Go wild in the country (for one night only)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It used to be the genuine, hippy article; now it's full of sad accountants role-playing rebellion. Hettie Judah on why she hates the Glastonbury Festival Experience

"THOM YORK, he's like, the man, man," jabbered the lawyer, eyes fizzing behind his yellow-lensed sunglasses, arms whirling from the crop sleeves of his Sixties button-down shirt. While he was stuck in his own personal Dennis Hopper movie, his girlfriend was doing bog-standard stoned hippy chick: big shades, Afghan collar, bunches. Occasionally she let her head loll from one side to the other and pouted. She had the expression on her face which is intended to say: "Me and the music, we're as one; I really understand it in a low down, deep down kinda way". Deadly serious, didn't smile. As I watched them, one thought kept going through my head. "These people can see themselves; they know what they are doing; they are role-playing being at Glastonbury Festival even when they are, actually, at Glastonbury Festival." Wild!

Or not, as it happens. This really is the death of alternative culture, or at least any part that festivals have to play in it. I shall explain this slowly and carefully for any of you who have started late on the long, wacky, festival flight path of a British summer. Festivals are about really great music, yes, but they are also about a special kind of freedom, about losing yourself in a certain way. Festivals, in a very old-fashioned sense, should be carnival, a way of overthrowing the rules of normal society. But the impulse to really let go, the festival spirit that made people dance naked in the mud, share drugs and food, look after each other's children and generally let it all hang out is long dead. What was once a glorious, peace-loving, anarchic celebration, has become an institution all of its own.

In the 28 years since its inception, Glastonbury has transformed from a friendly hippy fest into a haven for accountants wanting a weekend on the edge. It has lost its soul to the television generation. The major pop cultural movements of the last half century have become nothing but fashion statements; take punk, goth, peace and love, remove the politics and keep the accessories. Nowhere is this more evident than at Glastonbury, because by definition everybody that goes there thinks of themselves as slightly wild, a little bit anti-establishment. No way would they turn up wearing bog standard high street; they are going to dress cer-azee! Of course when a crowd the size of the population of Swansea all decide to dress cer-azee at the same time, cer-azee clobber starts to look very conformist indeed.

People come here dressed to face the cameras. They know the "look" of Glastonbury in the same way Georgians on the Grand Tour knew the "look" of Venice. Watching people sloshing about in Indian frocks and vast bell bottoms, you know for sure that back home their video recorders are set to catch themselves, immortalised as part of the Glastonbury legend. In a massive reversal of the Sixties ethos, being there is no longer about being out of it; really being there is about being on TV.

The annual wagon load of crusties has become almost invisible within a crowd that craves instant entertainment. For three days these people share a few fields when the rest of the year they wouldn't give each other the time of day. For one weekend the computer programmer wants to be the man with dreadlocks and a dog on a string; deep down he suspects (incorrectly) that this man has access to deeper truths than he can borrow from his authentic, mint-condition 1973 drawstring shirt. Next week, back in a suit, he wouldn't buy a used spliff off the guy, let alone give him money to feed the dog.

These faux festival-goers have the contradictory mantras all ready to trot out. "Just being here, with nature, with the countryside, it's so beautiful... the toilets are, like, unreal; no way am I going to shit in a pit; just use the hedgerows...It's the feeling of community, all these people together, surfing the same vibes... a total weirdo old hippy type kept ranting at me, couldn't get rid of him... me an' Baz got in over the fence, s'the way to go, power to the people... too many people here man, doing my head in" and so on.

Flack for this festival fetishism must go in part to the drooling old men of the rock press who a few years back fixed on Glastonbury as an easy totem for youth culture. Quality broadsheets and otherwise sensible magazines have started pumping out handy festi guides packed with embarrassing "The kids are OK! I took drugs once! Right on!" reminiscences. It's an elegant symbiosis; festival goers with Mondeos and mobile phones read articles describing them as hep young things written by journalists who are about as turned on as a hip replacement.

In this wigged-out, egalitarian, community-spirited paradise, 90 per cent of the people still believe that they can bag themselves a rockstar. Girls huddle backstage, stalk-legged in miniskirts, the damp eroding the leather of their pipa alpha platforms and the rain soaking through their tiny kitten hair jackets. Apparently desperate for a roll in the mud, they wait next to the musicians' lavatories shivering plaintively.

Stars love the big crowds of Glastonbury, no question, but for all their ordinary guy posturing there is no way they want to get down and dirty with the people. With the notable exception of, perhaps, Robbie Williams, for whom grotesque mud and big drugs really were a forbidden dream come true, the minute they step off-stage they want out of there. Rumours abounded last year of Keith "Smack My Bitch Up" Flett being carried on stage so as not to get muddy and of Sheryl "hard rock chick" Crowe pissing in a plastic bag then handing it to her manager because she refused to use the back stage loos.

Festivals are no longer the real deal, festivals are a supermarket of alternative culture, as short-lived and disposable as junk food: Thai today, Tokyo tomorrow. All you need is the money to buy your way in. There is no such thing as Glastonbury Festival, only The Glastonbury Festival Experience. This is not freedom, this is Disneyland.

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