Glastonbury: Back to the Garden?

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Glastonbury Festival 2017

With Glastonbury in full swing, Getintothis’ Gary Aster offers a personal reflection on the festival and why he stopped going after 11 visits.

Disclaimer – Before we start I should decalre that I haven’t been to Glastonbury Festival in over a decade.

My last visit was in 2008; that was the year it didn’t sell out beforehand and there was a bit of a faux controversy over the choice of Jay Z as one of the headliners, to whom Noel Gallagher took exception.

Perhaps I’m not therefore best-placed to write an up-to-date opinion piece about it.  But that’s not going to stop me.

Because Glastonbury is simply unavoidable. Like the world cup, you can’t miss it even if you try.

Broadsheet newspapers will send unlikely journalists to write their “I’ve never been before and here’s what I made of it” articles for the colour supplements.

It will take over BBC radio, late night telly and the red button. And of course it’ll be all over social media because loads of your mates will be there practically live streaming it.

Personally, I came to Glastonbury quite late, in my mid 20s as its popularity was beginning to surge. In total I went eleven times. Over that period my attitude towards it shifted from the enthusiastic zeal of the newly converted to the bored indifference of a seen-it-all before cynic.

My first experience of it was magical though – a real eye-opener and one of the most memorable weekends of my life up to that point.

I’d heard friends talk about how unique and special it was, with an atmosphere like no other festival, but I didn’t really take it on board or assumed that they were exaggerating. I’d been to other festivals – how different could Glastonbury really be, I wondered.

The answer was very different indeed – my friends weren’t exaggerating. This was something else altogether. I’m wary of labouring this point because it’s become a cliché to bang on about Glastonbury’s unique atmosphere.

Similarly, it’s also something of a cliché to bang on about how over-rated it is, or how it’s not as good as it used be, or…you get the picture. Glastonbury is so multi-talked-about that anything you find to say about it runs the risk of sounding clichéd. But I was genuinely blown away by it, clichés be damned.

It seemed to me that this was the closest I would ever get to experiencing something like Woodstock; that I had returned “back to the garden” Joni Mitchell sang about, via a trip down Alice’s Wonderland rabbit hole.

Glastonbury is Narnia, Middle Earth and Eden all rolled into one, yet closely bordering Bohemia and Babylon. It represents, and it its best, recreates that dream-like ideal of a redemptive, rural paradise that is such a recurring theme of so much of Britain’s folk and visionary music.

One of the things that contributes significantly to Glastonbury’s special appeal is its location. If it’s not been officially declared an area of ‘outstanding natural beauty’, then that’s an oversight on the part of whoever it is that makes such judgments.

Glastonbury is rich in Christian and pre-Christian (or “Pagan”) history and these two traditions co-mingle at the festival just as they do in Glastonbury town itself. With Glastonbury Tor overlooking the festival sight, and all the various ‘new age’ and spiritually minded aspects of it, you feel as though you are walking through a mythical landscape.

The sheer scale of this landscape sectioned-off to encompass the festival site is almost overwhelming. It was bloody huge when I last attended and is even larger these days I gather. I was impressed.

Standing near the summit of the western side of the gently sloping valley in which it is situated, I was filled with the urge to take endless photos of it all spread out before me, just to try and capture something of its vast expanse.

Of course none of my snaps could contain it.

Someone told me that the nearest gathering of a comparable number of people is Bristol. I suspect that’s not really true, but it’s the sort of “fact” you hear casually passed on by eager festival-goers.

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You do feel as if you’re part of a temporary city though, a bit like Brigadoon perhaps, but populated (largely) by good-natured hedonists.

The extent to which the normal rules of society are disregarded, flouted or subverted comes as something of a surprise to Glastonbury virgins.

Not just the number of people openly smoking dope or otherwise intoxicated (and in those days, one couldn’t throw a frisbee inside the festival without it striking half a dozen stoners) but also the number of people walking about in strange and eye-catching attire, or naked even. People’s behaviour seems to change once inside, becoming less inhibited and more extroverted.

There is something joyously infectious about seeing people being themselves, unconstrained by society’s usual norms and values. I was struck, for example, by the number of same-sex couples I saw walking around, holding hands and kissing quite openly. I was struck by it, of course, because in those days one didn’t see that in public very often.

But Glastonbury was a safe-space seemingly, or at least, a safer space than the outside world we had all left behind.

I fondly recall getting into conversation with two lads from Bolton of Asian descent, arms around each other, who told me they wouldn’t dare make such public displays of affection anywhere else for fear that their families might see them, “but in Glastonbury no one cares.”

When they had finished their coffees, the two of them literally skipped away, hand in hand.

Glastonbury was woke AF long before anyone coined the phrase.

Away from the main stages, it seemed that everywhere you turned there were activists and campaigning groups seeking converts to their worthy causes on Worthy Farm. And there was a palpable sense of fun and creativity about these groups with their various stalls and displays.

They weren’t too pushy, po-faced or holier-than-thou about it. Often they used humour or some other gimmick to attract attention and generally the causes they championed were unfamiliar and deserving of wider attention.

I recall a group of activists, for example, who had established rotating shifts of protestors to occupy the site of a remote and half-forgotten stone circle nearby, which was then threatened by developers.

In between shifts camping at the disputed site in the path of the bulldozers, the protestors were taking it in turns to attend the festival and host their stall and tea tent (all proceeds to support the cause).

Then of course there were the other, more well-known and established causes – Greenpeace, Oxfam and Water Aid prominent amongst them. A representative from the latter once told me that Glastonbury provided the charity with its largest, single annual donation.

After dark, the festival took on a different and wilder character. It seemed to go on all night and it hardly mattered if the bars were no longer serving, since most festival-goers opted for other types of intoxication.

I became aware of a café that was serving coffees laced with (under the counter) spirits at a reasonable price and became a weekend regular there.  I’m sure there were others like it doing similar trade.

The music finally quietened down some time after about 4am, long after the stages officially closed. Between the hours of about 5 and 7am (ish) was the only time when something like quiet descended.

Even this was broken by the sound of revellers at the on-site mock-up stone circle hailing the sunrise as they did each morning, something of a Glastonbury tradition.

But Glastonbury was not immune to influences from the outside world.  One thing that permanently changed the experience of the festival during the years I attended was the mobile phone.

Before then, Glastonbury involved quite a bit of waiting around to meet up with friends (who may have gone to see another act) at the various designated meet-up points.

Given the general elasticity of time at the festival, any arrangements made would necessarily have to be backed-up by a plan B in case of unforeseen circumstances.

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Few would argue that mobile phones negatively impacted on Glastonbury, but a tendency for improvised, unplanned discoveries and lost aimless wandering soon disappeared.

The smoking ban also changed the character of the festival. Before then, smokers were rolling their own and lighting up in every big top and café as if they were in Amsterdam.

The first festival held after the ban became law was notable for its rather more heavy handed security ejecting smokers from cafes, bars and big tops here, there and everywhere, possibly making up for lost time, having spent the previous few decades turning a blind eye to it all.

In fact, my Glastonbury-going years coincided with a number of significant changes. One obvious difference was the (official) number of those attending.

The first time I went it was less than a hundred thousand. By 2008 the figure was edging ever closer to two hundred thousand.

This was a big part of the reason why my final visit was something of a let-down for me personally, despite fine weather. Getting around had become a chore.

Every path and road, indeed every single route around the site was packed full of very slow moving human beings. Journeys on foot that previously took less than half an hour would now take twice as long, or even more.

I can still remember the impatience and frustration I felt at the number of acts I missed because of this.

The final straw for me came when I arrived over half an hour before something (I forget what) was due to start, only to find the entrances guarded by stewards operating a one-in-one-out door policy and a very long queue of rather annoyed folk.

I haven’t paid nearly two hundred quid to be told “there’s not enough room” I thought to myself, and decided there and then that I would be going to some different festivals the following year.

My mood had already been soured by the experience of a particularly frustrating walk to get there, as I and other festival-goers were repeatedly forced into the sides to make way for a long succession of foul-smelling tractors pulling tankers carrying the contents of recently emptied toilets.

Which brings us to the subject of sanitation. If you’ve been to Glastonbury then you don’t need me to describe the toilets and are aware of the full horror of them. If you haven’t been then use your imagination to picture the very worst bogs you can think of and you’re half way there.

Glastonbury line-ups too, have changed considerably over the years.

Initially, it was a proper hippie festival with a bill consisting pretty much exclusively of rock and folk music. The advent of the 80s broadened the remit with the addition of indie, dub, ska and world music.

But pure, commercial pop music was refused entry. Even New Order in 1981 and The Smiths in 1984 were seen as controversial choices at the time because of their relatively commercial sound.

Despite its reputation today as a champion of new music of all varieties, in fact there’s a thread of music-snob conservatism which has been repeatedly apparent in the festival’s line-ups over the years.

Attendees today might be surprised to discover for example that dance music, now such an essential part of the festival, was late to arrive, only reluctantly being accommodated in 1990 – two years after the so called second summer of love of 1988.

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More recently, mainstream middle of the road pop has also featured prominently, and surely goes a long way towards explaining the festival’s exponential growth in popularity.

But perhaps the most significant change to Glastonbury during the years I went was the arrival of the ‘super-fence’ in 2002.   Prior to this, actually buying a ticket had almost become an optional extra.

Decent weather at the two festivals held in the years before 2002 had led to a huge spike in the number of those jumping the fence. Breaking into Glastonbury had become something of a national sport.

Tens of thousands had been estimated to gate-crash the event in 1999 and 2000, including organised gangs of criminals, and the 2000 festival was blighted by a spate robberies from tents.

This was a particular problem for the organisers since it threatened the festival’s future.

The authorities made it clear that unless numbers in attendance could be guaranteed then, due to health and safety concerns, they could no longer agree to license the event.

These fears weren’t unfounded. There had been a number of deaths and injuries at other European festivals due to overcrowding and crushing. Something had to be done.

The result of this was the so-called “super-fence” – very difficult to scale, too wide to tunnel underneath and leading only to another fence with a no man’s land between patrolled by guards on horseback.

The fence did its job and kept out the great ticket-less unwashed.

Naturally this further changed the character and feel of the festival.

Even Michael Eavis conceded that the atmosphere was noticeably less exciting and police figures for that year recorded a remarkable drop in the number of reported crimes.

But I remember that year fondly not only because of fine weather but also because of the ease with which you could get around the site.

Compared with my experience a few years earlier, the site seemed spacious, even roomy. The campsites were visibly less crowded, queues everywhere were much shorter (even for the showers), the toilets were cleaner and the overall experience from a punter’s point of view was greatly improved.

Had things stayed this way then perhaps I’d still be eagerly looking forward to the festival each year, but numbers in attendance began to creep back up and by 2008 I’d had enough of the crowds.

I began to notice all the other things which I suppose had always annoyed me to some extent, and which now seemed to be getting worse each year. At root, each of these problems is a consequence of overcrowding to some extent.

Simply getting in and out of the festival is a major operation.

After a long journey, just as you glimpse Glastonbury Tor and start to think that at last you’re getting close, you will find yourself at the back of a very long, slow-moving traffic jam which will easily add another hour or two to your wait.

The long trudge from the car park to the campsite, burdened with all your belongings for the weekend is also a struggle. Repeating all this in reverse on the Monday afterwards is the last thing you’ll want to do after such an exhausting few days, but it’s unavoidable.

Add bad weather into this mix and it can take several hours more just to get off site.

The litter has always been a disgrace and exposes a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the festival’s professed commitment to environmental causes and the indifference towards them amongst many, perhaps even most of those in attendance. There’s simply too much litter for it to be dismissed as a minority letting everyone else down.

Standing at the Pyramid stage on the Sunday of 2008 was like watching a gig from a rubbish tip. Similarly, the mass abandonment of cheap tents at the site by festival-goers simply too damn lazy to take them down does not reflect well on attendees.

In 1985, the respected historian and veteran left-wing campaigner E P Thompson was invited to address the afternoon crowd from the Pyramid Stage.

After delivering an almost obligatory takedown of Thatcherism, Thompson turned his attention to his own particular specialism – the history of radical dissent in Britain.

Likening the crowd to a medieval army “with its tents, all over the fields” he spoke of an “alternative Britain” of activists, artists and musicians. Looking directly at the assembled crowds he told them “it is this alternative nation which I can see in front of me now.”

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In the ‘80s there was some truth in what Thompson said, but it is hard to imagine anyone honestly describing the huge audience gathered to see, say, Adele’s performance a few years ago in similar terms.

And yet it is reasonable to suppose that a good percentage of those in the crowd to see Adele were also amongst those who later gave Jeremy Corbyn such a rapturous reception at the festival in 2017.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to re-state the rather clichéd criticism that Glastonbury has lost its radical edge. In truth, there remain pockets of genuinely counter-cultural expression there to this day, but these can be easily missed, pushed, as they are, further out to the fringes or simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of more mainstream fans populating the festival.

Yet, their voices chanting the current Labour leader’s name to the tune of ‘Seven Nation Army’ were loud enough to disturb the assorted evil-doers of the UK’s right-wing press gathered in the wings. Glastonbury is a place of contradictions.

The festival is, of course, famously very weather-dependent. If the rain amounts to anything more than a light shower, then a muddy weekend is pretty much guaranteed and makes what is already a tricky site to navigate even more difficult.

In truth, it’s very hard to enjoy it if it’s muddy, and many simply give up and head home. Each successive return to the camping areas during a muddy year reveals more newly tent-free, mud-free patches of grass marooned between the complicated spaghetti junctions of muddy trails.

The overcrowded camping areas themselves leave a lot to be desired. Many are located on sloping ground, some with fairly steep inclines. This does not make for a good night’s sleep.

The overcrowding is such that they can reasonably be compared with refugee camps and also means that preparing anything more than a cup of tea at your tent is impractical and risky.

The impracticality of preparing food at your tent also pushes up the cost, and the prices of food and drink at the festival are already considerable.

This effectively turns Glastonbury into a middle class playground. It’s far too expensive for those on more modest incomes.

And of course there’s the music. If you’re a music fan of more or less any stripe then there’s much that will appeal on the line-up, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll manage to see even half of the acts you’d like to.

Plans have a tendency to go astray at Glastonbury. Even those acts you do manage to arrive at on time may well suffer from relatively poor sound (to be fair, that’s a problem at any festival).

However, unless you arrive very early, you’re likely to have a very restricted or distant view and there’s a good chance you’ll be surrounded by inconsiderate talkers who were there to see the band on before or the one due next. I haven’t noticed this problem to anything like the same extent at other UK festivals.

Yet another of the many journalistic clichés about Glastonbury oft-repeated by those of a certain age, is that the festival is now best experienced at home via the BBC’s coverage.

This has been my only experience of it for over a decade but I’m reluctant to agree.

With complete live sets available online, the coverage really does offer a better view and better sound. But despite its many flaws, problems and internal contradictions, the festival is an experience like no other and there is simply no substitute for actually being there.

There are thousands of regular attendees whose lives would be very much the poorer without it. Glastonbury is such a dramatic break with normality and the mundane that many find it hard to re-adjust to everyday life once it’s all over.

Even after all the negatives I’ve mentioned here, the truth is that for the first few years after I stopped going I missed it terribly and initially regretted my decision. I’m sure I’ll return again for at least one more visit at some point in the future.

Sooner or later its pull will become irresistible. If you’ve never been then you really should make the effort to go at least once in your life. It’s not a utopia but it is a unique and rewarding experience. For the young, it’s a rite of passage.

For Glastonbury veterans, it’s become almost like a favourite holiday resort to which they eagerly return year after regardless of the line-up.

The biggest draw for them is not the increasingly impressive mega-star headliners, but the unforgettable experience of the festival itself.

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