It is seven o’clock Sunday morning when I decide to stumble back to my tent and call it a night. The sun has long been up and the heat of the day is already setting in. My skin is encrusted in a film of three-day-old sweat and dirt and I’m grateful to have not seen my reflection since Thursday.
My ears are ringing as I pick my way through patchwork tents, skipping over guide wires and steaming piles of vomit like a depraved game of hopscotch. I genuinely couldn’t be happier. I’ve never felt so disgusting – and so alive.
I’m at Houghton, a 24-hour dance music festival in Norfolk which has returned for the first time in three years (stormy weather, two years of Covid restrictions and ineligibility for Arts Council funding has plagued the festival since 2019) and its return is all the more triumphant after a three-year hiatus. Here, the pandemic feels like a distant memory and people are ready to muck back in – literally.
Filth and squalor don’t immediately come to mind as something I missed about festivals: toilet blocks – a nightmarish advent calendar of doors revealing sights each more horrifying than the last; realising that your “tan” is actually just dirt that has covered every inch of your skin; a weak, dribbly shower that promises no respite from the depravity, after discovering a used tampon floating in the scum around your ankles.
Repulsive? Certainly. But after two years of stringent personal hygiene – a time when being clean was a matter of life and death – being filthy almost feels like a luxury.
According to research by The Audience Agency, willingness to attend festivals and concerts is up 39 per cent from 30 per cent in November in 2021. People are also less concerned about catching Covid at outdoor events – with only about 13 per cent saying they believe the risk is high or very high.
Here on site, people are excited to be back and are relishing the opportunity to be as filthy as possible. A summer of record-breaking heat has scorched the ground and turned the site into a dust bowl; parched earth is churned and kicked up, sending apocalyptic clouds of dust into the air and coating everyone in its path.
You’ve heard of “feral girl summer”, but have you heard of “chimney sweep summer”? Escape is futile and makeup is quickly abandoned, with many choosing to wrap bandanas around their faces to stop the worst of the dust invading their eyes and mouths. The friends I’m with do the same. We grin at each other through our face coverings with a sense of delight (and freedom) we haven’t felt since before Covid made us hyper-aware of our own health, and the health of others.
Part of the joy of festivals is shedding the inhibitions of civilised life and embracing this primal nature – a part of ourselves that was scrubbed and sanitised away during the pandemic.
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And we are, quite literally, revelling in it: in the surreal squalor, the joie de vivre and the sense of community all around us. People are happy, carefree and there’s a distinctly holiday-feel to our surroundings: the facilities are good, the number of people there isn’t silly. It’s certainly nothing like the scenes of carnage in Woodstock ‘99 which recently captivated viewers on Netflix.
We let it all go. We dance, we have fun, we celebrate spending time together after so recently being forced apart. No, Covid hasn’t disappeared – we all know that. Winter is coming – and with it, dark warnings about the cost of living crisis; worries about how we’ll pay our energy bills.
But for a brief moment – for one chaotic, fun, long weekend – we can pretend it never happened. That everything is exactly where, and how, it is supposed to be. Right now, summer feels like it might last forever (and the mud I now wear like a second skin does, too). Isn’t that exactly what festivals are all about?