Festival scenes in books

Image: Penguin/Mica Murphy

This weekend would have been Glastonbury's 50th anniversary, if it hadn't been cancelled along with every other mass gathering this summer. But who needs a 900-acre farm full of agitprop junkyard sculptures, New Age healing and power ballad yoga when you can pick up a book instead?

Festivals and carnivals have long provided inspiration for writers looking to craft a scene around an atmosphere of carefree abandon. From work by Malcolm Lowry to Zadie Smith, here are some of the best.

Grass Stains by Kirsty Robinson (2010)

“Turning up at a festival is a bit like your first day by the pool on holiday: everywhere you look people are tanned and relaxed,” writes Kirsty Robinson in this unflinching ode to festival culture. “They know the way to the toilets and how to ask for some little fried fish in Portuguese while you fidget in your brand-new kaftan and headscarf. Right now, I'm the potato that just landed, with sand and suntan lotion up the back of my legs.”

Louisa is the potato in question, a 30-something style magazine journalist and long-in-the-tooth party animal whose life is beginning to run away from her until she heads to Glastonbury for one wild weekend. But as she embarks on three days of sun-soaked abandon, alongside a colourful cast of baggy-trousered fun-seekers, her life choices – including a shaky marriage – come sharply into focus. Can she find answers through this hedonistic haze of booze, VIP passes, muddy fields and vice? Only at Glastonbury can she find her true path.

NW by Zadie Smith (Notting Hill)

Dust down the barbecue and crank up the sound system... The Notting Hill Carnival makes a cameo in Zadie Smith's 2012 love-letter to big-city living.

It follows four Londoners – Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan – as they navigate the choppy waters of life after they leave their childhood council estate in north-west London. But first...

“Carnival!” writes Smith. “Girls from work, boys from the salon, old school friends, Michel's cousins from south London, all walk the streets with a million others. Seeking out the good sound systems, winding their bodies close to complete strangers and each other, eating jerk, ending up in Meanwhile Gardens, stoned in the grass.”

They soon find themselves in an “amazing carnival pad” where “everyone takes turns to stand on white stucco balconies, dancing, blowing whistles painted in Rastafarian colours at the carnival crowds, far below.”

Smith's gorgeous descriptive prose will give anyone who's been to West London's annual celebration of Caribbean culture a pang of jerk-scented nostalgia.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)

British consul, Geoffrey Firmin, wakes up in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, as residents prepare for the country's annual All Souls' Day fiesta, the culmination of Mexico's Day of the Dead festival. Trouble is, he has fallen too far down the bottle to enjoy any of it.

Told across a single day, Firmin wanders the town, from bar to bar, on a gut-curdling bender, fueled by enough beer, wine, tequila and mescal to raise Hemingway from the dead. “For him life is always just around the corner,” writes Lowry in this modernist masterpiece soaked in hidden meaning and metaphor, “in the form of another drink at a new bar.”

As the story nears its dramatic – not to mention tragic – climax, the long-awaited fiesta looms like a foreboding cloud. Unlike most of the village, Firmin does not have a good festival as he drifts through crowds of face-painted revellers and guitar-wielding mariachis in a fast-putrifying state of existential rot. But Malcolm Lowry's descriptions of its build up might just make you want to go to Mexico to celebrate the dead.

The Thrill of It All by Joseph O'Connor (2014)

Told not from a fan's eye view but from behind the mic, this is a fizzing tale of a life in lights.

The Thrill of It All tells the roots-to-riches tale of band who meet at university and call themselves The Ships in the Night. Turns out they're pretty good, and soon they're rocking out on a journey from a 1980s polytechnic to Manhattan's East Village, Thatcher-era London to Wembley Arena and “the endless meadows of Glastonbury”.

This is a novel about music (so much music!), family and friendship, with all the style, swerve and musical allusion of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity. Joseph O'Connor's writing, though, is what makes this story sing, riffing with a pithy, almost staccato, beauty of a Bob Dylan song. And it is awash with live performances you'll wish really happened so you might have stood a chance of being there.

Take, for instance, the moment the band plays an outdoor festival in Detroit when – surprise, surprise – the heavens open. “The field emptied in thirty seconds as punters hurried to their cars, which were parked in tidy ranks in a meadow behind the stage,” O'Connor writes. “We played to 700 cars, in the teeming downpour. Instead of applauding at the conclusion of every number, touchingly they flashed their headlights.”

Peppa Pig: Peppa's Muddy Festival (2019)

There used to be a sign as you wandered wide-eyed into Glastonbury that read, “Become one with mud”. Because it's in the squelching, welly-sucking morass of churned soil that we English festivalgoers feel most at home. For the uninitiated outdoor party seeker, a muddy festival is a rite of passage. For Peppa Pig, that privilege comes early.

The day starts brightly enough, as Mummy Pig says, in a foreboding touch of dramatic irony, that she hopes it doesn't rain. They buy balloons from a dog in a top hat, make craft dragons and watch TV in a glamping yurt. But then, of course, the pig gods have their way. And the sunny paradise quickly turns to one of mud-and-puddled mayhem.

“My most favorite thing in the whole world,” gasps Peppa, “is jumping up and down in muddy puddles.”

Fortuitously, as our trusted narrator is keen to remind us (spoiler alert), “everyone loves jumping up and down in muddy puddles.” This is pure poncho-protected fun for all the family.

Three Day Summer by Sarvenaz Tash (2015)

The first time our heroes, Michael and Cora, meet on the mud-trudged fields of Woodstock, he has indulged in a little too much of something he shouldn't have:

“Two enormous brown eyes are staring into mine. Thick lashes frame them. They look like feathers. Wait, no. They are feathers. They are the brown circular orbs found in peacock feathers. And now they are multiplying. There were two, now four. Only this bird is red and white, with thin stripes like rivulets of deep red blood going through every feather.

"Her plumage is fanning out, so many eyes and rivers. It’s impossible for it to be contained.

“'Tell me about your family, Michael.'

“Oh my God. She knows my name. This beautiful, rare bird is talking to me.

“I have to do it. Very softly, I reach out and touch one of the feathers. It’s like silk.”

There begins a love story set in the mud, sweat and drizzle of the greatest music festival in history, told across three days of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, where clothes are optional, festivalgoers queue for hours to use payphones, and iconic musicians – from Hendrix to Joplin – play anthems that defined a generation of parent-provoking impulse. A truly groovy summer romance read indeed.

Related articles