Archive for June, 2013« Older Entries |
Saturday, June 29th, 2013
An hour before playing at Glastonbury, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr speaks to John Harris about counterculture, the changing face of the festival and why sunshine and good music don’t go hand in hand
Saturday, June 29th, 2013
With inland gas reserves said to be enough to meet the UK’s needs for 25 years, even the most picturesque of places are being eyed up by prospectors
Compton Martin is not the most obvious place to have a conversation about drilling for gas, and what’s already happening in US states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio. It sits on the northern edge of the Mendip Hills, in the famously picturesque Chew Valley. It may say something about the place that it still has a functioning village water pump.
At a bus stop, I meet two local mums: Chloe Mann, 35, and Sarah Kirwan, 39. “It’s quiet little village,” says Mann, a mother of two who works part-time at a law firm. “It feels like a lovely little enclave of the countryside. We always feel like it’s Hobbitshire – a green valley where nothing happens.”
But something big may be about to. Since 2008, in partnership with an Australian firm called Eden Energy, a Welsh company named UK Methane has owned Petroleum Exploration and Development Licenses that cover large swathes of countryside south of Bristol, some of which sits on top of the old North Somerset coalfield. In March this year, the firm’s director, one Gerwyn Williams, publicly announced that he was interested in test-drilling for gas in Compton Martin, and the nearby village of Ston Easton.
If successful, this could be followed by the extraction of coalbed methane, a controversial practice related to “fracking”, the notorious business of producing gas via hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits. In fact, coalbed methane extraction can itself involve fracking techniques – and in any case, if sufficient gas is discovered, the fracking of local shale could eventually follow.
Both possibilities are the focus of noisy hostility, here and elsewhere. Despite official reassurances about its safety, shale-fracking has been linked to earthquakes, water contaminated with pollutants such as arsenic and lead, noise pollution, and more. For similar reasons, coalbed methane extraction is maligned by eco-activists as its “evil twin”. Possible evidence for such claims is not hard to find: as I discover when I pitch up at a local meeting organised by a group called Frack Free Somerset, many campaigners point to the increasingly renowned case of Tara in south-west Queensland, Australia, where residents have reported no end of worrying phenomena since coalbed methane extraction began there. Not just gas leaking into local rivers, but an array of health problems from headaches and nosebleeds to skin rashes.
The conversations I have with people here suggest a weird mixture of The Archers and Dallas. “This is an area of outstanding natural beauty, so I can’t see how they’re getting away with it,” says Compton Martin’s sub-postmaster, Ray Stewart, who runs a post office that is almost surreally tiny. He then sounds a note of ambivalence. “But we need energy, do we not? We all use it.”
I bump into Kim Russell, 55, about 50 yards away, who is climbing on to a fearsome-looking motorcycle. “I don’t agree with it,” he tells me. “The amount of pollution fracking creates, and the stories you read about water suddenly catching fire and all that. And anyway, the community won’t benefit.”
Put simply, Britain is in the midst of a dash for gas. In this week’s comprehensive spending review, George Osborne re-affirmed the government’s support for new inshore gas exploration; March this year saw the creation of a new Office of Unconventional Oil and Gas. And all around the country, prospectors are scouting for new gas fields, amid talk of untapped resources that could supposedly meet a large share of the UK’s energy needs for decades to come.
Fracking has become a media byword for all this, but “unconventional gas” actually encompasses three processes. Fracking itself uses a technique whereby deep wells are drilled into underground shale deposits, and pumped with water, laced with sand and chemical agents – which fractures the rocks, and releases natural gas (along with lots of contaminated H20, often in the form of a residual sludge).
Coalbed methane extraction is a related method, which is actually at a more advanced stage in the UK. It involves the drilling of wells into coal seams followed by the pumping out of water, which results in gas being released by the coal, and being brought to the surface. Lastly, there is the so-called underground coal gasification now proposed for – among other places – an area beneath Swansea Bay in west Wales, which involves the partial burning of subterranean coal deposits.
All three are part of a huge, ongoing story. After the infamous events of April and May and 2011, when two earth tremors in the Blackpool area were blamed on test fracking and operations were stopped, the most high-profile unconventional gas project is once again focused on the Bowland basin in Lancashire, where the energy firm Cuadrilla aims to frack for shale gas, and has just sold a 25% stake in its operations to the gas conglomerate Centrica, formerly British Gas, for £40m.
In the commuter-belt village of Balcombe in West Sussex, Cuadrilla is set to begin test-drilling for shale oil and gas. Small-scale production of coalbed methane is already happening near Warrington in Cheshire, where a pilot project is also using gas to generate electricity. The Australian firm Dart Energy has applied for planning permission for 14 coalbed methane wells and a network of pipelines near Falkirk, and is prospecting elsewhere in Scotland. Whole swathes of the British landscape, in fact, are now synonymous with exploration licences that run to 300, each of which has its own number: in and around Somerset, the ones to watch are 225, 226, 227 and 228.
And now there is a new twist. On Thursday, as reports suggested inland shale might hold enough untapped gas to meet the UK’s needs for 25 years, it was confirmed that negotiations between the government and the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group had resulted in a new “industry charter”. Its key provisions mean that if new gas is discovered, “local communities” could receive financial benefits: £100,000 for every well that is fracked as part of exploration, and 1% of revenues if things prove to be commercially viable. Thus far, this is only envisaged as applying to shale gas. When it comes to coalbed methane, the official line – given to me by an industry insider – runs as follows: “It is true that coalbed methane can be hydraulically fractured, but it has not been done in the UK, and there are no plans to do so. But if there were, coalbed methane would be included in the scheme.”
Fracking, it should be noted, has been widely used on coalbed methane deposits in Australia and the US. So as well as the possible arrival of rigs and tankers, perhaps small villages in the Mendip Hills may yet see a modest financial windfall.
The business economics of unconventional gas are interesting indeed. Prospecting is often done by small, unknown companies, whose apparent aim is to interest bigger firms, and then sell them stakes in full-blown production. UK Methane is a perfect case in point: apparently based on an industrial estate in Bridgend, it has no listed telephone number. When I phone a mobile number for its boss given to me by an anti-fracking activist, a nervous-sounding voice answers, and suggests I send an email to a bog-standard BT Internet address.
I do as I’m told, seeking information about the company’s plans for Compton Martin, Ston Easton, and the nearby town of Keynsham. The reply reads as follows: “Hello John, We are in the middle of a corporate transaction at present so I am unable to comment. Everything is fluid. Once I am in a position to be able to make some firm decisions I will call you. Best regards, Gerwyn.”
What he seems to be referring to is the recent selling of the Australian energy firm Eden Energy’s stake in British gas exploration – which includes its share of the action in the West Country – to a new UK firm called Shale Energy. The price was £10m, £750,000 of which is to be paid in cash, with £6m in Shale Energy shares, and two lots of £1.6m, to be paid when any gas discovered reaches first 500bn cubic feet, and then a trillion cubic feet. Such are the weird economics of unconventional gas, and numbers that tend to dance in front of your eyes.
The town of Keynsham is 13 miles from Compton Martin. In August last year, UK Methane announced that it was about to apply for planning consent to commence test-drilling for gas in another unlikely location: a patch of local land next to a roundabout on the Bristol ring-road. Thus began a saga that seemed to have reached an uneasy pause last December, when the company withdrew its application, claiming that the level of information being requested from it was “far higher than that for any other previous planning application that we have been involved with”. It is now set on applying for what it calls “full production permission”, though when that might happen is unclear.
Watching all this closely is a coalition of local organisations, and a core of activists. One of them is 28-year-old Laura Corfield, who runs an eco-oriented social enterprise called Shift Bristol. I meet her in a cafe on the high street. “People have described UK Methane as a company of two guys in a broom cupboard,” she says. “For a while we were like, ‘Are they playing games? Are they really super-clever?’ But actually, I don’t think there’s anything hidden. At one point, they gave us their mobile telephone numbers. I don’t think they understand the fight they’re getting into with the environmental lobby. And now, they’re not saying anything at all.”
What will happen as and when they apply for full-blown gas production? “If they’ve had that much trouble for just a test bore-hole, the reaction they’d get to that would be monumental. I actually think it would make our job easier if they come back with a bigger proposal.”
Unlike Compton Martin, I suggest, Keynsham looks like the kind of place that might appreciate an injection of funds as part of a future gas deal. And if that was proposed, it might make things more uncertain, mightn’t it? “Yes,” she says. “People are either actually strapped for cash or very fearful of being strapped for cash. I think they might find security in something like that. It’s a bargaining chip, isn’t it? It makes the decision harder for people. I guess we’ll just have to find somebody that can crunch the calculations.”
The third site in which UK Methane seems to be interested is in Ston Easton, a sleepy hamlet close to the old Somerset mining town of Midsomer Norton. There is not much here, apart from the Church of St Mary the Virgin, a luxury hotel currently offering an al fresco ballet show, and a smattering of farms.
One belongs to Jonny and Tom Osborne, 48 and 46 respectively, whose dairy and sheep farm has been in their family for three generations. I meet them midway through the morning, when Tom is seeing to a herd of sheep in a barn that backs on to gently undulating countryside. “Why destroy your environment for the sake of some gas, when you might cause so much damage?” he says. “They should just leave it alone.”
“The ponds here are from a natural spring,” says Jonny, pointing towards a large expanse of water in the middle distance. “In the farm over the way, they sink bore holes, to get water for the animals, direct from the water table. So you can see why we’d be worried about contamination. It’s time we put something back in the land, not destroyed some more.”
I wonder: would they feel any different if their village was offered money?
Tom lets loose a dismissive snort. “But how can you compensate people for what might be lost? That’s just a bribe, isn’t it?”
Thursday, June 27th, 2013
Young people are supposed to be left-leaning idealists, but polls tell us that today’s under-34s don’t believe in handouts and high taxes – and they’re voting for David Cameron
If you want a good idea of where Britain might be headed, go to Peterborough. The city centre is smattered with the usual high-street names, and scores of empty shops (51, at the last count). Plenty of people complain about youth unemployment. The area of the city around a thoroughfare called Lincoln Road is a little Poland, smattered with businesses that also see to the needs of people from Portugal, the Baltic states, and more. Mention immigration, and you tend to get two kinds of response: tributes from recently arrived people to the kind of life that’s possible in the UK, and angry, sullen opinions from locals who think advantages and opportunity are flowing in the wrong direction.
I spent a few days in and around the city a couple of months ago, and as well as all those issues, I was reminded of another very modern syndrome: the fact that as you progress down the age range, opinions about the job market and welfare state tend to harden, to the point that droves of twentysomethings sound like devout Thatcherites. In my regular trips around Britain for the Guardian’s Anywhere But Westminster series, this has become almost a given. Quiz people under 30, in short, and you’re more than likely to hear echoes of the kind of on-yer-bike, sink-or-swim values that decisively embedded themselves in British life when they were mere toddlers.
So it was in Peterborough, where I stopped for a chat with a young woman – born and raised in Cambridgeshire, it seemed – who was selling subscriptions to LoveFilm, next to a row of empty retail outlets and a branch of Caffe Nero. “British people are rubbish,” she said. “Lads especially need to be pushed into jobs more.”
“I think they need to stop letting people into the country, to start with,” she went on, and then paused. “And stop jobseeker’s, as well. I don’t think it’s right.”
This was a reference to jobseeker’s allowance, the benefit that pays unemployed people under 25 the princely sum of £56.80 a week. “There are hardly any people that are willing to go and get any job that’s out there, just to say: ‘I’ve earned that money’,” she continued. “They want the best, don’t they?”
At this point, my lefty, bleeding-heart soul could take no more, and I blurted out a riposte. Don’t they just want to be paid seven or eight quid an hour and be treated with some respect?
“I was on £6.55 in my last job,” she said. “If you don’t want to go to college, start at the bottom and work your way up.”
Such are the prevailing opinions of what pollsters call Generation Y, the millions of people born between 1980 and 2000, who have grown up in a country in which postwar collectivism is increasingly but a distant memory, and the free-market worldview handed on from Thatcher, to Major to Blair and Brown and now Cameron, is seemingly as ordinary and immovable as the weather. I have heard much the same stuff in Manchester, Birmingham, Swansea, Brighton and beyond. This is not a view of things, moreover, solely borne out by random vox pops: careful, long-term research highlights exactly the same things, in spades.
Earlier this year, the polling company Ipsos MORI began to publish the fruits of its work on 17 years’ worth of polling results, spread across four generations, starting with those born in 1945 or before, and ending with Generation Y. Among the most striking examples of a yawning gap between the generations was their respective responses to the claim that “the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes” – a signifier for the principle of redistribution, support for which has fallen among all generations over the past 20 or so years. Here, though, is the remarkable thing: whereas around 40% of those born in 1945 or before still agree, the numbers tumble as you move down the age range, reaching around half that figure among those aged 33 and under. Similarly, among Gen Y, the claim that “the creation of the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements” is now supported by around 20% of people; when it comes to the prewar cohort, the figure always hovered at around 70%.
This, says Ipsos MORI’s accompanying blurb, “clearly raises important questions about the future of the welfare state”. It certainly does, and the point is fleshed out by poll after poll. In research done by ICM in March, for example, the idea that most unemployed people receiving benefits were “for the most part unlucky rather than lazy” was rejected by 48% of 18- to 24-year-olds, and 46% of 25- to 34-year-olds, who apparently agreed with what we now know as the striver/skiver divide.
Look at the polling data relating to other issues and one thing becomes clear. In many ways, Gen Y is admirably socially enlightened: its support for gender equality and gay rights is overwhelming, and on such ideas as the wearing of traditional dress in state schools, its live-and-let-live mores tower over those of older generations. Moreover, among its younger members, the fusty, nostalgic politics of Ukip seems to have very limited appeal: when the party scored its highest ever ICM poll rating back in May, though its support among the 25-34s stood at 21%, the figure for the 18-24s was a comparatively paltry 8%.
A large share of Generation Y seems to build its opinions around a liberalism that is both social and, crucially, economic. This, conveniently, also forms the core of the modern Toryism espoused by David Cameron and George Osborne.
Which brings us to the next revelation, which reached the media last week. Though the under-34s are less keen on the idea of political loyalty than older cohorts, latter-day Tories have apparently managed to speak to a creditable swath of Gen Y, and pull off an amazing political feat. When Cameron took over the Tory leadership in 2005, the party’s support among Generation Y stood at 10%. It has since more than doubled, to 20.5%: when Osborne gets up to deliver his latest spending review and serve further notice that the state must be hacked back, and the economy must somehow be rebalanced between private and public, large numbers of young people will apparently be in full agreement.
One recent YouGov poll put support for the Tories among the 18-24s at 31%, with Labour trailing at 27%. By way of a contrast, Tory support among those aged 40-59 was at 29%, with Labour on 40%. In other words, the time-worn wisdom about politics and the young may be in the process of being turned on its head. Welcome, then, to yet another element of the New Normal, and a sobering fact: when it comes to questions about the welfare state, work and the like, the younger you are, the more rightwing you’re likely to be.
At which point, some caveats. I’m a comparatively ancient 43, and it has always seemed to me that my own generation – X, the pollsters call it – has been something of a washout. We seemed to be rendered punch-drunk by Thatcherism, holding on to a vague affection for the postwar welfare state – we could get the dole with no questions asked, after all – and being stunned into silence by the social and political revolution that began in our childhood, and was firmly embedded by the time we reached our 20s. For a time, many of us switched off from politics altogether. On that score, I have always liked a sentence written by that eminent Gen X-er Zadie Smith: “I saw the best minds of my generation accept jobs on the fringes of the entertainment industry.”
At least part of Generation Y, by contrast, seems to be not just angry with the ever-rightward drift of politics, but more than prepared to take the kind of action at which most of my lot would have balked. It seems outraged by such issues as the marketisation of higher education, the position of the super-rich, and the all-pervasive effects of austerity. If you doubt this, consider the events of November 2010, when all those students laid siege to the Conservative party’s HQ at Millbank, and trashed it, along the way spurning the kind of tepid politics espoused by the leadership of the NUS. Note also the fired-up voices who have given Generation Y a huge political visibility: the columnist and author Owen Jones, the left-feminist Laurie Penny, the people who have clustered around such brilliantly trailblazing groups as UK Feminista, People and Planet and UK Uncut.
And yet, and yet. Might the true views of Gen Y have been better summed up by 23-year-old Adele Adkins, whose response to the brief era of a 50% top rate of tax oozed the stuff of post-Thatcher individualism? Just to recap: “I’m mortified to have to pay 50%. I use the NHS, I can’t use public transport any more. Trains are always late, most state schools are shit, and I’ve got to give you, like, four million quid – are you having a laugh? When I got my tax bill in from [the album] 19, I was ready to go and buy a gun and randomly open fire.” Lovely.
RIP Baroness Thatcher .x
— Harry Styles (@Harry_Styles) April 8, 2013
Not that one should set huge store by the often frazzled views of mere pop stars and celebs, but it may also be worth noting that Harry Styles (19) issued a mournful tweet about the death of Margaret Thatcher, and that the Marx-like oracle Rylan Clark (24) described her as a “legend” before affecting to think better of it. At the upper end of the Gen Y age range, consider also the infamous views of Frank Turner, the 31-year-old old-Etonian singer who apparently thinks that when it comes to the relationship between government and the individual, there should be an emphasis on “minimising the impact on ordinary people’s lives … allow[ing] them to get on with their lives and not be bothered by the state. Then you’ve suddenly got a range of things to talk about that are achievable. Like everything from not having ID cards and trying to dismantle the surveillance system we’ve put together in this country on the one hand, trying to remove government from people’s lives, social services. Letting people be freer, health and safety, whatever it might be.” On the face of it, that all chimes brilliantly with the aforementioned polling.
But never mind pop stars and singer-songwriters. In the real world, what’s often most remarkable about the Gen Y worldview is the way it extends even to people who, on the face of it, might have very good reason to think that economic liberalism and hostility to the welfare state have done them very few favours at all.
Last year, I went to Warrington, the sprawling Cheshire town that shares with Peterborough the sense of somehow being modern Britain incarnate. I was there to have a look at the local version of the Work Programme, the government initiative that aims to get people suffering long-term unemployment back into work, apparently by convincing them that joblessness is usually the result of character failings rather than the state of the economy.
There, I met a 27-year-old man who had just managed to re-enter the world of work, though the only thing he could find was a temporary contract delivering sofas. Around us were shelves peppered with self-help books; the people in charge assured me that even if work seemed thin on the ground, the people they supervised could always look for “hidden jobs”. So I wondered: did he think that the fact he was unemployed was his fault?
His reply was just this side of heartbreaking. “Yeah,” he said. “I do. I think I should have applied for more. I should have picked myself up in the morning, got out, come to a place like this – tried more. When you’re feeling down, you start blaming the world for your mistakes – you feel the world owes you. And it doesn’t. You owe the world: you have to motivate yourself, and get out there, and try.”
There it was again: the up-by-the-bootstraps Conservatism of Norman Tebbit and Margaret Thatcher, largely unchallenged during the New Labour years, and now built into millions of young lives as a simple matter of fact. Oh, Generation Y. Why?
Monday, June 24th, 2013
The unrest of 2011 is likely to last for decades. From Istanbul to Rio, it’s not about austerity, but the nature of the state
Throughout 2012 and the first part of 2013, a comfy misapprehension seemed to have settled among those whose job is to analyse world events: that, aside from continuing turbulence in the Arab world, the huge surge of protest that defined 2011 had long since died. This plotline was never entirely convincing. It is less than a fortnight since there was a general strike in Greece, such blighted eurozone countries as Spain and Italy have hardly been models of quiet and obedience, and protest movements in such wildly diverse countries as Chile and Israel have not gone away. But in the UK and US, the demise of Occupy fed into a banal but effective story: that camping in city squares and decrying the general state of things is so 2011, darling.
But now look, chiefly at Brazil, where protests have rippled through around 80 cities, with clear echoes of events two years ago. Inevitably, everything is organised via social media; as happened in 2011, exactly what anyone wants seems less important than the general outlines of dissent, and the simple experience of being involved. There has been surprise that such convulsive events have happened in a country seemingly transformed by the ruling Workers’ party, where unemployment is at an all-time low. But therein lies proof that deeper factors are at work, and the country seems to be sounding a great popular wail about a distant state and cronyish elite. “This must be a nation where people have a voice, [and] we don’t have a voice any more,” runs a typical statement from a protester. To quote from a Financial Times report: “While much has changed in Brazil, the protests highlight those things that have not – repressive and outdated policing, an inefficient state, and an often corrupt and ineffective political class.”
The protests in Turkey seem to be brimming with similar stuff, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apparently acknowledged towards the end of last week. “The same plot is being laid in Brazil,” he told a crowd of supporters. “The symbols, the banners, Twitter and the international media are the same.” He was trying to pin the blame on an outside conspiracy, but in a different way, his words rang true.
Fundamentally, what has been popping up around the planet for over two years is not about austerity, or the rest of the fallout from the crash of 2008, as important as they remain. Its central tension is surely between a revolution in communication that is transforming people’s expectation of influence and voice, and closed networks of power that tie together corporations and government. If you haven’t already read Paul Mason’s brilliant book Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, I’d suggest you do so – and begin with a quote halfway through, from the internet theorist Clay Shirky: “Most of the barriers to group action have collapsed, and without those barriers we are free to explore new ways of gathering together and getting things done.”
To millions of people, life can now be open, endlessly expressive, and full of collaborative groupings that come and go – to use a word beloved of people who write about these things, horizontal. Power, by contrast, is ever more vertical, sealed off from daily life, and guarded by hardened cliques. And yes, there is a glorious contradiction in the fact that the internet giants responsible for all this are, on close inspection, securely built into the same structures that people are now taking against. Then again, capitalism, as two Germans once came to tell us, is full of contradictions; that’s half the fun of it.
Brazil is a particularly fascinating case study, because it shines light on how awkwardly this new reality sits with even the most forward-looking parts of the mainstream left. Orthodox social democracy would have you believe that the essential relations between citizen and state can remain largely unchanged, so long as money goes from rich to poor, and society is understood to be on roughly the correct path. But the politics that has flashed to life around the world since 2011 proves that this is increasingly insufficient. The state is a massive part of the problem – whether that is somewhat masked by progressive intentions, as in Brazil; or stark-staringly obvious, as in countries where cuts are in full effect, and government is currently sloughing off its residual social-democratic obligations.
This is why, irrespective of election results, there will be many more flashpoints around the planet, and politics – here as elsewhere – will sooner or later have to be reinvented. On the left, most people remain in thrall to a worldview little changed since the early 20th century, whereby the top-down state can supposedly be captured, and used to tame an inhuman market. But what does the state do now, as a matter of in-built logic? In Britain, it props up banks, humiliates the poor – and, as we know now, scans everybody’s emails and mobile phone records. Even when it is seeing to its more benign functions, it is now so cold and target-driven that initiative, empathy and care are often nowhere to be seen.
“I’d have to say there is far too much bullying and harassment, nepotism and patronage,” says one former hospital boss about the NHS; he may just as well have been talking about any part of the machinery of politics and government. So it is that you arrive at what might tie together South America, and our small corner of northern Europe: sitting on top of a tangle of problems, that self-same inefficient state, and ineffective political class. The latter, moreover, are now the same tribe, across the world: they wear Joe 90-style glasses and nondescript suits, attend international summits on “governance”, and so fumble with social media that their unease with the new reality is obvious.
It is in the nature of protests that people are impatient for change. But all this is so huge that it will take decades to work itself out. Across the world, parties of both left and right will either be transformed or disappear; in more and more countries, protests will flare into life, and then go quiet. Ugly populism and the hard right could very well prosper; social democracy may spend a long time in retreat. For good or ill, it’s going to be a very interesting century.
Tuesday, June 18th, 2013
Nothing announces the modern British summer’s arrival more than pictures of music lovers drenched and filthy at Glastonbury and the other UK festivals. Would we want it any other way?
The summer of 1997 was a big one, in lots of ways. Tony Blair became the prime minister. Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris. The first Harry Potter novel was published and the UK handed control of Hong Kong to China.
And at that year’s Glastonbury, it rained and rained. Mud was everywhere. Radiohead, who were about to release the landmark album OK Computer, managed to somehow rise to the occasion and encapsulate the drama, but plenty of other acts sank without trace. Almost literally, as it turned out: the Other Stage threatened to collapse into the ground, and its running order was hacked down.
Unfortunately, the rain returned the next year, making conditions even worse. And so, unfairly, Glastonbury was fixed as a byword for grim weather and hostile conditions. This, presumably, is the explanation for an incident two weeks ago when the Queen was touring the BBC, and she ran into Danny O’Donoghue, the judge from The Voice and singer with the Script. He told her he would soon be on his way to Glastonbury. “The place you get covered in mud?” asked Her Maj.
There have been 10 Glastonbury festivals since 1999. Only three – 2005, 2007 and the last one in 2011 – have been blighted by mud and rain, but that has done nothing to dispel the idea that all British festivals are more likely than not to be unremittingly wet, and caked in brown filth. The huge growth in outdoor musical events has probably not helped: axiomatically, the more there are, the more likely it is that some of them will be hit by bad weather. But factor in the modern tendency for British summers to be damp, grey and often windy, and something does seem to be afoot.
“It can be tricky playing in heavy rain, especially if it’s that sideways rain and the stage is slippery,” says Blur’s Alex James, a survivor of 1998’s Glastonbury, where “the mud was over the tops of the wellies”. He adds: “The thing is, a rain-drenched crowd, caked in mud and singing back at you, is probably one of the most beautiful sights in the world. You just want to work as hard as you can to give them a night to remember.”
His own festival, co-organised with Jamie Oliver, hosted on his farm in the Cotswolds, and titled the Big Feastival, happens on the last weekend in August: if last year is anything to go by, the crowd may well include such unlikely festival-heads as David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson. “I predict sunshine,” says James, cheerily. “It’s my wife’s birthday that weekend and it has never rained on her birthday for as long as I’ve known her. That’s scientific enough for me.”
It may not be for other people, though. This week, the Met Office is holding a gathering of weather experts to discuss last year’s wet summer, 2013’s bracing spring and the generally rum turn in the climate. Meanwhile, the great torrent of long-range forecasting that defines the early British summer is in full swing. Early predictions that June would be uniformly wet and windy have been offset by more optimistic forecasts: the truth is that so far, no one knows quite what will happen. One thing, though, is inevitable: at more than a few of 2013’s festivals, there will be mud.
Plenty of recent events have embodied all this. At last year’s Isle of Wight festival the rain and mud meant some people had to queue for 10 hours to get in. In Scotland, the same year’s T in the Park threatened to be just as muddy, and much the same applied to the Larmer Tree on the Wiltshire/Dorset border, Download in the East Midlands, and Guildford’s annual Guilfest, which went into administration. Latitude was a mudbath in 2011, and the joint Reading and Leeds festival saw grim conditions at both sites, with mud at the northern leg a foot deep. I could go on. The Cambridge folk festivals of 2009 and 2012? Muddy. Bestival in 2008? Awash with it.
It’s also worth considering one of the events that blazed the trail for the huge expansion of British festivals: The Green Man, the initially “alt-folk”-centred event in the Brecon Beacons that began in 2003, and eventually fell into a three-year run of inclement conditions.
Along with her partner Danny Hagan, the musician and band manager Jo Bartlett founded the Green Man, and then oversaw its growth until the couple moved on in 2011. She’s now considering a return to the festival game, and knows more than most people about their nitty-gritty, and how much the weather sits in their organisers’ thoughts: in her last year as the Green Man’s co-organiser, she put up a canvas launderette in the camping fields, complete with tumble driers (as it turned out, there was no rain). “You get absolutely, totally neurotic,” she says. “Friends and family feel the need to give you an update on what the weather’s going to be, all the time. And you’re going: ‘Shut up! We don’t want to hear!’
The years “2007 and 2008 were the worst Green Man festivals for weather”, she adds. Among the more lowly acts on the bill in 2008 were a little-known quartet called Mumford and Sons, who were lucky enough to be playing in a tent. “It had been a really wet summer already. And then it was torrential over the whole weekend, too. The worst places were knee-deep. It was like soup, with woodchips floating on the top.”
One act summed up that year’s travails. “We booked a band called Howlin’ Rain. We were tempting fate a bit. They play kind of West Coast psychedelic music. We put them on the main stage, and in our minds, we were imagining a kind of sunset, San Francisco, California vibe. And of course, they were called Howlin’ Rain, and they played in the howling rain.”
Sarah Cole is the head of SC Productions Ltd, a “site management artist liaison” company that this year is working on Download, Bestival and Camp Bestival, Wakestock (”Europe’s largest Wakeboard music festival”) and British Summer Time in Hyde Park, where the Rolling Stones will headline. Bad weather, she says, can easily add 10% to an event’s costs. Headaches include sourcing woodchips from local sawmills to drop on to waterlogged ground, and the sudden huge demand for metal roadways that are used to snake around festival sites.
She says that 2012 was almost impossibly difficult – not least at Creamfields, the huge dance festival that took place at Daresbury in Cheshire. “The weather there was actually endangering lives,” she says. “The mud was travelling so fast, people were potentially at huge risk.
“The problem we’re having this summer already is that the ground is so soft because we’ve had 18 months of rain. You’re starting on the back foot, because it’s only in the last six weeks that the weather has improved. It’s only because it’s not raining every day that we’re standing a chance onsite.
“We’re all living in the wrong country to do what we want to do,” she says. “We’re a nation obsessed with doing things outdoors, in a climate that just isn’t conducive to doing that any more.”
So something has changed? “Yeah. When I first started back in the mid-1990s, we would do quite a few concerts in stately homes and stuff, and the air temperature was probably three or four degrees warmer in the summer. August has always been a wet month, but May and June and even July used to be much more consistent than they are now. And the extremes are much greater. The time of year doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the weather.”
Outside the festival season, the most successful musicians are often used to a cosseted existence, in which backstage demands are followed to the letter, and dirt never intrudes. “Mud does strange things to some performers,” says Billy Bragg, whose festival experiences date from the legendary grim Glastonbury of 1985 (or the “rivers of mud” year, as it became known). “I once saw Ian McCulloch [of Echo and the Bunnymen] being carried on piggy-back to the stage. You get people trying to avoid even a small splat. But when it gets muddy, it gets muddy.”
And what do mud and rain do to the experience of playing a gig? “I did a show last year on the weekend of the Queen’s jubilee, the same day as the river pageant. You can imagine what it was like: stair rods. The main stage was in a tent, which had everyone in it. And I watched the guy before me: I won’t say his name, but his old band had one of the great summer hits, which you could instantly play and turn the place round. And instead, he played his new solo album. I watched him from the side of the stage and thought, ‘I’m just going to do singalong songs.’ I scrapped my running order, and I played the songs the audience would know – New England, and all that – and engaged with them. You have to do a little bit of that.”
At Glastonbury, Bragg is in charge of the Leftfield stage, where the bill is split between musicians and political debate, often involving festival virgins. “I try to be helpful,” he says. “I say: ‘Look – imagine you’re going out for three days on a galleon, across the Atlantic. It may be lovely, and you’ll be sunbathing on deck – but it might be really rough. So make sure you bring appropriate clothing.’ People don’t know things, like the fact that it can be really cold at night.” His wisdom is worthy of a T-shirt: “The festival’s not in Malaga. It’s in Somerset.”
The next musical generation down from Bragg cut their teeth during the Britpop years. Among them were Dodgy, the recently reformed trio, whose biggest hit was Staying Out for the Summer, the song that commenced the TV coverage of a sun-baked Glastonbury in 1995. Two years later, says drummer Mathew Priest, conditions at the same festival were “shocking”, not least when his band played to tens of thousands at the main stage, in the company of the Kinks legend Ray Davies. “It was just ridiculous,” he says. “And at the moment that Ray Davies came on, our guitarist decided to have a mud fight with the audience. He got some mud from his wellies and wanged it at the audience. And of course, when you do that, some of them are going to throw it back. Some of it hit Ray. He’s grumpy at the best of times. It was not making him happy.”
Dodgy have played well-established outdoor bunfights, and lesser-known events. “We played at a place called Nibley last year,” he says. “It’s way up on a hill in Gloucestershire. We saw photos of it when it was sunny, and it’s gorgeous: incredible views. But when we got there, you couldn’t see 30 yards in front of the stage. It was like being in a ping-pong ball. And then it started to rain, heavily. The Christians were on before us. They went down quite well. And we were like, ‘Come on, everybody!’ There was that real stuck-in-the-trenches spirit. But there was an awning above the stage that was collecting water. We looked up: it was like a huge bollock filled with water, just about to burst. And then the bloke who was running the whole thing ran on and said: ‘You’ve got to get off the stage. Now.’”
And so to the latest generation of festival mainstays, and the Mercury-nominated quartet Django Django, whose summer will include such delights as the Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire, and the Beacons festival in Skipton. Their leader, David Maclean, sounds like someone well-acquainted not just with mud, but also with his audience’s counterintuitive response to it. “People almost masochistically enjoy that kind of hardship,” he says. “There’s something about British people that means they enjoy that struggle. Especially in Scotland: when we’ve played at T in the Park and it’s rained, people have almost been in a better mood, ‘cos they’re determined to have a good time. There’s actually a better atmosphere.” Only once, he says, has the weather truly let them down: at the Fence festival on the inner-Hebridean Isle of Eigg, where a shortage of storage space spelled bad news indeed. “Synthesisers and rain don’t really mix,” he says, grimly.
On Glastonbury’s Friday night, Django Django will be the second-to-last band on the Park stage – which brings us to the biggest question of all: Weather-wise, what will happen at the UK’s biggest festival? Might the Queen be proved correct?
“I don’t tend to look at forecasts,” says Glastonbury co-organiser Emily Eavis. “But it’s always better when there’s a negative weather story early on, because the last thing you want is people expecting a drought, and then it being wet. It’s much better for people to come prepared. Music means a lot more when people are in quite extreme conditions. It’s harder work, but the bands have to deliver more.” She then mentions the year when the great modern mud-fear first took root: “Radiohead in 1997 is a good example: there were sheets and sheets of rain, and suddenly this music meant something. People needed it. It was the same with Iggy and the Stooges in 2007. It depends on what you see: some people see mud, and some people think: ‘This is really exciting now: this is a real challenge.’”
So, how exactly is it looking down there? “The site’s looking really good at the moment,” she says. “It’s dry underfoot. And wind’s always good, because it dries things up quite quickly. She finishes with two words of exemplary optimism: “Don’t worry.”
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