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First Person

Nappy changes and tantrums over Michael Gove: I took my one-year-old to a music festival

Last year, Ben Olsen and his wife decided to take a pilgrimage to a music festival with a tiny newcomer in tow: their one-year-old Nancy. A year on – after surviving Covid, exhaustion and fox urine – they’ve tried again

Sunday 16 July 2023 06:30 BST
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Best seat in the house: A little girl sits atop her dad’s shoulders at a music festival
Best seat in the house: A little girl sits atop her dad’s shoulders at a music festival (iStock)

It’s just after 9pm and lilac hues have spread across Dorset skies, shadows extending over a panorama of marquee tops. Perfect conditions for the first night of End of the Road, whose Friday headliners – Black Midi, Battles and Fleet Foxes among them – are minutes away from stepping on stage. Yet, rather than slipping through the masses to grab a good spot, I’ve been back at my tent for an hour already. Having unfolded a stool in the last of the sun, simmering lentils and a mug full of boxed cab-sav for company, my one-year-old daughter, Nancy, has finally nodded off in the tent, unaware of earlier negotiations between her parents. After an afternoon watching bands from a lower-decibel distance as a family, it’s my wife who’s out tonight, enjoying her child-free break for freedom. Although, with the Pixies – a band beloved since teen years but never seen live – top billing on Saturday night, I felt confident in my call as “White Winter Hymnal” carried on the breeze.

We’re a day into our first festival as a family of three, an experience already proving quite a journey. As a sometimes music journalist, I’d covered events across Europe over the past decade, adept at negotiating stage splits, balancing reporting duties and life-affirming experiences with willing accomplices. Of these, End of the Road has remained a regular fixture, an informal end-of-summer meet-up with industry colleagues and friends – as well as my chosen stag-do destination. With a one-year-old in tow, this year would mark a stark contrast.

From the freshly purchased family-sized tent – the subject of substantial research and investment, and an attempt to win over a camping-averse wife – to the travel cot, buggy, strings of fairy lighting, endless layers, toys and first-aid trappings for every eventuality, the baggage was endless. Shoulders ablaze, I’d carried it all in as my wife kept our daughter entertained. Stepping into my role as responsible dad, I’d practised the tent’s set-up at home prior to arrival and, with a tangible sense of optimism about the weekend ahead, started separating pegs from poles. Yet, with the tent almost up, something unsettled me. What was that smell?

Unzipping the bedroom it hit me. My earlier garden practice run had provided the perfect sheltered toilet for a visiting fox –  evidence of which no amount of wet-wipe scrubbing could remove, resulting in a showdown with the reluctant camper and a smell that would accent a weekend in which expectations were continuously lowered.

After my wife crashed back in on Friday night, earlier than anticipated and hamstrung by a fast-developing cold, we wondered if we were up to the challenge. Nancy was having a nice time, happy tracking insects in the long grass or studiously inspecting the contents of her snack bag. But could this equally have been any other field? Had we been too exhausted and distracted to embrace the experience? By contrast, our camping companions had brought their five-year-old, who enthusiastically shared stories about favourite bands and the wicker dragonfly he’d crafted, as his dad talked about the surprise sets he’d happened upon the previous night. Perhaps we’d just taken all of this on too soon.

The next morning, I nudged Nancy’s buggy around the site, stopping at the kids’ area, where a neckerchiefed uke player offered up nursery rhymes with instruments for children, which were seized upon with pleasure. Various childless friends were never far away, entertaining our daughter in bursts. Later, after reuniting with my wife, a highlight was bobbing to Los Bitchos’ buoyant afternoon performance with Nancy held aloft, as was a brief glimpse of Jockstrap packing out a small stage in the woods. Yet other moments – flailing nappy changes amid aghast onlookers, straying too close to the stage with a buggy as the light faded and the crowd surged – presented a sharp learning curve. Still feeling under the weather, my wife headed back to the tent with Nancy as the Pixies arrived, Frank Black’s substantial presence now underscored by a pang of guilt. After checking in and being signed off to stay out, I’d joined an excitable crowd for an unannounced late-night set at the Tipi stage, which, after turning out to be one of the tiny handful of bands I’d already seen that day – again sounded another minor chord on my tiny violin.

As the skies cleared, we’d discovered corners along the way we’d otherwise never have seen and met a similarly dazed yet determined community of parents

With my wife’s health deteriorating further overnight – diminishing her perception of fox piss, at least – we made the call to leave on Sunday morning and I hauled everything back to the car. On the long drive home, and hours before Covid would be confirmed, it had to be asked: had this been fun for anyone concerned? Was this festival too aptly named for a new dad trying to reconcile past and present lives?

This all happened in the summer of 2022 and, unfazed, we tried again this year – albeit at the even smaller scale and decidedly family-friendly Kite Festival in Oxfordshire. While Nancy’s advanced age presented new challenges – tentative first steps now a confident swagger – her inquisitiveness also marked her out as the perfect festival companion. Expectations now firmly in check, we let ourselves be led by circumstance and proximity, stopping for whatever drew the eye rather than dashing from act to act, allowing us to slow down and see the world through her eyes.

Occasionally we tag-teamed the lineup, each picking a couple of acts to witness unhindered by short attention spans (my wife took former PM John Major’s packed-out talk in the big top, I took Suede). Under the hot sun, our meeting point at the shaded children’s area also helped keep Nancy from turning pink in the sun. Clapping furiously at the end of shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s morning debate, her grasp on Labour’s manifesto pledges seems better than most – although this mimicry of crowd behaviour proves an endearing feature at later events, too.

An uncontrollable tantrum during Michael Gove’s appearance at a panel discussion saw us quickly extract ourselves from the tent, drawing smiles from an audience impressed by the effectiveness of her heckle. Further priceless memories included dancing together at Candi Staton’s sundown set, Nancy with a brioche in each hand – ear defenders askew – visibly finding her feet. The following day the skies suddenly broke, with an electrical storm closing all stages, sending Birkenstock-clad families sprinting for cover. The one attendee thrilled by it all was Nancy, who careered around cackling as security attempted to keep punters from the marquee’s lightning-conducting metal poles.

A young girl is carried out of Glastonbury Festival in 2022 (Getty Images)

As the skies cleared, we’d discovered corners along the way we’d otherwise never have seen and met a similarly dazed yet determined community of parents. We still hadn’t nailed the performative kids-at-festivals thing – there was no trolley adorned with decoration or whimsical outfits – but felt comfortable that we’d struck the right balance, fulfilled by a shared experience led by the spontaneity of a child’s impulses. It marked a shift from any naive attempt to carry on with our lives as normal.

An alternative, of course, is to leave your family at home. A couple of weeks ago I joined 250,000 others at Glastonbury, my own spontaneity given breathing space once more. Thrilling, yes, but also a weekend that at times left me seeking my small festival companion among the other attendees. I was temporarily overcome watching a daughter on the shoulders of her father as he introduced her to a favourite band, excitedly explaining each musician’s role. “How old? I’ve got one a similar age,” was shared with various others. Yet it was also at Glastonbury, as the temperature nudged into the thirties, that I spotted another dad – fixed grin but dead behind the eyes – pushing three irritable kids in a trolley up a shadeless slope. I nod my solidarity, before skipping off to the bar – relieved, this time, that’s not me.

Bumping into Joe Goddard from Hot Chip, whose bandmates collectively call their kids the Micro Chips, he says that of all the children he knows, it’s those who have always been dragged to festivals who have proved the most rounded. Something that resonates with me as the Glastonbury hangover subsides and – reunited with my family – I start looking forward to carving out new shared experiences in crowded fields once more.

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