It's being seen that counts now

Sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll? Forget it. Glastonbury is growing more like Glyndebourne every year
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Where might one go next weekend to nibble sushi, listen to a little jazz, take in a play and rub shoulders with the likes of the It girls?

Try Glastonbury.

Mud notwithstanding, the emphasis at the country's biggest open-air festival is turning to culture rather than sex'n'drugs 'n' rock'n'roll. "Glastonbury has taken its place on the circuit, alongside Glyndebourne and Henley," says John Shearlaw, a former rock journalist in charge of publicity. "Being seen at the festival is the thing to do these days."

It seems long ago since 1,500 kids turned up in 1970 to watch Marc Bolan play in a field for free. This year, over 90,000 will make the pilgrimage to Worthy Farm near Pilton in the heart of Somerset. Tickets, which now cost pounds 75 each, have been sold out for months, and the festival, which is run from a nerve centre in a shed next to the farmhouse, has a turnover of more than pounds 5m.

Although big-name bands still make the headlines, over the years pop stars have become a relatively minor part of the affair; these days many people don't even go near the big central stage where the chart-toppers perform. The organisers claim that this year's theatre, cabaret and arts shows will rival the Edinburgh Festival, with around 1,200 performances and workshops over the weekend in various enormous marquees.

THE food on offer is far removed from the dubious brown veggie burgers of festival myth - 300 different caterers will be bringing international cuisine from Japanese and West Indian to Irish and Scottish. The market village has a total of 450 stalls this year. And while you may not have a proper scrub all weekend, the Healing Field will feature tented Turkish baths. As veterans keep coming back, now with families in tow, children are increasingly well catered for. They have their own field of activities (and their own showers).

The final proof of Glastonbury's move upmarket is that flushing lavatories will be available for the first time, although the familiar Portaloos and dug-out "deep drop" facilities will still be much in evidence. (Oxfam and Water Aid, two of the charities the festival supports, have occasionally tested their refugee-camp lavatories and facilities here.)

The founder of the festival, Michael Eavis, lives in the farmhouse at the centre of events. He is an unlikely promoter; and as the various strands of the festival have evolved, he has probably changed less than any of them. A dairy farmer aged 61, Eavis is keeping a low profile this year, recovering from the double stress of a brush with cancer and standing as Labour candidate in the local constituency of Wells, a staunchly Conservative area; Eavis lost, though he increased the Labour vote by 18 per cent.

He started Glastonbury after seeing the 1970 Bath Blues Festival. It was an amazing conversion: the next day he was on the phone booking bands for his own show. The first lost money, but he persevered, and once he began to make a profit, most of the proceeds went to his favourite charities - initially CND, then, with the end of the Cold War, Greenpeace, Oxfam, Water Aid and local charities. Eavis takes a small cut to cover wear and tear and the effort involved, but does not settle his large overdraft. "From a banker's point of view, it's probably the most threatening size of overdraft on any farm of its size in Somerset," he has said. "I suppose I could have paid it off, but I'd feel guilty settling it out of the festival."

When Eavis began, it was just him and his phone. Now the festival employs several thousand. He believes that the economic benefits to the area are "colossal", and the local opposition has quietened down over the years. "It's much better organised now," says Ted Lucas, a taxi driver. "Ten years ago you'd have the hippies with their old buses clogging up the roads, you couldn't get around. I used to do well picking people up from the station - now there's a free bus so I only get the odd one, but a lot of them are very nice people. They have changed, too - you get ones who don't want to camp in the rain, who stay in the village hotel and get a taxi in each day - they can't be short of a bob or two."

The fortysomethings need not fear that they will stick out like a sore thumb in a crowd of loved-up teenagers. "I've been coming, off and on, for the last 15 years, and now I bring my two kids - they're eight and six, and they loved the last one," says Robert Gould, 35, a solicitor. "There is so much for them to do, though you do have to keep a close eye. The crowds are huge now. A few of my friends still go and you certainly don't feel out of place because you're over 18 and not interested in drugs."

Others are not so sure. Jamie, 22, was crouching in the mud last Friday, fashioning a dragon's head of wood and clay to decorate the free acoustic stage. He spends four months of the year travelling from festival to festival; this is his third Glastonbury. "The first two were boiling hot," he said, as rain cascaded from his hood. "Glastonbury is great, but I don't go down into the bit with all the bands and stages - that's too commercial. I stay up in the Avalon Fields, the Healing Fields - the real Glastonbury is up here." (The turmoil of the band stages is known as "Babylon", in contrast to the calmer reaches where the rest takes place.)

But some feel that the old Glastonbury has lost its spirit. "It's got too big and crowded. Flush toilets and Japanese food aren't the point of Glastonbury," says Mick Glaide, 35, a management consultant who fondly recalls the wilder Glastonbury days of his youth. "This year they are having watchtowers along the fences to stop people sneaking in. It shouldn't be like that."

PERHAPS Glastonbury has become a middle-aged, middle-class institution. Not so, says John Shearlaw. "Everyone who comes has to live in a tent and commune with nature. It's three days of living on a farm and using earth lavatories, even if you are wearing designer clothes and eating sushi. It's not a free festival, but it's the closest you'll get to it. Not everyone will decide to sell up their house and live in a teepee but it does give a taste of what it's like to live differently. And the festival isn't just a celebration of music and arts - it's a fundraising event. If people wander round the Greenpeace field and go away and think about the issues, that's an achievement."

And younger visitors still hold on to the most traditional elements of the event. The New Musical Express guide "Total Glasto" retains an old- fashioned emphasis on drink and drugs. "See that wrecked and broken form by the side of the road, naked aside from a sick-stained Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt ... ? That, ye Glasto virgins, is you in about 72 hours," it says, somewhat hopefully.

One constant is the celebrated Glastonbury mud. Sloshing around over your ankles in slime is a great leveller. Luckily, says John Shearlaw optimistically, the long-range forecast for next weekend predicts good weather.

Comments