Michael Smith gives us a student’s eye view of a music festival that has become a Southsea institution.
I have four objectives today. The first is to see Honeyblood, a female duo of guitar and drums specialising in scratchy, reverb-smothered, psychedelic-punk rock. They combine driving rhythms with sweet melodic vocals. For a two-piece their sound is huge, like a tidal wave crashing right over you.
My second objective is to find the cheapest pint. Southsea Fest is taking place in twelve venues, each one offering deals such as bulk-purchases and buy-one-get-one-free. Last year, Southsea Social Club was the cheapest at £2 a pint. By the end of the night, its floor was flooded with booze.
Thirdly, I’m after euphoria. That experience of suddenly losing yourself in the moment, dancing, laughing, watching people talk, noticing the way their lips move, the way their tongues dance. Everything gets sharper, more focused.
Last of all, I want to understand how the culture and creativity of events like Southsea Fest can be a positive force in a city that is suffering from social, ethnic and political tension.
As my brother and I drive down to Southsea, we see Pompey fans marching towards the ground, filing along the narrow pavements and weaving between bonnets and bumpers. Scarves are draped over their shoulders or around their necks. Some are chanting, ‘play up Pompey, Pompey play up’, sung to the melody of a clock chime at the beginning of every hour. We pass a shop with an Arabic sign. Halal products are listed on the glass in red stencil. Two women in full length burkas walk out of the shop with heavy bags and move, heads bent low, through the on-coming fans. Two of the fans shake their heads at the women.
‘These immigrants, they’ve got no respect have they?’ says one.
‘No fucking manners at all,’ says the other.
We park down the end of Lawrence Road and can already hear the music. We head to Albert Road, passing a dry cleaner which recently hosted a gig without the council’s permission. The council tried to stop the gig from happening and fined the owners, but eventually dropped the case.
People cluster outside venues, bottles or plastic cups in one hand, cigarettes in the other. The music grows louder. On the opposite side of the road is The King’s Head, an old boozer whose clientèle slowly died one pint after another, and so the pub was re-branded and refurbished. Through the windows I can see new, smooth tables with stools rather than chairs tucked under them.
By contrast, the Wine Vaults is modern. The exterior walls are unevenly painted in a muddy colour. It looks like a rest point for seventeenth century highwaymen. Two bouncers guard the front door. We try to go in. One of the bouncers holds up his hands. His head is shaved and his face covered in stubble.
‘You fellas got bands?’ he asks, pointing at our bare wrists.
‘We need to pick them up,’ I say.
He grunts and looks away, waving toward another door on the left. ‘Got to go through there to get ‘em.’
‘Cheers,’ I say.
He ignores me and continues his conversation. We go through the doorway.
Inside, the lighting is low. Tables have been pushed to the side, forming a large open space on the wooden floor. From above the makeshift dance floor, a group of three DJs bob their heads, gulping back pints. They’re playing Talking Heads’ ‘(Nothing but) Flowers.’ The song reminds me of those wedding scenes at the end of American comedies; a beach setting, cocktails in hand. The bride dances with the best man while the groom twirls his newly acquired mother-in-law. Everyone is smiling. The camera pans toward the evening sky and the credits roll.
The chorus of the song starts and a group of five people in the middle of the dance floor raise their hands. ‘You got it, you got it!’ they chant.
To the right, a sign on the wall reads, ‘Tickets for Collection’. An arrow underneath points toward an open doorway. We follow it and find a desk at the end of a corridor. Two men and a woman are sat behind it. One of the men has a beard and is wearing a woolly hat and the other has short hair and a nose ring. The woman has her back to us, but I can see that her her hair is red. They’re all dressed in black.
My brother steps forward. ‘Hey, we’ve got some tickets to collect,’ he says.
‘Sure, man. What are the names?’ the one with the beard asks.
We give him our names and the man with the nose ring checks the list. ‘All good,’ he says and nods to his friend.
The one with the beard tears two wristbands off of a sheet and hands them over.
‘Have a good one,’ he says.
As we leave The Wine Vaults, my brother gets a call. We stop behind him. He turns, looking down the road. ‘Where are you then? Al Burrito. I’ll see you in a bit.’
He walks in the opposite direction to which we have just come and we follow.
Al Burrito is part of Bar 56, a small venue that looks more like a converted house than a pub. Outside the building, parking spaces have been cordoned off and hay bales placed inside them in a semi-circle. I imagine a campfire in the middle. People sit on the hay and drink. Shoes stamp out the smouldering ends of cigarettes. From an open window, a woman is calling out the names of burritos that are ready for collection: ‘Two Great Americans’.
‘Alright lads,’ someone shouts. I turn and see MP, an old friend, walking toward us. His hair is curly and comes down to his shoulders. His nose has been broken and is bent to one side. It gives him the appearance of a children’s TV villain. He comes up and shakes my hand, which is wet with lager. He was supposed to be in charge of the smoke machine for the venue upstairs, but was fired for generating too much smoke. It was pouring out of the windows. He laughs and swigs his pint. ‘Ah well.’
We spend the next two hours at the venue, listening to acoustic artists and drinking Fosters by the pint. It costs £3.20. There must be somewhere cheaper. I think of Southsea Social Club. Honeyblood are due to play at the Wine Vaults in three hours. We finish our drinks and leave Al Burrito.
Southsea Social Club is dark. Tables selling records and merchandise are set up along one wall. The crowd push up against them and put their drinks down amongst the stock. The venue smells of sweat and alcohol. I carve through the crowd toward the bar. I smile at a barmaid and she comes over.
‘What’s your cheapest pint?’ I ask.
‘Carlsberg is £2.80,’ she says.
‘You were doing it at £2 last year,’ my brother says. He squeezes up next to me and rests his arms on the bar.
‘We’re still doing cans and that,’ she replies. ‘They’re a bit warm though.’
He does a drumroll on the bar with his hands and holds up two fingers in a peace sign.
‘We’ll have two cans of lager, please.’
I crack open the can and suck the froth. It is warm. The others leave the bar and go out into the smoking area. I follow them. Smoke hangs in the air. I lean against a drain next to the metal fire escape and take a swig from my can. A man next to me, wearing long hair and sunglasses, is talking to a woman who is also wearing sunglasses. Her hair is brown but dip dyed blonde at the ends. She has a nose piercing and a lip ring, and is smoking a rollie.
‘We were at the EDL counter-march the other day. It was hilarious,’ the man says and takes a drag. ‘They’re so fucking dumb. We were outside this mosque in Fratton and they were actually chanting “You’re not English, You’re not English, You’re not English…” and then they stopped. The last lyric was meant to be “anymore”. Idiots.’
The woman laughs. ‘They came down here the other day, didn’t they?’ she says.
The man nods and takes his fag out of his mouth, blowing more smoke up into the cloud that is forming. ‘Yeah. Marched down from the Kings Theatre, then up Lawrence Road into Fratton. They had England flags round their shoulders, wearing them like capes. Just football thugs, really.’
We go back up to the bar and buy another couple of cans. On the stage at the other end of the venue, a band thrashes out the final song of their set. The drummer is also the lead singer and his kit is right at the front of the stage. With every snare hit, liquid rises into the air, each droplet an ember in the red stage light. The guitarist leans forward and puts his foot on a monitor. His fingers work their way up and down the fretboard. Symbols crash and the band finish. The playlist music starts and the lights come up.
It’s nearly six now and the booze is starting to churn in my stomach. I need some food to soak it up. We leave Southsea Social Club and head toward the Kwiki Mart. The name reminds me of The Simpsons character, Apu and his Springfield corner shop. I can smell fried chicken. It’s tempting, though the hygiene rating of local takeaways is something to be considered. I buy two packs of Chicken Tikka sandwiches and some chewing gum.
Inside Little Johnny Russell’s, a trio of young lads with acoustic guitars are playing. By the time I get to the bar, the song has finished and I’ve forgotten it. I order a Southern Comfort and lemonade. Two fingers pinch my ear and I turn around. A man is staring at me. His eyes are watery and his lips are wet. He is drunk and I push his hand away. ‘What are you doing?’ I say.
He ignores me and makes another grab for my ear.
I knock his hand away again. ‘What’s your problem?’
He smiles and closes his eyes.
‘Sorry about him, mate,’ says a voice behind me. A man pushes past the drunk and stands at the bar next to me. He’s short and is wearing a tight white t-shirt. ‘We’re playing real-life twister,’ he says. ‘Name a body part and you have to touch someone there. Do you want to play?’
‘I’m alright.’ I’d like to be there when they touch the wrong guy. Leaving the bar with my drink, I make my way into the garden where my brother is waiting. The drunk and his friend follow, walking between tables, stroking people. A woman shouts and security guards drag them away. We stay a while, drinking in the fading light, then leave. The first item on my list needs to be checked off. Honeyblood are due on stage.
We walk into the Wine Vaults as a middle-aged ska band are finishing their set. The similarly aged crowd are skanking wildly; booze sloshes out of plastic cups and into the air. The saxophone player leaves the stage and moves out amongst them. He is wearing sunglasses and I wonder if he can see where he is going. The crowd forms a ring around him and he gets down on his knees, his cheeks inflating and deflating, turning red. The song ends and the saxophonist smiles as the crowd cheer. People pat his back as he returns to the stage. I walk to the bar and order a double Kahlua and ice. Like a dessert, the sticky, caramel-flavoured liqueur runs down your throat and warms your insides. Try it with Baileys or double cream, there’s nothing like it. I take a sip and join my brother at the back of the venue, as Honeyblood walk on-stage. The Ska band lifts their equipment out of the way and we wait. A younger crowd moves forward. They’re hipster types, men with beards and woolly hats, women with dip-dyed hair and leather jackets. But the different sections of the audience are not segregated. Looking around the venue, I see people of varying ages and ethnicities, all dancing, all drinking, all together, waiting for the music to start.
The lights go down and the crowd whistles. The drummer strikes the hi-hat three times and the set begins.
Over the next hour, I fall in love. Give an attractive girl an electric guitar and my mind is no longer my own. But Honeyblood are more than that. Their music is intoxicating, and so are they. As I watch them, the tidal wave hits me, and I am swept away. I could describe their sound with any number of positive adjectives, yet the more I would suggest, the weaker each one would become. I will simply say that they are captivating and if you ever get the chance to see them, you must.
The festival is coming to an end and the drink is taking its toll. My body aches and the my toes feel like they are bleeding. Every gulp intensifies the pain.
It’s midnight and the queue outside the Wedgewood Rooms stretches down the road. We decide to call it a day and walk back to the car. My brother is the designated driver. He’s definitely not over the limit, he tells me, as he buckles his seat belt and turns the ignition.
Driving back through Portsmouth, the streets are empty, aside from the occasional taxi or stumbling drunk.
Tomorrow morning, hundreds of happy festival-goers will rise across this island city. Some will make their way out of the city, others their way across it. Many will not move at all.
Photography by Ian Stannard (originally posted to Flickr as Hated In The Face) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons