A Surreal Weekend at Boomtown Festival

The gang of drug dealers camping next to us were becoming increasingly rowdy and now, I felt, they had overstepped the line.

“Where the hell is my chair?” I said, lifting tent corners in search for my collapsible seat.

Brad poked his head out of his tent. “No idea.”

“I bet those bastards over there have it.” I said.

I danced over the maze of guy ropes and stormed into the huge tent populated by around fifteen youths, drinking and laughing.

“Have any of you guys seen a blue folding chair?” I shouted, above their blaring music.

“Nah mate.” One of them said, looking around the tent for confirmation.

I scanned the area and noticed one of the women was sitting on a camping chair with the exact specifications of mine.

“This one looks like mine.” I said, grabbing at the armrest and nearly spilling her drink.

The woman frowned at me and hesitated a second. She giggled, obviously high on some hideous substance.

“This is mine.” She said, attempting to straighten her face. “I brought it from home.”

I exhaled. ‘Bullshit’, I thought. These people are fucking with me.

I considered escalating the situation and dragging the chair out of the tent, with or without its occupant, but in an instant questioned the wisdom of such a drastic solution – the situation could quickly turn nasty and I would probably end up on the dirt, being kicked to a bloody mush.

I paused for a second then turned to exit.

“Fair enough.” I said, through a gritted smile. “Let me know if it turns up.”

The view from the afternoon

The sun had dropped in the sky and the air buzzed with pre-party vibrations. I was now rightfully back in my blue chair, having grabbed it back from the dealers’ tent when they left for the day. To prevent any further dispute I had drawn a large ‘N’ on the underside of the armrest, in permanent marker.

We were at Boomtown Festival, a four-day music event near the historic town of Winchester, England. Started in 2009, the annual festival is made up of several themed districts spread over a vast estate, including a punk wasteland Diss-Order Alley, the wild west area Copper County and the fanciful Oldtown.

There is a significant theatrical element to the event – the creators have made a backstory for the festival with vague socio-political undertones, which involves scenes performed by actors throughout the festival. There are also actors deployed around the site to add some character to the districts, for example, there is an underground club decked out like a police station and manned by officers who relentlessly question you before they decide if access is granted or denied.

We had been late to the venue and been forced to camp on the edge of a main pathway, but managed to turn this into entertainment, shouting good-natured abuse at passersby.

One of the rules of Boomtown which sets it apart from many other festivals in the UK, is that festival-goers are only allowed to bring a small amount of alcohol through the gates on arrival. Over the period of the event, this gives a different feel to the place, although with many revellers coming to festivals to experience altered states other than the music and atmosphere, unauthorized substances tend to become ubiquitous.

Walk like an Egyptian

I noticed a young black guy standing in the dealers’ campsite, singing towards the passersby (to the tune of ‘Turn Around’ by Phats and Small) “Hey! What’s wrong with yooooou.. you’re looking clean and sober to meeeeee.”

These guys are fearless out here, I thought.

Another youth that was with him sauntered over to us. “Charlie?” He said furtively.

Si shook his head.

The rum was going down well and as the evening progressed we slipped into a merry state. People began to dress-up in their garish costumes for the first night of the party. Women in animal onesies, glitter-cakedwith dangling fairy wings tussled past men wearing top hats and ballgowns.

“Did you know they’ve banned the sale of rasta hats with the fake dreadlocks this year?” I said. “Cultural Appropriation.”

Brad sighed.

I chuckled. “You’re just salty because you’ve come with your Ancient Egyptian fancy dress again.”

“It ridiculous.”

I shook my head and grinned. “Hopefully they’ll ban fascists like you next. You’ll be out on your ear.”

I noticed a skinny woman with striking technicolor harem pants walk by.

“How much for the trousers?” I yelled.

She looked back with a thin smile and put up her middle finger.

This is exactly the behaviour they’re trying to curtail with the alcohol ban, I thought.

Foals rush in

I noticed another girl zig-zagging down the path with a vacant look.

“Are you okay?” I said, as she approached. I grabbed my chair, placed it on the edge of the pathway and motioned for her to take a seat.

“Do you want us to call the medical team?” Si said.

She glanced over at Si with confusion, as if trying to see through a thick fog.

“What have you taken?” I said. “Don’t worry, we’re not the police.”

She blinked slowly but said nothing.

After a few seconds she appeared to consider my question.

“Ket. I took too much.” She said. “I think I’m in a k-hole.”

For the incognoscenti, a ‘k-hole’ is a dissociative state generally encountered when a sufficient dose of the anaesthetic drug ketamine is taken. Some users report intense spiritual experiences or realizations in this state, but it appeared that this girl didn’t even know which way was up.

“Where are your friends?” Brad said.

“Back at the tent.” She said, looking around in confusion. “I don’t even know where I am.”

Si shook his head. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the medical team?”

She continued to stare blankly.

After a few moments she stood up and began walking down the hill. “I’m gonna go find my friends.”

I downed the rest of my rum.

“Good luck.” I called.

She would be okay in the end, I felt. As William Blake said, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

Double Rainbow

Lest you think all there is to Boomtown is illicit substances and their purveyors, let me assuage your fears. Each district is a maze of alleys and secret rooms, populated with magicians, acrobats and other surprises. One moment you can be playing drunken table tennis, take a left in search of a toilet and discover a tiny corridor which leads to a drum ‘n’ bass den. On the way back you might notice a gate being opened into a hidden arena for a bizarre puppet show. There has been a lot of thought put into the minutiae of the districts such as the mock-advertisements with political undertones, to the bizarre art and social commentary dotted around the site.

We were now in a district called Paradise Heights, a Ballardian-style mockery of elitist society and vapid consumerism. I passed a giant mural which said ‘happiness is no good for the economy’. At first glance it appears to be a profound statement about society’s degradation of the human spirit in order to push mindless consumption. ‘But don’t happy people work harder and more creatively?’ I thought. Maybe it was plastered here to inspire this kind of debate.

“What do you think, Dave?” I said, pointing to the mural.

We were interrupted by a sudden volley of rain. Everyone darted towards the cover of a nearby arch like rats. At the time the downpour felt necessary, after nearly three-months of drought in southern England. What we didn’t realize was the lever appeared to have been ripped off and rest of the festival would essentially take place inside a cloud.

Charity starts at home

I woke to the sound of a girl dry-heaving in the next tent. Last night’s rainclouds had been briefly replaced by the morning sun.

“How did you sleep, Dave?” I said, to his still-zipped door.

“Put it this way,” He said. “I won’t need a shower this morning.”

I cackled. “This is what you get when you invest in inferior equipment.”

I returned to my tent and hauled out the 10 litre plant sprayer that I use as a camping shower. The cold water felt good after a sticky and stuffy night in the tent.

“Oi, mate.” Came a shout. “Could I possibly use the shower after you?”

I turned to see one of the dealers looking at me expectantly.

I looked up, baffled by his temerity, but then softened. Why not? I thought. Aren’t we all here in the spirit of brotherhood and oneness. To cast off the shackles of modern society and camp like ancient nomads, dancing in the fields, revelling in the ecstasy of true human connection, until monday when we will reluctantly heave ourselves back to the drudgery of the morning commute, feeling spent, more dead than alive. Good times.

“Okay.” I said. “I’ll be done in a second.”

As I was about to hand the device to him, another man approached from his group.

“When he’s finished.” He said sheepishly. “Do you mind if I use it?”

Before I could answer, another man had slinked into the conversation, with the same question.

I exhaled. “Right. That’s it.”

I am a generous person on the whole, but I saw a slippery slope developing and didn’t want to encourage a relationship where these people would be rooting around it my tent unsupervised, looking for the shower which ‘I said they could borrow’. Call it constructive paranoia, to borrow Jared Diamond’s phrase.

I hoisted up the shower and walked over to each guy, giving them a few sprays from the showerhead. Little did everyone on the site know they would be getting an unsolcited shower sooner than they thought.

Deep Cover

After burritos and a trudge around the site, we returned to our tents to recoup for the evening. Brad was holed up in his cavern as usual, blowing dank smoke through an unzipped section of his door.

The rest of us were slumped in our camp chairs in a loose circle, playing cards and swigging cider.

One of the hooded youths from the next pitch approached with caution.

“Alright fellas.” He said. “Hows your day going?”

“Good.” I said, expecting the usual sales pitch.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

Si nodded.

“Are you undies?” He said, with a glint in his eyes.

I raised my eyebrow. “What the hell are undies?”

He chuckled. “Undies. Undercover cops.”

I shot him a knowing look and grinned.

“Because you have to tell me if you are. It’s the law.”

“It’s the aviators, isn’t it.” Si said.

I exhaled. “You’ve caught us.” I said putting my hands up. “How did you know?”

I sat up in my chair. “It doesn’t matter anyway. It’s too late. We’ve got units on the way already. You guys are finished.”

He looked at my uneasily.

“Bollocks.” He said and stepped back slightly. “You can’t be cops. This guy over here is smoking weed.”

He pointed to Brad.

I said nothing and started typing on my phone, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Okay guys.” He said, with a worried expression. “Have a good night.”

Puddle of mud

We hiked at twilight to the Lion’s Den stage for a performance by Shy FX. Torrential rain had forced us all to zip up our waterproof hoods, except Dave, who had wisely brought only one change of clothes, a hoodless jacket and one pair of trainers.

As the beer flowed, I began socializing with nearby strangers.

“So, what do you do?” The girl with glasses said. “Oh mental health? My brother has mental health problems!”

She gestured for her brother to come over and muttered something to him.

“Oh you work in mental health?” He said. “I’ve got bipolar. I’ve been in and out of hospital recently.”

I nodded. “Must have been hard. Are you taking medication?”

He grimaced. “Yeh, lamotrigine. The only problem is now I have to cut down on partying.”

He shook his plastic beer cup. “Alcohol only.”

We continued a druken conversation for a while and I danced off to the next stranger.

So went the night, jumping from one district to another, a cacophony of dance music booming from every corner. We entered a post-apocalyptic open-air arena, awash with the banal thud of techno. The surroundings only enhanced my perception of the revellers as zombies. Powder-caked nasal passages. Fixed in a perpetual two-step. But so what? Aren’t these people entitled to blow off some steam? How much of the rave lifestyle is actually about the music, I pondered.

Queensberry Rules

The rain had been constant overnight and I was woken by water leaking from above. I felt a tension developing as the summer festival everyone had signed up for was devolving into a mud bath. Emerging into the daylight I could see Dave unzipping his tent.

He crinkled his nose in disgust as he wrung out his saturated boxer shorts and jettisoned them onto the grass.

I chuckled.

“For fucks sake.” He said. “Everything is soaked.”

He held up one of his trainers before upending it. Water cascaded out.

“Are you thinking of coming back next year?” I said.

He gave me a dirty look.

Picking up a loose stick from the ground, I hooked the sodden boxers and skilfully flung them back into his tent, hitting his face with a satisfying slapping sound.

“Fuck you!” He screamed.

At that point, I felt, it was wise for me to take my leave.

We took a trek to the district called Whistler’s Green, an area which attempts to extend the festival’s reach beyond pure hedonism and focuses on developing skills. Visitors can get involved in diverse activities such as yoga, trapeze, wood carving and sustainable building.

Persistent rain had ensured a low turnout that morning although a small group was gathered under the large gazebo for tai chi. You had to pay to join in, so we declined and took cover in a wooded area at the centre of the district to play some piano.

That night we headed out again into the phantasmogoria of Boomtown after dark. Pumping music, bizarre sideshows and young men with ‘I love ket’ sprawled on their torsos in permanent marker, lay before us. We partied among the throng until the early hours, revelling in the weirdness.

Sunday

The final day. The last hurrah. Stormclouds crawled across the sky as we lounged in front of the tents, awaiting another downpour.

“How have you found it compared to last time?” I said.

I had come to the festival two years earlier with Brad and his friends.

“Well there was no fire this time.” He said. “The rain took care of that.”

A huge blaze had begun in one of the festival car parks the last time we attended – started by a cigarette, over 80 cars were left as burnt-out shells when the fire brigade finally brought it under control.

As the showers continued, we headed out in our waterproofs. We danced in the quagmire below the main stage. Threw some shapes at the punk stage and did some skanking at the ska stage.

Night fell and Brad and I decided to head out for the final ‘secret guest’ set in the Sector 6 district. As the finale of the festival, the place was packed with rambunctious revellers. The guest turned out to be drum ‘n’ bass icon Andy C.

Waves of bass rumbled from the gargantuan stage. Lasers beamed and flickered across the night sky. We pushed our way to the centre of the crowd and elbowed out some skanking room. Ravers squeezed past us into the crush beyond.

Someone shoved into me from behind and I leapt around to confront them. I was surprised to see the woman that I had met at the ‘Lion’s Den’ stage. Her brother was stood behind her talking to some friends.

“What the hell are you doing?” I said, feigning indignance.

“See I knew you were a bullshitter.” She said, with a thin smile. “People that work in mental health are meant to be nice.”

“Believe what you want.” I said.

I noticed her brother snorting something off the top of his hand and twitching.

I reached over and put my hand on his shoulder with a smile. “I see you stayed on the wagon.”

He said nothing and stared forward intensely.

Reaching into his bag, he pulled out a small Listerine bottle with a pipette dropper lid. “Look what I managed to sneak in.”

I looked on with confusion at the small bottle of purple liquid. ‘This guy must have hit the bottom o the barrel to be drinking mouthwash’ I thought.

“What’s in that thing?” I said.

He giggled hysterically, a glint in his eye as he picked up the pipette and squeezed a few drops onto his tongue.

“Liquid happiness.” He said, his face transmogrifying back to an intense stare.

Helter Skelter

There is a strange edge to this festival. Although it has most of the hallmarks of standard summer music festival, the creepy, off-centre atmosphere that the organizers have tried to inspire, has come off pretty well. There is only so much you can do within the confines of the law of course, although that doesn’t seem to have stopped most of the attendees.

Boomtown is on the enlightened side of drug policy, in fact, accepting the reality of the humongous amount of pills, plants and powders doing the rounds and providing anonymous drug testing facilities in the name of harm reduction. Of course the powers that be are in opposition to this, presumably holding the view that removing this service will suddenly cause widespread abstinence. It is high time (ha!), I think that we as a society look at these problems, with an emphasis on harm reduction, music festivals only being the tip of the iceberg.

People come here to slip into a whimsical world, dark satire and strange characters, both amateur and on the payroll. Many may be twisted out of their mind for a good portion of the festivities, but so what? Since the days of Bacchanalia we have earmarked time to indulge in unbridled hedonism, dancing away the long summer nights. To be honest though, the reality of Boomtown at times, is mind-bending enough for anyone.

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