Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
Well, there I was, at the Isle of Wight Festival. I had been before, of course, at the end of the glorious Sixties, in the full bloom of my own personal heaven, the Spirit of the Sixties. I fell into that and got a full-immersion total-conviction baptism in that particular spirit. It still lives in me, and shines out of my eyes or between the cracks in my skin, whenever it’s most needed. I shall always be grateful to whatever gods or genetic whirlpool caused me to be born in the early Fifties, so I could burst forth as a full-blooded Child of the Sixties.
Glory Be, Hallelujah, Brothers and Sisters. We were going to bring in a New Age, powered by Love, and Freedom, and great music, and the Festivals were where we came together to worship at those altars. Our high priests were Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles, and the Doors, and the Who, and all the other musical prophets who preached their messages of love and rebellion to the thrilled multitudes. They were heady days indeed.
It was the Sixties, and the world was changing
I say that I was last at the Festival 50 years ago, more or less, but I didn’t really attend. When I arrived, with a Belgian girlfriend and our sleeping bags, I was horrified to discover two walls of corrugated iron around the arena, and security guards with dogs patrolling between them. People were being ushered in through turnstiles, and all the tens of thousands who had travelled in their many ways to be there without tickets had to camp out on the opposite hillside.
I was a veteran of many previous festivals, where you bought a ticket from someone, but you didn’t really need to, because a lot of people just ducked under the rope and joined in. But nobody minded, because the bands made their money through record sales, and festivals were the best way to rise through the ranks towards superstardom. And it was summer, and it was the Sixties, and the world was changing, or so we thought. There was no corrugated iron between you and the music, and the fellowship of all those others sitting beside you.
Something sacred was being sold down the river
One of my favourite quotes from Woodstock, once the crowds and the rain swamped the place, and food was dished out as if to a refugee horde. The announcer said that food was being distributed, and asked everyone to be patient and wait their turn. And he added this – “If you’re too tired to chew, pass it on”. There was no trouble there, hardly any arrests, everyone behaved really well, and they even made a profit eventually, from record sales and from the film.
I remember I was so disgusted in my younger days with the corrugated iron that I sold my tickets and went down to the beach. I felt that something sacred was being sold down the river back there by Military Road. The beach was something else, as we used to say back then. There were lots of people down there. In my life I’ve spent a lot of time on beaches where everyone wore something, and I’ve spent some time on nude beaches, where nobody wore anything. But I’ve only once spent time on a beach where it was all mixed up. There were people fully-dressed, and everything in between that and absolutely nothing at all.
That’s a defining quandary if there ever was one
I remember particularly a fat middle-aged American, walking along the beach wearing sandals, a straw hat and several cameras dangling round his neck, and noting else, apart from a blissful smile on his face. My Belgian girlfriend was a bit perplexed by the whole thing though. She remained clothed, and I didn’t. I was somewhat perplexed myself, to tell the truth. I had – and still have – two specific responses to selling those tickets. One part of me was proud of standing up for the spirit of the Sixties, and another part wishes I had been less obstinate and sat and listened to the music inside the arena. I still don’t know whether I was right or not. Was I a hero, or an idiot? That’s a defining quandary if there ever was one.
Fifty years later, there I was, back again. And it was all very different. I hadn’t bought a ticket this time. I happen to volunteer for a well-known charity, in one of their shops here on the Island. Head Office had the opportunity of bringing a pop-up shop over, and they contacted my manager, asking if anyone wanted to work in the shop during the Festival weekend. I had no idea that might happen, but I volunteered straight away. It turns out that most of the volunteers are even older than I am, and weren’t interested, so I was given a ticket and told to report.
Innumerable security people in high-viz uniforms
I turned up every day, and I did spend time working for my charity, but in between, and after my shift, I was free to wander round and do what I wanted, like every other ticket-holder. I was astonished by how much time and trouble was taken by the organisers in this very different world of the twenty-first century. There were innumerable security people in high-viz uniforms, and fences everywhere. But everyone there was happy, it seemed to me, and I joined them in that happiness. It was an opportunity to leave our normal weekday routine and world behind, and live a different life for a while.
I didn’t like working in the shop very much. It was in a very hot tent, and there were lots of people in their identifying tee shirts to sell and sort, so I volunteered to go out and collect money, with a bucket. And that’s what I did. I eventually stationed myself in the main entrance to the big arena underneath a flagpole, and started holding out my bucket. At first I didn’t do well. The music hadn’t started yet, and everyone was intent on streaming in and finding good seats on the grass.
She though it said “Jesus”
After a while I was told by a nice lady who put some money in my bucket that the writing on my tee shirt wasn’t very good marketing. It was plain red lettering, and it didn’t mention the charity itself. She said she though it said “Jesus” and would have hurried on by, but when she turned round she saw the famous logo on the back of my tee shirt. I’m grateful to her, because I immediately started holding up my bucket, with its proper logo on, in front of my chest, and when the music started I began to wave and shake it about in time to the music, and the money started rolling in.
I worked really hard for some hours, and when it became too heavy I took it back to the shop and counted it. Everyone was astonished, including myself, at how much was in there. So that became my job for the rest of the Festival, at least for my shift, of course. I must have been seen by thousands and thousands of people, standing there, dementedly shaking my bucket, and I myself saw those thousands and thousands back. And they would all have seen the charity logo, and I was that charity’s presence, in that spot, for that time.
I decided to call it ‘Zen Collecting’
One of the head office volunteers asked me how I did it, because she didn’t think she would have been bold enough to do that. I replied that I avoided all eye contact, and spoke to nobody at all, until they decided to approach and donate. At that point I would break into a brilliant smile, thank them profusely, and wish them a wonderful time at the Festival. That in turn would make them smile, and they often admired my own perseverance with the bucket-waving. I decided to call it ‘Zen Collecting’. I concentrated on being there, in that spot, forcefully but passively, I didn’t beseech or beg, or try to make them feel guilty. I was just there, with a bucket. If they were inspired to donate, that was good. If they didn’t, they would have at least thought about giving or not giving, and that became the most interesting thing to me.
While I was doing my thing, as we used to say back in the Sixties, I found myself splitting everyone into four groups. Obviously there were those who gave and those who didn’t, but both these groups split into two sub-groups. Some givers were spontaneous and joyous, reaching for their purses or pockets happily, and came over to say how pleased they were to be able to do so, and praise the good work the charity does in the world. The other group of givers were less pleased, because they were asked or shamed into it by someone ese, either directly or implicitly. They couldn’t refuse, so they made the best of it, and they were generally mollified by my effusive thanks.
They’re celebrating something different
The non-givers split in the same way. There were those who ignored me, because for whatever reason they weren’t going to give money away, and they didn’t care. Then there were the ones who tentatively reached for their pocket or purse and then diverted themselves away. Maybe they were thinking about it, or maybe they realised they didn’t have any change, or maybe they were just embarrassed. I made sure I never looked at them in any way that might be interpreted as criticism. That wasn’t my Zen job.
It was clear that the new Festival is less about changing the world than it used to be. But it had its compensating joys. Back in the day, everyone just used to turn up, but nowadays loads of people take the opportunity to dress up, and here was an endless diversity of clothing and costume to watch and marvel at. They’re celebrating something different. Perhaps the music, maybe the chance to get away and have fun, or just that sense of being somewhere with a large number of like-minded people. And the number of people who put money in my bucket was probably about the same as would have in a shopping street.
That was me
I was able to enjoy those same things, and I saw some great music. My highlights were Mr Nile Rodgers and Chic, and Suzanne Vega, who I never thought I would see live. I’m rather hoping that my charity gets a spot again next year, so I can repeat the experience.
And if you noticed a crazy man shaking a bucket in time to the music as you went into the big arena, that was me.
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
Image: © Callum Baker
Image: Roland Godefroy under CC BY 2.0
Image: Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell under CC BY 2.0
Image: Kathryn Heiser under CC BY 2.0
Image: Maxpixel under CC BY 2.0
Image: Jose Cruz-ABr under CC BY 2.0
Image: © Jonathan Dodd
Image: © Jonathan Dodd
Image: © Jonathan Dodd