CARLING WEEKEND - I Predict No Riots?
Ruth Midget takes a look at why this year's Leeds Festival was particularly quiet
Left: A calm Sunday night at Leeds - whatever next?
Photo by Gary Wolstenholme
Leeds Festival 2006 will go down in history as the year where the riots took a break. While the last night of Leeds did experience some unrest in the campsites, there was nothing on the scale of previous years. 2006 saw some changes to the rules of the Leeds campsite, as well as the advent of the Love Not Riots campaign; but to what extent did these have a hand in the lack of rioting? Rock Midgets reporter and Leeds festival regular Ruth Midget investigates some of the reasons why this year's Leeds has been the quietest yet.
I usually follow a set routine on the last night of Leeds Festival. After all the bands have finished, the tents are cleared, and it's safe to step out into the market without feeling like a salmon heading upstream, me and my mates usually meet up in the Lockup Tent to compare notes on bands. Then, after a quick wander round the market to cure the munchies, and when we feel drunk enough to enjoy it, we head off to the Red and Orange campsites to watch the riots.
Now don't get me wrong here – I'm not in the habit of getting my kicks from watching the wanton destruction of public property. If it's not a Rammstein gig, it's not worth it. Leeds on a Sunday night is like a low budget Rio carnival. Forget the free hugs and conga lines. Blokes put on dresses and makeup. Groups of kids walk through the campsite chanting songs and beating handmade percussive instruments. Couples strip to their undies, paint their bodies and skip between tents in lust-filled abandon. 2005's highlight was watching a group of fully-geared-up riot policemen guarding a mini fire engine on its way through the campsite... followed 5 metres behind by a huge crowd of kids singing the Stormtrooper Theme from Star Wars.
In short, it's the one night of the year where you can walk up to a bunch of strangers, and share booze and random stories by campfire light, while watching Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker having a lightsabre duel. Any rioting that does take place is always something of a downer, and mainly the result of idiots, who've had one too many swigs of White Lightening, getting carried away and setting fire to tents and/or gas canisters.
This year I was out a little later than usual, but still early enough to catch maybe some mud sledging or a couple of explosions. However, the campsite was silent as the grave. At 3am there was only one campfire visible in Yellow camping – this despite the fact small campfires were actually allowed for the first time this year. A quick word with a couple of Oxfam Stewards by the arena entrance revealed that relatively few incidents had come to light over the previous hours; in fact, even the night before had been more lively. While the following morning's news reports indicated there had been the occasional disturbance and two incidences of rape in the arena during some of the sets that evening, few reports indicated anything like the scale of rioting over previous years on the site. How come?
This year saw the launch of the Love Not Riots campaign (www.lovenotriots.com), a growing movement started music fans Amy Last and Zena Gardner. With the observational prowess of Richard and Judy, Amy and Zena note that "having been to Reading and Leeds we have come to learn that there seems to be a trend growing for Sunday night riots", and aim to change the views of "the rioter" in order to save the Carling Weekend from being closed down due to the yearly reports of vandalism. Love Not Riots isn't an entirely independent organisation, funded as it is by popular event reviews and information site efestivals.co.uk, plus Carling Weekend organisers Mean Fiddler have also given a hand with badge funding. However, the initial idea came from discussions between fans on the aforementioned review site forum, as opposed to any corporation; this is for the fans, by the fans, spearheaded by two girls in their twenties who wanted to do something about what is, year after year, a dangerous event for many festival goers – and there is a long list of innocent victims of the fires to prove it; for example, last year’s victim of a flying gas canister who lost an eye.
A cause with worthy intentions, certainly. However, for us Northerners, this seems something akin to locking the stable door after the horse has bolted, in a manner of speaking. While riots at Reading appear to be a comparatively recent phenomenon, Leeds has been dogged by them at least since I made my first trip in 2000 (that's right Reading – you invented the moshpit bottle fights, but we had to take it one stage further). Indeed, steps had already been taken to curb the riots as early as three years ago, with recent years seeing Thursday night entertainment for Leeds only, later opening of the market area and rides, and most notably a change of venue.
Leeds regulars will already be aware of the move from the festival's old home of Temple Newsam Park to the current site of Bramham Park in 2003; a move which took place due to 2002's particularly violent rioting. Partly it was a question of quite understandable local reactions to the renewal of a permit for the Temple Newsam site; but by that point Mean Fiddler had already realised the problem with the old site was the location. Temple Newsam's layout not only made it difficult for fire engines to get to appropriate entrances to the site to tackle blazes, but the twisting roads across the lumpy landscape made it hard for anything but the most powerful four wheel drive cars to reach the sites of the greatest violence. Temple Newsam didn't cause riots, but it certainly didn't help diffuse them. Two applications, one for each site, were made for a site license in 2003, Mean Fiddler opting for the Bramham Park after asking for 24 hours from Leeds City Council to consider its options. However, while the new site has led to improved access for vehicles and hence swifter response to signs of rioting, the problem had yet to be completely eradicated last year – the riot police weren't just there for cheap George Lucas-themed laughs. Therefore, in 2006, there has still been a place for a campaign like Love Not Riots to step in and make a difference. The question is whether they have done so.
Despite the fanfare, the actual campaign itself seemed to consist of little more than free badges, t-shirts and some high profile publicity. The Myspace generation and its poster boy bands know the power of marketing more than anybody, and sure, plenty of kids were wearing the badges at the festival; but then street team members, and anyone with half an eye on the queues before shows and the rush at the end, will know most music fans will take any free crap they can get their hands on at a gig. Whether it simply goes straight in the bin when they get home, or hangs around for another week or so afterwards, is the big question. A lot of people who I spoke to had never even heard of the Love Not Riots campaign and just thought they were cool badges. Of course, as to whether it worked despite this is another matter.
Would you hire your land to these people?
Photo by Gary Wolstenholme
I've already noted that while Sunday was a quiet night, the previous evenings had been more rowdy. Friends camped in quieter parts of the campsite reported neighbours firing gas canisters at them because they "didn't like them". The occasional Thursday night drunken ruck was still in evidence. However, things seemed more good-natured than usual throughout the campsite itself all weekend, even before Love Not Riots arrived on site [We've since discovered the stall had arrived onsite on Wednesday, but was an hour late in opening - oops! - Ed.].
There were no major changes to campsite layout this year, but many new subtle changes to the different areas. In previous years, the arena side edge of the campsite as a whole served as a focus for food, rides and other entertainment, particularly by Yellow where the Aftershock and Oxfam tents are located, playing music into the early hours. While these sites remained, this year they were joined by two more dance tents, including the by now legendary Energizer tent, playing new dance tracks well into the night for the glow stick contingent. Add to this the late night entertainment in the arena, and you’d be hard pressed to be bored at 1 o’clock in the morning.
2006 also saw a mass decentralisation of some campsite facilities. Each campsite now had its own point of information, with huge hoardings with the rules of the campsite on. Amongst the changes this year was the new rule allowing for fires to a maximum of one pace wide and below knee height – good news for Pot Noodle fans. Not only did these areas serve as information and meeting points, but also as sites for recycling gas canisters (two thumbs up, Carling Weekend), AND mini dance tents. A gazebo was provided with equipment for mixing, and campers were invited to reserve slots to play their own tunes if they so wished; a popular idea this year, if what we saw was anything to go by. Previously isolated parts of the campsite now had their own focus, and with the exception of the inevitable beer run, campers now had no need to trudge all over the site for something to do, or even just to ask basic questions.
Elsewhere, Festival Security became "Customer Service" attendants. Well, it doesn't take Municipal Waste to tell most people who the guys pulling them out of the pit are, and that this is simply calculated cuddliness, pure and simple. However there is a point to it; violence begets violence, and it doesn't take a psychologist to realise that the riot police last year probably attracted more aggro (as well as more ridicule) than they intended to prevent. The relative absence of apparent extras from an Arnold Schwartzeneggar film also reduced the definite feeling of tension that surrounded their presence last year.
There is one other school of thought that should be mentioned before going any further. On Thursday night a friend noted that this year's festival crowd seemed more mature than last year's – in her own words, "it's as if it's all the same people, but a year older". There did appear to be more family groups in the arena this year, but in the absence of official figures, or maturity ratings for every ticket holder, it's difficult to make the connection between this and the last night's calm.
However, the most acutely felt difference on Sunday at Leeds 2006 had nothing to do with festival structure, determined campaigners or even the kids themselves. It had more to do with good old Mother Nature. While there had been the odd spot of rain on Friday, Sunday was when the heavens finally let rip, beginning around the time of the last couple of bands of the day and going on until the wee small hours. It would be easy to characterise Leeds rioters as bloodlust-filled zombies, but the fact is if you've had quite a few tins and it's chucking it down with rain, you're more likely to pass out in your tent than decide to go and climb a watch tower. That's not to say inclement weather was the only reason for a quiet last night, but when it comes down to it, it's a pretty big one.
So this year the rain came to the rescue of Leeds festival; though after recent years some may argue whether it still needs saving. However, any movements towards making the festival as a whole a safer and more enjoyable experience for everyone – whether from the fans or from those above – should be applauded. The changes to this year's festival have made such sense that you wonder whether why they weren't implemented years ago, and show Mean Fiddler haven't spent the last few years with their heads buried in the sand, hoping the problem would go away. As for this year's young contender, it's a cracking idea, though Love Not Riots is still a campaign in its infancy, and, for Leeds at least, proof of its efficacy will have to wait until next year.