophonous electrified instruments, I can at least see its point.

Sort of.

I don't mean to suggest that my son donned the cut-off-sleeved denim jacket with the Megadeth patch purely in order to get up my – admittedly large – nose; I understand that he's a real, autonomous person who has tastes completely unrelated to my own.

But nevertheless, there's no denying the beautiful serendipity of it: he would walk 100 miles to attend a metal gig –  I'd hobble the same distance the other way.

His friend's mother very kindly went with the lads to the year-before-last's Download Festival at Donington Park – where his taste was forged and then tempered – and last year, his own mother made the supreme sacrifice of spending three days at the hairy and lint-filled navel of the metal world.

Next year, Ivan – pathetically named by us after one Ivan "Van" Morrison, for whose twilight Celtic strumming his namesake has nothing but contempt – will be able to attend these beanfeasts on his tod, so when he asked if I'd go to the Reading Festival with him that August, it was clearly a paternal duty.

I suppose this is the point at which I should say: I hadn't been to a music festival since Palestrina was on the bill… but the truth is that I'd never been to one before.

Back in the mid-Seventies, I used to go to hippy "fayres" where bands like Planet Gong noodled away to a bunch of acid-addled loons; and in 1978, I attended a huge open-air gig at Blackbushe Aerodrome in Hampshire – not a bad bill: Graham Parker and The Rumour, Joan Armatrading, Eric Clapton and headlining: Bob Dylan – but that was it.

I have never liked crowds much and,as I've grown older, loud music has become an exquisite torture to me.

Indeed, about five years ago, I went to a Primal Scream showcase at Brixton Academy because Bobby Gillespie is a friend of a friend, and the only way I could prevent myself from vomiting copiously while running screaming from the venue was by repeating the mantra: "You will never have to do this again… You will never have to do this again…"

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Which brings us to Reading on a sultry Friday lunchtime: trudging past enterprising locals flogging tea and coffee from trestle tables in front of their terraced houses, I was fully absorbed into the carnivalesque atmosphere.

Revellers arrive at Reading Festival 2013: photo by Geoffrey Swaine/REX

My pinstriped linen jacket, faded jeans and regulation Top Gear flowery shirt weren't out of place – because when it comes to contemporary Britain, nothing is out of place.

If there were to be a Statue of Ubiquity raised over Reading, on its pediment would be an inscription reading: "Send us your fat and your thin, your young and your old, your hairy and your shaven, your pierced and your whole, your neat and your unkempt, your halting and your lame – with only one proviso – you must be tattooed!"

Blimey!

I thought the skin art of the early Noughties was bad enough – all those ornate curlicues rising out of girls' arse clefts, all that pseudo-tribal swooshing on boys' shoulders – but 10 years after, things are far, far worse.

Now even the blandest-looking types sport whole arms or legs drilled with a dense patterning of banal symbolism: skulls, guns, flowers; facile lettering: "Chanel", "Love", "Freedom"; and doodled infill: checks, chainmail, convolvulus.

And the extent of it!

I saw many sweet-looking youngsters with indelible smears spreading like sepsis right up their necks.

Now, I have a couple of tats of my own, and while I don't desperately regret them, I often admonish young folk thus: no one ever wakes up when they're 40 thinking, damn! I wish, wish, wish I'd been heavily tattooed when I was 18… I realise this is a fairly pointless attempt at passing down wisdom – but you gotta try, especially since, if the 80,000-odd people who attended Reading are anything to go by, the complexion of Britain circa 2050 won't be anything as pleasing as plain black or white, or even a subtle coffee, but a hideously blotchy maroon.

And don't get me started on the piercings!

Suffice to say, my pal Jeremy, who was an early-adopter of those .50 lobe-grommets that have since become the dernier cri, eventually saw the error of his dilation, took them out, and then had to walk around town for a couple of years with what looked like big bits of bacon rind dangling off his ears.

As we made our way between fetching 20ft-high corrugated iron fences towards the queue for press accreditation, the atmosphere of the approaching tourney began to overtake us: wild electric yawps from Skindred who were already on stage quickened Ivan's pulse and he itched for the arena. 

There was a minor hitch while I pedantically observed to the PR flack in the booth that to call the mandatory £20 charity payment per press ticket a "donation" was oxymoronic, and then we were in – Ivan ran on ahead, and I settled down for a long day's reading in the Guest Zone, with occasional forays into the press tent for free cups of tea.

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Five or six times during the 11 hours I spent at the festival, people came up and asked me what I was doing there, and I explained that I'd made a bit of a mistake, having assumed that I was coming to a reading festival, not the Reading one.

Will and Ivan Self at Reading Festival 2013

I exaggerate – but only hugely.

I did give Skindred a swerve, but every one of the other acts on the main stage that day I ventured out to listen to for at least three or four numbers, before being driven back to my iron pen by the great bone-shaking waves of sound, and the elbows digging into my squishy bits.

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I essayed New Found Glory – punk nouveau with a metallic sheen; I goggled at Bring Me the Horizon – young Northern hard-core outfit whose lead singer looked as if he could've eviscerated Noel Gallagher with one tattooed arm tied behind his tattooed neck; I jigged about a bit to the Deftones – mutant Californians, sinking down to the seabed on their iron surfboards; and I managed a good quarter-hour of System of a Down.

This latter act I stuck with for several reasons: they have a great name – elliptical, gnomic and properly sinister – and they also looked the part. Just before they came on, Ivan explained to me that while they were an American act, all the band members were of Armenian extraction.

Armenian?

I queried, whaddya mean, Armenian?

Then these swarthy-skinned, black-haired and bearded men with almond-eyes came lolloping on and I gasped: Wow! I've never seen anything more Armenian in my life.

Indeed, System of a Down were straight outta Yerevan and they made a hellishly professional racket.

Tight, is what savvy long-beards used to mutter at the back of the Marquee Club, way back in the innocent mid-Seventies when I used to go and see bands with names like Orange Blossom and Atomic Rooster.

The strange thing is that while those long-beards were probably only in their late twenties, the long beards on stage at Reading – the lead singer seemed to have his plaited like an Ancient Egyptian – were about 15 years older.

To us baby boomers, this bizarre demographic bouleversé, whereby da yoof of today hurl themselves about in a corybantic frenzy to the rhythms laid down by men old enough to be their fathers, is frankly bewildering.

It's as if we, back in the day, had pogoed and flobbed to the strains of Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen.

I suppose this curious age-meld should be celebrated.

Serj Tankian of System of a down performs live on the main stage during day one of Reading Festival: photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)

The only person I ran into at Reading who I actually knew, was none other that Dr William Leahy, the Shakespearian scholar and head of the School of Arts at Brunel University, who happens to be – since I hold a teaching post there – my boss!

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Bill was at the fest, natch, with his teenage son – and they'd done Download as well.

We had a brief shouted conversation – about research funding impact evaluation, as I recall – before retreating into our disparate psychic enclosures.

I intuited Bill's engagement with mega-decibel contemporary rock was rather more profound than my own; I dunno, perhaps he hears the howls as some sort of improvisation on blank verse, whereas I had to mute them out with mouldable earplugs.

Indeed, without the earplugs I wouldn't have lasted three minutes; as it was, the shocking, reverberating bass-thrumming and drum-pounding went straight through my ribcage, and seemed to induce heart arrhythmia the like of which I associate with the ingestion of dangerous quantities of stimulant narcotics.

That's probably why da yoof like it – but it felt to me that if I stuck around for too long I'd need a fucking… defibrillator.

There was this – and there was also the related phenomenon known as a circle pit.

Flanking the black and minatory ziggurat of the main stage there was a large sign that read: "Crowd surfing can be dangerous to you and others, please don't do it", underneath a barred roundel that depicted an arm-tossed stick figure – but there was nothing about circle pits, these strange whirlpools of crazed humanity that formed in the seething Reading crowd as molten lava roils in a volcanic eruption.

Ivan was  pretty sneering about the crowd generally, dismissing them as a gang of lightweights: text-addict girlies who kept on at their iPhones even as the sound lashed across the bare skin between their halter-necks and their cut-off jeans.

Still, that didn't stop him from seeking the wild abandonment of the circle pit – and even the soi-disant "wall of death", a still more gnarly example of mass moshing, whereby the band encourages the crowd to divide into two maddened sub-tribes that then charge headlong at each other.

Thinking of Auden's "The Second Coming" ("Turning and turning in the widening gyre…/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned…") I left Ivan – and Dr Leahy – in the "participation area" and went for a wander around the festival site.

Back in the cheesecloth day at those hippy beanos, there wasn't really anything much to eat besides… well, beans, often of the mung variety.

Nor was there a lot of booze, it being… a downer, maan.

But at Reading, the bars were 100 metres long, and named after seminal years in the fest's history – "The 1979 Bar", "The 1982 Bar", et al.

In between these weirs flowing with pissy beer, and the humungous urinals needed for its evacuation (why not cut out the middle-punter?), there were the Trance Tent and the Alternative Tent, but far more significantly a pretty much continuous peripheral wall of food stalls: fish and chips and pizza, hog roasts and kebabs, Thai and Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese – all the usual suspects, and still more exotic fare, such as ostrich burgers and even goddam sushi.

I don't know, as I sauntered among the delirious teens, who were flung wide of the circle pits only to find themselves buying a wild boar sausage for £8.95, I thought rather wistfully about the beast I'd discovered in the kitchen truffling up carbs, and hoped that he'd stay a while.

After all, the prospect of him mutating into just another yuppie pseudo-gourmet was too disgusting to bear – better the devil horns you know… and all that jazz.

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