The Scottish Mail on Sunday

A guinea pig in the Latitude ‘laboratory’ – and I’m loving every minute


I’M WEARING wipe-clean Birkenstoc­k sandals and buckling under a rucksack that contains a weekend’s worth of camping stuff – enough bangers and beans, it seems, to make breakfast for all the 39,999 other people at the Latitude Festival.

Here at Henham Park, Suffolk, we’re partying together like it’s, well, like it’s 2021 and we’ve all been locked up for 16 months.

Latitude is the first full-capacity camping event to be held anywhere in the world since the start of the pandemic, believes festival boss Melvin Benn. It’s the first mass gathering in Britain since England’s Freedom Day, July 19.

But as well as being a flagship freedom event, it’s also a vast laboratory and we are the human guinea pigs.

This is part of the Government’s Events Research Programme, working out how Covid-era entertainm­ent and sports events can go ahead safely.

No one gets into Latitude without having been double-jabbed or testing negative for Covid. Yesterday, courtesy of an NHS bus, you could get vaccinated after Supergrass at lunchtime and before the Saturday night headliners, The Chemical Brothers, if you wanted.

The result is a four-day sell-out crowd with no facemasks, no social distancing and a lot of ‘arms in the air like you just don’t care’. (You can still buy a facemask decorated with Latitude’s iconic pink sheep – dyed annually for the event – but they’re reduced to half price as there are so few takers.)

This being Latitude, often nicknamed ‘Latte-tude’ for its middleclas­s family atmosphere, the early-morning queue for the showers is as long as the one for hip band Wet Leg. But queues and closely packed crowds there are; people hugger-mugger; keeping happy company with complete strangers.

The first song of the first set on the main stage on Friday had an instant mosh pit. ‘I love it,’ said singer Lynks. ‘There are no words. No words,’ said Ellie Rowsell, lead singer of Wolf Alice, headlining later that night as she gazed out over girls on their boyfriends’ shoulders, parents with toddlers asleep in blanket nests in garden trolleys, gangs of friends and extended family clans.

Benn reckons his festival, with its zero Covid policy, is one of the safest places in Britain this weekend. Tens of thousands of us are taking him at his word. There’s an ardency about the crowd. Tonight they’ll be listening to Bastille, but from early every day the comedy tent is screaming with laughter, there are poetry performanc­es and book readings and lively debates about the arts, politics and science.

All the elements that have made Latitude famous are still here: the huge blue and white big top, the BBC’s majestic yellow and black Sounds Stage tent (sides removed to make it more Covid-secure), the old fashioned Helter Skelter soaring skywards like a raspberry ripple, and those fluorescen­t sheep.

What’s new are the hand sanitiser stations, a sense of togetherne­ss and, finally, liberty, which is sharp to the senses. ‘It’s weird and wonderful to be here,’ says film critic Mark Kermode as he take to the stage with the podcast partner he hasn’t seen face-to-face for a year and a half. That pretty much summed it up.

Most people are keenly aware that the battle against Covid continues beyond Latitude’s fencing. Here, however, with performanc­e areas open to the north-east winds threatenin­g torrential rain later (festivals and mud, eh?), air purifiers in enclosed spaces and card transactio­ns only, it feels no more scary than taking a walk in the early days of lockdown.

I was at the first Latitude in 2006 and I was here for the last one prepandemi­c in 2019 when the Stereophon­ics created a sublime festival moment, turning thousands of people into a single audience, channeling the uplifting energy that comes from a shared experience.

Now, here, for one long weekend, that’s back. ‘Latitude 21… At Last,’ reads the slogan on a hoodie.

In the year of Covid, I’m glad I went, and got the T-shirt.

‘Keeping happy company with complete strangers’

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 ??  ?? FREE TO HAVE FUN: Some of the 40,000 music fans at the Latitude Festival enjoying the party atmosphere
FREE TO HAVE FUN: Some of the 40,000 music fans at the Latitude Festival enjoying the party atmosphere
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