There was a time when it was all about catching up, when we chased summer in my battered Ford Fiesta along winding English country roads, tracked it on foot through damp woodlands, falling into ditches and snagging ourselves on barbed-wire fences as we strained our ears to catch the sound of the bass booming in the distance. It was the weekend. It always seemed to be the weekend back then, if only because we tried to block out all memory of the working week. On Monday mornings we fell asleep in front of our computer monitors, columns of figures twisting like double-helices, words marching about the screen like little ants. When the Wednesday blues struck (as they always did), the world became a desolate place, scoured of hope and possibility, so we hid in toilet stalls and store rooms, shaking and panicky, unable to face the tedium of the filing cabinet or the photocopier. There was a recession, and many of us had come out of college without a chance of a decent job. We were to be found on the books of temp agencies, standing behind market stalls, giving out flyers on street corners, cold-calling people to sell them insurance or advertising space or aerial photographs of their neighbourhoods. We watched the clock and waited for the weekend and when it came, it was as if the rest of our lives didn’t exist.
We’d learned to make preparations. Bottled water, blankets. Our clothes were functional, quasi-military. Performance fabrics. Combat trousers and running shoes and hooded fleece tops. You might find yourself soaked in sweat in the midst of a semi-naked crowd, or huddled on a hill in grave-like pre-dawn cold, waiting for the sunrise. A flurry of phonecalls to find out information and gather supplies, then we’d head off into the evening, following whatever instructions we’d been given. A place to meet. A cell-phone number.
The destinations varied. A fallow field, a beach, an old world war two airstrip with wild-flowers growing up through the cracks in the concrete. More than once we got lost on the way - the worst imaginable fate - peering out of car windows into blackness, the same mixtape rattling round and round in the deck as the people in the front seats bickered over maps and the ones in the back complained of hunger and tiredness and boredom. Three in the morning, reversing up some rutted track, apportioning blame. All the other things we could have been doing with our summer night of freedom. All the wasted hours.
But when we didn’t get lost, when we saw other cars heading the same way and began to feel the bass pulsing up ahead, that amazing sensation which seemed actually to grow in the cavities of your body, to emerge from the inside out, the excitement was almost unbearable. One night can stand for all the others. We’d arrived at the site only to find the police had got there before us, blocking our way. Blue flashing lights, yellow high-vis jackets. For some years police and party-goers had chased each other over the English countryside, like some pastoral version of the Wacky Races. Now there was legislation which effectively made outdoor raves illegal. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 has won a special place in British cultural history, because it contains what may well be the only piece of arts criticism ever to form part of English law. “For this purpose,” the Act snottily reminds its readers, “ ‘music’ includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” The false rumour went around that the cops couldn’t touch you if there wasn’t a drum track. Once, during a police raid, I heard the DJ cross-fade from clattering techno into the choral music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
A guy in an oversize striped beanie came running down the line of cars, telling everyone the party would still happen. “Follow the white Mercedes!” I found myself at the tail end of a convoy, speeding down unlit country lanes. We were somewhere near the Sussex coast, but that was as much as I knew. There seemed to be no road signs, no sign of life at all, just the cars in front, the snake of red lights making its way up over hills, streaming across roundabouts, heading towards the unknown spot where perhaps, at last, we’d be able to dance. After almost an hour, we came to a halt and several hundred of us were finally where we wanted to be, some sort of meadow with a dance floor marked out by lawn candles, where the metronomic rhythm of the music matched our racing heartbeats and seemed to us like the best kind of joke, a carnival parody of the enforced discipline of our everyday lives. There were drugs, of course, but for me the main thing was always the dancing. The music revelled in its own relentlessness, in the sense that the world was accelerating towards some unimaginable mechanised future. We felt we were intimately connected to machines and the music made it seem as if they were crawling into our bodies. We knew that if we deranged our senses enough we could lose ourselves in a sort of ecstatic fantasy of community, a zone where at last we were networked with each other, rather than the office switchboard.
I remember hugging saucer-eyed people as we all rose up off our feet in reponse to some new beat. I remember wandering off and finding myself in a mist-shrouded cornfield. I walked through it, seeing other figures who seemed to float waist-deep in whiteness. At some point I noticed the sky was beginning to lighten, turning from black to a dirty purple-grey. Little by little, a scene of devastation revealed itself. The place was like a refugee camp. People sat by fires or walked around with shawls and sleeping bags draped over their shoulders. The talk was all about the same thing. Should we sleep, or try to make the run back to London before it got too hot? As I started to feel the summer sun on my face, I looked around. We were on some waste ground, at the edge of a golf course. The music was still playing.
- a version of this piece appeared in the New York Times