It's a small world

I just got back from the Shambala Festival, a small but perfectly-formed event near Market Harborough. Massive congratulations to Sid and the rest of the organisers for creating such a wonderful playground for us all. I was particularly struck by the warm, sociable atmosphere all around the event. It felt like being in a small village for a few days.

I think this feeling had a lot to do with the strong emphasis on participation and interaction. Everyone was encouraged to have a go, through workshops, singalongs, discussions, games, whatever. The usual divisions between entertainers and consumers didn't seem to apply. Everywhere you went there were people doing things they'd never done before, and the community seemed much closer for that. I was very impressed by the attitude to education too: encouraging learning because it's a fun, sociable thing to do. I've improved my wicker weaving skills, and now have a nice wicker snail adorning my window box. (No doing things badly there though: it's a f***ing good snail.)

But it's the sense of smallness that has stayed with me since I've returned to London. Doing things badly is hard to do in our vast, multinational, ever-expanding world. After all, on the world stage what right do I have write about business and education? But in a small world, doing things badly is much more acceptable. In fact, lots of things seem to work better in a small community.

For a start, it's pretty easy to meet nice people there. I had a lovely conversation with the guys at Fairy Love about the need to make money - for the organisers, the stall-holders, the acts, everyone involved to make a profit, so that the festival could keep happening. Hearing a giant fairy talk about business is quite a mind-altering experience, and his words affected the whole way I saw the weekend. Everywhere I went at Shambala, I saw money, marketing, branding, enterprise, hard work - all the essential ingredients of hardened capitalism, and yet it all felt resolutely uncommercial.

I had a quick chat with very personable hip-hop guy Clayton Blizzard about "work". His CD's amazing (I paid him a fiver for a copy in an act of flagrant capitalism), and he'd clearly put loads of "work" into it, but he said he didn't think of music as work because he loved doing it. It seems to be the default association these days: "work" means doing something you don't enjoy. Strange how these words get distorted over time. Lots of people were working very hard at Shambala, but I didn't see many unhappy people.

I also had a very nice conversation with Tom Hodgkinson of the Idler, who was giving a talk about medieval values like neighbourliness, playfulness and community. I was particularly struck by his use of the word "trade", which seemed to carry with it all the humanity of commerce without implying the damaging excesses of modern enterprise. Tom's a marvellous advocate for the importance of idleness, which I've never been very good at myself. But I'm a firm believer in doing things for fun, and for spending more time socialising, which some may see as idleness. I'm starting to see Tom's point. He also played the ukulele quite badly and led us all in a most enjoyable singalong, so perhaps sociablism is close to idleness after all.

Festivals are well-known as bastions of "alternative culture", but what I experienced at Shambala wasn't all that different from the mainstream, just a lot more sociable. I've heard a lot of talk from anarchists over the years about the need to smash the capitalist system, to destroy money and stop work, but the system seemed to be "working" very nicely here. I gave my money to people I liked, for things I enjoyed, and I understood the consequences for my community and my environment. Suddenly capitalism didn't seem so bad after all. Perhaps in a smaller community, and properly balanced by sociablism, the old systems of money, work and commerce might actually start to work properly again.

I don't think I'd be happy to go back to living in villages though. I like the possibilities a larger world can offer. But we spend so much energy these days on making our world larger, maybe we could all benefit from being in a small world now and then.