“The tent’s sinking,” she whispered.
“Really?” I replied, radiating cool professionalism under strain. “How inconvenient. I hope your dimmer packs aren’t anywhere near the hole in the ceiling.”
“It’s okay,” the technician answered brightly. “I’m sure everything will trip before it explodes.”
I shrugged and got back to what I was doing – running lighting for a show in the Theatre Tent of the Latitude Festival for one of the many productions that had moved in for the weekend. Meanwhile, in one corner of the tent, in which some two hundred or so earnest audience members were trying to ignore the sound of downpour above their head, the plastic had begun to bulge like a pregnant belly and the technical crew in the venue were desperately pushing out several gallons of water with a stick from the sag before the entire edifice came tumbling down.
This, I told myself, was going to be an experience.
I should confess right away – I’ve never been to a festival before, and am not really what you’d call festival woman. Camping appalls me. It appalled be as a theoretical notion before, it appalled me as an actual pastime during, and it appalls me even now when I look back on the time spent in a tent. I therefore agreed to go to Latitude with two motives in mind – firstly, a loyalty to the production in question, on which I’ve worked before, and secondly to test whether my instinctive reaction of ‘oh god why’ at the merest notion of spending three days in a field in Suffolk was in any way relative to the truth.
Some of my initial horrors were reduced by our stage manager, who is both an experienced festival hand and, more importantly, had a tent she was willing to share. “It’s okay!” she explained. “We’ll be in the performer’s area! It’ll be nice! You might even be able to have a shower!”
I might indeed, but was this something I wanted to risk? Certainly, the steam that tumbled out of the shower doors first thing in the morning looked rather appealing, but the bits of fern trampled into the floor and the mud embedded up the walls didn’t, to my mind, suggest paradise awaited. And once the rain began to fall, and every path turned into a slippy sea of ochre ooze, the notion of getting clean seemed really rather redundant.
“Take socks,” explained another festival goer. “Lots and lots of socks. Pack everything you need… and then double it. And then double the socks again and you might, but only might, be okay.”
Okay, so, I packed socks, which put me at a great advantage over our producer who, as we sat in a thirty minute traffic jam trying to get to the festival itself (and with only fifty minutes until our tech began) exclaimed, “I only own two pairs of socks in the world – and one of them has dog ears. Do you think it’s going to be a problem?”
Two sodden days later, as I watched her cower in a hastily purchased poncho against the comforting bulk of her rather more waterproof boyfriend, the answer seemed too obvious to strain. But then again…
“Ooooh! Food!” I exclaimed, perhaps not my most lighting-designer-professionalism moment but a genuine sentiment meant from the heart. Our technical rehearsal was the day before all the big events kicked off so, for that first night at least, the fields full of stalls selling everything you could imagine, so long as you could imagine it costing £7 or more, were a cornucopia of delights. The production team sat on a bench as the sun went down, and the sky was indeed infinite, and the horizon of tall trees swaying in the cool wind were indeed, beautiful, and the lake was still and the sheep – oh yes but the sheep – were indeed rainbow coloured and bleating contentedly. And through the aid of our director’s boyfriend’s programme (he being the only one in a team of at least twenty who was willing to spend the cash) a strange world of bands I’d almost heard of, and events that seemed oddly strange and fascinating was opened up, of which, oddly enough, the absolute highlight for me was Robin Ince, a rationalist-comic genius for whom my dedication is now assured. Make no mistake, once the path to the main area had been waded through, and once you were resigned to being a sort of mottled brown consistency from the thighs down, there was fun to be had at Latitude…
But then, as the wise man said, good news ain’t interesting news, so let’s go back to the camping. The stage manager, to whom I owe many debts, put up the tent with a depressing efficiency while I stood and watched with an increasing sense that for all my technical training and experience, constructive practicality was never going to be my chief attribute.
“It’s got a porch,” she explained. “You put your stuff in the porch and then you sleep inside. It’ll be nice! It’ll be fun.”
Okay, I thought, on my first night. There’s nothing on the main stage yet and our show is fairly early tomorrow morning. I programmed it all into the desk fine (I am proud to report that oh yeah, I can plot lights under pressure… as well as underwater, it turns out…) – there’s nothing to be worried about! Keep a clear and level head and make sure the moves while dark are functioning fine and it’ll all be dandy. Nice early night, nice early start, and then the rest of the day free for adventures.
With this in mind, I was bedded down by 11.30, on my stage manager’s paperback-thin mattress in the bright blue sleeping bag bought for me by my ex-boyfriend in lieu of my appalling circulation. I was in pyjama top and bottom, but knowing it might get cold had laid out a jumper as well beside the sleeping bag should that moment come. By midnight, I was asleep.
By 1 a.m., I was awake again. Our next door neighbours had staggered to their tent and were now very loudly discussing what to do with the rest of the evening. Drink, drugs, rock n’ roll and a few other things besides were on the cards, and though the performer’s camping was, I’m sure, far nicer than elsewhere, the was barely a foot between one tent and the other so discretion was not the order of the day. I groaned, waited for them to go away, and went back to sleep.
At 2 a.m. my body woke again, and this time it was for the cold. On went the jumper; then a pair of socks. When this didn’t seem able to hack it, another jumper went on beneath the one I was already wearing. Then a pair of wrist warmers, knitted complete with holes by myself one winter in order to see whether I could, and I couldn’t. By 4 a.m. this still wasn’t getting me anywhere, so another pair of trousers was added, and a t-shirt and finally, in an act of desperation, my rather small towel was wrapped round my knees, as being the only part of me which still I couldn’t get warm.
Then, I slept.
At 4.30 a.m., our next door neighbours came back, and they were in that condition which you might imagine people to be at 4.30 a.m. at a festival. They turned on the music, invoking the ire of the night watchman; this ire then led to an argument, this argument to a grudging compromise and, once the watchman was gone, a resumption of music and gossip. I know details about my neighbours lives that I had never desired to know and only good manners and a sense of suspense keeps me from naming and shaming the lot of them. After half an hour I put in ear plugs and the stage manager put in her iPod and, I’m told, some thirty minutes after that one of the company cracked, got out of bed, and shouted at them. But by then, I was back asleep, warm, moderately deaf, and reasonably content.
At 8 a.m. the sun was clearly high over the trees and the temperature inside the tent went from arctic to Saharan in what felt like five sweltering minutes. The urge to undress was suddenly unbearable, and myself and my companion pulled down the flap to the tent to stick our heads out and gasp for breath in the early morning light. The company as a whole arose with looks of fury on their faces, directed firmly towards our neighbours, who took a long time to realise exactly what it was that had every single one of us fuming with rage. Most apologised… some did not, and the event was not repeated.
Travelling home was an adventure. The show went down at 3 p.m., and the producer had booked me onto a train from Diss to London leaving at 17.07. The bus from the festival to Diss, however, didn’t leave until 1800, so I stood in a field and fumed until an alternative bus took me to Halesworth, a town I have never been to before nor am likely to pass through again any time soon. I felt a strange mixture of butchness at my own intrepid, borderline epic spirit in daring the unknown factor of the terrifying Halesworth train, mingled with mild concern at where the hell I might end up and, more importantly, how much I’d be fined for travelling with the incorrect ticket.
“Well… it’s probably wrong, but don’t tell anyone and I’ll let you get away with it,” explained the conductor on the Halesworth train. “They might make you buy a new one on the Ipswich service, but just ask nicely and you might get lucky.”
On the Ipswich service, I tuned my expression to radiant optimism as the conductor approached, and explained my situation, complete with the standing-in-a-muddy-field-fuming part. She shrugged, stamped my ticket without a word, and wandered on.
The shower at home was the second greatest shower of my life. The only shower greater was the one had at 9 a.m. after my second day of nine hours of overnight de-rig at great heights. The mud is still embedded in some of my clothes but now, looking at them, I feel an odd tingle of pride and concur that yes, despite everything, it definitely was an experience…