I went to my first Glastonbury in 1999. God I was cool. My friends waited for me on the front steps of the school with their tents and rucksacks and adolescent expectations of untold hedonistic wonders, while I impatiently got through my Italian oral exam. It was my last ever school exam. We arrived around sunset on the Friday evening and made it just in time for REM. I had finally arrived. That first glimpse of the site is crystallised in my memory. This signified a moment of great importance for all of us, but it wasn’t about being cool. It was a rite of passage. An end, and a beginning.
Glastonbury has punctuated my adult life. Every time I come back I believe it’s been the ultimate experience, it can’t be surpassed, and I vow to never go again in order to preserve this peak. But somehow the pull of Glasto is stronger than my increasing need for a comfortable place to sleep, or the fact that last year we returned with a case of Dysentery and a case of Trench Foot among our party – diseases I had previously thought were extinct.
I can’t remember which one of my smart-arse friends tentatively joked that Glastonbury should not be televised, but sometimes a slightly outlandish idea really resonates. This passing comment, meant to be light-heartedly subversive, in fact echoed a sentiment I have always found present in myself in the years I have not made it to Glastonbury. It’s an idea which will probably seem a little radical and difficult to defend, but which illustrates an essential truth about Glastonbury. Dare I say the essential truth.
I am not trying to write a eulogistic account of how transcendental an experience Glastonbury is, which of course it is. However, I find I cannot watch the coverage on television without getting a bad taste in my mouth. It’s resentment. The knowledge that Glastonbury will continue to take place in my absence genuinely distresses me. I recognise that this is a little irrational. However, this sentiment is perhaps defensible by virtue of insider knowledge. There is a case to say that when it comes to Glastonbury there should only exist, and indeed can only exist insider knowledge. How many Glastonburys (Glastonburies?) does it take to make you a legitimate veteran?
You’ve probably heard of the Native American superstition that when you have your photograph taken you lose a part of your soul. I don’t necessarily subscribe to this view, but there is a rather powerful and potentially valuable idea held within this suggestion which is especially relevant for anything as meaningful as Glastonbury. To ban all commercial recording equipment from the festival site is perhaps an extreme and unrealistic proposition, but there is definitely something to be retained in this notion. Is it unreasonable to say that some things are too precious, too four-dimensional to be reproduced, as they suffer a great loss in the translation from reality to representation? It is inevitable that magnificent things will be recorded and reproduced. The question is, is it worth it, and moreover, is it right?
Applying a moral dilemma to Glastonbury may seem excessive, but its uniqueness on the festival circuit is not just the stuff of hyperbole. It possesses a certain quality which sets it apart from the rest and perhaps makes it eligible to be excused from the media circus which has engulfed British music festivals. My motivation is not to deprive people who are not able to go. It’s to preserve the sanctity of one of our national treasures.
Arrogantly, I believe my aversion to Glasto coverage reflects an essential aspect of it.
When tickets became more valuable than gold dust in the early 2000s I was unable to get a ticket for several years. The last week-end in June would approach, I would be moody and I would temporarily sever all ties with the bastards who were going. Their excited plans and projections were not the worst, though. I would also have to sever ties with the TV, for infinitely more unbearable than the jealousy, was having to watch tantalising snippets on TV, which paradoxically have never succeeded in communicating the Glastonbury essence I so crave. There is something indefinable, and therefore intrinsically unreproducable about Glastonbury. It simply cannot be captured. Especially not by trendy presenters in their complimentary Hunter wellies and purpose-made Topshop festival-wear, sitting in their elevated glass box, observing people who had to pee into a Styrofoam cup in their tents last night milling around like ants in the distance, whilst they loll about the BBC backstage area and pee in their VIP toilets.
Seeing Glastonbury on TV provokes in me surprisingly excruciating pangs of regret and bitterness. All it does is produce a hunger to be there, and a painful feeling of detachment from this temporary centre of the world, which I feel all the more acutely for seeing it so inadequately portrayed. This is not because I grieve over missing the main stage acts. It’s the knowledge of what lies beneath that haunts me so. They attempt to capture the atmosphere and the “action” of the festival by showing crowd shots and segments from “on the ground”, but this merely reinforces the perception that all festivals look the same, when nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who has been to the big 5 (Reading/Leeds, V, T in the Park, Isle of Wight, Glastonbury) will tell you that Glasto is exceptional in its genre. It’s the music festival par excellence.
Should the marvel of Glastonbury be made universally accessible, and thus trivialised via the paltry medium of TV, or should it be preserved, mysterious and sacred? Should it be seen by the eyes of people who are not able to witness it in its entirety? Should casual admirers be privy to its sights and sounds? Is it not something which should only be experienced first-hand? No pull-out posters of aerial shots from NME, collages, montages or reportages convey the atmosphere or the experience, and I wonder why people want to watch it on TV and be exposed to it, if they are not interested in going. I have no interest in sports and am a little irritated by the perpetual ubiquity in the media of sporting events, but I understand that this is something which can be appreciated, sometimes all the better, via the telly. Not so for Glastonbury. Allowing outsiders to partake through the relatively vulgar proxy of TV is arguably not in keeping with the spirit of the festival. It is not a spectator sport. More important than my childish jealousy, is the fact that Glastonbury defies description and no medium can do it justice. This is not a vicarious experience. You have to live it, you have to earn it.
I will not try to describe what I am saying cannot be described. The mere fact of writing about Glastonbury in a sense defeats my point. But this is not a real proposal. It’s a thought which aims to demonstrate that Glastonbury is inexpressible in its individuality. It is not susceptible to adequate representation with snapshots or words, and nor should we wish it so, or attempt to make it so.
There is one great thing about being an experienced festivaller. You know what to expect and what to bring, and you learn to make the right decisions, and can indulge in a certain type of nostalgia also known as giving advice. The lessons I have learnt are valuable ones. I know now that sacrificing Kings of Leon for Fatboy Slim, whatever my motivations at the time, will always be a mistake. Always watch the Sunday night closer is my advice. The ignorant or misguided 18-year-old version of me wandered casually across Bowie’s set in 2000, grimaced and moved on. You also have to learn the hard way that trying to divide yourself between two sets usually compromises both of them.
I also know now that when trying to be a feminist and using the revolutionary she-pees you mustn’t, under any circumstances, lean back. This did afford me the opportunity to buy some very nice yellow emergency pants with “fairy muff” inscribed across the front in glitter, but I can’t look at those jeans in the same way, nor can I bring myself to throw them away.
The years have allowed me to accumulate a few curiosities about Glastonbury.
1. I’ve never been without bumping into at least 3 people I know who I didn’t even know were there, which makes you wonder about all the people who are there that you don’t bump into.
2. It seems as though most of the people who are there have already been before. There is a substantial core of staunch devotees to the cause.
3. It is inevitable that the two things you most want to see will be taking place simultaneously at opposite ends of the site. You should not allow this to rattle you. The delicate process of deciding how to divide your time is half the fun.
4. It is impossible to achieve all the things you intend to (i.e., see some stand-up, get to the silent disco, watch the sunrise from the stone circle…)
5. Anyone you meet anytime, anywhere, who has also been to Glastonbury is automatically a kindred spirit.
Going to Glastonbury is a challenge which is ultimately worth the logistical, hygiene-and-sleep-deprived nightmare it tends to be. Returning there makes me feel that same original feeling of anticipation for something which has never been paralleled by any other experience: an ephemeral state of complete abandon and sublime happiness. A feeling of being gloriously adrift. It’s a paradise for music lovers, but also for those who just want to be around thousands of people all in a wonderful mood, and full of a temporarily accentuated lust for life. Glastonbury typifies some of the best qualities of human nature, most notably the gregariousness it epitomises. I know people who go every year without any intention of seeing any bands. Like me you may find this odd, but it certainly bears testament to the lure of the place. To travel that far and forego basic hygiene and even momentary quiet for the sake of absorbing some atmosphere must be the highest possible recommendation. Plus, there is the music.
There is something to be experienced at Glastonbury which transcends all of its components. Music, entertainment, spending quality time with friends, having your tent weed on as you sleep… It’s all of these and none of these. Glastonbury is not an exclusively audiovisual experience. If anything, these are mere pretexts. It’s a sensory experience for the soul. It offers a feeling of happiness and freedom I have genuinely never known anywhere else. This probably explains my frustration at seeing it platonically paraded on TV and justifies my advice to everyone with any inclination towards it: don’t watch it on TV, just go. How many Glastonburys does it take to make you a legitimate veteran? Just the one.