This is only the second year of Kite Festival. Festivals struggled during lockdown, some going out of business: you can’t run a business that only functions with crowds and contact between people during a global pandemic.
Kite is around an hour and a half’s drive from London. It’s built on eco principles; for instance, you can refill your water bottle in the festival – they aren’t relying on plastic water bottle sales. The toilets and showers are nice, not shit pits.
During the day there are talks and debates, hosted in various tents. The music is mostly acoustic but in the evenings there were big bands like Hot Chip, The Pretenders, Goldfrapp and Suede.
The audience tend, like most festivals, to be white, middle-class, from the south east of England, and in this case older. Although there were quite a few youth in attendance for the bands.
I was disappointed with the first talk ‘Does anti-racism need a rethink?’. I’ve enjoyed the writing of Tomiwa Owilade but in person he was so laid back as to be practically horizontal. Some people are writers not talkers.
The other member of the manel (where all the participants are male) was Remi Adekoya who was more forthright and sparky. The host and interviewer, a tall good-looking youngster, was inexperienced. He was more concerned with sounding clever by using academic terms, and was too polite with the audience. Various white males stood up and bored us with their opinions.
I said to the host afterwards, ‘You’ve got to cut off the bores.’ He erred: ‘I have to be diplomatic.’ ‘No, you don’t,’ I insisted. ‘I’ve done panels and you’ve always got to be strict with those on an ego trip who just want to talk about themselves.’
Then I went to the morning paper review in the Tortoise Newsroom tent hosted by James Harding with Michael Gove, Marina Hyde and Lib Dem MP Layla Moran. God, politicians are dull. They are so terrified of ‘committing news’. Gove wasn’t boring, though. He’s really clear, articulate and funny. He and Hyde were great fun, sparring off one another.
The Tortoise tent had many good talks. I saw the Financial Times journalist Martin Wolf expound entertainingly on the capitalism crisis. But when he went to sign his books, there were few people in the queue. Simultaneously David Baddiel was signing a book and he needed security barriers to control the crowd. People are really influenced by TV, aren’t they?
The minute you are on TV, whether you are clever and funny, like Baddiel, or some Love Island dimwit, you instantly have followers. I remember Richard Bertinet, the baker, telling me how before Bake Off he couldn’t sell a baking class with Mary Berry and they had to cancel. Now, at any baking show, the most minor contestant on Bake Off has queues around the block. Are people sheep? C’mon, TV is mostly a load of shit. The blandest, lowest common denominator – that’s who is chosen to be on telly.
I’ve worked in music, fashion, photography and the media, and by far the most lethal and vicious atmosphere was when I worked as a stills photographer for the BBC. The staff were vile. The director, some pompous old guy, a sexist arsehole (he called a researcher ‘flat as an ironing board’ and told me ‘let’s face it, you are fat’, while the producer – stressed-out venom-on-legs who was losing her hair – was even more awful.
Anyway, back to Kite. A highlight was Dame Joan Collins, having just reached the age of 90 and still retaining her glamour. Her husband Percy was filming from the audience. She’s so sharp and quick. But she did lose the adulation of the audience when she mentioned that she was a big fan of Ron DeSantis. There was a shocked silence. The interviewer Decca Aitkenhead is a terrific writer but lacked the light-hearted sense of camp called for by the occasion.
I’ve actually read one of the autobiographies of Joan Collins. She’s had a fascinating life. I most remember an anecdote where she drove away from a premiere and the crowd surrounding the limo were screaming. She just thought they were overheated fans banging on the windows of the car. It turned out someone had become caught in the door and was being dragged behind. The crowd were trying to get the car to stop. I would have asked about that.
The Kite audience were middle-class remainers, slightly to the left. Every mention of Brexit got a boo. Every mention of the environment got cheers.
One major talking point that was missing from the festival was the subject of sex and gender. Nowhere was it tackled.
I pitied Sonia Sodha, one of the few sane writers at the Observer, who had to sit on the same panel as Mandu Reid, head of the Women’s Equality Party. Mandu was a bit of a show-off, acting like she was on Question Time, trying to get cheers from the audience. The leader of the Women’s Equality Party doesn’t believe in single-sex provision or safe spaces for women in toilets, sport or jail. Of course this wasn’t touched upon.
Former prime minister Sir John Major was good, although I felt his anecdotes were well-honed from repeated tellings. Did you know he is mates with Mick Jagger, due to their joint love of cricket?
Sally Wainwright, the Yorkshire-born creator of Happy Valley, was interviewed by novelist Kit de Waal. Wainwright – middle-aged, jeans, no makeup or hiding her grey hair – was refreshing to listen to, giving good advice to writers; ‘don’t start at the beginning, start with the seventh thing you thought of’.
In the Sunday afternoon nostalgia spot, I saw Chrissie Hynde, who I’ve always loved, playing with The Pretenders. I remember her journalism in the NME before she became a rock star. She looks great; still slim, seemingly devoid of plastic surgery and botox, and rocking away on guitar. I thought about Suzi Quatro and wondered if she was an inspiration for Chrissie. Suzi was also American (only American women are allowed to show vulgar characteristics like personality, ambition and drive), wore leathers and played guitar. Unfortunately for Suzi, the music wasn’t great – Mickie Most, Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman over-produced samey songs. Hynde and Quatro were born a year apart, 1951 and 1950, and in Akron Ohio and Detroit respectively, which are only a couple of hundred miles apart, around the corner from each other on Lake Erie.
We were lucky with the weather. But on Sunday afternoon the heavens opened and I returned to my tent, which had turned into a lake. I dragged my soggy tent, sleeping bag and mat back to the car and came home. I need a better camping option: a decent tent, or a roof tent or a camper van.