Two girls are stumbling and spinning around on the underground station platform crying out “English? English?”. I and the journalists I’m with give enough of an acknowledgement for them to stop and pepper us with questions while excitedly reeling off their own potted biographies. They’re teenagers, from Blackpool. One wants to be a backing dancer, for Beyoncé or someone like that, while the other appears to have set the bar (or had the bar set for her) at supermarket work. They’re over for Sziget obviously and appear to be having the time of their lives.
Then one of the pair, the dancer, asks me in all sincerity “What’s the most fun thing you’ve ever done?”
I’m stumped. When you’re 16 that question isn’t so difficult to answer, you can happily count and rank your most enjoyable experiences and best nights of your life, and most will be fairly recent. When you’ve reached a certain age though, trawling through the murk of memory is another matter entirely. There’s also the issue of your own shifting definition of fun – to take a relatively trivial example, spraying aerosol on my arm and setting fire to it doesn’t have the appeal it once did.
But really, why look so hard? I’ve now experienced what it’s like to listen to AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ at full blast while slicing up the Danube in a speedboat. Most fun ever? I dunno but for visceral thrills it’s up there. I hadgoosebumps.
Moreover, that ride is merely the swirled frosting on the same day’s morning treat, when I’m deposited along with other media delegates at Budapest’s Cold War Park. All we’re told is that we’re here to fly in a propeller-driven Lisunov Li-2, the Soviet Air Force’s answer to the Douglas DC-3 airliner, so we’re unprepared for the greeting from a Kalashnikov-toting Little and Large in military apparel. Large is around 7ft tall and could pop your skull between his thumb and forefinger. Little does the talking, treating us to a comedy Communism routine – “Anybody here religious? No? Good”, “Our friend Kim Jong-un” etc – before the brief flight. It’s a little rattly but not as gut-churning as feared and I’m surprised to spy a large branch of Tesco from 1,900 ft a.s.l.
Following that, options include being driven around in an armoured vehicle, wandering through a sort of graveyard for decommissioned Russian war machines, or sitting in a former terminal that now houses a café playing incongruous, Buddha Bar-style chill out. Finally, we’re driven away from the site for shooting practice, which takes place in an underground bunker complete with a stripper pole. Everyone opts for a handgun over an AK-47; it’s lighter than I’d expected and I fire off my round with middling accuracy and in an over-excited flurry.
At the end, we’re presented with certificates proclaiming the bearer to have been a dictator for one day in the state of Absurdistan (it’s not the only time I’ll be struck by the blackness of Hungarian humour). We’re having fun. Weird fun.
These excursions are part of the ‘Sziget Study Tour’ jointly laid on for international media by the festival and the Hungarian tourist board. Hungover mornings are for activities in and around Budapest in the company of our deep-voiced and deeply dry humoured guide Andràs, who can turn descriptions of anything from the Hungarian parliament building to a road intersection into a critique of official corruption. Then in the afternoon we’re generally bussed (or speedboated) over to the festival site – Óbuda Island – in the afternoon. In case you didn’t know, Sziget means island, and Óbuda is ‘Old Buda’, ie the oldest part of Budapest and originally a Roman camp that grew into the capital of the province. Our hotel, Aquincum, is named after it.
From fairly discreet beginnings, Sziget itself has grown to dominate not only the island but also Budapest’s cultural life. Over the full six days it now attracts around 450,000 visitors, with just over half coming from abroad. When founder Karoly Gerandai (who also owns two Michelin starred restaurants in the city) faced heavy government opposition and criticism of supposed impropriety at the festival, he simply threatened to move Sziget to another country. Now Hungarian politicians join the crowds, or at least make use of the VIP area-within-a-VIP area that overlooks the main stage. Plans are afoot to extend the brand beyond Óbuda and the festival week, with Sziget hostels and holiday packages mooted. At the same time, the purchase of a 70% stake by US firm Providence Equity has coincided with Gerandai’s stepping down from active duty.
The current talk, as it always is in these cases, is of Providence wanting to stick with a winning formula and retain Sziget’s ‘spirit’. As hard to pin down as that spirit is, it’s not really about the festival’s increasingly EDM-centric headline acts, who this year include Major Lazer, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike and the execrable Chainsmokers, who leave a German journalist apoplectic following a Lion King-based mash-up. It’s not necessarily to be found with the big indie rock names either – I don’t get to Sziget in time to see PJ Harvey unfortunately (I also miss Kasabian, so swings and roundabouts) but Alt-J prove that it’s entirely possible to both have a unique sound and be face-clawingly tedious.
There are great musical moments, with the brutal efficiency of Vince Staples’ set and, over on the World Music Stage, Gaye Su Akyol’s twangy psych standing out (top marks for the black and gold cape as well) are two of the highlights, but really there’s just so much more to be getting on with, and that’s where Sziget comes into its own. You could spend your whole time immersed in the extensive street theatre, dance or contemporary circus programme. I catch all-male Canadian troupe Machine de Cirque, who have a cheeky routine involving towels and a slightly duff skit where one them tries to woo a female member of the audience, but who also hit some breathtaking heights of absurd skill and skilful absurdity. Then there are areas for arts and craft, a fairground zone, a beach area, and the LGBT-focused Magic Mirror venue with its programme of films, DJs, performance, talks and comedy.
This is one of the areas where Sziget’s ‘Island of Freedom’ shtick really makes sense, particularly in the face of Hungary’s increasingly illiberal government under Viktor Orbàn. Another is in the relaxed self-policing that the festival encourages and which is largely observed. The simplest distillation of the approach is in the camping policy – in theory you can camp anywhere you like on the island, but in practice few people are going to pitch their tent where it inconveniences themselves and others. A few renegades have been known to try setting up in front of the main stage but they rarely stay there. This doesn’t mean that all craziness or eccentricity is ironed out, just that it remains thoroughly good-natured.
Taking a wrong turn on the way out one night a couple of us stumble on a party in the French campsite area. Other nationalities are welcome (in the small crowd there are Swiss as well as Breton flags swaying), it’s more about the cuisine and the style of hospitality. In the makeshift DJ booth, a gay wedding ceremony is being enacted, one guy in a suit, the other a bridal dress. Impromptu vows include the bride expressing the hope that his groom will have a big enough dick. Then a girl dressed like a party-hardened Tinkerbell jumps up to join them for a dance while the DJ serves up the fromagiest French hits imaginable. I’m a fully paid-up Francophile anyway so this is just perfect, and proves that whatever your idea of fun - unless it involves sitting by yourself in a darkened room, and there’s probably somewhere on the island where you can do that too - Sziget has it covered. .