next weekend... start the festival season

Festival organisers have decreed that summer is here. Next weekend's Essential Music Festival opens the season, and from then it keeps going until the end of August, seemingly without a break. Sadly, the legendary Glastonbury is not happening, but there will be plenty of other opportunities to get sunburnt and thread your Doc Martens with brightly coloured laces.

what is a festival?

"The gathering of the tribes descending / Vultures from a caustic sky / The rotting carcass of July / An ugly sun hung out to dry... / Yes, yes, yes, it's the summer festival / The truly detestable summer festival." That's merry old Edwyn Collins' opinion, anyway. Alternatively, it could be the best fun you'll have all year. The simplest definition of a summer festival is a rock concert in a field, featuring several bands on one or more stages, and a few thousand empty paper cups crushed into the turf.

so, what's on offer?

The three festivals dividing the spoils of Glastonbury between them (ie, indie rock, with separate stages for jazz and dance music) are Reading, Phoenix, and T In The Park. The last of these takes place near Glasgow and, given that the main reason for attending a festival is to boast about it to those of your friends who didn't go, it is highly recommended to anyone living in England. Tribal Gathering is more clubby; Womad is the home of world music; the Fleadh is London's Irish music festival, famous for never actually having many Irish acts; and Brighton's Essential Festival is segregated into three separate, and quite expensive, days: dance, indie and reggae. The Masters of Music festival in Hyde Park (the first rock gig there since Queen played in 1976) sees The Who reforming to perform Quadrophenia, alongside their contemporaries, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. Specifically designed to provide journalists with an opportunity to make jokes about Zimmer frames, it also features Alanis Morissette, who is less than half the age of the other big names. Perhaps the organisers got her mixed up with Jim Morrison. In addition, Pulp, Paul Weller, the Sex Pistols and Madness are staging their own one-day fests.

it's not just about music, surely?

Indeed not. Summer festivals are an ancient tradition, shrouded in Celtic myths. Their sites may well be ley line junctions, where tribes of travelling people can congregate and commune. At least, that's their excuse for tunnelling under the perimeter fence instead of buying a ticket. If your spiritual energies get scrambled you can rebalance your yin and yang by meditating in the Healing Fields, or in the comedy marquee, where the peace is only interrupted by the likes of Eddie Izzard or Mark Lamarr. The fields will be bordered with hundreds of stalls selling food and drink and, more essentially, tie-dyed sweat shirts made of sack cloth.

will i have to camp?

Unless you book a room near the site months in advance you'll have to take a tent. It adds to the atmosphere and convinces middle-class teenagers that they really can return to the wild. This delusion lasts until they need to go to the toilet, any festival's most repulsive experience. (Top WC tip: don't pitch your tent too close to a hedge.)

is drug-taking compulsory?

Believe me, festivals are surreal enough without chemical help.

the listings

Tribal Gathering, Otmoor Park, Beckley, near Oxford, 0181-963 0940, date is being rescheduled; Essential Festival, Brighton Stanmer Park, 01273 887878, 25-27 May; The Fleadh, Finsbury Park N4, 0181-963 0940, 8 June; A Lazy Sunday Afternoon, Finsbury Park N4, 0181-963 0940, 9 June; Madstock 3, Finsbury Park, 22 June; Masters of Music, Hyde Park, June 29; T In The Park, Strathclyde Park, near Glasgow, 0131-557 6969, 13-14 July; Womad Festival, Rivermead, Reading, 19-21 July; Phoenix, Long Marston, Stratford Upon Avon, 0181-963 0940, 18-21 July; Cambridge Folk Festival, 01223 357851, 26-28 July; Reading Festival, 0181-963 0940, 23-25 August; Pulp, Hylands Park Chelmsford, 17 August, and Victoria Park, Warrington, 18 August, 0171-287 0932 / 0115 934 2007.

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