Tuesday 24 June 2014

Marc Needs To Talk About Glastonbury...

Marc writes:

Ah, the last Wednesday in June. Round about now on this day in many past years I’ve been orbiting the Bristol ringroad, looking for the right exit, or heading blindly towards Bridgewater, looking over every rise in the hill for tell-tale flags, or the reflection of sunshine on big tops.

[Oh God, he’s going to do a blog post about Glastonbury, isn’t he? At long last someone has the bravery to break the omerta that surrounds this little-discussed event.]

I first went to Glastonbury in 1994. I was eighteen and had spent weeks convincing my worried mother that it was just a big gathering of people enjoying music, in a beautiful natural setting. Nothing bad would happen. It was a totally safe environment.

Aside from a slight attack of nerves before we left (‘What do you DO at a festival?’), I had a wonderful time, heard, saw, felt, drank and tasted things I’d never done before and came back Slightly Changed (albeit cross at having slept through the Beastie Boys’ set). Being that type of teenager, I wrote a letter to the organisers that week, saying (with only slight exaggeration) that being at the festival was the first time I’d really enjoyed music again since my dad died the year before.

[Oh, it’s one of THOSE blog posts. If he’s going to try and be ‘deep’ I’m going to stop reading.]

After that first, startling, visit, I went back to Glastonbury as often as I could. At that time, when the festival wasn’t so much of a big thing, getting a ticket was pretty much just a matter of having the requisite money and knowing where Probe Records in Liverpool was. Some years were marvellous, some were pretty awful. However, a year didn’t go by when I didn’t, at some point, witness something truly magical while on Worthy Farm, whether it was a man jumping off the back of a moving double-decker ‘bus and walking away unharmed, the best live gig I have ever seen, a perplexing-yet-beautiful shrine to the Virgin Mary up by the stone circle or a hundred other things.

[Is he going to make a point here, or is this just going to be ‘This one time at Glastonbury…’?]

As the nineties ended and the following decade began, it became more of a struggle to get tickets for the festival, to the point where it was no longer a fixed point in my yearly calendar, but a thing to be cautiously hoped for and worried about.

[First. World. Problems.]

This increased demand for tickets was, I think, due to a number of things, the first of which was the BBC acquiring the rights to cover the festival on television. Glastonbury had been televised since the year I’d first attended (1994), but by Channel Four in mostly late night slots. In 1997 the BBC took over the festival’s screening rights and since then has made more and more of its coverage.

This has had the effect that far more people have seen the festival on television and have some idea of what goes on there than before, and a fair proportion of them, quite naturally, decide they’d like to go.

[He’s going to tell us these people are somehow wrong now, isn’t he? I bet he is.]

There’s an argument which says that because the BBC mostly covers a certain side of what is in reality a vast performing arts festival, ie big bands playing on big stages, that there are more people now who think that’s what Glastonbury is all about and who get there and set up in front of the main stage for three days, ignoring the thousands of other things there are to do on site.

This is an argument I’d agree with to some extent, although there have always been people who were just there for the big bands, and good luck to them. If people come along to modern day Glastonbury unaware that you can also spend the weekend, say, listening to poetry, watching theatre, or learning stone-carving, then that’s the fault of the broadcaster for not including these elements in its coverage.

[Oh, don’t be ridiculous. The BBC has paid a fortune to cover this event, and devotes prime-time slots to it. What are they going to show: Elbow on the Pyramid Stage or Woody Bop Muddy’s Record Graveyard in the Cabaret Tent?]

As a consequence of the BBC going so big on Glastonbury, the past decade or so has also seen a new phenomenon: The Festivalisation of English Public Life. Glastonbury receiving widespread coverage on the BBC has made it a part of the nebulous ‘national calendar’ in the same way that Wimbledon and the Last Night of the Proms are. It’s no longer thought of as hippies and oddballs in a field, only making the news when someone gets shot.

This has led, as we’ve seen, to vastly increased demand for tickets, but also to a mushrooming in the number of festivals during each summer. Writing in 2014, Peak Festival may just have passed, with a number of big events either cancelling or downsizing in the past year or so, but there are still hugely more festivals taking place every summer than there were ten or so years ago. And to look at them, with their flags and bunting and spoken-word stages, it’s not Reading or T in the Park they’re aping.

This spread of festivals has now gone so far as to move into things that aren’t even festivals. What would, five years ago, have been a recruitment fair is now a Recruitment Festival and what were farmers’ markets are now food festivals. Ukuleles on advert soundtracks and the winsome nonsense on the back of Innocent smoothie bottles: this all, ultimately, comes from Glastonbury or, more accurately, the BBC’s version of Glastonbury.

[‘Not like it was in my day’. Boo-hoo, Gramps. I bet he’s going to tell us it ‘lost its soul’ when they stopped letting people jump the fence.]

Actually, no. Fence jumping seemed to have been tacitly allowed when the number of people doing it was manageable. In the aftermath of 2000, when as many people bunked in as paid for tickets, doubling the number of people on site and making for some genuinely dangerous crushes, the organisers had to do something, or the festival couldn’t have continued. Since that year, they’ve substantially increased the camping capacity, allowing many more people to attend than would have been able to pre-2000.

Unlike some people who started going to Glastonbury before it was BBC-massive, I don’t think the festival has changed all that much, and many of the ways in which it has changed have been for the better; site drainage is greatly improved, meaning that no matter how much it rains, there’ll be no repeat of the ‘sloshing round, shin-deep in  liquid mud’ delights of the late nineties, there’s more stuff going on ‘after hours’, in an area of the site where there are no close neighbours to be bothered by noise, and there are more performance areas, filled with stuff you wouldn’t find at any other big festival.

The only thing which has really changed is the number of people who want to go, and the concomitant decreased likelihood of getting a ticket.

[See? He’s just bitter! All this ‘Festivalisation of English Pubic Lice’ or whatever is just covering up the fact that he’s pissed off he didn’t get a ticket.]

That’s true for some years, but not this one (see below). I’ve been trying to think of an analogy for this situation, and the closest one I can think of is Doctor Who-related.

[You don’t say.]

I feel a bit like full-on classic series Doctor Who fans must have felt in 2005. The thing I loved when it was a minority interest is now really popular and lots of other people love it, although perhaps not for the same reasons as I do. Actually, for this analogy to really hold, the BBC would have to give out a limited number of TV licences per year and if you didn’t secure one you couldn’t watch Doctor Who. Perhaps it’s more like having a long-time favourite restaurant which suddenly becomes wildly popular and you can’t get a table any more.

[‘…and the new people like that thing you like but in the WRONG WAY and they shouldn’t be ALLOWED to like it!!1]

While I’ve been cheesed off in previous years at not getting a ticket for my favourite festival, I’ve tried not to get bitter towards people who do get to go. Why shouldn’t someone who’s seen Glastonbury on the telly get to have the same life-changing

[Did he just say ‘life-changing’? I think he actually did, you know.]

…experience as I did? Perhaps if more people were lucky enough to have three days of beautiful surroundings and wonderful, imaginative performances and being able to pretty much please themselves, the country would be a happier place. Perhaps the tickets that I’ve missed out on in previous years have gone to the 2010’s eighteen year old equivalent of me, who’ll get so much more out of being there for his first time than thirty eight year old me, there for his umpteenth.

[So what are you saying? That we should round up people and MAKE them go to Glastonbury? Should there be ‘out-reach’ to help young people who can’t afford the tickets to go? You really haven’t thought this through at ALL, have you?]

Perhaps this is something I should try to achieve: to try harder to put the values I associate with the festival (tolerance, freedom of expression, the power of art to effect change) and my experience of it, into my daily life and my interactions with other people.

So there we are: I love going to Glastonbury but I’ve not been since 2010. Since then, one year the festival wasn’t on, and the other times I didn’t get a ticket. This year, however, I’m not going for a different reason; I didn’t even try to buy a ticket.

There had been talk last year (and the one before, I think) about me, Ruth and Cherub  going to Glastonbury together. We’d done Ye Olde Traditional Broadbande Competition two Octobers running, to no avail. Last summer I went with my brother to Boomtown Fair, (a pretty good festival run by people who used to be involved with Glastonbury. Although it’s for a younger, slightly more drug-orientated crowd than me, its heart’s in the right place and the two times I’ve been there so far have been good fun. I’ll be going back this August, in fact) and with Ruth and Cherub to the Just-So Festival (which Ruth wrote a lovely account of here).

During the weekend at the Just-So, as we enjoyed the various activities on offer, it became clear to me that this was a rather different experience to Glastonbury, in terms of size if nothing else. The comparison made me think about the wisdom of taking a six or seven year old to somewhere like Glastonbury, and brought back the memory that most of the children of that age I’d seen there over the years had looked either exhausted, miserable or both.

So Ruth and I decided not to even attempt to go to Glastonbury this year, a decision aided by the local education authority’s utterly insane attitude to children being taken out of school in term time. We’ll have another wonderful time at the Just-So in August.

So, how will we be entertaining ourselves this weekend, and avoiding ‘#Glasto’ tweets and witless ‘How Glastonbury lost its soul and went middle class’ newspaper features? By hosting our own outdoor event, of course! We’ll be playing some wonderful music in a beautiful setting and hoping to create a bit of magic. Sounds familiar…

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