For the Love of Festivals

V Festival was a cesspit – but to teenage me, it was basically Woodstock

My first ever festival was also Oasis’s last ever gig, writes Alexandra Pollard. But what I remember most was the strange, liberated feeling that has stayed with me at just about every festival since

Monday 14 June 2021 06:32
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<p>Alexandra Pollard (right) at her first V Festival in 2009</p>

Alexandra Pollard (right) at her first V Festival in 2009

For a few years of my life, V Festival was my favourite place on earth. Sure, by the time I turned 20, I had come to see the Richard Branson-sponsored event as a cesspit of flying piss, testosterone and corporate soullessness – but for a while it was my Eden.

I was 17 when I first entered the hallowed grounds of Western-under-Lizard, Staffordshire. My friends and I had got our AS results two days earlier, and – armed with conspicuously new tents, about a dozen disposable barbecues and enough supermarket food to feed an army – we were ready to celebrate.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that V Festival 2009 was the Woodstock of its generation, but it really did have quite a line-up. Taylor Swift played on a lazy Sunday afternoon, lower down the running order than The Script and Razorlight, just three weeks before Kanye West ripped that VMA out of her hand.

Katy Perry, who at this point was still seen as a frivolous gimmick, was relegated to the smaller of the outdoor stages and delivered one of the most stupidly fun sets I’ve ever seen. Dressed in a sequined crop top with strawberries glued on, she dedicated “I Kissed a Girl” to the tipsy topless woman swaying on someone’s shoulders next to me.

Lady Gaga was practically on the small print of the poster (look it up – The Ting Tings are in a bigger font), and played in a cramped, sweaty tent that even back then felt a little ludicrous. Maybe she thought so too, because she came on so late that the lairy crowd started booing and I feared for my life. Once she arrived – covered in huge plastic bubbles, naturally – all was forgiven.

Oasis headlined on Saturday, then pulled out of their Sunday slot at the festival’s other site in Chelmsford, then split up forever. So I suppose, unless Liam Gallagher gets his way, I saw Oasis’s last ever gig. I wish I’d paid more attention – all I really remember is a euphoric rendition of “Live Forever”, a half-hearted, bordering on quarter-hearted performance of “Wonderwall”, and Liam balancing a tambourine on his head. As swan songs go, it was a bit of a pitiful squawk.

Katy Perry performs on the 4Music stage at V Festival 2009

What I remember most, though, was the strange, liberated feeling I felt all weekend – a feeling that has stayed with me at just about every festival since. I’d lost my childish confidence years earlier, and the lumbering awkwardness of teenagehood had taken over my body unbidden – and yet here, there seemed to be no rules, no social conventions, no judgement. Nobody would stare at you if you danced or yelled or sang for no reason. You could dress in hot pants, or as a banana, or in nothing at all, and you’d fit right in. I found it thrilling. These people didn’t care what anyone thought, so neither did I.

The magic of V Festival quickly died. I can’t pinpoint exactly when. Maybe it was when someone threw a can of beer at my head during Dizzee Rascal, and I spent the rest of the set weeping as my friends formed a protective circle around me. Or perhaps it was when the seventh condom filled with urine sailed over my head. Or when a group of drunk lads sat on the parched grass loudly rating every woman out of 10 as they walked past. But my love of festivals continued, as my friends and I discovered Latitude, End of the Road, Wilderness, and Festival No 6.

I’ve built my summer holidays around festivals. I’ve danced with strangers, made new friends, had sleep-deprived rows with old ones – then made up over a shared water bottle of warm wine. I’ve rowed on a lake in Oxfordshire, had a weed-induced panic attack in Wiltshire as Sufjan Stevens sang “we’re all gonna die”, danced next to an effervescent Helen McCrory in Suffolk, and swam in a lake in Norway with the person I was falling in love with.

I am slightly ashamed to say that I kept my V Festival wristbands on into my university years. Until someone in my seminar mentioned (rightly) how gross that was, so I went to my bedroom and cut them all off. I think I had just wanted to keep a little part of that liberated feeling close to me. But I don’t really need an old piece of unwashed cloth to remind me how much festivals mean to me. And it was V Festival that ignited it all.

So thank you, Richard Branson, I guess.

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