The Sharp End: Keyboard wizard

Dave Waller goes backstage at the Isle of Wight Festival to man the helpdesk screens.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

This month the Sharp End is packing me off to the Isle of Wight Festival. I'll be walking the same fields as Jimi Hendrix, who headlined here in 1970. But while Hendrix blew hippies' minds with a feedback-addled revamp of God Save the Queen, I'll be doing something way more rock 'n' roll: data entry.

It's sunny when I arrive at the site, joining the flood of beaming middle-class refugees trudging round the perimeter to the backstage entrance - past opportunistic food stands and expansive bare bellies being slapped with sun-cream. There I meet Paul Pike, head of entertainment at Intelligent Venue Solutions, in one of the production unit's Portakabins. He's running the electronic ticket scanning at the festival's entrances, and it's his job to help ensure the 75,000 punters get in and out smoothly. Having processed 8,500 people in one hour, he says it was 'like Zulus advancing over the hill'. Zulus in novelty hats and designer wellies, that is.

My job is to rock the helpdesk. IVS is also testing a cashless payment system for Mastercard. Festival punters load money onto an electronic wristband they scan at the bar when ordering. Paul's idea is one day to roll it out as a festival staple - it cuts down on serving time, the caterers don't have to worry about cash-handling, and customers don't need to carry their money around.

Mastercard is giving away 500 £30 wristbands to guests in the VIP area in exchange for some handy market research. My job is to register the bands - sitting behind a bank of PCs in a darkened corner, trying to decipher the MDMA-addled handwriting of people in straw trilbies, as a mob gathers behind them anxious to get their cash. 'Smile everyone,' shouts my colleague Lara. 'I know you're hungover but we are giving away free money.' One punter suggests it's good to finally get something back from Mastercard. 'What's the catch?' asks another. There is no catch, I say, except I now know where you live.

This is an odd place to work. I'm sat in blackness entering endless names and addresses into a database as the bass from Pulp thumps over from the main stage into my head. If doing data entry in a regular office is notoriously bad for the brain, this is like attempting it in the middle of the office party. Still, the team of keyboard bashers are getting £100 a day and free entry to the festival, with VIP access.

Not that the VIPs themselves seem all that important - they've simply forked out £700 for the privilege of fencing themselves off from the rest of the festival, plus complimentary Pringles. Jamie Oliver's Fabulous Feast is here serving beef tagine. Sir Jimi would be spinning in his grave.

Paul's own festival CV stretches back to working with Bob Geldof on the original Live Aid. He astutely suggests that companies would be much better off providing the infrastructure to improve people's experience, rather than chucking cash at top-down sponsorship. 'You're basically building a city in a week,' he says of the modern enterprise. He's not wrong - when his partner Iain Case scoots me off on a golf buggy to join the scanners at the entrance gate we're soon jammed for 20 minutes in crosstown traffic. By now the rain has come and it's pouring in the open side of the vehicle - as is the fetid stench of the lorry up ahead that's stopped to empty the Portaloos. 'Never get stuck behind the shit truck,' Iain muses.

We knock off from our shift at seven. Instead of the usual after-work commute, I'm stood watching women throw their pants at Tom Jones from beside the stage. Ironically, I presume, given that he's now about 90 and unable to move. I'd rather be on the Northern Line.

I buy a paper pint of warm Carling and trudge back to base, which is where I realise I can't really identify with the rain-panicked punters. My heart's siding more with the solitary souls dotted around the site in orange plastic ponchos, staffing gates and throughways, hammered by rain, taking the bins out, emptying the loos. The guy on the gate to the production cabins stares out from shades at the tail end of a 14-hour shift, blankly watching the happy campers go mental to the Foo Fighters. Contrary to popular belief, God didn't give rock 'n' roll to them. These chaps did.

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