Over the top with the 21st Glastonbury Fusiliers

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The Independent Culture

It was as close to war reporting as I ever want to come. At Paddington, early on Sunday morning, the Glastonbury reinforcements lined up for the first train out, a couple of combat veterans here and there. The novices, such as myself, were right to be apprehensive.

It was as close to war reporting as I ever want to come. At Paddington, early on Sunday morning, the Glastonbury reinforcements lined up for the first train out, a couple of combat veterans here and there. The novices, such as myself, were right to be apprehensive.

We saw our first casualties at Castle Cary, the closest station to the festival site, lying exhausted along both platforms as they waited for evacuation, and the signs of battle thickened as buses shuttled us the final few miles to the front.

Small groups of deserters walking away in a dazed shuffle; roads clogged with vehicles; the unlovely detritus of discarded ration packs and drink cans scattered in the hedgerows. Long before we saw the field we could hear the boom and pulse of the action.Almost everyone here was a volunteer though, drawn by idealism or zeal to the 21st Glastonbury Festival - a rural gathering in Somerset that began as an oversized picnic with accompanying music and has steadily grown to become one of the annual events of the alternative season.

Some had come to get out of their brains. Placards offered "legal trip" but the illegal alternatives were advertised and enjoyed almost as openly.

Others came to profit, manning the stalls in the tented high streets that spring up to serve an instant town of up to 100,000 people and offer both the luxuries of festival life - lavatory roll and torch batteries - and its essentials - tie-dye butterflies, Navajo dream-catchers and skull-shaped candles. Food stalls are everywhere. Some determined to rise above their circumstances, such as the Art Café, and others happy to wallow in it, such as the candidly named Lower Depths.

Others still had come to pilfer, although arrests were down on previous years. By this morning police had made 187 arrests and 70 people had been charged with various offences. Of the 1,140 reported crimes, 898 were tent-related thefts, with 105 robberies and 27 assaults. Many campers lost all their possessions or even the entire tent in raids.

It was impossible to believe that any had come for the scenery. When the event began 30 years ago, its founder, Michael Eavis, aimed to bring urban rock together with rural beauty, but success means that practice has long since parted company from theory. After two days of heavy self-gratification, the green fields on which he nourishes his cows have been transformed into terrain that looks like landfill; an impacted mash of broken glass, crumpled cans, smeared food and half-burnt rubbish.

In the main arena, volunteers from Avon Friends of the Earth pick their way haplessly through the crowds with recycling bags, their faces aghast at what is being done to their friend. Every now and then, the rich fragrance of human excrement drifts across the crowd.

The site maps mark the location of Glastonbury's notoriously challenging ablutions but don't include information about the prevailing winds. Those lured to The Glade by its idyllic name will have been disappointed. A vast sound system blasted music at a volume loud enough to strip the leaves from the trees.

None of this matters to the festival faithful, who come mostly for a live jukebox of top-level performers. The 100,000 legitimate visitors to this year's festival are believed to have been joined by between 10,000 and 15,000 people who climbed over, or tunnelled under, the 14ft perimeter barrier around the 600-acre site. Next year organisers have plans to put up a new £1m steel fence to stop the problem. The measures will be financed by increasing the official capacity by 10,000.

At midday on Sunday, Mr Eavis made his traditional annual announcement that it was "the best one so far", an utterance as indifferent to hard realities as the traditional wedding vows. But, for devotees, he's probably only saying what they truly believe. Reliable memory and enthusiastic festival participation not being neurologically compatible. By Sunday evening the crowds would have forgotten their disappointment at Burt Bacharach's no-show (damaged hand or a sudden excess of squeamishness); forgotten the alarming afternoon rumours that David Bowie had succumbed to laryngitis; forgotten the squalor and the fatigue, and be looking ahead to next year.

According to the woman running the Festival Bookshop, the big seller this year was the Lonely Planet Guide to India. It seems that some people's appetite for primitive plumbing, unreliable transport and exotic culture is inexhaustible.

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