Monday, 13 July 2015

Football and festivals: time off

The very slow Nicoise and the very small tent
© Steve Palmer 2015

Oxford trip 2006
I wrote in my book ‘Down’s with the kids’ about how my Friday football is a release from my duties as a parent, including being a Dad to a son with learning disabilities. And once a year the football lads have a weekend away. And as a bonus a few of us go to a music festival every year as well. I’ve worked hard for these breaks. And then I humiliate myself on them.  

The football lads are all quite sober and very politically correct. On our Amsterdam trip we were there saying: “Come on girls; cover up. It’s only yourselves you’re hurting.” 

More about our weekends away in a moment. First, though, please pay attention to the next bit as you’ll need this for later in the chapter. I’m getting you to do homework and everything.

Cake catastrophe

When our good friend Tom was about 18, he got a job in a cake factory and all he had to do was oversee the fruit pies as they travelled from one part of the building to another. On Tom’s part of the production line, the pies were already in their little plastic holders, making their way to the machine that slipped them into boxes.

Unfortunately the machine malfunctioned and started crushing the pies into thousands of pieces and Tom, bedecked in hair net, plastic goggles and a lab coat, heard the supervisor shout: “Tray up!” This meant Tom had to do something, rather than just stand around. He had to save as many pies as possible from the pie-thrashing monster.

He picked up a couple of the errant pies and it seemed quite a straightforward exercise. But soon he found he had nowhere to put them, so, before long, he was stacking them on the floor, on a nearby stool and stuffing his face with as many pies as possible. There was poor Tom, with a mouthful of pastry and sweetmeat, by now fighting against gooey stuff that was cascading onto the floor and onto his shoes, with the horrifying prospect of more and more pies making it past him and into the belligerent boxing machine.

You’d have thought there would be a big red button to stop everything.

There was.

But in the panic, Tom’s brain was too much of a scramble and he just couldn’t get his head around pressing it. 

Eventually, the supervisor rushed onto the factory floor and pressed that big red button. Tom had been employed there for two days and was let go because, he was told: “Enough is enough.” It was exceedingly awkward.

Tom appears again soon.

You lot are bonkers

Skip forward many years. We went to Oxford for a boat trip in June 2006 and we picked the weekend with the most spectacular weather. Many look back on it as one of our best weekends away and we’ve spent time in spa baths in Budapest and have lounged by a luxury pool in Marrakech. It was amazing, gorgeous, hot weather.

We spent Friday night on the boat, most of the chaps in cramped bunks with about ten inches of room. Simon and I decided we’d rather head-to-toe it on the kitchen table. Which was lucky as all the bunks were gone anyway. Neither of us reacted to drinking too much Oxfordshire bitter. Neither of us farted.  Lucky really, because the boat berthed twelve but it was more cramped than a very cramped thing. So, on the Saturday morning, we were weary but happy.

In the evening we moored up – yes, I’m equipped with all the technical terms - on the left-hand-side of the river. Football friend Rob reminds me that we got the very last mooring spot. So none of what follows necessarily needed to have happened. Anyway, we found ourselves by a picturesque old ruined building. Proper ruins from the past, and everything.
We decided to wander around the site and then walk on a few yards to cross a small bridge to the right-side of the river, where we would have dinner at a beautiful pub, outdoors. 

Actually, most of us thought “sod that”. Only two from our party of 16 decided to look round the ruins. The rest of us stayed on board for a sundowner. The position of the bridge is really important, though. Keep the image. Just north of the ruins.

Opinions are divided about whether the rest of the party should have really joined our two adventurers. Because Cliff and Pete went off for an excursion that they weren’t expecting. First Cliff. He was gone for about ten minutes. And then he came rushing back. Animated, he blurted out: “You’ll never guess what I just saw in the ruins. A young couple, rather excitedly enjoying some pre-carnal pleasure. I’m sure they were just about to do it.”

Five minutes after that, Pete returned and confirmed that he’d seen the same incident, but a few minutes on from when Cliff had stumbled on the copulating couple. Pete had really seen them, well…at it. Pete takes up the story on a recording I made of the weekend (and no, you can’t hear it. It’s logged behind a password wall. Come on; we’ve got jobs.) He says: “I saw the couple. He pulled down her leggings and they were about to come to an arrangement.”

Listening back, the language is a bit choice. Pete says: “I was proceeding in a southerly direction.” I reply: “So was he.” I finally say, in the words of a Waterboys song: “He saw the whole of the moon.” A great recording. No; you can’t.

We couldn’t believe that we’d had the same story from two angles (so to speak) or that both Cliff and Pete had politely walked away instead of watching more. No – actually, of course I can believe that. I told you; we’re very polite footballers.

Then it all got even more bizarre. Our entire group started the walk to the bridge, to get to the pub. And just as we passed the ruins, the couple magically and nonchalantly appeared; they swooped in front of us, crossed the bridge and went into the pub where we were to have dinner.

So we sat down outside this lovely Oxfordshire pub on perhaps the most glorious evening this country has known this century. And the bonking couple were two tables away. Either they were oblivious to the fact that we knew everything – and that Pete and Cliff had seen lots of it - or they were particularly carefree about their behaviour and lifestyle.
At one point I attempted to go and interview the couple themselves with my audio recording device, but I was held back by my football buddies.

We all ordered, but Tom (from the cake story – his time has come) seemed to get it all wrong. He selected a Salad Nicoise - and it was the ‘late’ one. You know; the order where everyone’s craning their necks around because everyone else has been served; and the rest of you can’t enjoy yourself until the final bit of food hits the table. It was soon christened the ‘Slow Nicoise’.

But eventually it arrived. Along with Tom’s chips.

By the way, Tom, like some of my other friends who are drawn to this sort of thing, also had an embarrassing moment in Iceland's Blue Lagoon. The geothermal spa is near the capital, Reykjavík, and you have to shower naked before you bathe. They don't want dirt in the minerals. Tom was so excited about being there he forgot to put his trunks back on after the shower, and only realised this when he was sitting in the actual lagoon. Eventually he summoned up the courage to perform the squirm of shame past some astonished families, with parents quickly placing hands over children's eyes.

Anyway, back to the salad and chips in Oxford in 2006. As far as I know, Tom’s never done anything to warrant what happened next, but the waiter held onto the plate before handing the chips over to Tom; he seemed to be sizing him up and down. After what seemed like an eternity, he put the plate down and rather confidently said: “Greedy bastard.” Cue consternation then laughter. The waiter called Tom a greedy bastard. And got away with it.

So an evening that started off with the hope of a sundowner, ended up with some default-voyeurism involving a couple who could have mistakenly believed that we were following them; and a waiter who was either the rudest man on earth or the greatest person in the world, with a mystical knack for understanding emotional intelligence, in that he judged to the n’th degree what the response would be when he brought the chips out and abused Tom.

Tom’s Slow Nicoise was full of tuna but tuna soon turned into the lamb.

Frightening fleeces

Our friend Lyle had to leave earlier than the rest of the party. His job in education sees him often entertaining visiting foreign dignitaries, and this was June 2006. The World Cup was on. Some Japanese guests were arriving early on the Sunday at Heathrow and Lyle was to pick them up; and then take them to a Central London sports bar to watch one of the group matches. He didn’t want to leave during that great Saturday evening, so he departed on the Sunday morning, very early.

But Lyle didn’t count on the ‘getting to Oxford train station’ bit. Because he had to get there via a country lane. It was early. And Lyle probably should have called a cab. Yet I’ve told you how beautiful the weather was that weekend. Lyle had hardly had any sleep. And a bracing walk down a country lane seemed like a great idea.

Until he met a sheep. And then another. And then hundreds. And then thousands of them. Surrounded by sheep, Lyle thought this was quite funny.

And then the sheep charged him. They penned him in and started being really aggressive. Lyle started feeling uncomfortable. They shuffled towards him and performed some close-to-the-body head-butts. Sheep aren’t supposed to do this, are they? There was actual physical contact, ref. Lyle’s ‘flight-or-fight’ receptors were starting to go all over the place. How pathetic to take aversive action against some ruddy ruminants…

Former Labour Chancellor Dennis Healey famously said of his one-time opposite Conservative number, Geoffrey Howe, that an attack by Howe was: “Like being savaged by a dead sheep.” Lyle was being savaged by many live sheep.
Sweat was now pouring down his back. He started to panic. But then he had a brainwave and got his backpack, and opened it up. This seemed to have a partial success rate because the sheep appeared momentarily interested in what was in his bag, rather than continuing the sheep stampede.

Lyle then used the open bag, with the sheep-heads in them, to whisk them away one-by-one. This was painstaking and took about an hour. It seemed like forever. I think Lyle felt both mighty relieved and a bit silly when he got away. Before he knew it, he was sheep-free and his train was hurtling towards London; On the train, he opened his backpack and screamed when he saw a sheep’s head in there. Then he woke up, sweating again.

I’m sure that telling his early-morning story to his Japanese guests may have got lost in translation. However, Lyle tells me that the Japanese have a proverb: “An army of sheep led by a lion would defeat an army of lions led by a sheep.” And I’m grateful to Kevin, another of the friends I play football with, for pointing out that 2015 is the Chinese year of the sheep. Lyle had been totally flocked. But it also happened to a guy in Australia. He had to get off his motorbike and the film on YouTube is mesmerizing. I’m sure Lyle will concur. I’ve just this second emailed it to him. 

Sweet dreams, Lyle.

Laughing lavatories

At a music festival camp site the toilets are all anyone ever talks about. Normally, going to the toilet is a quick, functional activity. At a festival, it’s an endurance test. And a major topic of conversation; how long the queue was, how long you were in the temporary lav and whether it was worth the trip, in your wellies, for what you achieved. It becomes an obsession. In 2009 I saw a barnstorming performance by the band James at the V Festival; and dropped a particularly satisfying three-pounder. It’s all I remember.
Men and women
Imagine the scene. A woman – let’s call her Vicky – is persuaded to go to a festival, by her friends, because “it’ll be a laugh.” She packs meticulously, enjoys the first night in the campsite and looks forward to the bands starting the next day.

And then, in the morning, she takes her first visit to the bog. The loo. Those temporary lavatory companies, that deal with the waste, do an amazing job. They suck up festival shit and piss and take it away from you. They provide an important public service. Although, at the time of writing, I’ve just returned from the Latitude Festival 2015, and the truck that took away the shite etc had, written on the side: “Non-hazardous waste.” How, in anyone’s universe, this can be a claim that can be believed, is beyond me.

Back to Vicky. I’ve seen the look on the faces of women like Vicky who open the door and leave the portaloo / septic tank for the very first time, and it’s not good. Vicky’s about to abandon the festival site because the look is one of horror, confusion, disgust, revulsion and regret.

My top tip is to go into a festival toilet when a woman has just been there. They generally clean up better than men do. This is all important stuff. Except the festival I’ve just been too had loos for men and women. Separately. And the seats were screwed down. If you wanted a dump, you had to wipe off all of the urine that blokes had sprayed across the cubicle, in total abandon. Wet wipes can be a necessity.   

But, a few years ago, my brother-in-law Andrew went to ablute in the portaloos, or perhaps we should call it the crappy encampment. A bit hungover, the poor lad lingered in the cubicle perhaps just a bit too long. After a while, it all seemed eerily quiet.

Too quiet.

He gingerly emerged from the plastic poohouse to discover that a lorry had, whilst he was shitting, come along and blocked the entire entrance to the loos. And Andrew had to watch on in terror as in front of him, the tops to the pissoir units had been taken off, in readiness for sucking into the lorry. So, on his departure from that cubicle, he was met with eight steaming vats of urine. Piss soup. And he couldn’t leave until all the remnants of ravers’ bladders were sucked away. Pipes were pulsating, the stench was something you’d imagine in a refugee camp and poor Andrew had an out-of-body experience as piss went past him in a conveyer belt of hell.

When he got back to our tents, he turned down my offer of an apple juice to go with his breakfast.

Carry on camping

But at least Andrew had attended to his tent. Of good, robust construction, this behemoth of camping culture ensured him a good night’s sleep and shelter from the rain. (When it rains at festivals the ground gets muddy. When it doesn’t rain, the bogs send over a smell from a few hundred yards away. Nice.)

Back to Tom. Following his cake-smashing, naked Icelandic run and Slow Nicoise, he came with us the V Festival and was slightly less prepared than Andrew, myself and others. 

At the same festival where Andrew was marooned in pumping piss, Tom brought along his six-year-old daughter’s tent. He reckoned that the most important thing to factor in was how quickly to get the tent up. It was super quick.
And his head stuck out of the top. It was tiny. Someone in our group unkindly described the tent as a ‘body-bag with a hard on’.

And instead of going into the ‘foyer’ bit of the big tent that my friend Steve and I were sharing – we named our tent Dave – Tom decided to see the whole festival out, sleeping with his head out of his tent. He rejected the offer to spend the night snuggly inside Dave. But there’s a problem. People wander around festival sites all the time. Our group arranges our tents in a certain way so that we have a communal area to sit around in, but everyone ignores that and tramples through, looking upwards as they’re trying to locate the flag that’s flying near their tent. So, folks aren’t good at looking where they’re going, they’re often drunk and they’re tripping over guy ropes every ten seconds.

And Tom’s daughter’s tent was about two feet high and below people's line of sight. Tom was rather vulnerable to having his head trodden on. His coping mechanism was to stay awake all night and when someone approached in their confused state, Tom would shout out: “Small tent!” And then, as the person or people came nearer and nearer, he’d shout it again, more and more desperately, until he had to curl himself up into a crouched position to get as much of his body as possible inside his daughter’s tent…so that he didn’t get his head trodden on. And his back was in agony. Tom’s not been back to another festival.  I still regularly trip over guy ropes.

Bongo man

The Green Man Festival in 2014. A guy we were with got increasingly frustrated, as the weekend went on, by being barged past by festival-goers. This was beginning to ruin his enjoyment of the bands. But, if you go to a lot of gigs, you get used to people pushing past you to get to a better position than you’re in. You either let it get to you or you have a go back. I’m in the former camp. This guy wasn’t. You could see the resentment building up. Advising him to ‘leave it’ wasn’t going to wash. (A bit like us at our festival tents.)

We were waiting for the ritualistic midnight burning of the Green Man - where people play bongos and generally whoop as the fire takes hold of this giant grass figure - and this woman tried to get past us. This friend finally saw red. It was the moment I’d been expecting and it promised to be particularly awkward.

He said:  “I've put up with this all weekend and I'm sorry - I'm not letting you past. I'm sorry but no - not this time.”

The woman said: “I'm playing the bongos.” He said: “Go on then.”

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