Photos with thanks to The Big Feastival © Andrew Whitton, Fanatic

Licence to Rest and Play

30th June 2017

Summer’s here and that means festival season is in full swing. From its pagan roots to its current status as multi-million pound money-machine, Deborah Mulhearn looks at why we love to take the party outdoors…

Festival season is upon us, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it never went away. Festivals have proliferated to such an extent that there are now thought to be well over a thousand held each year in the UK. More than seven hundred of these are music festivals, ranging in musical tastes from Glastonbury (rock) to Glyndebourne (opera) and everything in between.

And there are scores of festivals dedicated to art, books, beer, food and film. Niche interests are catered for too: sheep and scarecrows, ideas and angels, hats and hungry ghosts – they all have their own festivals.

All that fun and feasting, the chance to see your favourite band/author/celebrity, or just to meet up with like-minded people, is an exciting prospect to everyone, surely? Well, depending on your standpoint, it could also mean being infuriated by all the blocked roads, delays, litter, noise, crowds and chaos raining down on your ordered world.

Local authorities welcome festivals nowadays as a crucial source of income in cash-strapped times. They may be a headache to organise, to meet ever-increasing expectations from locals and tourists alike, and to manage the influx of visitors. But people spend money at festivals, and in the places they are held.

The music festival industry (yes, it’s an industry) is calculated to be worth more than £2.3bn to the economy. Some believe the market is saturated (and not just because of the weather) and there have been closures. Despite this, others pop up the following year. Festivals are in rude health, and range from free events in your local park to multi-million pound businesses where tickets cost hundreds of pounds and sell out in minutes.

The bigger they get the more people become dependent on their success and sustainability for their livelihoods. As well as those directly involved, there are associated businesses such as travel, haulage, lighting, publicity, food and drink that need them to succeed. Book festivals are a crucial source of income for many authors. According to a 2016 industry report, a quarter of a million people go to the Hay Festival, Britain’s most famous literary festival (and nowadays covering much more than just books), and 60,000 books were sold at the Edinburgh Literary Festival in 2015.

For the civic minded, it’s a great way of bringing communities together in common cause and celebration; after all, festivals have been part of our culture since pagan times. While today’s festivals don’t have much in common with bacchanalian revels – not the ones I attend anyway – there are often evident some vestiges of their origins in the seasons and the earth’s cycles, in religious observance and in honouring gods and nature.

Traditional festivals were also a way of granting people licence to rest and play after working hard – a few days of merrymaking after the planting or the harvest, and then back to the ploughing and butter-churning. That licence was granted by the Church and the landowning authorities, and, despite its obvious link with licentiousness, was proscribed in its nature and limits to a large degree. The feasting was a reward for their hard work but also an important outlet to deflect boredom or grievances, and so keep dissent, or worse, at bay.

The short burst of freedom from daily working patterns meant people could be literally and figuratively ‘beside themselves’, with society’s rules and conventions relaxed. But only for a time. Today, that temporary nature and the corresponding element of social control are in some ways even tighter. Take Bonfire Night, for example: ‘Please to remember the fifth of November…’ is a Hertfordshire rhyme that has given rise to a festival of sorts celebrating a failed coup.

It used to be a thrilling, anarchic gathering – whether of family in the back garden or friends on a piece of wasteground, building the bonfire painstakingly over weeks, then coming together for fun and mischief on the night.

Nowadays it means a controlled firework display at a designated location, orchestrated by the local council and patrolled by a security firm. The potent symbol of a huge, fierce, uncontrolled bonfire – sometimes policed only by children – is a rare sight now, no doubt thankfully for the fire brigade and the first-aiders.

Yes, festivals bring much-needed business, but that anarchic spirit barely exists any more because they have been organised by local authorities rather than by the communities themselves. Which begs the question: who are they for? They have social value in community cohesion, argue local authorities and the organisers. They impress tourists and engender a sense of civic pride. There may be more festivals than you can shake a stick at, but you may as well make that a glowstick because festival fever is here to stay.

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