Wigtown​ was the last stop on my summer festival research tour. Over the last ten or fifteen years, many music festivals have started to include a poetry and books stage, and local council-led festivals are now doing so too. Helped by its kinship with rap and stand-up, spoken word has flourished at music festivals, and poetry stages now host everything from collective improv to the poet laureate. But the audiences are different from the ones at book festivals or bookshop readings. People come to festival readings because they’re drawn by the crowds, or because they want to shelter from the rain, or because you should try anything once, even poetry. We went to all-night festivals on the beach where poets synchronised with the sound of ukuleles blowing downwind from the main stage, to Womad, where audiences came in costume or wrapped in fairy lights, and to activist festivals where the audience sat on oil canisters under the trees. We couldn’t hope to see it all, so my co-researcher Rowena Hawkins and I designed some T-shirts, got ourselves a stall, and asked people to take pictures of the festivals on their phone so that we could interview them later about their experiences.

There were no four-storey speaker stacks or Ferris wheels at Wigtown. It’s a serious book festival in a small town in Galloway, with a large screen on the village green, marquees in the school playground and a pop-up bar in the local garage. Our stand was beside people selling honey and pottery, and since we were only selling the chance to be part of our research there wasn’t much interest at first. I tried to get some volunteers by talking about the project at a reading in honour of the trilingual Galloway poet Willie Neill. There was a polite but frosty atmosphere, and afterwards a woman took me aside and said I might get a better response if my approach were less ‘bouncy’.

I had more success the next day, after I was asked to fill in for an author whose train had been cancelled. Departures from the published programme are a sure sign of a festival getting into gear. Music festivals have main stages, side stages and fringe stages, but there will always be someone who sidles up in a van and opens the door to reveal some suspiciously well-placed speakers and a sign-up whiteboard. Off-schedule performances are part of the rites of competition that make festivals happen: last year’s champions need to be tested, and the gods on stage brought down to earth. Slams can be a first step for poets. ‘At the nights I run,’ one stage manager said to me, ‘you can ask if anyone wants to read, and you’ll get silence. Then after a few pros have had a go, you try again. It always turns out that about a third of the people there have got some sort of poem on their phone, though they’ve never showed it to anyone.’

At lunchtime, the screen showed Clive Stafford Smith talking to a packed tent about his death row campaigns and his memoir. Then I noticed someone who looked a lot like him sitting with friends on a bench in front of me, surrounded by picnicking families. Wigtown is a small place, which means you get proximity to the stars. I heard rumours that visitors try to find out who is staying in which B&B so that they can book in too, hoping for a private interview over breakfast. The people from the bowls club serving soup and cake were thrilled by the rush of visitors, but the programme wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Two local ladies approached us after Anna Reid was interviewed about her history of Ukraine. ‘I wish my husband would come and see this,’ one of them said. ‘He’s a farmer and really right-wing. It opens you up, something like this. Makes you see a bigger world.’ ‘But they need to get more sports books on to get them in,’ her friend added.

Then our tent blew down in a storm. The vulnerability of British festivals to the weather is legendary, and mud isn’t the only problem. Two of the poetry stages we visited last summer had large audiences throughout the day because, alone in the whole glaring place, they remained in the shade. And the poetry itself was shelter from the noisiness and compulsory extroversion of the main stages. At Womad, I half-noticed one family settle down with a picnic mid-morning. Late in the day, after Scott Tyrrell had delivered a poem about living with autism, tears began to roll down the parents’ faces, and one of our photographers, a special needs teacher, spotted their daughter’s lanyard. It turned out she was autistic, and they had stayed all day because the rest of the festival had been too overwhelming for her.

I took a day off from the Wigtown festival to visit Whithorn Priory and the fifth-century shrine of St Ninian. Whithorn has had so many worshippers and pilgrims that the centuries seem to be compressed. Here are Roman beads and amphorae, the Chi-Rho symbol on a roughly carved gravestone for Viventius and Mavorius, coins and combs from the kingdom of Northumbria in a child’s grave, Viking crosses with their round faces like a cowl. The dying Robert the Bruce came here on his last pilgrimage, hoping to find some time-crossing connection with the saint. Pilgrimages and festivals intertwine. There is a well-accepted anthropological framework for the festival process: the initial rites of separation from daily life, overabundance and competition allow people to enter the core of the festive, the time out of time. Costumes, consumption, dancing and drumming take everyone out of their usual selves and back to creation time or the time of the ancestors, where the world’s order isn’t set and every creature has polymorphous potential. Stepping out of normal time, however briefly, allows the social transitions and healing that rigid smaller societies need. I think that in liberal, individualistic societies this can happen at commercial festivals. Several of our photographers have said that going to a festival became a pivot for a decision to change their way of life, or allowed them an opportunity to hold an important inner conversation, with a long-dead parent, for example. I felt the pull myself. I was watching people dance round a fire one night when euphoria and tiredness and the sense of being in an open-hearted space suddenly swept me far from critical observation and back into a buried feeling that I realised had been flowing, like an underground stream, for half my life.

I am interested in this because as well as being an academic I am a priest, which means I organise a mini-festival every Sunday, and I want it to do its work. There have been moments when people’s defences have crumpled and a lifetime’s habit of shame abandoned. But a lot of the time I’m just rolling up my sleeves with the other volunteers, because no festival happens unless someone organises the programme, sets up the chairs and tests the PA. In any case, calling something a festival is no guarantee it will actually become festive in the deep sense. Some Sundays, like some festivals, are exercises in niche connoisseurship more than genuine enthusiasm. Others are doomed gesticulations to a half-empty tent.

The festival’s revival brings with it a tension about the substitution of the commercial for the communal. The word’s Latin roots entwine festum, a religious holiday and feast, with feria, days off that became fairs where wares are sold. Abundant consumption is supposed to be one of the routes into the time-out-of-time, but it doesn’t always work. At Wigtown, a man told me he had stopped going to Latitude the year they put bars in the performance tents. ‘It wasn’t just that you had to pay £8 for a pint. They introduced people who would stay in the queue for you, for another £4, so you could keep watching. I felt like I was being bled dry.’ Sometimes the performers themselves are on sale. At the Edinburgh Book Festival, Rowena saw poets read in a ‘showcase’ intended partly so that audiences could hear a number of new poets at a time, and partly so that venue managers and publicists could rate potential bookings. But the photographs people take for us don’t show the problems with commercialisation, or even the stars and the stages; it’s the winding paths, the dusks and the half-open tents that catch their eye, the in-between times and the thin boundaries.

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