Night of the Dead Living
spiked sent its staff writer Emily Hill to a three-night rave with weirds, Goths and pagans in Norfolk. She survived to tell the tale.
‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.’ Dr Samuel Johnson.
We were somewhere around Yarmouth, on the edge of the Fens, when the weirds began to take control.
They had stumbled on to the train backwards, staggering and screaming, like a hen night on tequila crossed with a rugby scrum on snakebite gone badly wrong. Chomping, mashed-up weirds, mired in the ugliest fashions known to man, all tartan miniskirts and one green kneesock, practical fleeces, pagan hats, tasselled pill pouches. There were skinheads in camouflage with dribbling beer cans, a fat bearded rower in a reflective jacket, a gibbering goth staggering about with an unlit cigarette and a bottle of rum muttering ‘hellllllo, hellllo, hellllo’. There was the gibber of freaks and gimlet eyes, the hum of wittering drunks; the stench of encrusted sweat.
17:08. A teenager with saucer eyes and a stolen bracket of railway electrical wiring is hauled off the train by a security guard. The ravers, enthusiasm undented, laugh and scream at each other in mock rage, ripping the cords off their special brew and shaking it about. A girl with hair bleached to straw has lost her railway ticket and begins to wail. ‘I don’t give a fock’, screams a delinquent, as a light film of alcoholic sweat seeps from his forehead, making his face glossy. Someone jumps him and he falls in the aisle, drenching the seats and three of the passengers with shook-up lager foam.
The carriage’s elderly element shuffles off down the train, scandalised. Don’t make eye contact, they think. Don’t make any sudden movements. Keep your head down. Face forward. Maintain a discreet frown. The train stops in a field for 10 minutes, before moving off again very slowly. A boy with soup for synapses hammers a pencil against the plastic back of one of the carriage seats, drilling his mind with the repetitive beat.
Through the train window you can see the small round yellow sun begin to drift down in the haze. And a-raving we will all go before nightfall….
* * *
The editor of spiked has been pestering me to go to a rave for many, many months; apparently it is my duty as spiked’s ambassador to yoof. And in the UK rave – or more accurately ‘nu-rave’ – is back. It is sweeping across Europe and spurting up volcanically in the East End of London. You may yourself have spotted a nu-raver. They look like extras from Back to the Future II, with crinkled fluorescent sports jackets and sunglasses with neon rims.
The explosion of press interest in the whole thing is puzzling. Nu-rave is just a fashion statement, a more exciting version of boho, peasant skirts and cork wedges; ‘old rave’, rave proper, is a state of mind – and a state of mind that has been pretty much constant since it was last newsworthy, during the early 1990s. Nu-rave may be the new thing, but rave-rave never stopped, and probably never will stop so long as teenagers in rural counties have nothing much to do and an abundant supply of pills. Raving is fun. And, as any old-school raver will tell you, it is also animalistic, pagan and wild – which seems to be why some young people are drawn to it today.
On arrival, we have fluorescent tags clipped to our wrists and check into our chalets. (This rave is deluxe and middle-class; it is taking place in a holiday resort taken over for the weekend by ravers of all shapes and sizes.) In our rooms, the TV beams out footage of the dancefloor inter cut with Japanese cartoons and old clips of the late Bill Hicks doing a stand-up routine.
Out in the holiday park, in the arenas, it is much like a sci-fi world: the massed ranks move mechanically, their skulls rigor mortis with flexing grins, their arms jut out and swipe down as if they’re doing weirdo aerobics, and the sweat trickles down their backs and on to the floor. They smile and pant and sip their water.
At the end of however long they last, they can collapse and watch themselves on the TV screens: 15 minutes of fame reduced to a five-second loop, and none of them even looks attractive. Or they can go up and up and on and on, remaining in exactly the same position they were in eight hours before, doing exactly the same dance, in exactly the same state, having no idea about any part of the world save for the bass that throbs through them like God’s heartbeat, making their bones quiver. It’s a sort of electronic warfare of blips, meted out on the body at a volume few who aren’t on drugs can handle.
To the outsider, they look like the dead and dull hordes: internally they’re having the time of their lives.
My commission is to find out one thing: why? They all know it’s not real, that it’s artificial ecstasy and not a rapture, right? What are they buying into? The counterculture? The new-age revolution? Not a bit of it. Raving may be a club, but it’s not a club with any purpose. And strangely enough, mashed people don’t really want to talk about their motivations for being here on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday night.
On Sunday morning I spent two desolate hours on the swings in the children’s play park wishing a friend hadn’t sat on and busted my camera eight hours previously. There are girls and boys with dreadlocks and outrageous glasses, sequinned capes, and business suits migrating between Pirouette Park and Savannah Land. It’s dress-up Sunday, apparently, reminding us, as if we needed reminding, that this is a very middle-class weekend retreat; the fact that it is taking place in what is normally a working-class holiday park is treated by all as an ironic master stroke.
(What kind of person ‘would come here on holiday?’ demanded a reviewer in Fact magazine, incredulous. ‘Can you conceive what kind of sweaty, fat fucker slept in that bed before I did?’ asks a punter I meet on the swings. ‘Gross.’ They may be out of their heads but they haven’t forgotten some of their middle-class prejudices. Holiday parks are apparently better used by posh kids getting wasted than by working-class families taking a break.)
A boy with a flagon of Thatcher’s cider climbs on to a miniature spring rocking duck, wobbling about from side-to-side and laughing low before flaking off in slow motion on to his head. A chubby girl in a gigantic faux fur coat gets stuck in the slide. Desolate huddles begin to form in the woodchip, spreading about their litter and emitting sporadic yelps. A young man makes a circumspect beeline for me, so I figure this is a good time to get some information. ‘How many drugs did you take?’ I ask as he persists in addressing me as Sarah and rambles about life being a sign-painter in Sheffield. I get an extended monologue about the funeral he’s due to attend on Tuesday, a half-day Tuesday, and his boss is very nice, it’s a family-run business….
‘Why do you take drugs?’ I ask. ‘I’m a journalist. I’m here to cover the event.’ ‘I keep secrets’, he replies, winking in the sunlight. ‘I can keep your secret. Do you know, you’re the nicest person I’ve met all day? I thought I was going to have to go to bed.’ ‘But who did you see, and what did you do yesterday night?’ I enquire. ‘Well’, he says, spilling all the beans, ‘we knew we were going to have a maaaaaaaad one, so my mate says, “Come on, you’ve got to eat proper” so I had loads of good food, bananas, vegetables, big breakfast, I’ve got some nectarines back in my chalet….’
In no mood for nectarines, I wander off to the beach to spot writhing come-downs getting funky with each other in the sand.
* * *
Debates on drugs are invariably hysterical. In America, Oprah Winfrey famously brandished a picture of a brain with holes in it in front of the TV nation, declaring that to take ecstasy was to puncture your brain like a Swiss cheese. And yet a recent documentary on BBC Radio 4 considered otherwise: Professor John Marsden told of a man who took 40,000 pills over a couple of decades, and lived to tell the tale with a touch of memory loss and none of the internal organ damage of an alcoholic.
Drug-taking is never interesting to those not taking drugs unless they can whip up a paranoia about it, because otherwise it’s just a load of people dancing in a field not doing anyone else any harm, and not really doing themselves much harm either. What’s interesting is not the objective high, but the subjective possibilities of the ‘dark side’ that commentators think they can trace in the high. They try to invest meaning in a phenomenon that means absolutely nothing. It’s called ‘raving’ for a reason. It’s not ‘dancing’ or ‘listening’ or ‘doing something constructive with your freetime’, its ‘raving’: meaningless drug-taking in a variety of uncomfortable scenarios.
It’s not actually the drugs themselves that rivet the Daily Mail and the Guardian in equal measure, but rather the social connotations of Fear and Loathing that they think they can trace in the derelict warehouses and secluded beaches where raves take place across the land.
But what do the ravers get from a fistful of hallucinogenic that they don’t get from real life? Talking to an old friend, who would soon dash off as his beatific grin suddenly tripped into the ecstatic, he explained that the happiest times of his teenage years were when he escaped the everyday and relaxed with his friends and a megawatt sound system at a rave. ‘Stuff like going to the supermarket is like “waaaaaaaaah”, where am I?’, he says. ‘That is fucking horrible. I went to raves to relax in my childhood.’
The other familiar faces of old friends that I spot at the rave are not so illuminating, the conversations mostly consisting of a cursory ‘what the hell are you doing here?’. (I’m not part of the counterculture, and during my youth I developed a fine reputation for killing fun stone dead at 40 paces.) Ultimately, it is a very inclusive world this raving scene: anyone can be in it, but you have to double drop first. Or they can tell.
So why did, as Fact would have it, so many ‘onlookers of a diverse cloth: crusties, scallies and a sea of unspeakably wasted young girls’ descend ‘into the country’s nether regions to get in a total mess’ last weekend? Surely the supermarket can’t have scared the living shit out of all of them? My guess is it can. The modern world seems a pretty inhospitable place for a certain breed of young person, who seeks refuge in fields and on drugs, revelling in their closeted counterculture and jiggering to their private beats.
Their counterculture may be conformist, they may eat the right kind of food (lots of the people I spoke to went on about healthy eating), watch Bill Hicks and admire Steve Bell cartoons in the Guardian, and yet they all believe they are kicking against the pricks and standing up to the great enemy: ‘consumerism’. This is patently not a counterculture fuelled by ideas, quirks or outrageous ambition. It is blips, bass, a 48-hour hiatus of the imagination. The music may be good, but whoever made music at a rave? You’d have to be insane. In fact, what am I doing here? I have no idea anymore.
So let’s leave them all there, sweaty, grinning and ecstatic on the soaking dancefloor, and not remind them that the train scheduled to take them back to the city is shuttling them back to shift work, a desk and one mother of a midweek.
Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.
Mick Hume took a look at Cocaine Kate and the PR-conscious cops. Josie Appleton explored why the UK government has trouble drawing the line on drugs. Jamie Douglass explored Charles Clarke’s bad trip and declared the cannabis debate puff and nonsense. Or read more at: spiked issue Drink and Drugs.
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