x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Festival-going in your thirties is not for the faint of heart

As hard as the festival was for my sense of currency, a weekend of standing in crowds was harder for my knees.

The crowd at the Reading Festival.
The crowd at the Reading Festival.

There wasn't always the confusion, or the pain. That's what comes of getting old and trying to make like you're not.

I went to my first music festival almost exactly 20 years ago, somehow persuading my mother it was entirely reasonable for her floppy-haired 17-year-old son to take the train, solo, from the grimy London satellite town where I lived to Manchester - then touting itself as "Madchester", the home of the hip - for Cities in the Park. The one-off, two-day concert was headlined by the now forgotten New Order spin-off Electronic and their shambolic Factory Records stablemates, the Happy Mondays.

I stayed in a pit of a bed and breakfast in an unsalubrious part of unsalubrious Salford, walking eight miles or more from station to lodgings to festival field. I met dozens of people who professed their amazement that a southerner would be so taken with "Manchester music" as to make the trek. Hardly anyone else had; I barely heard another southern accent all weekend. And for two days, I bounced, sang, danced - to the Wonder Stuff, to OMD, to De La Soul.

That kid, on the cusp of independence, was looking for his teenage kicks. What excuse, then, did this 37-year-old have for doing almost the exact same thing at the Reading Festival, half an hour west of London and having made the far longer trek from Abu Dhabi last weekend?

In part, it was the element of regression promised by the bill, in the form of an appearance on Saturday by the 1990s student favourites Pulp. Smarter and classier than their Britpop rivals Blur and Oasis, I first saw Pulp at Glastonbury in 1995, when they filled in at the last minute after the guitarist with the planned headliners, the Stone Roses, broke his arm.

The timing was perfect. After more than a decade of deserved obscurity, Pulp had suddenly found their stride in the previous year. Common People had been released barely a month earlier and was already a singalong classic; their biggest album, Different Class, would follow within months.

And their set was duly the stuff of instant legend, a swaggering moment of triumph for a band at the height of its powers. So as Pulp reformed this year for a summer greatest-hits tour, the prospect of a trip down that memory lane was irresistible.

There was a more personal regression, too. While my friends are mostly married, with 2.4 children and Labradors, I'm happily divorced and childless. My second bite at adult responsibility is most assuredly in the post, but for now I can still go out to play. It would seem a waste not to make the most of it.

But who knew playing was such hard work? My strongest memory from the last time I went to Reading, in 2000, was of The Kids, then a mere 10 or so years younger than me. By the afternoon of the third day they were tired but still determined to push through, jumping up for a dance and then almost collapsing with fatigue a minute later, then jumping up again, and again, and again. It was exhausting to watch back then. This time around I couldn't even look at them.

Best not to, either, because in the six years since I last went to a music festival, someone has done a bang-up job of marketing neon body paint. And The Kids have naturally put it to the most cheerfully amoral use possible, scrawling crass suggestions on their arms, faces and thighs in fluorescent yellow, pink and green, often - helpfully - with accompanying arrows for any suitor in need of a map.

That wasn't the only unfamiliarity. Between sets, the music played to keep the mood going and often spurred the crowd into song, as ever. But while even six years ago I at least recognised the tunes that got The Kids going, now most were lost on me. "Any guesses?" I implored my friends yet again as 1,000 teenagers yodelled around me. They had no idea, either.

But as hard as the festival was for my sense of currency, a weekend of standing in crowds was harder for my knees. I thought I'd put in the training earlier in the month at an entirely different festival, the Edinburgh Fringe. Among the hundreds of comedy acts there were enough familiar names to banish any sense of failing to keep up; the most reassuring were the 40-somethings, the Robin Inces and Richard Herrings making a convincing case that I'm not dead yet. And a festival in a city built on two levels, with hours of traipsing up the hills and steps between them to make the next gig, would, I thought, stand me in good stead for Reading.

Not a hope. The necessary wellies, it turned out, were not designed for long-term comfort. By Saturday night - the night Pulp delivered exactly the poised, rollicking show I'd hoped for - my knees and feet were in agony. By the time we bailed into a taxi to the station on Sunday night, after a too-short set by Elbow and one that seemed never to end by the bombastic sci-fi rockers Muse they were all but on strike.

I can cope with being baffled. Next time, though, I might take a chair.