Bluedot 2019Jodrell Bank Observatory
On 20th July, this day 50 years ago, the first human being walked on the surface of the moon. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1999 that “…the Apollo 11 moon landing may well be remembered as the most significant event of the 20th century. And that includes two world wars, the development of Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum physics and nuclear weapons.”
In this information age – where everyday wonder at our technical innovations is demoted within a carousel of obsolesce, folk traditions eroded and/or squeezed in the neo-liberal headlock, and our familial sense of global connectedness chipped away by the political forces of division – how do we celebrate such a significant landmark in human transcendence?
This is part of what’s drawn me to the towering Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Banks’ Deep Space Observatory for BLUEDOT 2019. A fitting site in so many ways – not least being the special role this telescope played in tracking the Eagle Lander on the surface of the moon during the momentous events of 21st July 1969 – it’s my second consecutive year at the festival and it feels like the organisers have raised the stakes further on their beautifully niche Saganion party.
The experience this year is remade by the fact that we’ve chosen to do it as a family – me, wife, child one (eight) and child two (five). My days.
We arrive around midday Friday after watching a torrent of rain smash the site via the BBC breakfast show’s decamped live broadcast. Maybe it’s because I have my kids with me, but it seems to be much more family-orientated this year. There’s even a festival gym for pre-tweens.
Saturday morning, first light I walk child one to the loos through a maze of mud, vomit and camping kettles, while trying to answer his questions about the function of radio telescopes. Caffeine now, please. The weather is horrendous and it’s early afternoon before we’ve even made it out of the tent and on site. Smugfuckery sees us arriving at the festival with a brand new Crotec wagon – the middle-class kiddy chariot of choice. However, after two days of rain there is nearly half a foot of wet mud to slosh through at various points en route so I’m pulling around what feels like half a tonne of dead weight through God’s brown cocktail. It feels like I’m carrying the cross. I estimate the family festival experience to be around three times the effort for around a third of the payoff, but it is coming in the form of the outstanding music line-up of Saturday night.
Following a beautifully bite-sized lecture on Einstein’s theories and the possibilities of time travel – delivered by renowned theoretical physicist and scientific pop star Jim Al-Khalili (renamed Jimmy Ukulele by child one) – I have the most mind-bending conversation with my 8-year-old about time and space and the plot of Back To The Future, after which he says with deep sincerity that he wants to become a scientist and explore the potential of black holes. You don’t get that at Reading and Leeds.
A shift into the evening begins with OMAR SOULEYMAN and his hyperactive blend of Syrian wedding pop and techno. I’ve been in love with his music since 2007’s Highway To Hassake – his debut release outside of Syria, which came out when he was 41 years old, prior to which he was a farmer and part-time wedding singer – but I’ve never had the opportunity to see him live. He lives up to my massive expectations. The kids take a seat in their cow-shit splattered carriage as the sun starts to dip on a riotous set of classics from his back catalogue, amongst newer numbers from his latest album To Syria, With Love and 2013’s, Four Tet-produced, Wenu Wenu.
Then it’s Jarvis Cocker. In his inimitable raconteur mode, he strings a narrative together that links a set of new work from current musical project JARV IS. Some fit better than others in his attempts to link the set back to the Bluedot context but he’s always amusing. Especially true of his personal reflections on the night of the moon landing and its phycological aftermath – in that the assumption was that by the 1980s everyone would be living on the moon so “Why bother to learn to ride a fucking bike?”, which he then didn’t learn to do until he was in his late 20s, only once the fantasy had evaporated. Highlights from his set included a fevered rendition of Must I Evolve – a seven minute Krautrock epic loaded with Jarvis’ personal philosophy on the evolution of the human animal. Swiftly and fittingly followed-up by Cunts Are Still Running the World. Welcome Boris.
And then there’s KRAFTWERK 3D. What can I say? This is that ecstatic part experienced at any festival that makes all the other grafting discomfort and inconvenience pale. The added level for this one is that children one and two couldn’t be any more excited than I am to see quartet slide on to the stage behind their magic performance podiums. There’s a force so iconic at play that the kids sense it, somewhere between the sublime and ridiculous, before they’ve even played a note. Starting with Numbers / Computer World and really not drawing breath on the quality – and the inducement of my own giddy joy – over nearly two hours. My only disappointment was that they couldn’t fit in more songs. Boing, boom, tschak, then bed. My kids are destroyed.
Sunday morning, and the dawn portaloo stumble is punctuated by the common site of bleary topless dads hand-banging shoes together in a vain attempt to break up the dried carcass of several days mud-strutting – a ceremonial offering to gods of cow shit. The camp sites are a weird blend, as art installation audio – featuring space station cockpit sounds – drift across the fields and into your tent ears, peppered with gruff Mancunian voices shouting “put your arse away” and such, and like. There are many more having deep conversations about Hawking in RUN CMD:// t-shirts, though.
Sunday is reserved, in the main, for the extended far-side of the festival site which includes a revamped Mission Control (science lecture) tent boasting a tripled capacity from the previous years, and done away with the distracting sound bleed from the main stages.
Due to the challenges of Friday we sadly missed many of the heavy hitting science headliners. However, while thing one and thing two painted their exhausted faces with marshmallow coated Mr Whippys – a creamed ice monstrosity claimed to have been made possible by the scientific endeavours of pre-politico social justice and compassion wormhole Margaret Thatcher – I do catch Dr Tasmin Edwards’ heartfelt presentation on climate change to an eerily quiet audience of around 3000 people. Her talk, comprising a series of diary entries, pivots between her diagnosis of cancer and her research into the melting polar ice caps to devastating effect.
Bluedot remains an amazing summer festival with many left turns for the open minded. Glynn Lunney, flight director on duty for Apollo 11, once said, “In the big sweep of history yet to come, we may look back on this not as a technological achievement, we may end up looking back and seeing that it was the beginning of a new stage for mankind as we know it.” Having just come through its 50th anniversary bash, along with an accord of 21,000 who saw Bluedot as the place to consider this highpoint in human achievement, the current state of the planet outside of this enlightened idyll makes it hard to agree with the statement. However, I can’t think of anywhere we might have had this much fun in celebration.