Like having a tattoo, if you grew up in the north London suburbs in the 1970s, camping was for other people. My parents were not snobs (Dad drove a Cortina and Mum shopped at C&A), there were just things you did, and things you didn't, and camping fell firmly in the we didn't category. Consequently, I did not see a tent until I was in my twenties and still can't put one up. And while I like to kid myself that I didn't inherit much from my parents, one of the things that undoubtedly transferred itself to me is the belief that the desire to get away from it all in the great outdoors can be satisfied by a couple of weeks on a beach in continental Europe.
All of which is a long-winded excuse for the fact that, though I'd always been music mad, I was 30 years old before I ventured so far as a music festival. My first steps were tentative: a friend was playing Reading so I went along for the day. A couple of years later came my first festival proper: it was the mid-1990s and this was a small druggy-hippie thing we drove to, "partied" at, slept in the car for a few hours, and then headed home. It would be a decade before I broke my festival-camping duck.
That came with the arrival of what we now call "boutique" festivals in the mid-2000s. A couple of friends (we'll call them Liz and Jo, cos that's their names) were dab hands, Glastonbury veterans. They were heading to the End of the Road and had an elaborate tent with two sleeping compartments (double-fronted?). Did we want to camp in their spare pod? Sure. We turned up to find air mattresses inflated and bacon cooking on the Campingaz. We were practically pampered.
"Next thing you know you'll be doing Glastonbury," Jo joked. "Not bloody likely," I told him. "You know me. My fear of crowds stops me from getting on the Tube, so I can tell you now that you'll never catch me traipsing around a muddy field with 170,000 other people."
Fast forward to 2008 and I'm at Glastonbury traipsing around a muddy field with 170,000 other people. I have been sent here by work at short notice when the only other available rock critic has declined. I have a Press Pass. I have VIP parking. What could possibly go wrong?
It buckets down all Thursday night. Friday morning we wait a while to see if the rain is going to subside. It doesn't, so we set off. By the time we get there, the VIP parking is full and we are politely but firmly directed to another field. It is still bucketing down. From the bog we have sunk the car in, it is a couple of miles' walk to the festival site. We trudge off, my two female companions with rucksacks on backs, me lagging somewhat behind due to the fact that something made me think it would be a good idea to bring a wheelie suitcase to Glastonbury. What was I thinking? I'll tell you what I was thinking. I was thinking, Press Pass! VIP parking! And now I have a suitcase that was heavy before and is now weighed down further by the mud that is clinging to, clogging up and churning around its now useless wheels.
All three of us would more than happily turn back to the car at this point. But I am a professional. I am here for work. We (literally in my case's case) plough on. When we make it to the quagmire that is the festival site, it becomes apparent that there is not an inch of mud left on which to pitch a tent. My companions – drenched, tired, huge fans of creature comforts – lose it. Sitting on a piece of abandoned tarpaulin, they start to weep and within a few moments a gallant knight in a high-visibility vest comes along to create a small space and (I am almost too ashamed to type these words) proceeds to pitch our tent for us. Base camp sorted, tears wiped, we set out on foot to peruse the battle site.
Had I been in my teens, I might have had the best time over the next few days. The sun came out, the mud dried up and we did all the things you are supposed to do at Glastonbury. It was the year Amy Winehouse hit someone in the crowd and Jay-Z stole the headlines with his "Damn right hip-hop can headline Glastonbury" set. It was also the year the crowd went wild for the Feeling and hundreds of other acts no one seems to care about any more and while I caught as many as I can, I came away thinking that the music was just a sideshow for the main event: peoplewatching.
Everyone who goes has that one memory that encapsulates the experience; a fleeting joy we have taken to calling that Glastonbury moment. Me? Not so much. If there was a moment of bliss, it was seeing the man trudge over and offer to put our tent up. The rest? Let's just say it was, in one sense at least, a once in a lifetime experience.