I wasn't in the least surprised to read yesterday that there's been something of a slump in the pop festival market this year – with tickets for big events like Leeds and Reading trading at below their face value. In fact it still slightly astonishes me that people will go to them without being paid.
This isn't a prejudice, I should confess, that is based on extensive experience of the festival circuit. I visited Glastonbury once, many years ago now, and left utterly mystified. Why, I wondered at the time, did so many people feel, and with such obvious sincerity, that the music they loved would be enhanced by a pervasive smell of excrement and kebabs? Why was it thought to be an advantage to sit on a carpet of compressed garbage and observe one's heroes from a distance at which they were virtually invisible?
Since then I've enjoyed it on television and every time felt the warm inner glow of someone who gets a free upgrade to first class without even asking. And then, the other night, I went to the Feis in Finsbury Park to hear Bob Dylan play and the bemusement returned redoubled.
The insider's theory for this year's bad harvest was a glut of festivals and a dearth of new acts. The same old headliners were turning up for the second or third year running and – with money tight anyway – more music-lovers were deciding to stay at home. But I wonder if I could offer an alternative outsider's theory. It's simply beginning to dawn on people that if you set out to make listening to music as unpleasant as possible, the end result would look a lot like an open-air gig.
Take Bob Dylan's appearance as a case in point. Musically – and I'm not an expert – I thought it was almost startlingly good. You don't really go to a Dylan concert expecting to hear songs you know well, but this time he offered something close to a greatest hits' compilation. True, he seemed to have designed his arrangements to disguise that fact for as long as possible – but even so it was thrilling, intriguing and, occasionally, moving.
Unfortunately Finsbury Park appeared to have been double-booked with the North London Boorish Tossers' Annual Convention – a gathering of the surly, the incontinent and the downright aggressive. Just as you'd managed to frame Bob's tiny distant head between a shouldered girlfriend and someone's novelty hat, one of the association's members would lurch into you – overpriced beer slopping everywhere – as he attempted to wedge himself into a space that didn't exist.
Underfoot, a slimy paste of mud, discarded rain capes and plastic bottles added to the challenge of remaining upright. And though this generated the odd moment of solidarity – not everyone was a signed-up Tosser – the neighbourly attempts to create a cordon against people who appeared to believe they were entitled to shove to the front (and who got distinctly shirty when that entitlement was questioned) inevitably distracted from the music. As did the sight of people hurling half-empty beer cups and bottles randomly into the crowd – this apparently being the accepted festival way of disposing of one's rubbish. When it rained, umbrellas went up, obscuring the stage entirely and redirecting the water straight down the necks of the people who were now reliant on sound alone for their enjoyment.
This is an old fart's objection I know. It doesn't take account of Dionysiac togetherness or the collective karaoke that started up on "Like a Rolling Stone" (though I can't see why either of those couldn't be available along with a bit of comfort). But isn't it possible that it's beginning to dawn on younger music-lovers too that endless queues for terrible food and overpriced beer, surroundings like a Chicago stockyard and a performance schedule that treats the audience as the least important component in the whole affair, aren't all that good a deal – whoever's on stage?
The puzzle that is gay clergy and the CofE
The Church of England's new position on gay bishops (It's fine as long as you don't do anything but think about it) is a rather puzzling one. The prohibition on action makes it clear that the church still thinks of an expression of gay sexuality as sinful and counter to its teachings. But identifying yourself as gay is not.
This combination of permissible avowal and forced denial strikes me as a bit odd, though. Is it like someone saying, "Well, yes, I am a murderer if I'm honest – but I strive against my impulses and I won't murder anyone if appointed to a bishopric"? Perhaps so, theologically – on the principle that we're all sinners at heart.
But it would still be odd, wouldn't it, to elevate a bishop who effectively said, "Well, all things being equal I'd like to go out murdering from time to time, but I understand that's not possible under the current dispensation"? And the "openly homicidal" or those who were "homicidal by orientation" surely wouldn't be felt to be eligible for this high office, even if they promised not to act on their impulses.
The truth is that being gay (in thought or deed) is no more of a sin than being heterosexual is – and at some deep level the Church of England already knows and recognises this. It's just that it's continues to be more fearful of schism than it is of appearing arbitrary and unjust. It is a most undignified sexual position.