Not A Number

And so, on the fourteenth day of the ninth month, in our Lord (yours, not mine, incidentally) 2013, your writer will turn 40 years of age. Traditionally the dawning of official ‘middle age’, as our parents will tell us, there should be some sort of predictably, inevitable fool-hardy activity to signify that age is just a number – that the creeping time of years and physical deterioration begins, as does, ironically, ‘life’.

Well, maybe, but that was at a time when the average life expectancy was pegged at the seventies, after being brought up on rations, and a general belief that the Daily Mail was a voice of reason: even The News Of The World existed, and News International spoke ‘THE TRUTH!’ However, now that that despicable lie of 23 years has been exposed for the gut-wrenchingly disgraceful conspiracy that it was, it is time to dispel a few more…

This was also based on a generation that sneered at punk, embraced Shakatak as acceptable dinner party soundtracking, and had not experienced the effects of three sleepless days and nights in a field, watching bands and DJs, dancing until their knees hurt like their grandparents did after a night going up the stairs umpteen times at the bingo to empty their bags.

So, while our generation look forward to living well into our eighties and beyond, we continue to do all that we can to counterbalance that with selfless, self-destruction in the form of the music festival. I’ve not been to one for years, not for the camping bit anyway, and with such a momentous occasion rearing it’s greying head over the horizon next year, it was time to test the waters, and see if such an event would be a suitable shindig for such magnitude.

Attention to detail – Prisoner-inpired logo, sand art.

One reason I’ve not done the festival weekender recently, is that the promoters put tickets on sale before a single band has been announced, thus entrusting strangers to take your coin on the proviso that they will deliver. Now, being such a musical snob, I do not feel particularly inclined to part with hundreds of pounds to see bands I am not particularly enamoured with. Its a big gamble, and one that I couldn’t take, having seen some of the line-ups of recent years.

But what changed your intrepid author’s mind? The newest occurrence on the scene this summer, Festival No.6. The headline acts were too good to miss: Spiritualized – whom I bored you senseless about last time; Primal Scream – Britain’s best live rock’n’roll act, and a Peter Hook-less New Order, who, having seen earlier this year, were well worth the admission on their own. Add to the mix that it was in the incredible setting of Portmeirion, north Wales, and the scene was set for a classic. It was also a test-drive, in anticipation of next year.

For those that don’t know, Portmeirion was the set for 1960’s spy-psy-sci-fi drama The Prisoner, co-created and starring the indie James Bond, Patrick Magoohan. Resplendent in black roll-neck jumper, black blazer and quizzical face, he spent 17 episodes wondering around the crazy place being chased by a gigantic, inflated ball shouting “I am NOT a number….I am a FREE MAN!” He wasn’t. That’s why it was called The Pris…..oh, you get it.

Designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, between 1929 and 1970, the conservation site is an absolute wonder – a crazy combination of local and Italian architecture, it sits high on the estuary of the river Dwyryd, near the town of Porthmadog. The dramatic location was brought to life by the organisers, who placed such attention to detail throughout the whole weekend, that even the festival logo was Prisoner-related, and represented in the sandy beach that could only be seen from a specific viewing turret, high above the river.

Mike Garry at sun set. Mancunian word-smithery at its finest.

The central piazza acted as the fulcrum for the daylight activities: using the Roman columns carved into the hill acting as the perfect stage, interviews and conversations with artists, journalists and musicians held centre-stage: Pete Paphides, record junkie and journalist, interviewed Richard Hawley who talked about songs, two hours before he sung some on the main stage. Stuart Maconie, broadcaster, writer, and all round good egg interviewed Caitlin Moran (one for the ladies), and Grace Dent (one for, er, whoever). Mancunian poet Mike Garry performed as the sun set, and delivered ‘St Anthony’ – a dedication to Anthony H Wilson, and a five-minute-long, lyrical masterclass in Manchester musical history.

Throughout the afternoons, the woods higher up the hillside were dotted with secret sound systems – wander the woods, and wonder was found. Deep house, drum and bass, solid techno and chilled beats could literally be stumbled upon. Stop, have a beer, a Dad-dance, a nod to some friendly faces, and on to the next set-up.

Down the hill towards the estuary was the permanently moored Stone Boat, which formed the perfect backdrop for another sound system; replete with hotel and bar, it bashed out classic house and anthems to the ageing crowd baying for more. Until you’ve seen 200 hundred parents waving cans of San Miguel to ‘Voodoo Ray’, with grins like John Terry at a Klan meeting, you don’t know what you’re missing.

Round the corner from there was an acoustic stage that I successfully managed to miss any artists I wanted to see – British Sea Power, Tim Burgess and even David Gedge from the Wedding Present all sung there, but I missed it. I was deep in some woods, somewhere. Between these stages, a Harvey Nicholls catering van dolled out soup and snacks, declaring emphatically that the middle class were in Middle Earth. There was not a whiff of idiot anywhere.

The central piazza, Portmeirion

Due to the conservation site and rules, these activities had to be finished by 7pm, as part of the license. So, as we were expertly kettled towards the main stage, a full-bodied, male, Welsh choir belted out anthems – given the timing, their rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was one of the highlights of the weekend. Tear-jerking and empowering, it sent a resilient punch to the stomach of the hardest of hearts.

The main arena itself was small in size, but had the heartbeat of the largest of festivals – four stages, beer tents, food vendors and toilets aplenty, it served live music until 11pm, then changed into a super-club until 3am (or 5am, depending on whether the police turned up). You could stroll from one stage to the next within minutes, therefore meaning you could actually go from one stage to watch a song, then back again – not the 20 minute mud-commute of larger sites, where you have to pick your itinerary like the Christmas edition of the Radio Times, and stick to it, even if it is shit. None of this was.

Sunday sunset, over the main marquee

Even the blue box in the corner was a cinema during the day – showing Beastie Boys and Chemical Brothers films on a Dolby 7.1 system (no, I have abso-fucking-lutely no idea what that means either, except it was rocking), and even Carl Barat turned up with a guitar to accompany The Libertines film. After 11? Stumbly dance club for the mongos. Class.

The other concerns around festivals I have are fairly sensible, grown-up ones:
1) Sleeping in a tent on a slope, on an ever-deflating air-bed, that by the morning resulted in me being the filling of cocooned-in-a-polyester-question-mark sandwich. Average 3 hours per night.
2) Rain, or more specifically mud, that thankfully stayed away until the Sunday. However, being on the site, the spectacular Castle Deudraeth had a decent restaurant that we stumbled into, and spent two wonderful hours eating great British food, with bottles of red wine and reading the Sunday papers. Watching people get wet. Perfect.
3) Toilets. Now, I know you all want to avoid it, but it is a fact of natural force, that after three days of eating delicious Welsh, locally-sourced lamb burgers, not so local falafels, or other gut-busting nonsense, there will be some fall-out. Thankfully, again, the organisers ensured that they were cleaned regularly. That is, until the final Monday morning. Whilst utterly disgusting, it is somewhat reassuring to know that no matter how munted you thought you were the night before, there is always someone more battered than you – particularly the, er, person that looked like they’d tried to dump a treble clef six inches away from the bowl. The festival equivalent of a stinking brown spider in the metaphorical bath.

The best festival Sunday lunch, ever. Castle Deudraeth, Portmeirion

Given that these fears were, on the whole, allayed, my festival experience was fantastic, and the boutique intimacy of the size of crowd, meant that I have no fears on proposing this as the venue of my coming of middle age movie next year. After all, if its a birthday party, at this stage in life the age is not relevant. After all, it’s just a fucking number, right? Number 6.





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