Child-friendly festivals are the trippiest

London is smouldering on the edges of anarchy, Tottenham is in tatters, there is a bad feeling outside Foot Locker. So where am I? In a tee-pee, drawing my dreams and eating banana fritters.

The Apple Cart in London’s Victoria Park is the newest of the new-breed boutique festivals that new-ish parents go to in the hope that, for one day at least, raving and (child-) rearing need not be mutually exclusive. Y’know, Tommy Tippee in one hand, pint of Pimms in the other; the kind of place Ed Miliband might arrange to be “seen”. It’s billed as “a kaleidoscopic, colourful playground for adults and kids alike” and it works, mostly.

While the main stage looks a little forlorn during a mid-afternoon downpour (‘Gimme Shelter’ booms ironically out of the PA), there is a warm and fuzzy feeling in the House of Fairytales for the “interactive candlelit matinee”, a project from artist Gavin Turk. A delighted bustle of children put on a light-and-shadows spectacular and it feels like an episode of Why Don’t You? crossed with Mr Benn.

Then we’re down on all fours in the Imaginarium reaching for pots of glitter containing the bristles of weird creatures. Who needs acid? Child-friendly festivals are trippier by far, with shorter booze queues.

Back in the land of grown-ups Patrick Wolf is the lucky performer who gets to come on when the weather has finally stabilised. Dressed head to toe in red, including his motif forward-shock of hair, he performs a synth-baroque rain dance with a harp, one part Mozart, two parts Erasure.

Bizarrely, Badly Drawn Boy spends most of his set saying “f**k” in some sort of Tourettes reaction to an audience sprinkled with under-fives. Luckily the little uns don’t notice the human tea cosy’s language because they’re all busy chasing giant balloons like a miniature Flaming Lips.

There’s a crowd surge for comedy-goth Tim Minchin, who starts a song with the words “I hate Jews”. Watching the crowd momentarily squirm (and urge on the obviously not racist punchline) is a funny sport. Then it’s a quick razz around the fairground, where – hallelujah! – adults are allowed into the bouncy moondome and Beats International pumps out from the waltzers (damn, the organisers really do know my age).

It’s this smart balancing act between adult and un-commercial kid fun that puts The Apple Cart ahead in the family festival stakes, not least because at the end you can go home to your own bed. Glastonbury with kids requires a camper van and a VIP pass, Bestival may have a breast-feeding zone but it’s still too big, Camp Bestival takes it too far by treating the Zingzillas with the same reverence as Primal Scream.

Back in east London, it’s soon time for headliners and “London pop legends” Saint Etienne; forever young, they are the embodiment of the ‘got kids, still cool’ generation. You’re in a Bad Way sounds fresh as a daisy; Like A Motorway is cat’s eye bright; and Girl VII forms the set’s pop-geography centre-piece while a clutch of new songs offer a glimpse of further disco classics.

Saint Etienne’s trick has always been to cut ‘n’ paste pop culture (Northern Soul headspins, Ian Sinclair flyovers, KLF smirks) into could-have-won Eurovision melodies. It’s a formula that keeps them moving forwards. And it’s a joyous end to a day of art, music and magic… even if the kids on the streets are about to turn Foot Locker into a banana fritter.

Anna Doble

This article first appeared in the Spectator Arts Blog, August 2011

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