Glastonbury

You have to really want to go to Glastonbury. It’s not enough to kind of want to go, if you’re not enthused then you haven’t earned your ticket. It is notoriously difficult to get a ticket. This year it sold out in four hours. 170,000 tickets, all gone in 240 minutes. Who knows how many more than that missed out after frantically clicking and refreshing, calling and redialing, trying to get their place in the mud. That’s not the end of it either. Getting through the gates is a marathon in itself that necessitates leaving before dawn to queue for hours, first in cars, then in the rain. For the young teens being dropped off by their parents for their first Glasto experience it’s a right of passage, a secular bar mitzvah. From then on it becomes an annual event, a pilgrimage, until you have whole families of Glastonbury acolytes for whom five days in June is the highlight of the year.

There is already traffic on the road as we leave Frome at 5.00am on Wednesday. The cars are bumper to bumper before we’ve even left the road at the entrance to Worthy farm to drive across fields to the carparks. Once there we join the queue to get in the gates. They don’t open for another hour. It starts to rain. I crack open a Strongbow, setting a new record for early starts. The gates open at 7.50am and the throng surges forward. The crush of people forms a continuous conga line all the way from the front gates where we entered to the tents where the tickets are checked, cursory inspections of baggage made for glass, and bands are stamped onto wrists. The rain, which was a drizzle to begin with, continues and then increases. Once we’re in we’ve still got to get across the entire site to where we’re camping. The mud is already conspiring to hold us back and we pass people whose booze trolleys are mired in the mud like artillery pieces.

Reaching our camp site the sky really dumps it on us. No one thought to pack things in plastic and everything gets soaked. I pitch my tent, crawl inside and go to sleep for an hour. Outside it thunders down for a while and then eases off. Just a few hours in and I’ve already experienced the worst of Glastonbury – the weather, the mud, the crowds and the queues – but the fun is yet to come.

To complain about these things though is to miss the point about Glastonbury. It’s not just that it is the highlight of the year for so many people that to moan about any aspect of it seems petty and even rude (and if you do complain you’ll be met with a shrug and a ‘oh but that’s just Glasto’). What I was about the realise as I stepped out of my tent after the rain cleared on Wednesday morning is that you’re at the largest greenfields festival in the world. In the time that it had taken to walk in, pitch the tent and take a nap the site was transformed from rain drenched fields into a tent city with the population of my home town. That in itself was pretty cool but that’s not the impressive part; which is that an event this large is run without corporate sponsorship.

It creeps up on you as you walk between the food stalls along muddy streets  like some modern-day wild-west gold-rush boom-town. There’s  curry and barbecue and paella and pies but no McDonalds. There’s fairtrade organic coffee stalls but no Starbucks. There’s no billboards, no VIP areas brought to you by Jagermeister, no promo girls handing out RedBull, and no free goodie bags filled with vouchers for 20% off your next purchase. It takes a while to put your finger on it but when you do the feeling is quite unusual.

Michael Eavis, the owner of Worthy farm on which the festival is held, maintains that Glastonbury is secondary to his primary occupation in life, farming. For a week in June the cows are shipped off somewhere for a holiday and its party on, but the rest of the time it’s a quiet Sommerset dairy farm. Eavis apparently acknowledges that the lack of corporate sponsorship means that resources are spread a little thin – ‘like marmite’ he has been quoted as saying – particularly as a million or so pounds from each festival are given to charity. This explains then the piecemeal battle against the mud, the queues for amenities and the piles and piles of rubbish. It also buys a lot of goodwill – people are (mostly) willing to overlook these shortcomings. Particularly as everyone is in the same boat. We’re all crapping into the same festering vats of piss shit slurry, we all wade through mud so thick that gumboots (WELLINGTONS!) get sucked off feet to disappear into the mire, never to be seen again, (or to reappear later in a replica stone henge made of abandoned footwear), we all wait in queues so long that they have electronic time indicating the approximate wait (in hours!) and you’re not entirely sure that the head of the queue is actually where you want to be (like the one for the communal showers, where earnest Greenpeace volunteers will entreat you to sign a petition against overfishing and to only use their special biodegradable body wash in the shower – that’s fine, I didn’t have any of my own and was planning on pilfering some anyway).

So you have a small city’s worth of people coexisting peacefully in conditions that amount to a large refugee camp (admittedly a stretched metaphor given there is no starvation, disease or war and only limited fatalities) and everyone’s getting on with it and having a good time. I didn’t see a single fight in the five days. Certainly the atmosphere is unique; more akin to a medieval fair in places than a modern pop festival. The feeling is enhanced by the heraldic flags swaying on long fishing poles, the chinese lanterns floated from the stone circle at dusk to fly high above the crowds before disappearing into the night, and after dark the burning tapers and fires (you’re allowed to light a fire wherever you damn well please!).

Despite all this, the hippies are definitely in the minority, overrun, marginalised and relegated to the outskirts. The Green fields, the Sacred Circle, the Healing Fields, the Greenpeace area, the Spirit of ’71 stage, the Vale of Avalon, New Age, Ley lines, and tipis are all there but it’s become a bit diluted. The acres of alternative lifestylers promoting the benefits of doing things in ways that have long been surpassed by better ways of doing things exist as quaint sideshows, a kind of greenie petting zoo. Most of the people who have wondered into this hippie enclave (perhaps accidentally, while looking for the Brothers Cider tent) look as though they don’t quite see how carving wood on a hand-turned lathe or living in a caravan that resembles a large wine cask on wheels is the answer to everything that is wrong with our society. I feel a bit sorry for the hippies, do they feel resentful at all these straight types that have taken over their festival?

One small concession to the absence of large sponsorship deals are the Orange Chill ‘n Charge tents where you can charge your cellphone. Perhaps some kind of deal had to be made to ensure adequate coverage at the festival? As it is the lines seem to be constantly overloaded. Or is it just that we are unable to go a day without a cellphone? Thinking about it makes me realise the original purpose of the thousands of swaying flags moving through the crowd (if you get lost Michelle, just look for the “I love fingering unicorns” flag and I’ll meet you there). Anyhow if you are willing to wait in a queue for an hour behind the teenage girls with the “Daddy I want a pony” accents and their little bottoms hanging out of their dangerously short shorts you can get a little charge on your phone and send more “wish you were here/haha” messages to your less fortunate mates. At any rate no one seems to be bemoaning this intrusion into this advertising-free alternative-reality.

Even the middle-aged man with the absurd sunglasses and rasta hat (this description could fit about 20% of men at the festival) who told me he had been to 23 of the last 25 Glastonburys didn’t seem to have reflected much on the influence of cellular technology on the spirit of the festival. “Mate the only changes since the first one I went to have been the ticket prices and the number of people,” he told me before emptying his four full cups of cider onto the bar as he went to pay. Perhaps his memories had become a little clouded over the years.

Getting out of it is an important part of the experience. Drugs are everywhere, everything under the sun too. From the first morning that I stick my head out of my tent, squinting into the mid-morning sun at the boys in the adjacent tent who are hoovering lines of coke out of a frying pan (“breakfast of champions eh boys?” I attempt to deadpan) until the last morning when I sit virtually catatonic staring into the impending dawn above the Stone Circle where frenetic fiends try frantically to trade and barter away their remaining stashes of mushrooms for something a little stronger that might take the edge of the teeth clenching fact that This Is The End. Throughout the festival punters are making massive withdrawals from their serotonin banks, going beyond just extending overdrafts to taking out emotional mortgages that will have to repaid with interest for weeks to come. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these borrowers declare bankruptcy in the coming weeks and swear off Glastonbury for life.

For now though things are still great and the drugs are doing a great job of keeping everyone social. D&Ms with middle-aged chaps come easy; whether lounging in front of the Pyramid stage or staggering towards Arcadia you’re liable to run into a talkative type overflowing with good will who will happily give you a run down (and mark out of ten) for the last 10 Glastonburys along with pieces of sage advice. Kurt was one. As we stood outside the toilets waiting for the girls he approached. Introducing himself, he told us his age (41) and waited for our consolations, as if his attaining middle age were a sorry affliction. Kurt sensed we were thirsty and offered us a choice of water or beer, withdrawing a water bottle and a cider from his bag. “Here, share this beer with me,” he said passing Dave the cider. We obliged and for a few short minutes enjoyed the camaraderie afforded us by the moment by the toilets. It came time for Kurt to continue on his way and trudging off through the mud Kurt tossed us a pearl. “Love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe.”

Finally, after five days of mud and sun, drinking and hangovers, drugs and come-downs, a few short hours spent sleeping in tents, many more listening to big name acts from across the world, waiting in queues and dancing in crowds, many laughs and no doubt a few tears in some of the lower moments we reached the end. It’s three am on Monday morning and I’m in Shangri La – the mischievously misnamed post-apocalyptic late night dance area. In some random tent playing playing heaving bass we spy Michael Eavis. Not bad going for a 75 year old. We ask for a photo and give him a hug. He doesn’t seem to mind. “Great work mate,” I tell him before he melts off into the night.

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