SO, it’s 3.47am at Kendal Calling 2014 and I’m in my tent. All I can smell is wet grass and all I can feel is the earth being fracked from the tremors of pounding bass. Far-off strobe lights streak across the Cumbrian night sky.
Outside my tent, someone is stamping the sodden ground just inches from my face and a drunk girl is trying to contain her sniggers. “Go on, do it,” she encourages her partner in crime.
In my daze, it becomes clear that I’m seconds away from being the intended butt of some joke. I realise they are stamping on a plastic bottle full of liquid mud. This is in order to splatter my tent.
Converting abandoned plastic bottles full of mud into messy weapons has become something of a local sport when night falls here, across this vast deer park on the Lowther Estate near Penrith.
A cowardly after-hours cheap laugh. But tonight readers, they picked on the wrong tent.
I roar in my sleeping bag and thrash out of it. But by the time I get the tent zip down in the pitch dark, both of them are gone. A pair of shadows, high-tailing it through the muddy slop.
Just as well…
But this is what can happen when you have to slum it in “The Party Field”. One of the cheapest, muddiest, noisiest and most densely-occupied corners on this whole 300-acre site.
Our bad positioning was entirely the Buddhist Big Sister’s fault. We arrived late having to round up her feral hounds who had escaped back in Penrith, so by the time we got to Lowther, the car park was very full.
In hard, driving rain we realised we would have to leave our cars about a mile-and-half from the main gates which wasn’t ideal with the scale of luggage she requires.
She wanted our base camp to be pitched near the gates. This, she explained, would make it quicker and easier to get back to her car to sleep there later on if she failed to get any shut eye camping on the “Party Field.”
The basic thinking was good but the only trouble was, as I pointed out, four thousand other people attending the festival had all had exactly the same idea.
The Buddhist Big Sister enjoys her home comforts more than I and had already vocalised her serious concerns about the quality and location of our accommodation.
So when we finally got through the gates and clapped eyes on the tiny sliver of grass that was left – surrounded by thousands of tents – all her visions of the classic Lake District camping fantasy, vanished before her eyes.
“There’s no room for my wicker hamper from Booths,” she cried.
On the party field, we are rammed so cheek-by-jowel that there isn’t the slightest corner of grass for chairs, stoves or tables. It’s basically a refugee camp.
“It appears we are refugees to music,” I said, puffing thoughtfully on my e-cig and rolling out my groundsheet.
She was not smiling.
In the photo above, my tent is the small dark green one in the middle of the picture. My sister’s is the huge, lime-coloured pale green one on the far left. With chandeliers, electricity, the works.
So huge is it, she is able to sleep on a long, fold-out, orthopaedic camping bed in a large double-skinner made by Berghaus.
I’m in a tiny, wafer thin ‘pop-up’ that I bought off eBay for £13 a few days before the event.
It was a hot night when, under the influence, I deluded myself that summer 2014 was finally here for good, and that it would Never Rain In Cumbria Again.
A day later it chucked down and has rained solidly every day since.
Our sliver of grass is also right on the perimeter of one of the sloppy muddy pathways which trail around the site….
If you need the loo at night here, the toxic toilets are an ankle-breaking inebriated slop through six-inch-deep liquid mud.
In the dark and possibly in the rain and wind as well.
Loo roll itself, is now a precious commodity in the toilets. When it runs out on the unsuspecting, a small minority evidently resort to using the walls as a substitute. When all the tanks are brimming, someone drives around to suck them dry in a “Stool Bus” or the “Poo Hoover” as it was nicknamed.
The simple plumbing operation for the toilets in many corners of the site, involves 10 toilet stalls positioned over 10 wheelie bins. On the way to the loo, you grab a cup of sawdust to cover any waste. But with this many people, the sawdust soon runs out.
There are fancy toilet alternatives of course, but these cost money, and I wanted to embed myself deep in the real festival experience. If I don’t come out of this event with scurvy, I’ve not really lived it, being the rationale.
It soon became apparent that all the nice, quiet parts of this showground had been reserved, bought and paid for months ago by the rich and organised.
Places like The Quiet Site, Family and The Shire etc.
These are the areas where you can be accommodated on a nice, spacious grassy hillock.
You can park your camper van or mobile home, where it’s peaceful and sheltered from society’s everyday ugly realities.
The Buddhist Big Sister had wanted a place here in the mobile home section.
But she was too late and it was my view that a stay in the rough end of a festival – for someone who owns four houses – might at least jolt her out of her cosy, middle class cocoon.
And I think it worked.
Because one day, as she slopped through the mud on the way to get an organic bacon roll, she said: “Here’s me moaning about mud and rain when soldiers died in far worse in World War One, didn’t they?”
In all the places to be staying at Kendal Calling, The Party Field was second only to Wolf Woods in terms of notoriety.
Late at night, huddled around slow-burning campfires on tamer edges of the site, “Wolf Woods” was always spoken of, by festival elders, in cautionary, worried tones.
From the feedback we’d had, Wolf Woods was witnessing a break down in social order.
This is where all the teenage festival virgins stay for the first time and completely lose their minds once the moon comes out.
And who can blame them.
Acres of unleashed youth full of alcohol – laughing, arguing, shouting, screaming, play-fighting, real fighting, crying, making up, making out.
More whoops and mating calls than a night in the Serengeti. More high-pitched screeches than from the top of the ferris wheel.
Wolf Woods made The Party Field look like a retirement home.
And not even the exclusivity of a humble, regional journalist’s press pass could open any doors to better accommodation.
Nowhere did I feel this more acutely, than on the Press Bus.
The Press Bus was a huge black double-decker bus with red slashes down its side, free wifi, cold drinks and exclusive interviews with some of the acts (most of which had to be arranged months in advance so there was no way I was going to make that kinda deadline after being seconded to cover this event at the last minute.)
The Press Bus, if I’m being totally honest, was full of ice-cold PR-types and busy IT geeks.
Judging by how clean and unsullied they all were, I suspected they had access to all the best places to stay and the luxury shower and toilet facilities.
Unlike me who rocks up in a dripping poncho and mud-plastered waterproofs, like some crazed farmer who’s just been Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling with a bull.
The muted, lukewarm reception on my arrival at the Press Bus was all my fault.
After all, I’d had the temerity to arrive unannounced, demanding the wifi password and trailing my dripping canvas bag all the way up to the top deck of the bus whilst balancing a warm can of lager in my fist.
And I’m old enough to have had previous experience of the general attitude of the big city PR.
They tend to flirt like hell with all the hip and trendy publications that they want to be read in, but reserve a cold, tolerating unhelpfulness for all the little print titles that they’ve never heard of.
That was the general, unspoken “vibe” of the Press Bus.
But it’s been a couple of years since I went to a festival and age, it seems, has not been kind to my pitifully low tolerance levels.
Like most working journalists of a certain age, I carry around a big old chip on my shoulder, a sense of entitlement, which I have loyally fed and watered down the years.
I noticed there was plenty of police at Kendal Calling but no real aggro, although I had to at least keep an eye out for it.
Because if it all kicked off and I was there, I had made an executive decision that I would have to report extensively on that element of the festival too.
After all, unemployed is the news reporter who goes away on a bit of a festival jolly and then tries to slope back into work on a Monday morning having not written a word about the riot that broke out and is now all over the front pages of the competition…
But there was no ‘edge’ to Kendal Calling and nothing happened, which was a relief to me because it meant I could concentrate on the music and the happy atmosphere – which was brilliant.
The vibe was positively Glasto and refreshingly Bohemian. People having fun, people in fancy dress, people in funny hats, people in costumes.
The edgiest it got was when I saw a loud group of young lads.
A bunch of lean, hard-staring, Bolton Wanderers fans marching through the site in a wide, lairy mob.
They were singing a confrontational football chant and had clearly done time on the terraces, because their accompanying claps were well synchronised.
Collectively, they looked like an explosion at Sports Direct.
But I am in danger of forgetting my middle-age. Old enough to be the grumpy, judgemental parent at an event like this.
And I’m not grumpy. I am thrilled to be here. Because right now, The Happy Mondays are coming on…
Just after half seven, in a mud-smeared Cumbrian glade lashed with rain, booze, litter and saturated ponchos, Bez limbered up to the front of the packed Main Stage.
Rubber-limbed and skeletal in a Guy Fawkes-style hat, he roamed the edge of the mosh pit with maracas and a mic – forecasting his forthcoming ‘revolution’. People cheered.
As fierce guitar feedback swirled through giant towering speakers in the hot evening sun, the band’s immense engine-room, Rowetta, tottered towards the mic in a sparkling cowgirl outfit.
Lurking near the stage curtain was Ryder, short, stocky and dressed in a tight, zipped-up khaki jacket. Oozing “up to no good” and looking for all the world like a second-hand cigarette seller on a street corner in Salford.
Shaun looked healthy and sounded coherent but was comically unsure of which number was next in the set.
“It was hard enuff livin’ it, never mind singin it,” he puffed after the bouncy 24 Hour Party People.
When he sings, Shaun Ryder has always sounded like an ordinary, angry bloke shouting in the shower of a small bathroom.
But some bands have an uncanny ability to nail the mood of a festival and so it was with The Mondays.
Because as the haunting, opening chords of Loose Fit began to jangle out, it triggered every button in the valley.
“Gonna buy an airforce base, gonna wipe out your race, get stoned in a different place, don’t you know I’ve got better taste,” Ryder drawled.
Bez’s contribution was also immense.
He climbed imaginary ladders and constantly bounded across the stage like some manic wooden puppet manipulated by invisible strings.
Across the fields, I saw 10 Star Wars storm troopers dancing, a Roman Soldier complete with broadsword, people dressed as ET, Spock from Star Trek, Buzz Lightyear, Spongebob Square Pants.
Girls and young lads so caked from head-to-toe in mud they resembled bronze statues brought to life through the unifying power of live music.
The loudest roar of the night for The Mondays came for Step On and the crowd ‘twisted’ like Madchester never really went away
Ryder may not have the vocal range any more, Bez may cut a strangely wasted figure, Rowetta may yet turn up on a TV talent show, but what a show, what a band, what a defining festival moment this was.
As the guitars whined out to end the set, Bez shouted: “People start the revolution tonight! Think about the future!”
So immense was the Mondays gig and so committed am I to bringing you the absolute unvarnished truth, that I decided, right there and then, to trek a full soggy mile back to the Defender.
There, I dragged out my trusty Acer Chromebook, lugged it back to my leaking hovel and wrote as many notes as I could about this experience until the battery died sometime around first light.
What struck me most that morning as the sun came up, is that festivals are what life will be like when society finally overthrows the state.
A total free for all.
Everybody doing what everybody wants…until the money and booze runs out.
Great parties, but who’s going to clean the toilets and empty the bins?