Even in the years I’m tucked up in clean sheets and not rolling around in the mud, August Bank Holiday will forever be festival weekend to me. With that in mind, today's essay is a little ode to the place that raised me. Enjoy x
Growing up, Leeds Festival was our sanctuary. Our escapism from the rules, the school, the heartache. It was our congregation before the September storm; the last of the summer wine.
Earlier this week, as Simone and I drove down the motorway on the way home from Scotland, nearly ten years since our first time at Bramham Park, we were faced with the signposting for this year’s festival. It was a hot mix of nostalgia and longing — of the better days that have been and gone. The same feeling that, at 19, propelled us to concede: okay, one last time.
Living opposite ends of the country, we came together for one last night of perpetual otherworldliness like it was our duty. I wore a silver diamante burlesque bra that I bought from a market in Marbella and not much else. I was tanned and living off a diet of diet coke and broccoli; my wings thick and my lips neon. We both had flowers in our hair and vodka in our bellies. We screamed the words back to Twin Atlantic as we watched from the big screen outside in the sludge and ducked as man-sized wheelie bins crowd-surfed above us during The Wombats’ headline slot. I have never felt lighter than I did dancing amongst Bramham Park during August Bank Holiday weekend, those years — or heavier, dragging my limbs back to my tent on a sprained ankle after Skrillex’s set.
We didn’t bat an eyelid at the grim, the grotesque, the time I had a fake wedding with a complete stranger. Not even at seeing the boy I was in love with stroll past hand-in-hand with his new girlfriend. Leeds Festival was an eruption of everything that simultaneously mattered and did not. It was both the currency of your return to school one week later and the freedom you’d have to store up in a jar and make last until moving away to university.
Except this time around there were no parents waiting at home ready to hose us down and put us to bed for three days. No high school hierarchy to hand our festival report in to — gold stars for every blackout or tent climbed into that was not your own. This year, this one last time, we were out on our own.
We wandered into *Eliot and *Dan just shy of midnight. Somewhere along the stretch back from the main arena to Piccadilly, the sea of people all traipsing back to the campsite swept them up and glued them to us. I did handstands and fell in the mud and we talked about nothing worth remembering — cider warming in our hands. Delirious from a lack of sleep and memories only partially formed, this would all take some deciphering before it could be tied up and popped away in the lockbox of my past. But that night, hooked on the adrenaline and the protection of none of this counting out in the real world, we thought: okay this.
Eliot had baby twins at home, a boy and a girl — just like my baby brother and sister. Dan was the lead singer of a band who had an album out and therefore might as well have just proposed to me there and then. I’d had my share of fake festival weddings, draw up the paperwork for the real one.
But it was Sunday night and we weren’t prepared to stay in this field any longer so we, reluctantly, waved goodbye to our new friends and danced through the darkness, out of sight of the rain-slashed tents and discarded beer bottles to eventually finding our way to the car park. They were weird, Simone would say and I hummed a slow agreement, unwilling to reveal how actually charmed I had been by the attention. I can’t believe you gave him your number, Simone laughed and I thought, I know.
In the coming months I would meet Eliot’s baby twins and learn all the words to Dan’s songs, shuttling back and forth from Leeds to London, but the concentrated conditions of festivals are not meant to withstand the harsh climate of reality. In fact, if you are going anywhere as a conduit to a time capsule, be prepared for the comedown. For an inability to achieve a feeling that was only generated as a result of a carefully constructed limited experience in time. Which is not to say be prepared for a terrible time but be prepared for a time that is not quite the same as it was the first time around.
We’d wrapped ourselves in the costumes of our youth, rented our best past selves for the occasion. Wore wellies for glass slippers and festival wristbands for ballgowns. But the clock had already sounded midnight and the better days we had tapped into were already fading.
Because here it is: the past doesn’t exist — least not in our access to it.
Nostalgia is the longing for a feeling that is no longer available. We yearn for it precisely because it is unavailable. In lockdown we yearned for freedom but now we can hold it in our cupped hands, we realise it was the yearning for that freedom we enjoyed, all along. An arguably more intoxicating feeling than arriving at freedom itself. Humans like to strive.
Nostalgia reminds you of what it was to experience something but does not offer an avenue to tangibly relive it. It’s reliving life through memories, not through repetition.
I don’t think I could go back, Simone says, as the signs pointing towards the festival fade in the rearview mirror. It would have to take a pretty airtight lineup, I agree.
But the truth is, we couldn’t go back, even if we wanted to. Not to experience the exact same thing — to tap into the very specific strain of freedom we felt as teenagers. It’s like experiencing Christmas as a child versus Christmas as an adult. It’s not unenjoyable, just… different.
In Scotland, we saw a retrospective of the work of sculptor, Karla Black. Objects oozing with cosmetic smears, mounds of dirt erecting folds of foil, an entire room filled with pink powder paint. The colours and textures were no doubt aesthetically pleasing but what I most took away from the exhibition was its demand to experience the materials in their fleeting form: coming together or coming apart. The permanent object is a fallacy, I scribbled in my Notes app as I sat and watched the exhibition film. Which has been a long drawn-out approach to asking: Can we really access memories when they are subjected to life’s impermanence?
Nostalgia makes us tinker with the belief that we can go backward, if only for a brief chasm of time, but our lived experience gained since the original event weigh heavy upon your memory like stones tied to your ankles: they twist in on themselves and change shape in correlation with your ever-growing collection of experiences. The original event cannot be replicated because you are not a replicate of the ‘you’ you once were.
Memories allow us infinite access to the playback button. To places and people and objects that existed only within a limited framework of time. Personalised film reels depicting the subjective stories of our lives; of our ephemeral time here on earth. Ones we can look at but can’t (re)touch with the same hand. But I do admire nostalgia's effort. And the sure reminder to notice your life as it’s happening because it’s the only time you’ll ever get to experience it in this precise way.
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