I couldn’t imagine doing festivals without drinking. Pulling it off filled me with relief – and pride | Laura Snapes

Estimated read time 8 min read

Twenty years ago this August, I went to my first music festival. My best friend’s mum kindly – bravely – drove us two 15-year-olds from Cornwall to Reading and supervised from a distance while we queued at the signing tent to meet Goldie Lookin’ Chain, Razorlight and the Hives, joined in the euphoric yells of “bollocks!” that swept across the campsite and eschewed the homemade food she had brought to rejoice in eating kebab-van burgers as flat and flavourful as CDs. In the photos, we look drunk – wide-eyed and giddy at the (relative) freedom, the disbelief that the pages of NME were coming to life before our eyes. But we were completely sober. Save for a couple of small local events the following summer, I think that was, until very recently, the last time I ever went to a festival without drinking. And work has taken me to a lot of festivals.

“Festival-drunk” is a particular kind of drunk. It tends to begin its steady pickling as soon as the sun is over the yardarm and last a good 12 hours or more. At its best, it’s a heavenly feeling: your most sparkling, sunkissed self, your close friends, the soundtrack to your lives writ large in front of you; the suspicion that Carly Rae Jepsen might be a child of God. The day is both endless but also laced with premature nostalgia for the present moment.

I can stitch a whole quilt of these moments from my two decades of festivalling: dancing with mud-filled Crocs as the Pet Shop Boys headlined Primavera Porto last year; watching Alabaster dePlume enchant Le Guess Who? in Utrecht in 2021 as the unplanned last act of the night after the Dutch government imposed a last-minute Covid curfew; fulfilling a teenage dream of watching from the side of the Pyramid stage when the National played Glastonbury in 2017. Sometimes there’s even pleasure in the pain – coming out of Glastonbury’s NYC Downlow squinting, horrified at the dawn sun as you realise you’ve run out of road, and trudging arm in arm down the railway track to bed as night becomes memory.

I don’t want to pathologise any of this or suggest that darkness lingers behind every good time. But in the underbelly of festival drinking, there is forgetting the music you’ve gone there to see, realising that buying several rounds of black cherry White Claws has left you with 67p in your bank account, throwing up, smoking when you wish you hadn’t, falling down a toilet at Glastonbury twice, being various shades of annoying to your fellow punters and, perhaps more importantly, your friends (as well as taking the health risks of binge drinking). I will spare you the specifics of my regrets, other than to say I am still living with the consequences of spending 11 profoundly dissolute days at the double weekender of Primavera 2022.

For me, drinking and festivals had always gone hand in hand. Drinking and music, really, too. An ex-policeman sometimes used to do PSHE lessons at school and once asked us all to swear that we would never drink or do drugs: I refused as I knew I so badly wanted to. I revered boozy indie music culture and wanted desperately to be trolling around Camden after Pete Doherty and drinking at Libertines hub the Boogaloo. Instead, from the age of 15, I was allowed to go to the local indie night on a Thursday after school – where I drank Jack Daniel’s and Coke, learned to smoke roll-ups and regularly ended the night on my knees in the toilet. My parents would pick me up at 10pm: I would protest that this was too early, though now I am stunned I got away with any of it. When I started working at NME in 2010, it was still very much the days of going to the pub on a Friday lunchtime, then returning to the office, where we would gchat one another about being too tipsy to concentrate, then roll back to the pub at 5pm for another four or five hours.

Once I started going to festivals without parental supervision – usually for work, though I take most of my holidays to them, too – they felt synonymous with drinking, something I didn’t question for a long time. At the end of 2017, I started what would become an eight-month period of sobriety, primarily to prove wrong someone who didn’t think I could do it. I broke just before Glastonbury, finding it inconceivable that I could enjoy the festival without drinking. (I don’t think I have any specific regrets from it, but I also can’t remember anything specific about it at all.) At the end of last summer, I went to various one-day London festivals, often intending not to drink, but capitulated every time. I sorely regretted the cost, the pain, the lack of self-control. Now I see them as part of a general spiral that worsened over the second half of the year.

In mid-September 2023, in the midst of a fairly precipitous decline – including being aggressively trolled, accidentally chopping off part of my thumb and dealing with the emotional fallout from another festival two weeks earlier – I was due to fly to Oslo for the by:Larm festival. That morning, I woke up with one eye profoundly swollen shut, the latest in a series of never-ending calamities. I started the day in hospital at 6am and wasn’t sure if I would make the flight, though I did, navigating Heathrow with my good eye (the other profoundly blocked from cycling on a dusty day). In a state of some destitution, I decided I had to do my first adult festival sober.

It was, I admit, significantly more boring. One night, friends went off to a cocktail bar and I stayed to watch Bar Italia and waited on their promised return. They didn’t come back – I didn’t begrudge them! Time melts when you’re having fun – so I went to bed. I didn’t go to any of the after-hours club programming. But there were joys, too. I had a Bounty bar as a reward every night, conscious that the quantity of pints I would usually drink in one night would add up to the equivalent of eating about seven Bounty bars. A friend and I danced in a near-empty bar and her natural exuberance overrode my self-consciousness and left me feeling high. I remembered all the music I saw and remembered that sober fun, at its best, can feel like having your Bounty bar and eating it. Each morning I ran around the city’s stupidly beautiful harbour and felt a combination of surprise, relief and something like pride that I had stuck to my guns. It also made me reconsider the point of going to festivals.

It’s important to make the distinction that I am not an alcoholic and I don’t think I have a classic drinking problem – more a shame problem, a highly biddable nature and an inability to always act in my own best interests. I suspect a lot of people are in this position, particularly in relation to expectations around drinking in social situations, of which festivals may be one of the most acute.

If you want to try sober festivalling, tell your friends what you’re doing (if they object, they’re not your friends) and find a replacement treat for the evening. Trust your instincts and don’t fret about going to bed when you’re done, regardless of what everyone else is doing. (Your drunk friends will plead with you to stay but forget you’ve gone within minutes: I speak from experience as the drunk pleader.) I’ve set encouraging reminders on my phone for moments of weakness throughout the night, written in the kind of lovingly deranged language that I will recognise as a sincere message from my past self. Text a friend at home who knows your intentions and let them cheer you on from the sidelines. I can’t say that the delight in having succeeded is necessarily as good as going on Glastonbury’s ferris wheel razzed at 5am, but it is pretty great. And you’ll remember it.

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That Norwegian festival wasn’t a line in the sand. I took a break from drinking for two months before going to Le Guess Who?, where I drank as usual and had a lovely and entirely non-regrettable time. But the knowledge that I could do it felt like a talisman in my pocket – one I reached for this weekend at Rewire in The Hague. I confess, I intended to do the festival without drinking and wrote the rest of this article before I went. But in the end I did two out of the four days, didn’t drink in the afternoons and really reined it in compared to normal. I feel faintly disappointed in myself but also pleased that I approached it much more consciously than succumbing to the usual festival vortex.

I’m going to at least four more festivals this year. I won’t lie – I feel real trepidation about them. I’d like to do them without drinking, but I know my propensity to cave from a combination of being seduced by the sun and undermined by my fear that I will be less “fun” if I don’t. My best hope is to approach them with the curiosity of the first time, under my own watchful eye.

Source: theguardian.com

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