Features Festivals Published 20 July 2012

Latitude 2012 (1/4)

The first in a series of pieces by Carmel Doohan on this year's Latitude Festival: thoughts on fellow festival goers, new work by nabokov and Stan's Cafe, and 'medium sex.'
Carmel Doohan

The wooded fields of Latitude create a miniature and revealing world.  Watching my fellow festival-goers as much a part of the experience as watching the bands and the performances. Latituders are particularly fond of the word ‘literally’; I hear the phrase, “They’re literally, like, brilliant,” shouted into a mobile phone literally every six seconds. Also common is a sense of pathetic fallacy expressing a passion for literature: “It’s raining, let’s go and sleep in the poetry tent.” But my favourite, most eloquent eavesdropping of the weekend is the howl of “I can’t find my vagina” in in the She-pee tent around midnight.

Money washes through Latitude like rain and the numerous unexpected and unavoidable costs soon add up, with a weekend programme setting you back by £10. As wandering urban tourists try to get a grip on festival etiquette, signifiers can be seen sloshing through the puddles with each pair of ‘Hunters’ reading ”I can afford to spend £70 on something I wear in the mud.’

It is perhaps apt then, that one of the first pieces I see in the main theatre tent is an elegant analogy of the financial crisis by Stan’s Cafe’s – The Just Price of Flowers – where the conspicuous consumption and profit-mongering depicted in the piece feel all too familiar. Set in the 17th century, the piece follows the investors and speculators in the tulip trade, through the bubble of ‘tulip-mania’ and into the subsequent crash. Proverbs and poetry are woven together – useless, worthless, priceless –  and the roots of current terminology are elegantly revealed through nursery rhyme chants. There is a lot going on here; it’s a dense piece laden with reference to the current economic situation, at times as surreal as it is insightful, working on many levels and getting to the heart of a complex but clearly not so modern dilemma.

Next up on my itinerary was a visit to the Literary Arena and a little Greek folk music with graphic novelist David Prudhomme. I learn that Rebetiko is the term for 1930s Greek blues, and that ‘rebet’ means rebel in many eastern languages as well as being said to mean ‘Yes is yes and no is no.’ Although the form of music often features a bouzouki, the group that perform here use clarinet, guitar and violin. It is impossible to pinpoint where one influence stops and another one starts and to randomly stumble upon sounds I have never encountered before is a wonderful surprise.

In the Literary Salon, Stylist Magazine are hosting a debate on whether literary sex is the best sex. There are battered Chesterfield sofas dotted about the place and I am offered wine in exchange for my data. I whole-heartedly agree to this swap, enjoy two glasses of Echo Falls and submit myself to an  inbox full of promotional emails. Chaired by Table Talk‘s Emma B, the energy is high and the jokes about coming keep on coming. While two sixth formers to my right debate whether the Harry Potter novels are modern classics (the previous event was titled ‘This house believes there are no modern classics’) – Fifty Shades of Grey comes under inevitable scrutiny: recited, analysed, condemned and applauded. The audience consensus seems to be that men are more visual when it comes to matters sexual, while women are more emotional; everyone seems to be in agreement that teenage boys watch too much porn. Kirsten O’Brien, who used to present SMart, puts it succinctly “Banged senseless: yes; spunk in the eye, no- it stings.” There is lots of enthusiasm for ‘medium sex’, sex that is at least ‘real.’ The teenage girls in the audience speak articulately about this and are more than happy to fight their way to the front, take the mic and tell a room of strangers their thoughts on sex and what they fantasise about. This is both impressive and a little frightening. 

I return to the theatre tent for nabakov’s Symphonies. Thses are three twenty minute pieces from a promising sounding line up: Tom Wells, Ella Hickson and Nick Payne. The common theme is music and some of the pieces are better than others. Wells creates a glorious homage to sporting underdog films; talking to the audience he tells the story of an asthmatic, male netball star. Perfectly pitched, funny and at times strangely emotional, the detail and observational wit is flawless. Hickson’s piece is less successful: a love song for Londoners, it tells tales of love on the tube, the combination of folk and cliché making it feel more like an advert for a dating agency than her usual more astute writing. Payne’s piece is clever and romantic: the same situation is told from both the boy’s and the girl’s point of view. The best scene has the boy singing whilst blowing on a melodica in an attempt to win her heart. This pathetic mumbling is then transformed into a powerful rock ballad in his own head. Both Payne and Wells’ pieces use music to try and plot the strange movement of emotion in a way that is both unusual and effective. Key changes and sudden tonal shifts express how quickly our moods can transform; snatches of tunes come and go: epic, orchestral moments blooming from nowhere.

I suffer similarly turbulent emotional terrain that evening. As heavy rain does its best to destroy my tent and drum’n’bass fills the woodlands, I am unwilling immersed in stoned, circular ramblings from the surrounding tents. At 3am a couple drunkenly blow up their airbed just a canvas sheet away from me while discussing where they are going to go on holiday that summer at the top of their voices: “Do we want activities or just a beach thing?” At 5am they return and blow it up again having obviously failed to insert the plug the first time. This time they discuss whether or not the person who drove them down to Suffolk that morning is a cunt.

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Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

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