Brown's Beer: Why you have to embrace summer festivals

Do something new, our columnist urges

There’s a war going on for your soul.

On one side, we have the drive to conformity that is seeing every street jammed into the same rigidly branded template. On the other, we have freedom, individuality and humanity.

OK, so I’m a teensy bit biased in my war reporting, but hear me out.

It’s nearly sixty years now since architectural critic Ian Nairn coined the phrase “Subtopia” for a nightmarish realm where ‘the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton.’ Trust me, you don’t want anywhere to look like the end of Carlisle.

Nairn said all this before the chain store brands that have homogenised our high streets had even woken up. Today, the word “redevelopment” strikes fear into people who value personality. Local colour and quirks are wiped out as skyrocketing rents kill small, local businesses. Bland steel and glass replace a melange of patchworked architectural styles. Progress seems to mean a sense of almost legal obligation that you WILL buy your evening ready meal and bottle of wine from a Tesco or Sainsbury’s inconvenience store (if the big chains’ attempts to destroy corner shops are really meant to be “convenience stores”, why is everything pre-packaged so you are forced to buy four bulbs of garlic when you only need one?). You WILL buy your morning coffee and the lunch you eat vacantly at your desk from a permutation of Pret à Manger, Costa, Starbucks and Café Nero. Look, that’s four different chains. How much choice do you think you need?

I understand that growth is the imperative for big chains. I even understand why business must behave in an amoral fashion that considers profit and nothing else. What I don’t understand is developers who seem to believe they are improving the life and soul of a community by blanding it out, reducing choice, and making everything identical. People who actually seem to think this characterless, Stepfordian dystopia is progress, is beneficial for happy consumers going about their busy, robotic lives.

But wherever there is a trend, its counter-trend is never far behind. Every time a new branch of Costa or Tesco Metro opens on one street, a microbrewery, bakery, premium burger joint or café seems to open just around the corner, where the rent isn’t quite as extortionate.

I remember when I first lived in West London in the early nineties, I seemed to be surrounded by affluent young families who all had toddlers called Thomas. Now I’m a bitter, middle-aged East Londoner, I seem to be surrounded by posh, skinny blokes in their mid-twenties called Tom, all with spiky hair, mismatched antique furniture and uni friends who dabble in graphic design, looking to build food and drink businesses that offer something a bit different.

Yes, of course I’m jealous of Tom. But good luck to him.

Some of the Toms are chancers looking for novel ways to spend their parents’ money instead of getting a real job, lazily hopping bandwagons and posing on the back. But a lot of them have good ideas, genuine passion and real talent.

In an age where university graduates pretty much have to pay for the privilege of internship in a thankless job where they are not trained or given meaningful work, Tom and his girlfriend, Chloe, are creating their own careers. The old graduate milk round used to entail the spirit being crushed from eager graduates who had written for the student newspaper, been in a band, shown a bit of entrepreneurial skill or any other of the many things you were encouraged to put on your CV. Bright young people had to be deprogrammed and wiped clean before they could be made in the image of Procter & Gamble or Deloitte & Touche.

That’s not happening to Tom and Chloe. They’re growing free into their own shapes. The best Toms and Chloes are hiring people and giving them careers when they could still be opening the mail and doing the photocopying in the offices from which big brands are masterminded.

And it’s not just Tom and Chloe either. People of all ages and backgrounds are quitting jobs where the promise of future reward has been exposed as meaningless, the mediocrity of the daily rat race has become unbearable, and doing something that speaks to their soul rather than their annual performance review.

These people are giving us all a choice: you can take your Costa latte and your sad, pathetic excuse for a bacon roll to your desk in a morning, eat your perpetually deteriorating Pret sushi at the same desk for lunch, then leave your desk to go to a chain pub for a quick pint of Foster’s top on the way home. Or you can seek something out of the ordinary, look for new experiences and new tastes, and make food and drink a source of joy, discovery, even self-definition, rather than mere fuel.

After the first proper hot, sunny weekend of the year, I’m reminded that this choice is at its keenest during the summer months. It’s the choice between being a ‘regular’, enjoying a point of the usual down at the local – which has its charms, but can become tedious – or exploring something new at a festival.

Festivals – of any description – take us out of our routine. That’s their whole point. And every year, the number of festivals seems to increase. Not just the music festivals that are available every weekend from June to September – I’m also talking about food festivals, book festivals and beer festivals, and there’s a good spread of all kinds in London this summer.

Even within these festivals though, the battle between individuality and conformity goes on. At many of the big festivals up and down the country, you see the same bands, the same beers, the same authors, the same celebrity chefs, the same brands of chutney. Then you find out many of them are organised by the same people.

Then there are other, smaller, boutique festivals that thrive on their individuality and personality. I happen to be involved in one. It’s the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, happening from 6th to 8th June, and on Sunday 8th I’m attempting to bring together the best of all kinds of festival by doing a beer and music matching event at a book festival. New developments in neuroscience are revealing how the senses overlap, and how what you experience in one sense affects your perceptions through other senses.

I decided it would be far more fun to explore this via the medium of great beer and cool tunes than it would to do straightforward science. This has led to an event that makes people look very quizzical and confused while it’s happening, but quite happy afterwards.

If that’s not your bag, don’t worry – check out what Tom’s up to. See what’s on in Victoria Park or Hyde Park that spare weekend. Look at fly-posters on boarded up shops. Break your routine. Summer in the capital is a life-affirming joy for anyone with a curious soul.

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