Tender is the night. Or rather thunderous is the night. And terrific is the night, too.

    I am standing in the front row of the Obelisk Arena and Damon Albarn is on stage. There is so much electricity in the atmosphere, quite literally, that it has just manifested itself in jagged streaks of lightening across the ominously inky skies of Suffolk. But no matter, for Damon has welcomed Blur guitarist Graham Coxon on stage and the crowd are steadfastly not rushing from it but instead revelling in the rain (well, most of us, anyway). It’s been worth travelling on two shuttlebuses, one delayed train, one roasting hot tube, and purchasing a pop-up tent for this moment alone.

    Tender is the night, sings Damon. And for me the flashes are not only lightening but many flashbacks, too. I haven’t heard this song live since the 1990s in Manchester’s GMEX centre. I likewise had front row and had queued for a long time to run into the arena in time to make the front row in the standing crowd. But I did not withstand the pushing and shoving and, just after Blur had come on stage, there were lightening flashes across my eyes and the arena grew blurry as I fainted into the barrier between myself and Blur - I was carried aloft the barrier by a security guard and after lying backstage for a while and having a few restorative sips of water I was given a seat with a great side view; a view that did not offer a close-up of the band but instead a wide view taking in the whole stage and the colourful explosions of light. I didn’t want that night to end but it did....the 90s could not last forever; the Blur v Oasis division soon dissolved from consciousness; the End of the Century finally came. But tonight that night is picked up almost 20 years later - the same refrain, yet so far away from my hometown where I first heard it.

    In the intervening years that phrase “tender is the night” has taken on deeper resonances now that I know that it hails from Keats’ poem Ode to a Nightingale, and it has also taken on all of the poignancy of F Scott Fitzgerald’s eponymous novel Tender is the Night in part chronicling his wife’s mental breakdown. It’s interesting to experience how songs are far from fixed in meaning but ever evolving, taking on deeper resonance with the layering of time; how the meaning of music can be as fluid as the water currently falling from the sky.

    One of my highlight’s from Albarn’s set is End of the Century. Albarn notes those intervening twenty years in the slight updating of his lyrics:

    “The mind gets dirty as it gets closer to.... [here Albarn substitutes 30 for 50]”.

    That was a song I would often listen to on repeat play, the soundtrack to an eventful year, but since moving away from home and childhood, since waves of new music replaced that one, it was consigned to the blur of history and I don’t think I’ve listened to it once for at least a decade. Hearing it again is a visceral experience, intensified by such an elemental atmosphere all around. Past, present and future seem poised in his lyrics and I note how many are about time (End of the century.... it’s nothing special....)...

    It really, really, really could happen.

    The electrical storm intensifies and the thunder and rain become nothing if not fierce...far from tender; and yet, sleeping in my thin-skinned tent that night there is a certain tenderness to the experience, of being protected by the tent’s thin film, and yet waking up safe and sound the next morning, if somewhat soggy.

    As well as familiar faces on the musical landscape, the weekend is also soundtracked by bands I’ve seen for the first time, including the marvellous Mogwai, the entertaining Editors, the brilliant Booker T Jones performing beneath the baking sun, and Bombay Bicycle Club who keep the wheels turning at the Obelisk Arena just before Albarn hits the stage. It’s also a pleasure to see Ghostpoet, Rag’N’Bone Man, Clean Bandit, The Black Keys, and Fat White Family (whose eclectic energy I greatly enjoy despite hailing from a fairly thin brown family myself).

    There is also a huge range of other artforms represented at the festival, with stages devoted to Literature, Poetry, Comedy, Cabaret, Film & Music. I enjoyed chairing an event at the Shed of Stories tucked away in the beautiful Faraway Forest, with historian and novelist Kate Williams and novelist Patrick Flanery who discussed their excellent new books Storms of War and Fallen Land.

    The festival is so huge that it’s impossible to see everything on offer but I enjoy a balance of depth and breadth, combining seeing the full hour of some acts with flitting between tents to absorb as much of the vibe as possible. In the Literature tent on Sunday morning, it’s interesting to hear JP Bean discuss folk music and his book Singing from the Floor. In the Comedy Tent, the entertaining Doc Brown is discussing race and representation and how he can’t watch a programme in which there could never be any black characters (not in which there aren’t since he’s long watched Friends, but the hypothetical in which there couldn’t be), when a peal of thunder suddenly resounds (“It’s true - God really is white”, quips the comedian, to peals of laughter from the audience that almost drown out the thunder).

    Aside from the acts on the stage, I was also treated to some uplifting morning yoga (imagine a collective “OM” emanating across the fields of Henham Park), and also took the time to soak up the setting itself - including strolling along the Writers’ Bridge over the lake; indeed the lake was a highlight of the weekend, refracting not only the sunrise and sunset each day but also being the site of spectacular water displays, which mixed the elements, fire battling with water for attention. Scattered around the site were also thought-provoking pieces of artwork, situated within the tall trees of the forest, so that art mixed with the beauty of nature.

    I was all set to leave on Sunday evening, but decided to stay another night and am very glad I did; those apocalyptic thunderstorms dried out in time for some blazingly good tracks from The Black Keys, and the next morning, the sun woke me up, its warm rays reaching through the skin of my tent; and I set off for the epic journey home bright and early - for tender is the morning, too.




  The National Travel section
  April 2012

writing, broadcasting, speaking