On arrival at the East Gate of Princes Street Garden we were met with a queue of maybe 50-100 people. Although the night was cold, I was wrapped up warm and the traffic and huddle of people kept the temperature bearable. What was less bearable was the Scottish tat shop across the street that played Wham’s Last Christmas on a loop for the entire duration of us waiting in the queue – approximately 20-30 minutes. I felt sorry for the poor folk who work there.
Having got through the gate the queue continued down the steps into the gardens to the bag search. Realisation dawned as with each step the temperature seemed to drop as we moved further away from the busy street and into the cold dark below. I was attending with my team from the company I work for: Our Power. We’re a not for profit energy company that aims to reduce heat and fuel costs by passing benefits from the energy sector to our communities and Sleep in the Park was absolutely something that resonated with all of us and with the values of Our Power.
Once finally through the gates I was ready for the delights of setting up my groundsheet and sleeping bag in the freezing cold. Each of us were provided with a bright orange survival bag which we used to cover our bed for the night. As more people arrived I looked around and saw human sized orange plastic bags packed together as far as the eye could see. Frighteningly, it looked like the aftermath following a zombie outbreak and the body bags had started to pile up.
After we had set up we headed off to the stage where Frightened Rabbit were just starting to warm the crowd up with Old Fashioned. The concrete we stood on was freezing and my feet went numb within minutes so even a performance of their flawless song The Modern Leper couldn’t inject me with any warmth. Throughout the evening we were compèred by Rob Brydon and spoken to by Sir Chris Hoy, the always magnificent Sir Bob Geldof, as well as John Cleese who read us a ridiculously silly bedtime story. The highlight of the evening was an electrifying performance by Amy MacDonald who reminded me that I loved her music and made me wonder why I hadn’t checked out her latest album.
The real excitement from the crowd was for Liam Gallagher who headlined the event. I found that his nasal voice sitting on top of the mostly acoustic arrangements didn’t work that well – perhaps his voice was just too loud in the mix. That said, although he mostly performed his new material he still left us with the crowd pleasing Live Forever and Wonderwall.
In many ways any criticism of the event can, and perhaps should be, dismissed as deliberate. Sure, the queues for free drinks were long and the queues to get La Favorita pizza even worse, but all the inconvenience and suffering was a stark reminder of the privilege we expect from our day to day lives and how dehumanising it is to live like this. As Josh Littlejohn, the co-founder of Social Bite, said in his speech, in one of the richest countries in the world no one should have to live this way. As the night set in those words bounced around my head – the experience was worse than I could have imagined. I was relatively warm with my four season sleeping bag, inflated air mat, gloves, scarf, hat and even some hand warmers gel pads for my feet.
No, it wasn’t just the cold that was the issue. It was the discomfort and the worry. Every time I shut my eyes I could hear the chatter of the crowd, the rustle of plastic, the shuffle of people approaching. I wasn’t sure what was happening around me. Even though the event was a safe space I still wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d been kicked in the head as someone made their way back to their bed in the gloom. Each moment of that highlighted the dismal experience for those on the streets and awoke another layer of empathy within me. I kept thinking about the videos we’d seen at the show earlier where people had spoken about being threatened, attacked, spat on, and sexually assaulted. Again, no one should have to live like that.
Throughout the night people started to wane, the cold, or misery, getting to them. Some who’d chosen to have a few drinks before the event went to a bad place quickly as their bodies shrugged off the temperature and went straight to being ill. I saw a few folk give up midway through the night, white as ghosts, where the discomfort became too overwhelming. I closed my eyes and just tried to get through it. Time passed, how long I did not know. The guy next to me snapped. “That’s it. I’ve had enough.” he got up and started packing. Please God, I thought, don’t let it be the middle of the night. I dreaded finding out that it was 1am and we’d only been doing it for an hour or two. “What time is it?” I asked. “5am” he replied. I felt a rush of relief, I’d made it through. The event was supposed to finish at 6.30am and I figured I could last a bit longer so closed my eyes again. When I next got up to take a look around the entire camp was on its feet packing up and leaving. I got my phone out. It was 5.30am. My team were stirring and we all agreed it was time to go too. I looked at the faces of everyone, the warmth and cheer from last night was gone. Everyone was tired and miserable and just wanted to get something to eat or have a shower.
It was an awful experience and one I would not recommend to anyone and I will do all I can to ensure we do not need a Sleep in the Park 2018. Still, I’m lucky. I have a home to go to. Unlike the 11,000 in Scotland who do not.
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