Festival (A Day At Hard Rock Calling)
2779 words words . June 2012 . This is a work of creative non-fiction


Laura and I are eating ice cream. It feels surreal just eating an ice cream, licking the plastic spoon clean, sitting in the grass trying not to flash everyone, your shoes unlaced and thrown aside. There’s no shade and nowhere to go. Sunlight broils your back and it’s pleasant heat, doesn’t hurt now. My burns never catch up to me until later in the evening and sometimes even the next day or two. This is Laura and we’ve known each other since the last Sunday of my previous fortnight in London.

We’ve come to a festival together, my first.

It’s weird. Festivals – like going to Europe – were always those kinds of things that, while fun, categorized into the group of things that happened to other people and not to me. My name’s not Alexa Chung or Sienna Miller or Daisy Lowe or Kate Moss. An It Girl I am not.

It seems probable that It Girls have more fun.


The Olympic Park is located in Stratford, two stops west of Bethnal Green, and mere steps from the behemoth of Westfield Mall, Europe’s largest indoor shopping complex. Laura had told me to meet in front of Forever 21. Of course I’d gotten lost. My phone charger’s micro USB also decided to die on me the day of, so I had to make a pit stop at O2, Curry’s, and Carphone Warehouse to get that sorted.

Making my way, afterwards, back to the ground level and to Forever 21 was a nightmare, and I recalled Sasha’s words: “I just don’t understand how people can not know how to walk properly!” It seems completely unnecessary to have five people in a horizontal row.

It was already brilliantly sunny when I spotted Laura, wearing a short black dress with a peter pan collar and a pair of dark sunglasses.

“Hey, how are you? What happened last night?” We went to Camden Town to Koko the night before after having dinner at Sandra’s house in Islington. Unfortunately, I’d lost track of Laura by about three a.m., and caught the night bus home alone.

“Boy stuff,” Laura said, smiling. That’s totally legit. Haha, always.

I’d just gotten Linda’s printer to work that morning, but Laura didn’t have her ticket to the festival printed yet, and we eaded down the street to find an internet cafe.

My intuition that it was going to be blisteringly hot was already being confirmed, and as I waited for her at the computer, I peeled my cardigan off my bare shoulders. We made an amazing pair walking down the street back to Westfield. The crowds, out in full force for the festival, pushed against us on all sides. If there was any question of which way to go, our concerns were assuaged by the flow of traffic, skimpily-clad, suntan-lotioned boys and girls, just getting on the first buzz of the day, roaming through others still sat at picnic tables with grilled hot dogs and burgers clutched between mouth and fist.

The Olympic Park in London was about to be reopened to the public following these first few music festivals – Hard Rock Calling that weekend, and Gentlemen of the Road headlined by Mumford & Sons the next. I followed Laura down the main road that was closed off to vehicular traffic. I loved that nomadic feeling. Police were on hand to direct the way.

Crossing the bridge into the festival grounds, for the first time I thought about why all this development was happening. I had never considered what happened to Olympic parks after the Olympics. I didn’t know that those glittering buildings are actually torn down and revamped. The same things that made them fit for the Disney World atmosphere of the games make them unfit for quotidien public consumption. If I expected anything, it definitely wasn’t all the unfinished buildings, the tan dust, treeless fields. It didn’t feel like the park was days from opening. It felt unfinished. I could see where the residential housing was going up, another cog in the wheel of making the East End, this time Stratford, over.

I remembered that Westfield Mall had already begun the process long before, and those same modern transit links I adored signified the tug of war between tradition and vision.


This was my first festival, so when we got in, everything enchanted me. I happily handed my bag over to be searched, got my ticket scanned. The first set of food trucks by the side of the road were selling ice cream.

Laura’s eyes widened. “Oh! Let’s get that! Yeah?”

“Vanilla, please, in a cup,” we said. The man handed us our ice creams along with two bottles of water.

“Gotta stay hydrated,” Laura said, as we made our way over to a grassy knoll where lots of people had thrown down their things, everyone eating and tanning in equal measure.

Neither of us had bothered with blankets. I sat down and smoothed out my dress. We were so pleased with our ice cream. I felt like a little kitty with cream in the sun. Laura removed her black converse sneakers and shimmied out of her tights while trying not to flash. The air seared our skin. I couldn’t believe this weather, considering the usual was less than 20 degrees and cloudy.

Looking around me as I ate, I was so enamoured with the festival fashion. Girls sporting intense tan lines and sunblock on their noses traipsed about in patterned onesies. Some wore dresses. Denim cut-offs with the inside pockets showing white, sharp against browned sweaty skin. It was too hot for leather jackets, but people were still wearing fedoras. The footwear du jour were tough Docs, booties, plimsolls, a few brave souls in heels and platform espadrilles. As usual my London boys were out in full immaculate, effortless dress. I’m still not totally convinced by the I-rolled-out-of-bed-looking-like-I-could-be-in-Bon-Iver comportment, but they were looking cool and ready to rock in variegated flannel, band tank tops, rolled-up linen shirts, madras, seersucker. Aviator sunglasses.

I was definitely relieved it wasn’t quite Glastonbury – no need for wellies – knock on wood. Laura and I fit right in.


After circling the grounds we decided there wasn’t a load of food up for sale in front, and ambled down a dusty road to the main stage, festival volunteers trying to keep the coming and going in two separate sections. The giant rectangular area we entered was hewn in by food tents on two sides featuring typical unhealthy festival fare. Portopotties lined the south end. To the west newish looking apartment buildings rose behind the food stalls and I hoped no one was living there because they were not getting any peace this weekend. In the rear center there was a carnival-style thrill ride that swung its riders up in the sky.

It was about 3 p.m. and Kodaline were playing the main stage. They had their banner of a ship on blue water set up. Laura was in the mood for Mexican: she and I got nachos and tacos, respectively. It was sort of disgusting, but the greasiness was also sort of amazing. When I was ordering I couldn’t hear the question the guy was asking me about the sauces, so I said, “Just surprise me.”

We sat in the back on the Astroturf. I dug my fingers through the short artificial tufts. I wondered how in the world they get this seamless one-piece onto the grounds. The organization that must go into a festival astounds me. The clean-up too: already, in barely three hours, green paper cider cups surround us, little knives and forks, orphaned paper and plastic and the occasional chip and bun.

“This band is amazing,” I moaned into the sun beating on my face. They really were. I was surprised by how good the sound quality was. The lead singer has this reaching, mournful voice. Like the Script or Coldplay.

“Yeah, they’re called Kodaline. The indie stations here play them quite a bit,” Laura said. “They’re from Ireland.”

I shook my head and said, “God bless the Irish.” The country that had also given me Bressie and Niall Horan. Ireland is the gift that keeps on giving.

We had queued earlier at the Wandering Wine Bar for a bottle of London 2012 Ros?. They give you these little plastic cups so you don’t make a mess. If your wine isn’t sold by the bottle they give you a decanter instead, which can be returned later for a five-pound deposit.

I don’t know anything about wine, but Laura said that Ros? was a nice summery choice. The fruit aroma lifted my spirits, and the color was pleasing, the result of letting the grape skins partially lend their substance to the wine.

Kodaline was playing their hit “High Hopes” and I was floating on a perfect buzz. I was learning how to be at a festival. It was great just to be among others, no need to be front row and center.


I was trying to take a picture of Laura. I know most people hate it when I try to get shot of them, but I don’t want to forget any aspect of this trip. I’ve never been so free, so anonymous, and in, what is in my opinion, the greatest city in the world.

A guy came from behind at the last second and did bunny ears above Laura’s head.

“Hey!” I fell over, cracking up.

Laura turned around. The guy had already run away, grinning cheesily.

“Hahaha!” she said. I still got some pics of her mid-eating.

Then we had to go to the loo.

It was actually great. Practically no queues. They weren’t even the boothy ones. They were like little tool sheds with full stalls and sinks and everything.

We decided to check out the smaller stages, and on our way back, wanted ciders, except the cider queue was like a billion people long. The queue stretched across the field.

“Are you serious? Come on, let’s go get more wine.”

But business at the Wandering Wine Bar had also picked up and we were stuck in another queue. How very British. Halfway there I was dozing off standing up. As I drifted in and out of consciousness I could hear Laura laughing and telling me to stay awake. The sun had drooped lower in the sky. Still, my shoulders and neck were overheating and I draped my trench coat around me.

You know it’s bad when you’d rather wear more clothes to shield skin from the sun.

“Oh, god, those pizzas look good.”

We had almost reached the front when Laura pointed out the Pizza Pilgrim booth to our right, where there was no queue at all.

“Babe, let’s say you go over and get one while I stay in this queue.”

“Perfect,” I said. “Which one should I get?”

“There’s only one choice!”

“Ah, so there is.” It was the Marguerita Pizza. What does that even mean?

Whatever, it looked good. The boys making the pizzas behind the counter and firing them in the oven were also really good-looking. I got the pizza. It was huge. I thought I was going to drop it.

Laura had gotten a white wine in a decanter this time. We were both exhausted so we just found a patch of grass to sit on outside one of the side stages. I didn’t know which band was on.

We finished the pizza. So bleeding good.


The formerly orderly procession to the main stage had disintegrated by six pm. The yellow-gilet glad volunteers had wilted in the sun. Their hands directed the crowd sluggishly. You know when it’s a lost cause.

We went to watch Miles Kane, Alex Turner’s mate from the Last Shadow Puppets, and he was just mental. He wore an all-white military-inspired outfit, calling to mind the red jackets that the Carl and Pete from The Libertines used to play gigs in. He plays this kind of sixties inspired retro rock.

I was still drunk and working slowly on the white wine along with an order of chips. Every now and then one of us would get up to use the loo.

Festivals, it behooves you to be reminded, are a marathon not a sprint. You’ve got to pace yourself. I was reminded of the Circle Line pub crawl, during which you’re supposed to alight from each station on the line and have a drink at the nearest pub. You start early in the morning with halves of bitters, maybe move up to London Pride, and then ciders. At midday you start to feel the volume problem, and maybe you cave and start on the shorts – G&T, please. Vodka-sodas garnished with lime.

At the club in Camden Town I’d watched Laura down at least seven ciders over the course of the night/morning. Afterwards the loo is what we all have in common, queueing for it, bitching about it, spending too long using it, spending not long enough, paying twenty p to use it, and having a wee in the bushes. This is going to sound disgusting, but when we were on the boat that night in the East, I thought it was the most adorable thing when James excused himself to have a wee in the bushes.

“Which bush?” I said when he came inside the boat and sat down beside me. “I didn’t see any bushes.”

He looked at me in that half-perplexed, half-amused way that people seem to sport whenever I’m around.

I squirmed.

“Does it matter?” he asked.

“It might,” I said, “if I step in said bush.”


If we’d been content to sit in the back for the earlier acts, we were much more ambitious when it came to Kasabian. Laura led me, stumbling, definitely still drunk, through the crowd, by then thickened to a rabid, cement-like consistency. My foot went straight into an empty cup of cider with a sickening sort of crunch.

“Here?” she asked me.

I looked around, shook my head. “Let’s try for closer,” I said.

Elbows went out. I used my Paris bitchface. You can slither through any sort of crevice if you really want to see the band.

I didn’t know that much about Kasabian beyond that they were NME darlings back when I actually paid attention to music publications. They a bit influenced by Oasis. That’s fine by me. I kept thinking about those legendary Oasis gigs in the mid-90s at Glastonbury, Wembley stadium, at Knebworth. Concerts I had only been able to read about on the internet, a teenage girl convinced I was going to marry Liam Gallagher.

Laura knew what we were doing though. She’s a big fan. Her favourite band is the Arctic Monkeys. She finally got us decently close to the stage and with a good view of the big screen, where we sat down in the grass, the other concertgoers looming over us like a dense, cider-swigging, cigarette-puffing forest.

And then.

Tom and Serge and the rest of the band came out. And one moment there was generic music playing and the next the lights were on and they launched right into “Days Are Forgotten” – all swagger, tinted sunglasses, and knotted bandannas.

I learned very quickly that this is a band that studio recordings don’t really do justice. This kind of music is meant for huge arena tours. We happened to have chosen a spot right behind a mini mosh-pit, formed by a bunch of dudebros who’d taken their tops off and basically spent a long time running into each other. One of them turned around, and grinning widely, grabbed my wrist to lift my camera higher.

“That’s the way to do it,” he said.

Jen’s opinion on this entire thing was summarized in a Skype call a week later.

She said, “Why haven’t you fucked anyone in Europe yet? Why didn’t you sleep with one of the shirtless guys?!”

You get carried away in it. I did – I stuck my elbows in the air like everyone else and pointed a finger sky-high.

There wasn’t a bad song in the entire set. There were moments I actually felt like crying, especially the covers. They did Beck’s version of “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime” and Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You.” During “Goodbye Kiss” Tom made a heart with his fingers and held it out to us.

“Fookin’ love you guys,” he said.

I thought, I’ve definitely made the right choice in coming back to London. This is the only place in the world I want to be for the next two weeks. There’s nothing else I need.

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