Lessons in life on the ocean

Michael Eavis's ancestors had been at Worthy Farm since the 1860s but 15-year-old Michael Eavis did not plan to join them. Not until he was 40, at any rate. He saw himself as taking over behind the wheel of the family tractor only when his father reached pensionable age. Before that, the wheel he saw himself behind was the one on the bridge of an ocean-going liner.

"My mother and father sent us off to public school and then were surprised when we didn't want to be untidy and simple-looking farmers." Visiting his son at Wells Cathedral School, Mr Eavis had to park the car, its doors tied on with twine, round the corner. Young Michael was more inspired by the photograph of a cousin of his mother's: "He was a commander in the Australian navy. I never met him but he seemed a tidy and smart-looking bloke."

Michael applied to naval college. HMS Worcester was not in Worcester at all but in the Thames estuary, near Gravesend: "It was in fact a very posh public school. We had the Cutty Sark next to us, so we learned the ropes; it was a romantic vision of the China tea trade." After two years he was hired as a midshipman or officer cadet by the Union-Castle Shipping Company - "lovely lavender hulls and red-and-white funnels" - taking cargo and passengers down the coast of Africa and up through the Suez Canal.

It was a culture shock for the teenage son of a Methodist preacher. Once, when about to leave Mombasa, the officers found themselves rattling about in an empty ship. "Eavis, find the crew," the 17-year-old was ordered. "Where, sir?" "Try the brothels and the jail." Which is indeed where he located the naughty sailors.

Sadly, he was called home by his father's fatal stomach cancer: "I didn't complete the two years after which you take your Second Mate's certificate." Instead, at nineteen he found himself in a grim meeting with the bank manager and realised that either he took the helm back at the farm - or the family farm went bankrupt. Yet although he waved goodbye to the ocean waves, the time afloat had not been wasted.

"Without that, I wouldn't have had the guts to do the festival. Those four years away from home had given me the confidence to take on the council and the police. And the hippy convoys on the roads in the eighties, like medieval brigands. Thanks to my naval experience, I'd seen it all, living for six month trips with the lowest echelons of society."

And without the festival, the farm might have gone bankrupt anyway: many have. As it is, he has become Britain's favourite, festive farmer. Steady as she goes!

A film celebrating 35 years of the Glastonbury Festival is out next year. The next Festival will be in June 2007

jonty@jonathansale.com

Comments