This is a picture of me taken 20 years ago at the Glastonbury Festival. (Don’t I look pretty in my hat and sailing pumps?) It was my first Glastonbury, as I believe I have established. I loved it to bits, and went every subsequent year, apart from the fallow ones, until 1995. There was no festival in 1996; I made the life decision not to go in 1997 and that, I firmly believed, was it for me and Worthy Farm. I had done my time. As I have explained in a previous entry, my brother-in-law talked me into accompanying him and his regular annual camping party of mainly middle-aged men this year, and I paid my £175 for the pleasure of revisiting a heady part of my past.
It’s going to be a long entry, so I’ll provide subheadings in order to help you skip bits:
Boring bit about getting there and back
So, got back yesterday morning at 6.30am, after five days in the Great Outdoors, having driven offsite at 3.40am, after what turned out to be a disastrous and stressful late decision to leave Sunday night rather than Monday morning after a hearty cooked breakfast. My brother-in-law Paul’s brother-in-law Ian was our designated driver, so departure time was in his gift. Having seen Blur’s triumphant headliner from almost down the front, which finished, triumphantly, around midnight, I made my way slowly with the other 100,000 or so Blur fans out into the rest of the site, in festive mood and hungry (I ate some sausages and onions and fried potatoes and gravy in a cardboard tray, and a waffle with chocolate and cream on a paper plate, in short succession, and enjoyed them very much), assuming I would wander back to our campsite and get a night’s sleep before an early kick-off today.
But no, I got the text at that moment saying we were leaving! (It may have been sent two or three hours before – this is the speed of texts at Glastonbury. I sent Mark Ellen a text on Saturday evening at around 9.30pm, before Bruce, and he received it at 3.3oam. Glastonbury texts get caught in the mud of time: one of the first things I learned about Glastonbury Today, as opposed to Glastonbury of Yesteryear, which is the one I used to go to.) Some on the fringes of our party had already departed at various times throughout Sunday, leaving a hardcore of seven; when I got back to camp at about 1am, a little lightheaded after Blur and all that secondhand Glastonbury smoke, and now weighed down with minced meat, potatoes and sweet sponge, the other carload of four were ready to go back to the car park, all packed up. We bid them a manly farewell and that just left the final three of us. (Actually, we received a disheartening text from them an hour later informing us that traffic leaving the site was at a standstill.) As we dismantled our tents, the heavens opened up, for the first time since Friday, and we had to work in a downpour, by torchlight, which didn’t seem too clever. But we were determined to see our plan through, and loaded up the three sack barrows with all our gear while God mocked us.
Yes, sack barrows (aka hand carts); I have been part of an existing, almost militarily well planned camping party. My brother-in-law Paul and a growing hardcore of like-minded late-blooming Glastonbury fiends from the South London/Kent area have been coming en masse for four years, this being their fifth: Paul, Ian, Al (Budgie), Tony, Brooke, Susie, Steve, Del, Scott and Rob. They have the whole thing nailed: they arrive on the Wednesday, beat the rush, secure their preferred camping spot in a field right on top of the festival hub (perfectly located to avoid flooding), set up a small village with up to 11 tents forming a circle around two gazebos in the middle; they bring crates of food, provisions, firewood and a spare tent in which to “park” the essential barrows. They know what they’re doing.
We set off from London at 6am on Wednesday, in a 4×4 van loaded with the aforementioned military precision; we hooked up with the second car of four at a service station somewhere on the A303 (where revellers-to-be were already crowding the toilets and the coffee queues), and drove tiny-convoy-style the rest of the way. Even though the site opened its gates at 10am, it was evident by the time we hit the traditional traffic jam that, yes, everybody else in the world had had the same idea as us. (It reminded me of my Dad making us set off for Wales at 4am to “beat the traffic”; every other Dad in the country had the same idea, thus the traffic was heavier than if we left later.) It took the usual slow-moving hour or so to actually get in, park and unload the gear onto the barrows; the trudge from Car Park East 8 across the same fields, hills and dales that we’d have to trudge back up, in the mud, five days later, took close to another hour. But we were, at that point, driven by the desire to pitch camp and start the long, lost weekend with our first beer. The bit where our party usually camp was already crowded with tents when we arrived. (Wednesday is officially the new Thursday. I wonder if next year Michael Eavis will open up on Tuesday?) We found our spot eventually and I’d say we were creating a makeshift table out of wood and gathering around it for our first sitdown beer (I’m afraid we were forced to open some cans while pitching the tents for medicinal reasons) by lunchtime.
This, then, is the first pictorial evidence of me actually at Glastonbury 2009 (I’m in the Glastonbury hat, Paul is securing the gazebo, Ian is seated, with Susie in between):
The fold-out canvas camping chair with cup holder is the very thing at Glastonbury Today. I found that out pretty quickly. Some revellers were carrying them around on their backs and making little picnic areas in front of the stages, but I never went this far. I was, however, pleased to have invested in one at Millets in a 3-for-2 offer which meant I actually got it for free.
A bit about camping
I am not a natural camper in adult life. I prefer the comforts of minature hotel shampoo and conditioner, or the clean draining board of a self-catering cottage. But when I was a boy, Simon and I used to “camp” in his tent in the back garden, and I slept under canvas a couple of times for larks as a teen. (No family camping holidays – we were strictly farmhouse.) But Glastonbury awakened something primal in me in 1989, aged 24, and I found I enjoyed the privations of being trapped in a cow field without hot water. I relished the three days without a bath or a shave or a flush or a truly sanitised undercarriage.
Three days? Pah! The prospect of the protracted, raver-length five days and nights this year did, I was happy to admit, fill the 44-year-old me with fear after a 14 year gap. My brother-in-law Paul (his full title) gave me a fantastic if very long check list, which I duly followed (and how right he was about the essential “Oasis bottle” for nocturnal emergencies). As Wednesday approached, I grew trepidatious. Would I have a latrine-based panic attack on the Friday? Would I bail out and hitchhike home? Would I end up rocking back and forth in my tent, wailing? Would I crack and seek out the solar-powered showers? Or, worse, retreat to a primordial state and never come home?
Actually, it was all fine. Our canvas “village” was a terrific and sociable base, easy to spot from a distance, always there for a “chillax” and yet another beer (our gang certainly stocked up on the beer, the others freezing it in slabs beforehand so that it thawed two days later), and a stock-taking session, comparing notes on who we’d seen and who were were planning to see, running a dirty finger down the “clashfinder”, or adding a can to the decorative “beer-elier” pictured below. I was fortunate to be among such a large party. Even though I happily spent much of the festival alone (it can be a liability negotiating the food and the music with a larger group), I was happy to be able to withdraw to the safety of a group.
Like everybody else who purchases a Glastonbury ticket – and uniquely among the season’s outdoor gigs – I had no idea who was playing when I paid my money. This says everything about Glastonbury. It’s a trusim, but it’s true, that it’s not just about the music. As it happens, the bill fell just right for me. None of my big favourite bands or artists were playing – Arctic Monkeys, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Wu Tang Clan, David Bowie, for instance – but plenty of old men whom I’d never seen (and probably never would see) were: Bruce, Neil Young, The Specials, all of whom I was really excited about. What’s great about Glastonbury, or any festival, is seeing someone you wouldn’t normally see – and that also applies to people on stilts, a man dressed as Wonder Woman and teenage girls throwing mud at each other. The other luxurious factor is seeing bits of bands as you happen upon them, or walk past the stage they’re playing, on your way somewhere else. The Jazz World Stage, upgraded from a tent, was the perfect spot for accidental music consumption this year. Because I like to hang out at the Cabaret Field – cleanest toilets, due to lower foot traffic and lack of proximity to major camping area! – I found myself passing through the adjacent Jazz World field, and would often stay awhile to hear the unusual likes of Linda Lewis, or Jamie Cullum, or The Streets, or Stephanie McKay.
The music officially began on Thursday, when Maximo Park played the Queen’s Head Stage (a new one on me, and virtually in our back garden) at 4pm. This was a bold move, and good for their ego, as they literally stopped the traffic. It was a given; the Futureheads probably would have too. Due to being in competition with, hmmm, silence, theirs was the only gig in town and the crowd overflowed out of the tent, onto the grass around it, and up, down and across all the adjoining roads. Security had to block off the thoroughfares into and out of the site, which included the one to our camp site. Let’s be honest, Maximo Park don’t usually do this. I listened to them from our camp.
Glastonbury was officially officially opened on Friday morning at 11am by an inspired choice: Bjorn Again on the Pyramid Stage. Imagine: a fat Abba in the drizzle. Unbeatable, actually. The sort of act I wouldn’t pay to see, but was happy to see, having already paid. (I calculated that over the four days I saw 29 acts in a meaningful way ie. I heard bits of some acts, but didn’t actually see them, so I didn’t count them, but I saw either the full set, or some of it, or at least a couple of songs, while paying attention, by 29 artists. That means I paid £6.03 per act, which is good value. I thought White Lies were really boring, but I didn’t mind paying £6.03 to find that out.) Also on the Pyriamid on Friday, I saw Fleet Foxes, who I was actually looking forward to seeing but was pretty disappointed by. They seemed awed by the surroundings, and the ocean of people stretching to the horizon, and if they perhaps wondered if they were on the wrong stage, so did I. I still like their music, and it was certainly anything but taxing at 20 to 4 in the afternoon, in the sun, but not everybody works on that big pyramid, playing to a hill.
Lily Allen, on the other hand, was just right for the big stage, and not only did she dress up for the occasion in a dangerous summer frock with her bosoms taped to it (I don’t think the Fleet Foxes took too long choosing their lumberjack shirts for the biggest gig of their lives), but she was so clearly enjoying herself, you’d have to be a true misery not to be swept up by it. (By the way, I made the trek all the way up to the Other Stage after FF to catch some of White Lies, but they weren’t worth the journey, so I trekked back for Lily.) I stuck around after she’d wooed the crowd on the hill to keep my spot for The Specials, another crowd-pleaser, who must have played every track from their classic first album, and had great energy for middle-aged gentlemen. (Sir Horace, of course, is a middle-aged Gentleman.) It’s odd, but Ghost Town, which is a gloomy song, worked brilliantly on this gloriously sunny early evening as the sun went down. I missed Lady GaGa on the Other Stage for the Specials, and although people raved about it, I think I made the right choice. (Terry Hall looked miserable throughout while Neville and Lynval jumped about like teenagers, but maybe it’s an act. Or maybe he really likes Lady GaGa.)
Then it was Neil Young. I like Neil Young and have many of his albums and recognised most of the songs he played. I found him mesmerising throughout, this old, bent-over man with wispy hair making meaningful and discordant noises with his guitar that suggested he was a third of his age. And all those false endings on Rockin’ In The Free World were pure showbiz. But I know people, my brother-in-law Paul included, who were bored and wandered off. The audience noticeably thinned before the end. This was fine by me, as it was easier to move about, and I liked the older people who remained. Someone fired a red flare into the night sky, which was pretty cosmic. I didn’t know if it was planned or not, but since red flares were also fired into the sky during Bruce the next night, I suspect it was just a man with a flare gun and a sense of occasion. (Between the Specials and Neil, I caught about three songs by The Streets on the Jazz World, including a sort of cover of Billie Jean, I think, and I was impressed. Also saw some of Jason Mraz on my way home past the Queen’s Head, but he didn’t grab me.)
Highlight of the Friday, for me, was Fucked Up, the Canadian hardcore band, at 2pm in the John Peel Tent – whose bill over the weekend otherwise made me shrug. Thanks to Tom Doyle and the Q gang for the recommendation: Damien “Pink Eyes”Abraham is one hell of a frontman; a larger gentleman, he quickly threw himself into the adoring moshpit and at one historic stage, surged through the crowd to the very back of the tent and climbed up onto the mixing desk, singing (or gurgling) the whole time, thanks to the longest microphone lead in England, which the crowd deftly passed along for him as he moved about. It was a sight to behold, and I’m glad I beheld it. This was not even the end of their set, and to be honest, Pink Eyes had nowhere else to go after this spectacle. But God bless Glastonbury for giving me this opportunity to see a fat, topless, bearded man work the crowd.
Slow start on the Pyramid – suddenly my new favourite Stage! – so I went to the Cabaret Tent and caught Big Beat, one of those Arts Council/Stomp-style percussion troupes who bang bits of rubbish. They did a sterling job with an almost empty tent, so I applauded them loudly. I was sad to see the Cabaret Tent so ill-attended. In 1990, I spent the whole weekend there, reviewing endless comedians, and it always had a crowd, sitting on the mats. I’d popped in here on Friday, too, and saw Rufus Hound compering manfully to a lot of empty space. He actually got off stage and came down to talk to individual members of the audience. Somehow, I missed Tinariwen on the Pyramid at lunchtime (these things happen – you get distracted, you lose track of the time). but made sure I was back there for Spinal Tap. This was odd, really, but only if you think about it: three American actors playing three English rock stars doing perfectly well-played rock songs that aren’t actually that funny per se, but are funny if you buy into the whole myth. Another sunny afternoon, close-ups of Nigel Tufnel’s face on the big screen, seemingly random guest appearances from Jarvis and Jamie Cullum, communal appreciation of a cosmic in-joke at a picnic with good pals – what’s not to like?
I was back at camp when Dizzee Rascal started, but he was so loud and clear, it was like having him perform personally for us under our gazebo. I headed over there and caught the big crowd-pleasers Dance Wiv Me and Bonkers. Another two points for pop music at a rock festival. Missed Crosby, Stills and Nash due to an unscheduled odyssey all the way up the Park Stage to see some of Shlomo, who had DJ Yoda on while I was there, failing to find the actor Tony Gardner, who had lured me by text and then refused to leave his vantage point in a crowded field to come and collect the pint of lager I’d just bought for him. (I’d seen Atilla The Stockbroker do some cross poetry in the Cabaret Tent earlier – something like his 26th Glastonbury! – but was mainly drawn to him in the hope that he would officially mark the passing of my old NME colleague Steven Wells, the news of whose death that morning was more upsetting to me than Michael Jackson’s. Atilla didn’t mention Swells while I was there, sadly.)
Saturday night was the night I had been looking forward to the most, musically: Kasabian, a band I already love and have seen live, and thus a banker; and Bruce Springsteen, an artist I have very little love for, and thus a chance to be educated in style. Kasabian had the best slot in terms of light – who wouldn’t want to play as the sun goes down? – but their sound was ill-treated either by the PA or the wind, and Tom Meighan’s voice was actually inaudible when they first marched on, hands aloft, ready for some Big Music, which somewhat undermined the initial impact. However, about halfway through, when they played Fire, it all fell into place. I was relieved about this. They’ve played second fiddle on the Pyramid before, and I didn’t want their set to let the side down. It didn’t, in the end, and although most of the crowd didn’t know the songs from their brand new album (bad timing, really), I did, having reviewed it for Word, and hearing them live made sense of some of them. The crowd went away singing the wordless riff to Fire, in groups, and it was a beautiful noise coming up from the streets.
By the time Bruce came on at 10pm, darkness had fallen and not just on the edge of town (I know that’s a Bruce reference, but I don’t really know where from). You could not move in the main field, and I mean every single walkway was now blocked with people from one side to the other: this was the main event. I was standing with Tom Doyle again, who knows his Bruce, and was happy to have each song pointed out to me. I only know his hits. And he wasn’t going to be playing those. I sort of recognised Badlands, from the words, but I can’t say I know it beyond its title. I knew Because The Night, of course. And Born To Run, but we had to work for that, as he played it at something like the two-and-a-half-hour mark, by which time he was breaking the Glastonbury curfew and costing Michael Eavis three grand. But it was worth it, they all said. I must admit, I made my exit at around midnight, having really appreciated Bruce’s showmanship and drive and handsome chin, and the love he generated from the crowd, and the sheer tightness of the E Street Band, who turned Glastonbury into the biggest backroom bar in England. He was a worthy headliner for Worthy Farm, and I can see why so many people worship him, but I could have done with a few more familiar tunes, it not being a Bruce Springsteen Gig but a Rock Festival. Even Neil was more user-friendly. Again, the crowd noticeably thinned out, as younger folk went off to see Franz Ferdinand or Jarvis or Josh Wink, but this just made the getaway easier for unbelievers like me. I really liked it when Bruce pretended to be a preacher and said we were all going to build a house of music. No, I really did. It suited the occasion. And that’s what it’s all about: suiting the occasion.
Funny day, Sunday. Some people leave. You see people carrying tents and folded-up canvas chairs throughout the day. I’ve done this in the past. But more fool them, as Blur gave us such a monumental climax. All roads led to Blur, for me. Status Quo proved a solid gold novelty act at midday, with something like 80,000 singing along to Rocking All Over The World, and one man near us dancing with his thumbs in his belt loops: nice work. (Hey, even the Quo played a consecutive run of about half a dozen songs that I didn’t recognise! Such indulgence! They could have played hits for an hour, surely?) Tony Christie, the only performer I saw in a suit and tie, was the act I got closest to “the front” for, and was glad when he played Amarillo and we all sang along and marched up and down. Some formed a conga line. Cynicism is simply not welcome at Glastonbury. While Tom Jones played, I went to loyally watch my friend Robin Ince in the Cabaret Tent, arriving in time to see most of John Otway, who’d miraculously filled the tent! Hurrah! (He ended with a version of his partner Wild Will Barrett’s Headbutt, a song I’ve always held dear.) Robin kept most of them in there with his rants about subjects ranging from the Daily Express and the Daily Mail to the Observer magazine.
A quick detour to see Roots Manuva, who was a little repetitive in his patter like the rap singers sometimes are, but his songs are strong and righteous, then Robin joined me for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in the sundown slot, and we fully appreciated his gorgeous, well-dressed, mournful goth-cabaret, especially a ferocious Mercy Seat, a sort of Amarillo for serious ex-NME readers. I admit, the secondhand dope smoke in the air was welcome at this point. (I don’t wish to get the festival closed down, but some people smoke the marijuana in cigarette form at Glastonbury. In fact, most people do. They sell cigarette papers and tobacco at the shops there; it’s almost as if they are encouraging it. However, the police, who are visibly onsite, don’t appear to arrest you for smoking it or possessing it, which is perplexing. Because of this, you don’t actually need to waste money by buying it or the Rizlas, as it exists as a permanent layer of aromatic smoke around head height. To not inhale would be to die.)
Now, unlike Bruce and Neil and the Specials, I have seen Blur countless times in venues tiny and huge, including Mile End Stadium, Ally Pally, Wembley Arena and Reading Festival (the year they stole the night from The The), although I missed them at Glastonbury both times. So this was a big night for all five of us. They did not put a foot wrong, delivering a set of the old (She’s So High) and the not quite as old (Tender, Out Of Time), a proper audience-friendly performance – less than half of which was allowed to be shown on telly, I understand – during which Damon Albarn sat on the drum riser and cried. You could see the relief and gratitude in their eyes as it became clear that they were just as loved as they used to be, in fact, a sort of heritage act already, but there’s nothing wrong with that – ask The Specials, ask Madness, ask Paul McCartney. The total absence of new material was what made it so entertaining and uplifting. They earned our love. I was about six or seven bodies from the front, but under one of the screens rather than in the middle, surrounded by fans young and old, raising their hands in the air without being instructed to do so; singing along without being implored to do so – this was magic.
After Blur had done, and we’d all sung along to The Universal and believed in that aromatic, sunburned, flag-waving moment that it really, really, really could happen, people sang all the way back to their tents, or to whichever faraway field they had discovered that played music all night and served tequila. I went back to camp and then to London town, as we have established. I have missed so many Sunday night Glastonbury headliners in my time, but they didn’t used to put anybody decent on in the olden days. Now, people with jobs take the Monday off, and Sunday is the new Saturday. I couldn’t have written a better bill for my one-off, midlife crisis, reliving-past-glories Glasto: some old men I’ve never seen, some slightly less old men I’ve never seen, some men around the same age as me I have seen but not here, some British rappers, a few uncool types I was allowed to enjoy (Jamie Cullum a good example – Gran Torino sounded tremendous with a cup of pear cider), and a big, fat Canadian man surging through a tent.
Some thoughts on the Glastonbury experience:
I’ve always loved “outdoor” food. True, pretty much everything sold is in a wrap or a bap (there is even a stall called Wraps & Baps), but whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or meat-eater, the sheer global variety of fillings remains a joy to behold. Apart from an unusually disappointing haloumi wrap (mainly iceberg lettuce, and the haloumi was cooked to a crisp), I ate very well for five days, and the extended run gave me the chance to try out more stuff, including a nice “snack box” from the Goan fish curry stand in the Park field and a large pot of Yeo Valley organic yogurt for £1, bargain of the festival (Yeo Valley were big sponsors of it but still). My favourite stall was Chai Wallahs, which was undercover and had its own live entertainment and provided rough benches and low tables to sit on, and served so many nice things they actually had printed menus: a vast array of chai teas – and a restorative ginger, apple and honey infusion with bits of root ginger floating in it which I had on more than one occasion with my morning Guardian (another sponsor). They also did hookah pipes, but I didn’t go that far. The vibe at Chai Wallahs was so Glastonbury: on the Thursday morning, spectacularly hungover but unable to sleep in my hot tent, I had an organic breakfast roll and ginger tea at about 8am. The next morning, it took them about an hour longer to actually get their hippy arses in gear to cook anything. Go with the flow. And there were usually a couple of bodies asleep on the benches from the night before. I enjoyed watching the staff dutifully sweeping the tables, as if working in a normal restaurant, except what they were sweeping up was tobacco and roaches and the general detritus of not-illegal smoking. A special mention to the coffee stall next to the big orange, with just one member of staff who took as long as she liked to make perfect coffees and took a particularly appealing age to make me a hot chocolate on many an occasion: totally zen.
Despite the hippy-dippy, jester-hat, post-enlightenment, left-of-liberal, wishy-washy, tree-hugging, mud-loving, nuclear disarming, developing-world-helping atmosphere, it’s still the Whitest Festival In The World. If sixth forms and universities had their summer holiday in April and May, the site would be virtually empty. If you live in London or any big, cosmopolitan city, this can be disarming. My guess is that racists are thin on the ground, however. It’s the ultimate irony: music and audience that “see no colour”, and yet very little in the way of skin pigment to actually see. Still, I’d say there were more black and Asian faces this year, and one of two foreign accents, so 14 years of progress and broadsheet/BBC coverage have not been totally in vain. The percentage of “lads” doing the equivalent of a stag weekend has risen, I’d say, but not to the degree that there is anything threatening in the air – certainly not like the start of the 90s, when the men in balaclavas hung round the gateposts selling Es and whizz and rumours of shootings abounded.
The feeling is still one of unlikely togetherness, and you get the idea that townpeople wouldn’t step over a dead body in Glastonbury like they would at home, even though you do have to step over quite a lot of inert scrumpy enthusiasts. As an early riser, I enjoyed wandering through the site before breakfast and meeting the young ravers with their salmon-pink skin and wide eyes as they came home. I sometimes effected a slight stumble out of solidarity. It goes without saying that you end up chatting to people you don’t know. I wore the I AM VIRGILIO ANDERSON t-shirt once and had to go back and change into a t-shirt without words on because so many people shouted out, “Hello, Virgilio Anderson!” at me.
It rained, pretty constantly, from about 9pm on Thursday to lunchtime Friday. This is just about traditional. Having enjoyed a full, dry, sunny day on our arrival, we felt we were lucky. What you forget about camping is how noisy rain is. You may be dry under canvas – except for that bit where you didn’t stake your outer layer far enough from the inner layer and they touched, allowing a leak in – but it doesn’t mean you can sleep, unless you’re really self-medicated. Wellies are a must, and once you’re tucked into them, the mud is do-able. Yes, it becomes a quagmire where the heavy foot traffic churns it up, but you can usually avoid the worst by walking along the edges. And, in true Glastonbury style, even the worst of the mud had dried out by Saturday, leaving that familiar sight of brightly coloured plastic lighters trodden into the hard ground, ready for archaeologists to find in 100 years. [Picture above: Brooke, Tony and Ian dealing with the inclement weather. It’s what we do in this country. And Brooke is Canadian.]
I found out he’d died in the middle of the night on Thursday, as some kids talked about it in the next tent. (One of them didn’t believe it, saying a similar rumour about Amy Winehouse had “gone round” in a previous year; another wondered if we’d get a “public holiday”.) Counter to what they told you on the news, Glastonbury was not grief-stricken about; we were just shocked, mainly. It’s surreal when a big bit of news makes it way around the 170,000, this time by text and then word of mouth. You feel so cut off in there; it’s almost an affront that a news item should penetrate so. It wasn’t long before the food stalls were blasting out Jacko tunes, and many artists worked in tributes and covers. But it’s not as if it was Paul McCartney.
The personal disaster
After a spiritually nourishing wander up to the Stone Circle field on the Wednesday night, which might have been virtually deserted on a Wednesday in previous years but wasn’t this year, my brother-in-law Paul and I happened upon the Brothers cider stall, selling just Brothers pear cider. (The only queue that was bigger than theirs all weekend was the one for the Orange mobile recharging chillout lounge, for obvious reasons.) Brothers pear cider is lovely; it is also 7% alcohol, which is almost twice as much as the Magners pear cider I drink in the town. We drank a number of pints while sitting happily cross-legged on the at-that-stage still dry grass, as the sun went down. It was glorious. However, I do not remember the next two hours, or getting back to my tent. I’m told I went off to get another drink and never came back. I have no idea how I found my way back to a tent I had put up about six hours earlier, but I did. The human body is an amazing thing.
Anyway, it was good to let one’s hair down, and chat with a valued member of one’s family, and better to become insensible here than in a town. The joke is, I woke up the next morning, safe, and with all my belongings. I appear not to have sent embarrassing or incomprehensible texts to anyone. My brother-in-law Paul had forgiven me and we laughed it off. Then I went off for a spiritually nourishing breakfast of spinach and cheese crepe with coffee, and while sitting on a bench to eat it, I cracked the LED screen of my fancy touch-screen mobile phone! At least if I’d done it during my lost few hours, there would be a story attached. But no! I did it while ordering a pancake.
When I last went to Glastonbury, there were no mobile phones. I survived every Glastonbury without the ability to contact anyone except by carrier pigeon and it was fine. However, I was looking forward to the luxury of texting this year, and for a moment there, I found myself looking down the barrel of an excommunicated festival. How would people get in touch with me? How would I get in touch with them? I wandered forlornly up to the inspiring Green Futures area and paid 50p to the nice people who work in the information tent to charge up my phone by solar power, to make certain that the crack was all that was stopping it showing anything. It was. I logged on to Twitter on their cute little green laptop, again solar powered, and sent out emergency messages via the great comedians’ noticeboard. I enjoyed this moment of technological emancipation, powered by the sun. It felt OK.
Then, back at camp, I transferred my SIM card into a spare Nokia phone and, although none of my contacts seemed to be on the SIM but trapped in my dead touch-screen LG, I was able to receive new texts and store the numbers as they arrived. Phew. I was back on the grid. It was a nasty moment, and enough to make me borderline bereft for an hour or so, but a cautionary tale about how reliant we are on little machines to go about our business, even at Glastonbury. I hate my touch-screen LG phone now. It is rubbish. It is not even pancake-friendly. (As it was, I had a lot of fun texting home during the big headliners, who were on the telly almost concurrently. Although as I’ve mentioned, texts to and from other revellers took hours to get there.)
In 1989 and 1990, although I was writing for the NME, I had no backstage access. I didn’t care. However, once I had been corrupted by this privilege the following year, I could not imagine life without a VIP wristband, handed out like sweets to music journalists. Suitably accredited, we used to drive all the way onsite, into the backstage paddock, and camp there, or sleep in the car. From this area, you can emerge just to one side of the Pyramid Stage, or to one side of the Other Stage, which cuts out a lot of trudging; also, you can be sure of a sociable time, if you like hanging out with other media folk, as I used to. This year, I made no overtures in that direction. I paid for my ticket and was camping with other ticket-holders. I stuck to this, even though it meant that I couldn’t appear on the Word podcast, as planned, because I didn’t have the accreditation. I met up with a few Q and Word pals, and Sarfraz Manzoor from the Guardian, and Robin Ince and Phill Jupitus (the latter by pure, God-given chance), but mostly I was with my fellow campers, or by myself.
Ha ha, the toilets! Glastonbury virgins are shocked by the toilets. I was, 20 years ago. But it’s an outdoor site, with 170,000 people living on it for between three and six days. They all need to use the toilet, at least once a day, more if they are eating spicy foods of the world, and only less if they have taken Immodium, as some do. The toilets do not flush. They are holes, just as they are holes in about 40% of the world. That means they smell of what’s in them, even after a lorry has sucked a day’s worth out of them. Get over it. I’d say the toilets this year were more plentiful, and there were more sinks with cold running water than 14 years ago; also, soap, provided I think by the charity Water Aid, who also laid on volunteer toilet attendants, who often wore masks and mainly mopped the seats of the toilets with a mop that they then used to mop the next toilet seat along, without rinsing it in between. Good on them and everything – and they did also use long picker-uppers to pick up “things” and pop them in the bowl where they should have been popped by the disgusting user of the toilet – but you’re still in a low-comfort world of sanitation. And if it rains, there is no roof on most of the cubicles. But you quickly get used to it, and if you don’t carry toilet paper with you, and wet wipes, in a sealed bag, you are mad.
On the Sunday morning, I actually found a half-full resealable bag of what I believe the young urban people call “weed” in one of the cubicles, clearly left there the night before by someone rolling one up before bedtime. No, I did not steal it. I may be many things, and I may have returned to a primal me, but I do not take drugs that have been left in a toilet. I wouldn’t even take them if they were left in my toilet at home. (I bet the bag of “pot pouri” went pretty soon after that.)
I loved it. It has taken me almost a day to write it all up, so filled was my sojourn with memorable moments. It was an unusual five days without comforts, and without wi-fi, and without my beloved laptop, and without the ability to take my own photos (stupid LG phone!), and without television or radio, and without VIP status, and without any work to do. Good. You need that sometimes in your life. When I finally got home, at 6.30am yesterday, unshaven, spaced out, suntanned in the way that bench winos look suntanned (I could actually be mistaken for Asian now, which is ironic after my demographic survey), and smelly in the way that people who haven’t had a bath or shower for five days are smelly (my guess is that I smelt of wet wipes, rural England and hat sweat), I actually felt too dirty to enter my own house. I thought I might spoil it. That’s Glastonbury. I’ve watched a couple of bits of it on the red button, but I don’t need to see it on a small screen, really. It’s not the same. Would I go again? No, I don’t think I would, but then that’s what I said in 1995. Either way, I wouldn’t swap this one for the world, and I thank my brother-in-law, Paul, for presenting me with the opportunity and making it happen. I might never have gone without him. And thanks to his brother-in-law, Ian, for driving us there and back, and staying awake on the way back. And to Al, Tony, Brooke, Susie and Steve for the company. Peace and love.
PS: Many of the more general photos are taken from the official portfolio at the Glasto site by Jason Bryant, Darren Cornwell and others. See them all here. I hope Glastonbury don’t mind me recycling them, but I don’t know if I mentioned this, but my stupid LG phone broke on a crepe.