In August of 2010, after eight increasingly despondent months in my first proper full-time office job, I went to The Big Chill festival in Eastnor in Herefordshire and although it was neither the first nor the best festival I’d ever been to, it did have a profound effect on me.
On the first night there, I had a conversation with a man called Matt who was working on a hat stall. Selling hats. He told me he’d just come from a festival in Spain. Prior to that he’d been in Australia. Prior to that, somewhere else. South America maybe. This is what he did with his life: in the summer he toured the world with various festivals, selling hats; in the winter he went snow-boarding for a few months. ‘You’ve got it made,’ I told him. ‘Why don’t more people do that?’ I asked. He shrugged. ‘Maybe they just don’t know about it,’ he said.
Back in the office off Oxford Street, I gave this some thought. I reckoned for most people the idea of touring the world with festivals was probably as ludicrous and unrealistic a notion as running away to join the circus. Also, more important was the fact that most people were – for the most part – perfectly happy with their lives, enjoyed their jobs, loved their families and didn’t consider themselves trapped in a never-ending spiral of commuting, clock-watching and creeping death. But I did. I was becoming deeply unhappy.
Also, unlike everybody else I knew, I was in the unusual position of not having any responsibilities. In a way, wage slavery aside, I was actually free. I had no children, no wife, no relationship, no home, no job that I cared about and no debt that I couldn’t feasibly run away from. (I’m aware that there is a thin line between freedom and failure. In fact, it may be just a matter of semantics.) So, I quickly became convinced that I had an obligation to myself to take advantage of the freedom I had (while I still had it – I don’t want to be this free forever after all). What could I do with my life to make it more like that of the hat salesman I’d met? Something that wouldn’t involved selling hats, however.
And that’s how it started.
Over the next few weeks, I wrote a bunch of drafts of the proposal with which I would try to get an advance from a publisher for the eventual book. This (below) was the one I settled on (minus the Nelson Mandela joke, which had to go, for reasons of space). No advance has been forthcoming yet obviously, but I haven’t got all day. So I’m opening it up to the rest of the world. Here…
HOW TO BE FREE :: AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 CELEBRATIONS
A BIT ABOUT FREEDOM
Here in the West, we seem very proud of how free we are. We even have the audacity to refer to our tiny patch of the planet as ‘the Free World’, but how free are we really? While we’re about it, what is freedom? How do we define it? And how much – when all is said and done – does it cost? Do you have to have been locked up like Nelson Mandela to truly appreciate what freedom is? Does Mandela himself still appreciate it now that he’s been free for 20 years, or do we need to lock him up again for a while so he remembers how lucky he is?
The fact is, very few of us are actually free at all. No sooner are we yanked from the prison cell of the womb than we’re locked into the treadmill of nursery school, primary school, secondary school, big school and work. We might have a year or two travelling around spending our parents’ money if we’re lucky but most of us drift from learning to earning like there was never any other direction for our lives to take. And let’s face it, most of our jobs are dull, repetitive, unchallenging and miserable.
Added to which, before you really know what’s happening, you find yourself manacled to your life partner with mortgage repayments and a gaggle of grasping kids hanging over your head like the poised derrière of Damocles and suddenly, depressingly, freedom feels a million miles away. Consequently it becomes imperative that you seek it out and grab it wherever you can. Maybe you go on caravanning holidays. Maybe you swing. Maybe – excitingly – you combine the two. Or maybe you go to festivals.
If you happen to do the latter, you will know that festivals offer the opportunity of a taste of concentrated freedom like no other pastime on Earth. It’s the combination of dropping out of your daily routine into a roughly themed environment, ditching your responsibilities, getting out into the open air far away from home and mixing with thousands and thousands of other humans in pretty much exactly the same boat that has a tendency to change people. They come out of their shells. They let themselves off the lead. In short, they become free….
A BIT ABOUT ME
In 2010, aged 41, I started a job as a sub-editor on an extraordinarily tedious legal magazine. Within six months, I was 42 – ‘Voooom. What was that? That was your life, mate….’ – and frankly, I had reached breaking point. I started looking around for other options and in the same period I happened to visit a late summer festival where I was overwhelmed by the sense of freedom I found there. I realised that it was exactly what I’d been missing and it had a profound effect on me. I’d been to festivals before of course – better ones too – but perhaps never when I’d needed to quite so much – never before I’d felt quite so trapped and useless in my everyday life. Then the festival ended and I went home. But like Thelma and Louise before me, something had crossed over. I could never go back.
On returning to London after the festival, two things occurred to me. The first was that I was wasting my life in an office when other people were off being free. People like Matt, the guy I met at The Big Chill who travels the world selling straw hats in the summer and spends the winter months snowboarding in Canada. Where is he now? I wondered. Not hunched over a photocopier fighting an urge to poop in his editor’s handbag, that was for sure.
The second was that actually, unlike everybody else I knew, I was in the unusual position of not having any responsibilities. In a way, I already was free. I had no children, no wife, no relationship, no home, no job that I cared about and no debt that I couldn’t feasibly run away from. And suddenly, on realising this, I felt a duty, a responsibility, even a moral obligation to take advantage of the freedom I had and do something interesting with it. There is after all, a thin line between freedom and failure, and hopefully I wouldn’t always be quite so worryingly blank a human canvass. Hopefully one day I’d be tied down like everybody else. So my time was limited, and most probably running out fast. It was now or never.
So I made a start. I quit my job, gave a month’s notice on my flat and started trying to figure out exactly what I was going to do. Thankfully, all of a sudden, it seemed obvious, and festivals were the key. Festivals facilitate freedom in a way that nothing else does. This is my contention. They have a unique power to change people, even if it’s just for a short period of time. Which was why – in search of freedom, my own and other people’s – I decided to spend the whole of 2011 attending and participating in an exhaustive range of different kinds of festivals throughout the globe.
With a bit of luck and some astute and audacious blagging, I will visit 80 festivals in approximately 60 countries. Not just music festivals, but also religious festivals, creative festivals, ‘naughty’ festivals – essentially wherever people gather to drop out of their routines for a while and be free. Whilst on this journey, I will cultivate, investigate and celebrate human freedom. What becomes of people when the layers of responsibility are peeled away? Is freedom a universal desire? Is there something that unites headbangers in Copenhagen, artists in the Nevada desert, history buffs in Dorset and devout Hindus in Kuala Lumpur? Furthermore I will report upon it as I go, keeping an online diary and adding articles, photographs, interviews, videos and blog posts every day – except where prevented by poor technology, illness, incarceration or death. Then, when I get home, I will write a bestselling book about it.
A BIT ABOUT THE BOOK
The book will be a kind of Gonzo Pete McCarthy travelogue, affable and heart-warming, outrageous, dangerous, stupid, hair-raising, mind-blowing and ultimately enlightening. From beginning to end the whole project will be both participatory and interactive. For example, when I am at Nadam, the Mongolian wrestling festival, I will wrestle; when I am trekking up to the Batu Caves in Malaysia, I will have a pitcher on my head and skewers sticking in my back; and when I am at the Judy Garland Festival, I will befriend Dorothy.
The book will also be a kind of companion piece to Eat Pray Love, but obviously a slightly more butch version with lots of intrepid high jinks to offset the spirituality.
I am currently in the process of putting together a website and approaching various businesses for sponsorship. There is no reason that the whole year cannot be predominantly bankrolled by companies who wish to be associated with what will ultimately be a hugely rewarding project, commercially, critically, spiritually and commercially again.
Full itinerary available on request.
So there you go. I’ve got – as I may have mentioned – 83 days. I’d better get on. If you have any thoughts at all, please let me know in the comments or drop me an email.