Saturday July 17th
Sleep, that rarest of festival essentials, was in sympathetic supply last night. Somehow my ears filtered out the disquieting jumble of noises that surrounded the tent: people tripping over guy-ropes, drunken squabbling, middle-age snoring and a cacophony of teenage girls repeatedly shouting “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me!” But dark clouds are also in abundance and many revellers awake to a heavy, but thankfully brief, shower. We decide to embed ourselves early on in the comedy tent to watch Ardal O’Hanlon but the place is absolutely rammed. Keeping a beady eye out for the merest opening, we pounce on a shilling-sized spot to squat. This is a tricky feat to manage when the lumpy, dusty ground is so uneven that sitting still becomes the most complex endeavour. Tip for wannabe torturers: it’s quite impossible to sit cross-legged when you’re facing up an incline. Luckily, beefy Moylesalike MC Mark Olver bullies the crowd to make more room and soon we’re grateful not to have knobbly teenage knees sticking into the smalls of our backs any longer. The initial discomfort proves to be well worth it as O’Hanlon is an absolute delight. Sporting a beard and what might charitably be described as a 12-pack, the Irishman offers, “I know what you’re thinking: the fella’s let himself go a little, hasn’t he?” Ruminating on the recession, the perils of family life and the crisis within the Catholic Church (“It’s got to the point where even playing a fictional priest has its drawbacks”), O’Hanlon delivers a hilarious set full of charming absurdities: “I’m so useless at undoing my wife’s bra-strap that all she has to do to keep me out of the house when I’m drunk is to stretch the thing across the front door.”
After a promising but rather undeveloped routine about a thick astronaut from Josie Long, the room readies itself for a turn from another Irishman, Jimeoin. As the crowd rearranges itself, Olver reckons he has an ace up his sleeve by bellowing “Fuck me, is that Richard Curtis sitting there? Christ, it is you know!” But his efforts to engage with the reticent Blackadder scribe fall on mock-deaf ears as Curtis simply pretends the belligerent MC isn’t there. So, onto yet another Irishman, Jimeoin. I’ve seen his quizzical, bemused mug on enough posters over the years but have never watched him perform or even heard any feedback on the fella. Well, if you’re looking for some low-key, high-class, left-field observations on the minutiae of life then I cannot recommend him enough. Just watching his face perform its lugubrious acrobatics as he describes the etiquette of using one’s eyebrows socially was enough to have me in stitches.
We then go for a well-needed stretch of the legs to imbibe our secret beer-stash but there’s a problem; the main bridge is completely blocked with thousands of sun-ripened folks trying to filter through its bottleneck. We’re forced to take a detour whilst grumbling about Latitude’s ever-growing crowds. Somewhere that turns out to be roomy enough to grab a large cushion and slouch on the floor is the literary tent’s session with former 70’s dreamboat David Soul reading poetry by Nobel prize-winning Chilean Pablo Neruda. Now there’s a sentence you didn’t expect. After enjoying many Starsky & Hutch repeats over the years we were curious to catch the old chart-topper. Soul has kind, sad eyes and a throaty delivery that did justice to the beautiful verse that he was visibly moved to read. Even though the audience, headed by a line of maturing Soul-worshippers, was wholly transported by the rich utterances, I had to bite my tongue a few times to stop myself from shouting Captain Dobie-style, “Get out of here, Hutchinson!”
Time for music next and so, buffeted by the busy Saturday throng, we brown the backs of our necks whilst enjoying a fine, sturdy set from the popular Noah and the Whale. Then it’s a dash back to the comedy tent for some inspired improv courtesy of Moe the Barman doppelganger Rich Hall who makes much sport with the music-seeking teens self-consciously leaving his routine. After this it’s quite a comedown to witness the milling hordes reeling from an aural onslaught from Crystal Castles, unaccountably placed on the main stage. Whatever legitimate gripes the front-woman may have with Latitude for certain regrettable incidents over the weekend, surely it’s no excuse to vent her Jim Beam-soaked spleen on crowds merely seeking some sun-splashed evening entertainment. What they get instead is a shrill, confrontational brat whining over what sounds like an over-amplified Commodore Vic 20 loading up a Zaxxon cartridge. Whether people are generally getting tired or feeling rather heat-baked, it’s at this point I notice a certain lariness creeping into proceedings; a smattering of drunken truculence alien to our previous visit. The toilet queues have become wearingly long with people recoiling sharply as they’re assailed by stealthy pockets of marsh-gas. Festival tip number 2 (ahem): Don’t stand downwind of the khazis. The Horrors’ epic, smoky, psych-swirled routine in the Word Arena provides a welcome tonic.
Even if it’s for one night only this year, Latitude mercifully manages to maintain the tradition of headlining an act that’s built up a loyal, fervent audience over the years as opposed to the latest flavour of the month fashion-horse (hello Florence). So it’s a welcome relief to engage with a crisp, warm and well-crafted performance from Belle and Sebastian, described by a friend as ‘the band that the girl you fancy always seems to love’. The sound was excellent, and combined with charismatic frontman Stuart Murdoch’s disarmingly natural persona (both welcoming host and waspish joker) offers an intimacy to the arena strikingly lacking with most other bands. They skipped through plenty of old favourites; Step Into My Office Baby, The State That I Am In, The Boy With The Arab Strap etc and were so at ease that at one point they pulled off a memorably impromptu busk through Jumpin’ Jack Flash. What with their infamously polite stage invasions and unique brand of crystal-cut pop, it’s not hard to see why they attract such devoted followers.
Afterwards, browsing through a book stall, a curious waft of music drifts around our ears; a sustained, choral harmony of super-intense female voices. Intrigued, we mooch over to the Lake Stage and catch a truly hypnotic presentation from its source; the twenty or so members of ‘alt-girl choir’ Gaggle. When the spaceships finally arrive their strangely arresting hymns would provide a perfect accompaniment.
Fighting fatigue, we rejuvenate within the Film & Music tent thanks to Mark Lamarr presenting some fierce funk care of Noel McKoy and his blistering band. Covered in funk-blisters, we then stumble to the Faraway Forest (a small wood on a hill) where Les Enfant Terribles are holding a masked ball and cabaret. A dreamscape lit with fairy lights and populated by well-dressed revellers, this has a charming yet subversive atmosphere and is a perfect place to round off the evening. Riffed-up scuzz-blues with endearing, faux-sloppy drums from Australian three-piece The Suitcase Royale lead us up the golden staircase to bed. Latitude in a nutshell.
Sunday July 18th
Today, as it happens, turns out to be a surprise TJ day, as Welsh wildebeest Tom Jones is sprung from his leather cage in the mountains again to perform where he should have been allowed to prowl in the first place – out on the savannah of the main stage. Whether it’s a PR-job from the festival organisers to assuage disquiet after Thursday night’s balls-up, or a request from the man himself after Thursday’s rapturous response, we don’t know. But it’s a fine way to kick-start the day, watching the 70 year old Sir Tom perform like a chap half his age. When a guy in his fifties appears on stage, Jones the Voice reveals, “That’s my son, Mark. We’re more like brothers really. I had him when I was sixteen, you see.” Enjoying the surprised response, he qualifies this in one word that explains all: “Welsh.” I’ve never been a fan of his plea-wrought bellowing so it’s pleasing to witness a relatively low-key vocal performance that still reveals hints of the mighty lungs that power his sails. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he was to return in ten years time. Unlike many other acts here.
Also sure to return is comedian Andrew Lawrence who plays the helium-voiced God-squaddie in perennial BBC sit-com Ideal. Unlike many comics here who make a virtue of their improvisational skills, Lawrence sticks firmly to the script, which in his case appears to be an endless autistic hit-list of universal loathing: detailed rants with the ability to disgust and astound in equal measure. It’ll be interesting to see how he compromises these for his new series on Radio 4.
I fancy catching young Manc tips for success Egyptian Hip Hop but they’re outvoted in favour of the massive Mumford & Sons. The sun-scorched main arena is fully crammed with people of all ages to witness their brand of rousing power-folk; a style lost on me although I’m in the minority. On this showing they could’ve easily headlined an evening or elbowed, say, Crystal Castles into an afternoon slot.
Having been caught smuggling cans in earlier (thanks, over-zealous security bloke!) we head back to our tent to drain the last of our supplies before the final push into Sunday evening. Then it’s over to the sweltering film tent to watch the first half hour of The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer’s classic silent from 1928, with a new score performed live and orchestrated by Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory. The powerful, haunting music accompanies the intense black and white close-ups perfectly and it’s a real shame that the tent is only partially full. As most people are outside enjoying the good weather this would’ve benefited massively from a Thursday night outdoor slot, much like Joby Talbot’s performed score for Hitchcock’s The Lodger in 2007. These mood pieces tend to work as effective curtain-raisers; nicely assisting anticipation for the festival’s delights.
Then it’s back over to the ever-reliable Word Arena to see leather-trousered Charlotte Gainsbourg and her flamboyant band perform songs from this year’s recommendable IRM album, produced and written with Beck. Mixing a few numbers from previous album, the Air-produced 5:55, and a tune from late pappy Serge, Couleur Café, CG hosts a well-performed set and is, unsurprisingly, a captivating presence.
For the last time we roll down into the dusty woods to catch the eagerly-anticipated Darwin Deez, a man who seems to have spawned a sub-cult of permed teens sporting stringy hair-bands – a look I haven’t witnessed en masse since hiding in a car outside Old Trafford in the 70s. Deez and his band are sweet performers, breaking up their light, infectious indie-funk with crowd-wowing dance routines that raise the roof.
Suddenly it’s time to wade through the multitude to find a good spot for Sunday’s headliners, Vampire Weekend, where minor amusement is provided by a Beanoesque kid in a beret clipping pegs to unsuspecting punters. I’d heard good things about VW live and they don’t disappoint, with a polished, beefy sound boosting their sometimes delicate pluckings into a true stadium-storming spectacle. The NY quartet winningly blast through their repertoire with only one tune from both albums noticeably absent. Presumably they felt that The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance would’ve been too wistful, melancholic and incongruous for such a celebratory atmosphere.
But how perfect it would’ve been for early the next morning.
Ah. The next morning.
Monday July 19th
According to companion Siobhan, Latitude’s final night last year was a quiet and orderly affair with many visitors having already packed up and left. Flushed from a fine festival and expecting a relatively good night’s kip, I head for bed in a positive mood that’s quickly tempered by the prevalent rowdy atmosphere. Amid a proliferation of campfires an ambulance trundles awkwardly through a mess of rampant teen disorder. Tucked up with our earplugs firmly in, we attempt to ignore the scattered, escalating frenzy of screams that encircle us – my mind conjuring up images of post-apocalyptic scavengers silhouetted against a raging pyre. A tad dramatic? But it doesn’t sound healthy out there. Positively feral in fact.
Curses. My dear old bladder persistently prods me awake and I moan at the wretchedness of its timing: 4am. But the hideous soundscape beyond our flimsy canvas has worsened and I’m wondering what the security bods, so ardent in their daily beer-plundering bag-searches, are up to. I get my answer 45 minutes later when I’m led by my bulging bladder towards the toilets. They’re nowhere; scarpered by the look of it. And who can blame them? In the eerie pre-dawn glow, the site resembles a squalid refugee camp of tumbling, desperate maniacs. Picking my way through a Crystal Maze of tangled guy-ropes, trampled tents, discarded Pringles tubes and blank-eyed casualties, I ignore the raving children of the devolution and set my sights on the looming shit-sheds. I shan’t tell you what I saw in one of the cubicles; suffice to say it’ll probably occupy my image-bank far longer than is healthy along with the niggling query: how the hell did they manage to get it there?
The sky has now changed to a watery blue as I pass a bunch of kids shouting obscenities as they roll a fat muck-encrusted idiot to the water taps for a soaking. I ruminate that if the festival was to last a week it wouldn’t be long before we’re in full Lord of the Flies territory. I drift past a tent where a mature couple and their dog sit outside listening to their radio full-blast, looking like an old portrait of farmers from the Deep South. Their blank expressions suggest they’ve been up all night. Guarding their supplies or just watching the demise?
Approaching our tent my stomach suddenly lurches when I see two well-built chavs outside, crouching by the tent-flap. As I get closer they quickly straighten up. One shrugs at me and the other half-smiles, pretending to examine his nails. Their casual gestures speak volumes. ‘Rumbled. So what. We’ll find another.’ As they slope off I get back into the tent and can’t praise my bladder enough for the prescience of its timing. And then not a wink more as I listen to the wild yells gradually dissipate into the whining and grumbles of posh, wrecked teenagers. “Hey Justin. You know I lied to you when I said I was going to Cambridge.” “What? Oh, you tosser!” And then the little sods start to pack up; barking instructions between reminiscences of their squalid, adolescent escapades. A man next door snores loudly; the bastard. I’m too tired to think straight.
A little later we poke our sleep-deprived snouts outside to see people sedately stuffing their bags amid a sluggish and litter-ravaged evacuation. The contrast to the chaos of a few hours earlier is striking. We can’t get away soon enough. As we finally motor forth in the hot, slow exodus from Henham, Siobhan tells us the shocking news that a girl was gang-raped on the first night. Apparently the story was all over the news and Siobhan only found out on Twitter. She’s disgusted that the Latitude organisers, facing an almighty PR disaster, hadn’t told anyone. (Apparently there were some ‘incident’ posters around the site but we didn’t see any). This seems incomprehensible. Then I remember the deeply unsettling atmosphere of last night and shiver at the memory of the two young men casing our tent. (Since then we hear of yet another reported rape and sexual assault). On the way home, Siobhan talks about never going to Latitude again; how she’d prefer to visit smaller festivals that embody its earlier spirit, such as End of the Road. We all agree that it was far too busy this year but will probably keep expanding regardless. A great shame.
Back home I scour the forums to find that most Latitude regulars who posted would probably never go again; largely citing mainstream acts who appealed to drunken teens and general overcrowding. Ironically, some state that they’d rather pay more money in future so that numbers could be kept down. Understandably, Melvyn Benn, founder and creator of Latitude is said to be ‘distraught’ at the criminal behaviour on show this year. So where did he and Festival Republic go wrong? Well, it transpires that the problems aren’t exclusive to Latitude. This year many festivals seem to have witnessed an unprecedented incursion of the binge-drinking culture that spoiled Latitude for so many. There were many reports of vandalism and assault at the family-oriented Camp Bestival in Dorset plus two rapes and an attempted murder at Scotland’s T in the Park.
But festival organisers and attendees are rallying. Voluntary teams of Twats (yup – Tent Watch Action Teams) are springing up to work incognito alongside security staff, and The Association of Independent Festivals is expanding its Festival Watch scheme in which details of troublemakers are passed on to others.
So there we have it: a great festival fighting to maintain its unique flavour in the face of rampant expansionism. We had a brilliant time on the whole. But would we go again? Well it’s conditional, Latitude. If you keep the numbers below 35,000, if you prioritise the security so people feel safe in their tents, if you crack down on the boozing kids instead of stomping on responsible adults, if you have less teen-appeal zeitgeist acts headlining, if you bring the food prices down, if you improve the sanitation and if you make some of the showcase tents bigger then yes, I just might. Not much to ask is it?
Otherwise you’ll be consigned to a whirl of wonderful memories sadly usurped by the unspeakable sight in the cubicle and the jarring, symbolic image of one of your trademark plastic sheep upended and melting on a fire.