Opinion: T in the Park, The Arches and closure

Opinion: T in the Park, The Arches and closure

As more and more people call for T in the Park to be shut down, David Pollock looks at how it come to this and what can be done

It feels like we’ve been here before. We have been here before, in fact; Strathallan Castle, 2015, and a frankly pant-wetting furore about the future of T in the Park following the festival’s – let’s face it – moderately botched move from its old Balado home to the new site. They screwed up the traffic, the site wasn’t short of slippery slopes and awkward bottlenecks, and most of those joining in the complaints about the festival from home on social media had the easy target of ‘junkies/scum/junkie scum’. Those days were happy ones for fans of classist othering. We wrote about it this time last year ('T in the Park, festival amateurs and neds').

This year saw more of the same, but somehow different and darker. There’s no question everyone – organisers, residents, workers, anyone attending – was feeling pretty wary about a repeat of the lowlights of last year as the weekend approached. And this year’s festival got off to the worst possible start. On the Friday morning, before everything really got going, it was announced that two teenagers had died. Police say the cause of death is as-yet-unknown but not suspicious, although the press have speculated about drugs being involved.

No-one knows the details, but everyone agrees this must be beyond horrific for those involved. It’s the kind of situation which needs calm heads, in which case Twitter probably isn’t the best place to formulate a strategic response – although the Evening Times gave it a go with this piece, which featured comments along the lines of ‘Too many deaths at these events! Time these events are stopped!’ and ‘This needs to be shut for good… Arches got closed for less and this was safer than a gig of this size.’

The Arches… it figured a lot in the response of many, as it did last year, particularly those connected to the broader arts and theatre scene across the Central Belt (which is maybe why I saw it mentioned so often in my own social media bubble). The story should be familiar to most, but to sum up: after suffering its own tragic incident of drug-related death, the iconic Glasgow nightclub / theatre / bar / gallery was put into a form of special measures by the police, requiring extra licensing measures and constant monitoring. Ultimately it lost its license and was forced to close.

Many still struggle to see why this happened to the Arches, why a well-established, highly-regarded establishment should require such special attention while deaths at T in the Park (and they’ve occurred before, most recently one in 2015) don’t appear to earn such an emphatic official response. Plus a further dimension appearing within this conversation since last year is the fact that T in the Park was revealed to have received public funds to help relocate to Strathallan in 2015, an allocation held up as entirely reasonable by Audit Scotland.

It seems superficially sensible to ask why one and not the other has so far suffered for the deaths on their watch, until you realise the false opposition being set up by critics. The Arches and T in the Park are apples and oranges. One was a relatively small city centre venue with a single point of access for people carrying very little, where security oversight was technically feasible across the entire building. The other is a temporary village in the countryside designed for tens of thousands of residents, most of them turning up with tents and bags stuffed full of essentials for four days. To check literally everything they have with them thoroughly would take many hours, if not days. There surely comes a point at which an event like T needs to be taken on trust and its track record by authorities; it literally can’t do everything, but it should be doing everything it can.

There’s nothing to suggest the organisation of T in the Park is half-assed or amateurish. It had ticked along nicely at Balado, and the problems of last year spurred a marked and thorough response in the last year. The traffic management was on another level, the site much more accessibly laid out, designing out the slippery slopes and bottlenecks which occurred. The police presence appeared to be greater and more visible too, but not to an overwhelming or buzz-killing level. It’s worth saying and saying strongly, to armchair critics who have never been but are convinced T is awful: the atmosphere on the sunny Friday evening was fantastic, and on the very muddy Saturday it was as upbeat as it’s possible to be while trudging through quagmire. (I didn’t go on Sunday, and now I feel guilty for not adding to the mighty LCD Soundsystem’s woeful crowd)

The idea that the atmosphere was fraught with danger doesn’t represent anything I saw, but of course bad things happened. A rape was reported on the final night, footage of a fight on the first day appeared and – a serious crime with a very Scottish air of WTF? – a whole ATM was stolen. The sad truth is, none of this (okay, aside from the ATM) is unheard of at a large festival, any example of which is a monumental policing and health and safety challenge, yet at which tens of thousands of people enjoy themselves thoroughly. It’s a dichotomy which allows headlines suggesting T is ‘one of the most crime-ridden festivals in the UK’ and that ‘Police praise revellers as the number of festival arrests falls'.

The piece I wrote here last year covered the classism of much of the criticism aimed at T’s audience, and nothing much has changed. Yet it’s also worth pointing you to this piece from last summer by Loki, one of Scotland’s most astute and passionate writers on the subject of class, which starts off with the not-sure-if-serious assertion ‘T in the Park is shit. I’ve never been but I can say that with smug certainty.’ He makes many other points on the subject of commerce versus art, and it’s for the reader to decide whether the pair can ever exist in harmony; I’d argue that T is an example of it happening, because any place where we can see The Stone Roses, LCD Soundsystem, Slaves, John Grant and the very unexpectedly great Calvin Harris playing isn’t all bad.

He also makes his point that there’s ‘a deep-seated alcohol and drug problem in Scotland.’ Now the question is, is that Scotland’s problem? T in the Park’s problem? The individuals who are taking the drugs and using the drink? Or is it all of our problem? If people go to T to get hammered, and behave badly because they can’t control themselves, is that T’s fault for existing or society’s for not teaching them self-control or offering them an alternative? Is the conversation not about whether T is full of ‘neds’ or not, but all wrapped up in better education, community outreach work, minimum alcohol pricing and continental-style drug-testing kits?

A few days after the festival, contrary to unfounded online rumour that T was under threat, the convenor of Perth and Kinross Council’s development management committee Tom Gray offered a reasoned and balanced statement, praising the new traffic plan but suggesting more visible policing in the campsites might ‘get on top of the indiscipline’ and help ensure ‘ongoing success.’ Last year I compared a festival to a city or a country, and it still feels true – it’s a small, temporary society, and societies work best when everyone who might benefit from them comes together to plan and improve and design out flaws. Any evidence that the main group of people who benefit from T is anyone other than dedicated music fans who want to feel excited and inspired by what they hear and see isn’t there, as far as I can see. For Scotland – this most supposedly passionate about music of countries – it would be a massive loss, and it deserves to be built, not broken.