Sunday, 20 July 2008

Summer: picnic and open air concert time

Only the Brits would do something this daft: I ask you, would any sane person pay good money to sit in the open air - freezing cold, rain drizzling down their necks – to eat a picnic and listen to music? Are we a nation so in love with the idea of al fresco music and meals that we will suffer for it? I’ve been to two operas and a jazz concert this summer so I should know.

Going to these concerts is like embarking on an artic expedition and takes at least half a day to organise all the gear necessary, even if you’ve decided to cheat and just buy the food already prepared. It takes all day if you’ve decided to show-off, prepare the dishes from scratch and serve them in style.

Firstly all the stuff you’ve been storing in the car boot (a suit for the cleaners, several sample tiles to return, various M&S articles of clothing too small or too large to go back when you next pass the store, a soggy box of ├ęclairs that must have fallen out of the supermarket bag and some old shoes for the re-cycle bin) has to be taken out.

Then in go the wellies, brollies, waterproofs and plastic sheet: that’s just the ‘cater for all eventualities’ weather bit. Next it’s folding table (if they’re allowed), collapsible chairs, picnic rug and rubbish bag. An ice box to hold all the food and a bag for the picnic set and cutlery, paper napkins and glasses are next. If you’re showing off, its lanterns, tablecloths and china too.

Booze is a category all its own – insulated bags are essential with plenty of water for the lucky person who draws the short straw and has to drive back. Forget a bottle opener at your peril. When you get there you have to lug all this stuff at least a quarter of a mile and do battle to find a space where you can see the stage. Because all this takes so long you will probably only have time to eat one course before the music begins.

During the interval you will pick your way to the loos and, if the queue was not too long, find some of the second course left when you get back to your party. When the music starts again you and every other person there will spend the first five minutes donning every article of clothing they have with them, finishing off with the picnic rug.

With luck the sound system is man enough to cater for an enormous space with nothing to bounce off and you can actually hear it. And perhaps your luck is really in and its clap-along music, which will at least keep your hands warm: this is an English summer. What fun!

Picture this: a day out in the country in the 1960’s. A green Morris Minor pulls up on a roadside verge, just beside a farm gate. Dad gets out, and from the boot comes a folding melamine topped table, two low canvas fold-up chairs, a rug, a thermos flask and a picnic basket. Mum gives instructions and everyone gives a helping hand to construct a little picnic scene.

Mum and dad drink tea, the children sip squash and everyone tucks into the fish paste sandwiches whilst the wind flaps the corners of the rug that the children now sit on and grey clouds scud over head. Every now and then a cow moos, a horse whinnies and they hear a bird sing. The portable radio is tuned in to family favourites. It is downright uncomfortable and the quality of the country chorus and the music is dubious but they sit it out. Our parents weren't quitters.

For several years my daughter went to Glastonbury: I don’t think there was one year when it didn’t rain – it usually poured - but it didn’t put her off. She just took her tent and kettle, her gumboots and lots of black plastic sacks. What was a little bit of rain and a river of mud when you could listen to bands all day and all night and eat on the hoof.

Thus are the next generation of ‘open air concert and picnic’ lovers born. The reason we keep going to open air concerts in spite of the weather may just be the triumph of hope over adversity or it could be plain old tradition. Either way, only the Brits who would do something so daft.


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