Festivals, nu-folk and the allure of the 'temporary community'


Intimate 'boutique' festivals are mushrooming across the English countryside. Their biggest selling point: a sense of belonging. Is this a rejection of individualistic hedonism? Or the return of the pastoral, manufactured by the urban elite? One thing is certain - they are a sign of things to come.

Niki Seth-Smith
26 July 2012

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

So the season of music festivals is upon us again, and on-the-pulse urbanites will be shunning Reading (who cares about Glasto's sabbatical?) and heading for a rapidly proliferating multitude of small, intimate festivals set in the valleys, woodland clearings and lake edges of the English countryside. The boom in England's 'boutique' festivals, at least a decade old, shows no sign of abating – every summer the choice grows. Most simply, it's a reaction to the intensified commercialisation of the big two, but I will argue answers a more profound longing: for belonging, engagement and community.

Take the Secret Garden Party, one of the more popular of these: an annual festival of music, poetry, arts and general revelry in Cambridgeshire that celebrated its tenth anniversary last weekend. SGP has retained its 'boutique' credentials despite a capacity of 26,000 due to its mastery of the festival not as money-spinner but as 'temporary community'. The anniversary's theme 'Standing on Ceremony' was explicit about this, paying tribute to and evoking "…mass collective moments [that] hint at a richer history, a more varied landscape of ceremonial occasion that have bound men together across the ages, that have reinforced and reinvented that most remarkable of our achievements: society…". It's mission statement, to "explore those ceremonies, rituals, initiations, anniversaries and carnivals that bind us together", is very much in tune with the new wave of festivals whose buzz words are intimacy, friendliness, fellow, sharing, building, history, tradition.

An illustration of the Secret Garden Party festival site

Think of the sister festivals No Direction Home and End of the Road, in Sherwood Forest and Dorset's Larmer Tree Gardens respectively, which present themselves as magical isolated communities built by happy pioneers. Standon Calling, held in a small village in Hertfordshire, makes much of its bar crafted out of a circle of horse chestnut trees – it's hard to conceive of a more determinedly harmonious setting. 'Traditional rural entertainment' is essential, 'wishing trees' a must (for how else would the collective dreams of the community infuse the air of the valleys?). Working together on simple manual tasks (building a yurt, a raft, a bar) crucial activities for the conjuring of freedom-through-togetherness.


Nothing new then, you might say. Festivals have always been 'mass collective moments', that 'reinforce' and 'reinvent' by celebrating, performing and re-vivifying societal and cultural traditions and norms. But they have never only been about harmony. The obverse of the mask is discordance, the spectacular inversion of the social order, the timeless place when the 'other' - the very thing that threatens to slash the fabric of the community - can parade around with bells and feathers. Pan, Dionysus, the village Jester. These two functions come together when, as is hoped for by the powers-that-be, the discordant elements are given momentary outlet and rendered harmless until the next allowed suspension of the laws.

So how does the new wave of festivals sit within this loaded dynamic? Most obviously, and by their own language, they perform the first function: to explore, reinforce and reinvent that which 'binds us together'.

But of course it is not the dominant culture that these oases are reinforcing and reinventing. They exist in opposition to the de-humanising joylessness of the big commercial festivals, binges of individualistic hedonism that are (for all their invitations to 'go crazy') created to be consumed passively as compensation for the daily grind. In this, they are consciously and unconsciously harking back to the '60s, '70s and the free festival movement of the '80s, before Thatcher's crack-down that restricted the right to assembly and channelled much of that self-sufficient spontaneity into the major operation that is Glastonbury today (ringed since 2002 with a 3.5 metre fence worth £1m).

I welcome the move to reclaim this long tradition. I and my friends, in our twenties and early 30s, in rented accommodation, precarious jobs, pursuing temporary relationships and - more often than not - from broken homes (or what I like to call 'non-conventional family arrangements') are ripe to feel this allure. And there is a beautiful poetic paradox in our bringing what we have learnt as Thatcher's children to bear on the task. Entrepreneurial, with transferrable skills, we've been bred to be network-savvy risk-takers – but, crucially, are quick to drop it all for the promise of a meaningful project.

So it would seem that the distinction between the harmonious and rebellious faces of the festival is misleading. Creating a real, working community in the face of a fracturing, dysfunctional neoliberalism is sounding a clear note of opposition in amongst the white noise made by an economic system and world order in self-perpetuating crisis. To return to the Secret Garden Party's mission statement: "2012 is not the end of it all – it is merely a rallying call to unite, to come together, to reinforce the ties that bind." They're referring, apparently, to the Mayan prophecies. But it could equally be read as a rejection of Fukuyama's end of history or the framing of the dying days of late capitalism as the bud of something new.

Well maybe, I hear you say. But if you like them so much, why aren't you at a festival instead of writing this article? Maybe then you'd have some fun and forget about Fukuyama.

So why wasn't I at the Secret Garden Party?

Because I'm deeply uncomfortable with it. Because for all its good intentions to celebrate a shared humanity, not all of humanity is invited to the party. I'm not just talking about ticket prices. SGP, a not-for-profit, was upwards from £137.50 for the four days, but there are plenty of free and more affordable festivals mushrooming all over the English countryside every year. Less evident is the connection to the landed gentry. Small, boutique festivals are now a significant added income stream for the land-owning class, allowing them to make ends meet while retaining their ancestral plots. SGP takes place on Abbots Ripton Estate, owned by John Ailwyn Fellowes, fourth Baron de Ramsey and former president of the Country Landowners Association, whose son Hon. Freddie John Fellowes, runs the festival. Once again, SGP represents a trend. While most festivals wisely keep who owns their soil under wraps, Lord and Lady Rotherwick have been a little too press-friendly about 'their' festival, Cornbury, which has since been dubbed 'Poshstock'. No Direction Home takes place in the grounds of Welbeck Estate, still occupied by the descendants of the Cavendish Bentinck family, who have owned it since 1607.

It's fitting, then, that the performers-of-choice for these boutique festivals are the rising stars of nu-folk: the likes of Mumford and Sons and Emmy the Great - who arrived with their homely beards, guitars, and comforting rustic aesthetics around 2008, the beginning of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The dominance of public-school educated Londoners in what has been derided as the 'faux-folk' brigade, epitomised by the blue-blooded Laura Marling, has since been pounced upon ad nauseum by a merry band of music and cultural journalists, themselves used to ducking the metropolitan elite slur.

It is easy to be cynical. The coalescing of an urban cultural elite, and its concentration inside the M25, is stunting creativity in the music industry. Meanwhile the discovery was made that 'authentic English' sells. The two were married in a horse-and-cart-from-hell. As the brilliant 'lineofbestfit' blog put it: "…the lionisation of this painfully upper middle class clique is indicative of the fact that we apparently care neither about the creative industries being dominated by the offensively moneyed, nor about the fact that they are currently amusing themselves by siphoning through the rubble of English heritage in order to find something marketable."


Mumford and Sons

The conclusion? That the dominant classes are stealing the folk tradition from under the noses of the English working-class (where it has laid dormant for decades), and are busy stripping it of any radical potential. Alex Niven has elaborated this theory in detail in his book 'Folk Opposition'. He sets out how the nu-folk music trend relates to Cameron's Green Toryism, speaking to the longing for a 'folksy' eternal agrarian world, while the Big Society compliments this with its promise of hearty neighbourliness. Within this vision, Mumford and Sons and Laura Marling are inheritors, as props to the governing powers, of the likes of Evelyn Waugh or the sentimental ballad-penners favoured by Queen Victoria. They, and the new wave of intimate countryside festivals at which they headline, belong to the rich tradition of the pastoral, enchanting us with the vision of an idyllic rural harmony, an artificial but reassuring experience of rootedness and natural order. 'Ah, 21st century Britain can't be all that bad after all. I'm here with some very lovely people. And we're all volunteering to help run a raw food stall!'

The Conservative emblem changed from the torch to the oak tree in 2006

There is truth in this, but it is too conspiratorial. The organisers of the Secret Garden Party weren't aiming to provide a temporary outlet for the educated middle-class' longing for community, so that this potentially disruptive desire didn't take root in real neighbourhoods. Hon. Freddie John Fellowes didn't fling open his gates thinking, 'now they'll forget that income inequalities are returning to the levels they were when my family first bought this land more than two centuries ago. Excuse me, while I puff in satisfaction at my pipe.'

There is no elite with a master-plan. There are people (and I count myself among them) who feel a profound disenchantment with the meagre offerings of our market democracy and the hollow satisfaction of the individual pursuit of pleasure: they may be a Lord, or a manual worker on minimum wage. There are people (and I count myself among them) in a position to help bring into life, if only for a long weekend, a temporary commons in which an alternative way of life can find expression. They are less likely to include the manual worker, the many contracted site cleaners being unacknowledged in the social make-up of the festival. Some of these same people (not me, this time) will have identified with the Green Tory brand, perhaps even with the idea of the Big Society, and watched in dismay as the Conservative's 'detoxified' oak tree emblem grew to cast its shade over the systematic erosion of the public sphere - the selling of England's forests for now on the back burner. And the majority? They will be cuttingly aware of the definite demographic attracted by these boutique festivals (trendy urbanites have a particular taste for self-flagellation), and therefore the limited power and reach of their 'temporary community' and its implicit and explicit politics.

Because a community is not built on the language employed, the traditions invoked or the activities engaged in: it is built on people.

So yes, the new wave of festivals provides a pressure valve for a desire for collectivity, community and meaningful belonging that might otherwise build towards a tipping point. Yes, they represent a distraction, a co-option, the production of a 21st century pastoralism. But the face of the festival has always looked two ways. And in the in-between, there is something that may escape: a Jester spirit that once liberated may slip from the grasp to work its mischiefs. Perhaps, next summer, I will go to the Secret Garden Party after all. Or better - give my labour to one of the many free DIY festivals that at least remove the initial barrier of ticket price. And I'll watch out for that spirit, the true inheritor of England's rich history of revelry, skipping through the country estates of our struggling nobility - and I'll raise my glass. 

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