Entering the site at mid-day on the third day is like passing through a portal into a Breughel painting – a hyperactive Dionysiac party completely dissociated from real time or place, indeed, from reality in any shape – with added smells. The smells are a mixture of mud, body odour, the cooking smells of a thousand concessions offering every foodstuff imaginable, and the farmyard, because walking around at a wet Glastonbury’s not like tromping around in a farmyard where the muck-heap has been overflowing after heavy rain – it is walking around on a farm where the muck-heap has been overflowing, and, with luck, it’s just cow muck.
Whatever percentage of 7 million 130,000 is, it’s obviously relatively small, so, since the first is the number of online applications there were this year, and the second the number of tickets that were issued – all within three hours of lines opening – the privilege of being offered a ticket for no better or fairer reason than happening to live nearby rather than having to enter that screamingly frustrating online lottery is clearly something akin to being born with a silver spoon in your mouth – hardly your fault, but making you a justifiable target of opprobrium unless you use it, like Paris Hilton, with modesty, discretion, grace, and decorum. So bring on that opprobrium. Easy on the mustard.
The size of the site is something that always overwhelms you, not many people outside the farming community being able to visualise what nine hundred acres actually means. But all distances are increased many-fold by the drag of the mud, the average velocity of the mass of bodies shuffling in your direction (there’s absolutely no way of getting anywhere onsite in a hurry) and that of the mass of bodies coming the other way. There’s probably a formula to calculate this sort of thing that factors individuals in as if they were molecules in a set of intermingling viscous fluids of varying densities. Anyway, the actual distance, in walking time, between, say, the former New Stage, now respectfully, and to universal approval, renamed the John Peel Stage at one side and the Acoustic Stage at the other, is probably around thirty minutes, with a multitude of intervening possibilities to either get you lost or diverted en route. And besides, as has been endlessly reiterated to anyone who’ll listen, Glastonbury is far, far more than a music festival, and if you just wanted the musical experience, the good ole BBC’s three-day wall-to-wall radio and TV coverage provides a far more comprehensive (and closer) view of what’s going on musically than anything you could hope to experience onsite (although this, the first year without dear departed Peelie, made his loss feel particularly piquant).
So what did I do on Sunday?
- After having paid £2.50 for a lukewarm café latté somewhere on the main drag, I had a minor grumpy moment and thought, for a festival that’s promoting stuff like fair trade and Greenpeace and making poverty history and suchlike worthy farm causes, there’s an awful lot of classic capitalist exploitation going on here. I’m also, incidentally, appalled at how much food gets chucked away – enough paper-plates-full of every cuisine known to man discarded in hedges, trampled underfoot, and deposited in overflowing bins to feed a lost tribe. Shame on you all, you pampered wastrels.
- But then I was an accidental witness to a wedding in the Chapel of Love in the Field of Lost Vagueness – a raucous, joyous event supervised by a jaunty lady vicar in a sea captain’s uniform and attended by a chorus of nubile nuns in bra and knickers and coifs – rather like being in a Carry On movie with less suggestion and more delivery – and I got over it.
- I wandered aimlessly around the fabulous mish mash of neo-hippy art and totally cutting edge environmental showcase that is the Green Fields (my single fave objets being the little hand-painted toy steamboats that chuff around in their plastic bowl powered only by candle-heated teeny-tiny boilers) and had a very encouraging chat with a lady from the British Wind Energy Association saying how, not only has initial local resistance to windfarms almost completely subsided in the face of the reality, but that the UK is now one of only eight countries in the world to have surpassed the 1000 megawatt capacity figure. Embrace the Revolution here.
- I’m not a main stage kinda guy – don’t even get me started on Coldplay – and I wasn’t there for the music this year (if I had been, I’d have chosen another day, eg John Peel Stage Friday: M83 – Be Your Own Pet – MIA – cool or what?) but I did happen to come across three bands that I quite enjoyed: Soulwax (Belgian, apparently) on the Other Stage, and Dresden Dolls and Client on the John Peel Stage. On the same stage I tried to like LCD Soundsystem again, wondering if James Murphy’s live set would grab me more than his album has, but failed again. I dunno – he’s someone I really want to like but can’t. So it goes. And I did try to get to Tori’s acoustic set, but I mistimed it.
- Then I sat at the top of the Stone Circle Field looking down on this limbo in the Yeo valley between the Mendips and Pennard Hill that’s normally populated by a few hundred cows and pondered the sheer incongruity of it all whilst watching little groups of fellow humans partaking in what seems to have been this year’s high of choice – filling balloons with nitrous oxide from little pressure cylinders that look like miniature water bottles, inhaling deep and long from the farting neck, then turning into gurning morons.
- I Braved The Long Drop (there’s a badge I believe) – the infamous toilets built over a bottomless cess pit where a vast flotilla of floaters seethes in the stinking, churning, steaming pool of ordure some fifteen feet below your bum. Every year brings fresh Glastonbury myths regarding some out of his head dipstick jumping into this thing to recover some fumble-lost item – his wallet, his stash, his wits – and never being seen again.
- I listened to someone in the Leftfield Tent talking more sense about Africa and The Debt in fifteen minutes than the entire church of the latterday pop saints has managed thus far.
And I wandered, wondering at the ceaseless wonders, for hours, until, foot-weary, it came time to retrieve my muddy brood, head back to the bus, and home to a hot bath, my dirty wet tent days being as far behind me as my anticipation of further Glastonburies is, hopefully, ahead.
The Ego Strut is something that a depressing number of shameless Pyramid Stage performers took to indulging in this year: this is where they jump down from the stage into the fifty-foot mined (only joking!) no man’s land populated by sternly outward-facing security people dividing them from the front row of the crowd and do a prancing preening jig, radio mic in hand, still singing, along the duckboards that’ve been put behind the chest-high crash-barriers for that purpose; they can, if they choose, remain tantalisingly out of reach of the grasping hands of the faithful whilst they do this, but most choose to bless the lucky few with a touch of the fingertips here and there, as if they were dragging their hands through heads of wheat, and some (Brandon Flowers of the Killers, Felix Buxton of Basement Jaxx) get so carried away by the lerv that they have to be pulled back by the nervous security persons on the point of being literally carried away by the lerv of the fans. It’s blatantly god-like (here I am, you mere mortals, drink deep of my immortal presence and weep), the next step on from that pathetic powertrippy superstar gesture of holding out the mic to face the audience so that they can be reassured that we lervs them so much that we knows all the words. Even Shirley Manson of Garbage succumbed to this, although, in her case, it resulted in her acquiring the tackiest accessory of a festival which prides itself on its high level of tacky – a pink plastic sex-doll – which she took back with her when she returned onstage and proceeded to use in a sub-Madonna manner not witnessed often on the Pyramid Stage. (Question: what was he thinking, that guy in the front row who was holding it out to her in the first place? Suspicion: he – and it – was a plant. ‘Man masquerades as plant at Glastonbury’. Hot news.) Someone needs to whisper the word ‘hubris’ in these guys’ ears.
And no need, I’m sure, to reiterate the stuff of legend stuff that’s already attached itself, like the mud, to the heels of this year’s festival as the magic moment for many thousands of people: Brian Wilson’s greatest hits of the Beach Boys set on the Pyramid stage. After the deluge, Brian (they don’t call boys Brian anymore, do they?), under blue skies and sun – it had to be – for this dogged survivor of the California surf-rock scene forty years down the track. I just kept thinking of that climactic moment (spoiler alert!) in Anthony Mann’s El Cid, the classic 1961 precursor to Kingdom of Heaven, when they lash the dead Charlton Heston upright in the saddle of his horse in order that he might lead his army out of the city gates and on to the final victory charge. Not only can Brian Wilson barely Smile without consciously summoning up the lingering memory of how certain facial muscle groups work – the poor man can barely hold his head upright. He sits full-square centre stage at a keyboard – which he doesn’t touch – reciting the lyrics from an autocue, and occasionally moving both arms as if they were being manipulated by some heavenly puppeteer, whilst this rather sinister ageing session group with pot-bellies and thinning hair belts out the numbers around – and despite – him. Brilliant songs, mind. At one point, between numbers, he diverged from the setlist for a moment as some poignant memory of how it was supposed to work seemed to infiltrate his mind, and sang ‘row row row the boat’ ridiculously high a few times, before waggling his hands in a way which seemed to imply that we do it too – which we dutifully did, all hundred thousand of us, or whatever, until we realised that he seemed almost instantly to have forgotten why he’d done that, and had certainly forgotten that it’s supposed to be a round, and so after a few unison repeats of ‘row row row the boat’ by the greatest mass choir in musical history the sinisterly smiling session-men struck up the intro to Good Vibrations, we roared our ecstatic recognition, and the moment passed. Excruciatingly embarassing, actually. I had to leave. I tried. God knows, I tried. But I couldn’t. Totally hemmed in by the press of bodies, I had to remain. Help. I don’t understand. Is it just that everyone knows the words?
In the absence of some global secular initiation rite, Glastonbury has come to represent a pretty fair substitute, and has become one of those defining cultural events that invests each year’s attendees with a sort of election. The more rain, the more merit. For us locals, the regular transformation of that parcel of dairy land four miles east of the Tor into a small town with a population larger than our own and all the adjoining villages combined where the most exciting musicians in the world drop by to play for three days once in a while is as definitive as any ritual. It’s characteristic that when my kids, who were born here, talk about going to Glastonbury, everyone knows that they’re talking about somewhere else that coexists with but is somehow apart from their home turf, somewhere that’s a manifestation of the Avalonian magic that comes with the territory here anyway. It’s a pragmatic magic, though, and not nearly as fluttery-flakey as some people assume. Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie decided to shit in his own backyard when he came over all punk rocker hessie twenty years too late and refused to relinquish the stage for Basement Jaxx, screaming something about wanting to kill all hippies (the title, incidentally, of a song he once wrote) and stuff like that. He was finally escorted off by security, the techs having pulled the plug, to a derisive but forbearing chorus of booing and laughter. He still doesn’t get it, I guess. I think this might have been his last Glastonbury.