Why Reading WOMAD Festival Was Special

WOMAD, the World of Music and Dance, is a world music festival founded by Peter Gabriel and his Real World music company. WOMAD runs world music festivals around the world, and the one I used to go to was at Reading in the UK. For exactly the same time I lived in Reading, 1986 to 2006, there was a WOMAD festival.

I couldn’t go to the last Reading WOMAD because I was moving house. I don’t think anyone knew it was going to be the last. An announcement was made in October 2006, and that was the end of 20 years of Reading WOMAD festival.

It was a shame. Fans of the festival weren’t able to say goodbye to WOMAD at Reading, but I had mixed feelings. I’d just moved to Wiltshire, and the next WOMAD was to be in Charlton Park, an hour away. The down side was we had to drive and camp. There would be no more cycling to Reading WOMAD.

We bought two full weekend tickets in March costing £220, and on Thursday July 26th 2007 we loaded up the car with camping equipment and headed off to the new site at Charlton Park. It took one hour to get there, and three hours to reach the site entrance which turned out to be a hole in a hedge leading into a giant field with about a hundred cars stuck in mud. A single tractor was towing cars from the entrance to the middle of the field, and dumping them there. People were turning round and leaving if they could.

The place had a bad vibe with police helicopters overhead, blue flashing lights everywhere, and frantic people running the three miles to get a good pitch for their tents. The man on the gate couldn’t care less, and said he didn’t control the weather. He thought it was all very funny. We knew we’d have to do an urgent hospital visit over the weekend, and would need to get out of the festival at some point. There was little chance of being able to do that. Once we were in, we were in. We didn’t know whether we had a towing eye. It didn’t help that we were holding up the whole queue to get into WOMAD. At 11pm, we reluctantly decided to turn away.

That day, the WOMAD web site had assured us the festival site was going to be okay: “The festival will be going ahead this weekend as planned. The site has not been affected by flooding as it has a clay soil on limestone brash and is on high ground, allowing efficient drainage. The ground, including the camping and parking areas, is still solid. There is trackway for all the main routes of the festival site.

Others assured me it was built on a permanent site that was used throughout the year for conferences.

I arrived home at midnight, and logged on. Already, tales of woe were flooding into the message board. It was a lucky escape, and a great decision to turn away. Many people had a terrible time: thefts, fractures, missed acts, confusion, closed stages, car damage, stoned teenage stewards, thuggish security, noise till 4 am, and witnesses to a serious assault by a security man. My friends from Reading also escaped early. It was a terribly sad end to Reading WOMAD.

I don’t remember when my first Reading WOMAD was, 1988 or 89. I do remember it being little more than a huge field with a few people sitting down having picnics, and a large uncovered stage with groups playing pan pipes. I don’t remember anything particularly outstanding.

In 1990, I went to The Gambia and Senegal, and heard West African music. Free of western drums and bass, the koras, balofons, and talking drums sounded like the best music I’d ever heard. I came back to Reading, and remembered I could still keep in touch with African music via Reading WOMAD. I became a Reading WOMAD addict, and went to 15 WOMADs without a break. I have all the programmes.

I naively expected that WOMAD at Charlton Park would be Reading WOMAD lifted up and put back down 60 miles further west. I was wrong. Reading WOMAD, on the banks of the River Thames behind Reading Council’s Rivermead Leisure Centre was a one-off, an alternative to the teenage indie gloom of Reading Rock festival (which takes places on the same site), without the dour monochrome gothic creepiness of Glastonbury, without the ersatz London Irish booziness of the Pogueless Fleidh, and without the pompous rural rock mansions of Cropredy. Reading WOMAD was special.

Reading WOMAD worked because it was sited on fault lines. Reading, like London, is divided by the River Thames, and the division is based on wealth. London’s north bank has Buckingham Palace, the west end, and the city. On the south bank, there are huge housing estates, multicultural centres, and ordinary people. This division continues along the Thames back to its source. In Reading, wealthy Caversham on the north bank looks down on Reading’s terraced houses on the south bank. It was on the south bank that Reading WOMAD flourished.

It also straddled the east versus west fault line. To the east, the massive London conurbation of 15 million people, the urban powerhouse of multicultural music, chavs, clubland, and hard drugs. To the west, rural, provincial, holistic therapy loving English and Celtic folk enjoying raves, cider, soft drugs and crop circles. Reading WOMAD brought these cultures together. The friction was audible. Like all fault lines, energy emanated. People said Reading WOMAD was too laid back, too cosy, and too self-contained. But it pulsated with dynamism below the surface. Change, and the ephemeral nature of things, was ever-present.

The WOMAD organisation teamed up with Reading’s old-town English Labour council. It was a Lennon and McCartney creative combination. Where WOMAD was disorganised, Reading Council could fix anything. Where WOMAD couldn’t make decisions, Reading Council would get it right at the last minute. The often-mentioned brinkmanship of WOMAD played right into Reading Council’s hands. They thrived on it. Where good management was needed, the council always came to the rescue. Where great world music acts were needed, WOMAD, and Gabriel’s Real World company attracted the very best: Baab Maal, Youssou N’Dour, and many others. It was a marriage made in heaven and hell on the banks of the Thames.

But there was a big problem. Little John Farm owned the festival land and leased it to Reading Council. In 2005, the farm and the land was bought by developers. In the words of the Joni Mitchell song, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Sunday evening at Reading WOMAD was always our time to leave. We would walk to the small hillock at the back of the leisure centre, and say goodbye to our favourite festival for another year. We always believed it carried on without us.

But it’s a small world. Here in Wiltshire, I was talking to a woman working at the fruit and veg shop who used to be a Reading Council employee, and worked in the bar at Reading WOMAD.

“Such a shame,” she said. “It was a lovely festival.”

It reached many people, young and old.

Our urgent hospital visit did take place during WOMAD 2007, and on a very wet Saturday evening, while people struggled on at Charlton Park, we were returning from Wexham Park Hospital in Slough. This meant passing Reading, and the old site of Reading WOMAD.

At 11pm Reading WOMAD would normally have been cooling down slightly. Reading WOMAD was always, without fail, held in 30 degree heat and high humidity. The lanterns would have been lit, and the festival lights would have been on. We stopped the car in Rivermead Leisure Centre car park, and sneaked past the entrance via the grey electricity transformer. We climbed through a hole in the tall, wire fence to get round to the grassy hillock at the back that led out to the flags, tents, lanterns, and stalls of Reading WOMAD.

It was all still there. It did carry on without us. WOMAD Ltd. does not own world music. And this is what Reading WOMAD was always saying – it’s time to move on. That was why it was such a special festival.