Why I miss the beautiful camaraderie of being physically close to strangers
Hello, my name is Ruvani and I’m a claustrophobic. Along with a whole swathe of other annoying phobias my risk-averse brain gathered up on the rocky road between the intrepid bravery of childhood and the sheer terror of adulthood, at some point I became a person who, along with small spaces, Did Not Like Crowds. While I’ve never been absolutely terrified off them – no avid gig-goer could be – crowds made my heart beat a little faster, put me on high alert. Willfully stepping into a tightly crowded space was only fine as long as I knew exactly where the exit was and kept it in my eyeline. One too many Dodgy Crowd Experiences may have been to blame. I recall getting nastily squashed against a wall at Notting Hill Carnival one year, and there was the rather scary moment in Ibiza when poor crowd control led to me getting lifted off the ground by the pressure of overexcitable humans. The idea of getting trapped, being crushed to death, or more likely to severe discomfort, has its own special chest-clenching grossness for me. Paranoia, yes – but irrational paranoia, definitely not. Getting squashed, trampled, stampeded-over may never have been a likely possibility at the many crowded events I’ve attended in my life (us good ol Brits know how to wait our turn) but it was always there in the back of my head, lurking in a corner, casting a tiny shadow over the fun.
But although crowds can be scary, they can also be incredibly wonderful. That’s why I persevered, always, with every kind of crowd, from nightclubs to music festivals to street parties, gigs, immersive theatre, and of course sports matches. You name it, I was there – diving in head first, with half an eye on the exit of course. The camaraderie of a crowd watching a band, the hive-mind hysteria of a bunch of ravers partying to a fantastic DJ set, the happy chatting with strangers in the snaking queue for festival toilets, the shared sense of place and purpose, the knowledge that everyone is there out of a love for the same thing – that’s what makes crowds amazing, joyous and life-affirming. Every one of the fifteen (yes, fifteen) Glastonburys I’ve attended has been populated with its own little miracles, folks helping each other out, getting each other’s back, sharing water and food, searching en masse for lost property, lifting each other on their shoulders. Whether I’m sweating in a nightclub, cheering for my team, headbanging in a mosh pit or queuing up tight for food, drinks or bathrooms, crowds exert their own energy, their own awareness of the moment. That each moment is a story, a memory, that you are all building and sharing together. Precious, unique and irreplaceable. Humans as physically close as they can be who don’t know one another but all want to be happy, want to create a positive experience, want to root for the same team. The yelling, chanting, shrieking in unison, the huge booming pulsating waves of love and excitement radiating from the heads and bodies squished up together, bobbing in synch, arms and legs akimbo with no thought at all to personal space.
Thinking about it now, it feels almost mystical, all that person-power, all that energy and life. With festivals, clubs and events banned, sports played to empty stadiums, the perpetual six-foot-scare-distance keeping us apart, I have never craved the warmth and intimacy of a crowd more. I dream of crowds, of hair in my face, elbows in my back, jostling this way and that, head ducking to get a better view, the sound of other people’s conversations, the access to their experiences as part of my own. I crave speakers and spotlights, the shared wave of anticipation that ripples through a crowd in the moments before a huge beat drops or a goal is scored. I miss hugging strangers when everything is going right for all of you at the exact same moment. When it’s your moment, your joy, but everyone else’s at the same time. The feeling of being so much a part of something, so very alive, of knowing you will always remember that You Were There, and so will everyone else. Those shared human experiences when being part of a crowd is like being part of a body, a single organism, one blissful beating heart.
Now, locked away, those moments feel more precious than ever. Each memory holds a bitter-sweet poignance, sharp with the not-knowing when we will ever again be able to return to those hallowed, socially-sacred spaces. The danger of closeness now means something so different. We turn our faces, our bodies away from one another, the newly-omnipresent fear of germs bearing down on us like a constant dull brain-ache. Just one of so many ways this disease has shifted life from colour to monochrome, another shade sucked from the rainbow of our existence. By separating us physically, reducing our shared experiences to shakey out-of-synch Zoom conversations, taking away any real physical sense of closeness to strangers, some essential threads of human connection feel lost, broken. The privacy and safety of home is an island, a walled castle, a lonely, reductive space where we separate ourselves and become less like or liking of everyone else. Our suspicion of contact, fear of contamination, divisions over how to behave and what our priorities should be right now feel like a psychological war zone, new and seemingly-insurmountable social and cultural barriers rising high on top of the literal physical danger of the spreading pandemic. Outside of our household bubbles, intimacy feels like a thing of the past. The ability to commune in a crowd, as a crowd, to speak with one voice, move with one motion, to be something larger, more powerful and more fulfilling than oneself through our physical and – in the moment – psychological closeness with strangers is a dear, precious recollection, a whisper of a dream. And I realise I’m more afraid of losing that intimacy forever than I ever was of standing in a crowd.
11th September 2020