Latitude festival 2021: 40,000 party people, good vibes, and not a mask in sight

UNll bands at festivals like to tell the crowd: “Hello [place we are in] … it’s great to be here.” At Latitude this weekend, these greetings – and the cheers they were met with – felt more genuine than they ever had before. They were back, we were back, this was back.

Latitude perhaps has the image of being among the more genteel of the larger festivals – aside from the headlining bands, there are ballet performances by the lakeside, literary debates, ballroom dancing, esoteric cabaret, even, naturally for the middle classes, wild swimming.

But this year there was a palpable sense that people hadn’t just come to see Wolf Alice or the Chemical Brothers or Katherine Ryan – they had primarily come to party. That this was possible was down to timing: where other, bigger festivals were cancelled for a second yearGlastonbury gave in to the inevitable as long ago as January – the month-later Latitude held its nerve. And everything played out in its favour, with the right to gather en masse outdoors returning just four days before the festival.

That was the cue for 40,000 hedonists to scramble to this rather pleasant little corner of Suffolk, just outside Southwold. And with these so-called “freedom days” looking increasingly like just a window of socialising opportunity between the last lockdown and the next, this was a carpe diem moment for us 72-hour party people.

There were some visible signs of the pandemic – the sides have come off at the BBC Sounds stage, per esempio, to increase air flow, so that what used to be a circus big top is now more of a giant pergola. Then you had to log your Covid status – your “Latitude flow test” result as a friend dubbed them. The site is also patrolled by “state-of-the-art ultraviolet air purifiers’’ said to look a bit like R2D2, a change from the trademark grazing pastel-coloured sheep.

It’s also cashless, which I’ve found helps mitigate paying £7 for a smoothie. But otherwise this was like the world as it used to be. I haven’t seen a single mask.

This was my first festival without children since the 90s and I’ve found it liberating to watch other, younger, hopefully fitter people dragging around those gigantic toddler trollies full of children and parenting kit. It has also saved me a fortune on henna tattoos, merch and milkshakes, and meant my weekend diet has extended beyond pizza crusts.

The festival is going ahead as part of the government’s events research programme – a “testival” if you will. There are mutterings that the fate of those that are still planned to happen later this summer, like Reading, will stand or fall on the perceived success or failure here.

Yet if the crowd were human guinea pigs, there was no sense that they realised this or were inhibited by it.

But before any partying, there were the personal logistics. That tent that had been quietly moulding in a cupboard for two years had to be opened – and the dead flies and torn Rizla papers of summer 2019 vintage disinterred. The tent seemed horribly unfamiliar, like trying to put up flat-pack furniture in a field with no diagram.

Another comedy hitch: there’s no physical programme this year “but you can download the app”. If you search “Latitude” on my phone’s app store when you can’t see your screen for glare, you end up with a marine navigational tool rather than band listings. Handy.

These hurdles finally cleared, I wandered down through the pine trees by the lake – where one of the bathers was resplendent in a deerstalker, suggestive more of Wilde swimming – and hit the festival proper. Here was a scene of plentiful excitement. Maisie Peters summed up the mood during her set: “OMG this is amazing. I haven’t been out of my bedroom for two years.” Then she proceeded to introduce every other song by saying: “This is the first time I’ve performed this live.” A woman in the crowd shouted: “I’m her mum! I taught her to play guitar!” Her mum or a surreal heckle? Who knew and, indeed, who cared?

The Staves put it more pithily: “It’s good to be back … fucking hell it’s good.”

There was a lot of festive nonsense. A group of stag lads in coordinated costume – baseball tops and mop-top wigs – lookied like the Beach Boys in 1964. “What are your outfits referencing ?” “Nothing, they’re just outfits!” It was silly but fun. Everywhere people were dancing.

Some were coming back to Henham Park for the umpteenth time. It was my 10th. My tent neighbour, Jo, has been to every one since they started in 2006, only missing last year, as did everyone. Her sons have grown up here.

Others had come for the first time. Jane and Richard Hector-Jones and daughter Kitty, 12, from Chorlton, had come as Glastonbury veterans of 30 anni, seeking an alternative. “It took six hours and it was dark but we still caught the second half of Hot Chip.”

There was lots to see. Damon Albarn had been announced late on. Sleaford Mods even later. And there were rumours that Ed Sheeran, who lives just down the road, would also do a surprise set, as he has in previous years – he started out as a gondola pilot on the lake in his school days. The exasperated woman in the press tent, asked yet again about this, replied: “Darling, there are always rumours that Ed Sheeran is doing a secret set.”

Things really are getting back to normal. The old normal. There was even talk of rain, lots of it, but no one seemed to care.

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