I can’t live…with or without you.
U2, With or Without You
“’Ah no,’ said Halfrunt, ‘in my profession you know, we do not make personal friends.’
‘Ah,’ grunted the Vogon, ‘professional detachment.’
‘No,’ said Halfrunt cheerfully, ‘we just don’t have the knack’.”
Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
“Oh, is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?”
Pulp, Sorted for E’s and Wizz
Until two or three years ago, I had no intention of ever attending Glastonbury. And then, to quote Pulp, a band with a spiritual link with the festival, something changed. Why, I can’t quite put my finger on.
For most of the last decade, Glastonbury goers have actively pissed me off; for the two months prior to going they talk in awed tones about ‘Glastonbury’ (you can hear the inverted commas), and for nine months afterwards they talk in awed tones about how great it was whilst the wristbands they continue to sport grow increasingly tattered and mildewed.
And then, as I say, something changed. Perhaps I felt it was something I should tick off a hypothetical list of things to do before I die. Last autumn I registered for the festival’s increasingly complex anti-touting ticket process, entered into the race to put my £50 deposit down, and unlike many people I was successful; I now owned one quarter of a Glastonbury ticket. I simply had to pay the remainder in the first week of April, or my ticket would return to the pot. I began to have second thoughts to an extent, but I paid the remainder.
There’s a lot of stuff goes into a weekend sleeping in a tent in a field, and between April and June, there’s a lot of work to be done. You need to remember to take your hard-fought for ticket, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, clothing (for at least two seasons and sleeping), toiletries and food. It’s almost like going on a package holiday for a week, and I heard one news report suggesting that more Brits were doing the Festival circuit this year because it was slightly less expensive than a trip abroad.
I had planned to drive most of the 420 miles, if only because taking the car is infinitely more flexible than public transport and only mildly more expensive, if at all (which is a frankly ridiculous state of affairs). One of my oldest and best friends Bex lives in a small town some 40 miles away from the festival site, and I entertained the notion of leaving my car at her house and catching a train or bus to Glastonbury. Unfortunately, by the time I got around to booking tickets, they had sold out. Car park passes hadn’t however, despite the festival’s green credentials and aspirations.
Unfortunately, the pass took rather longer than expected to be delivered, not arriving by post until the Tuesday morning before the gates opened. This also impinged on the time I was able and had planned to spend with Bex. Fortunately the 8 hour drive down the Ms 8,74,6 and 5 went as smoothly as I could hope for and I arrived in Chippenham a shade after half past six on Tuesday evening.
I last saw Bex when I turned up on her doorstep unannounced one weekend in the late spring or early summer of 2004. I was still living in the West Midlands then, so that type of daft stunt was easier to execute. We also arranged and managed to miss each other in 2005, 2009 and last year in three different cities, so this reunion was long overdue.
Bex and I met in our first year at University where we both had pokey, spartan rooms in adjoining blocks of a former polytechnic’s halls of residence. One night, a phalanx of student humour connoisseurs huddled around the old CRT television set in the TV room to watch Monty Python’s The Holy Grail on the BBC, and we were presently joined by Bex and another individual whose face I’d seen around campus but hadn’t spoken to, Bob. By the end of the evening, I’d made friends with both of them.
Since those heady, heady days eleven years ago, Bob has disappeared, seemingly without a trace. I’ve left the terrible band I was a guitarist in and Birmingham to return to my hometown of Glasgow, and Bex has had a child, an adorable little girl who is now three. Despite having not spoken in person for nearly eight years, and ostensibly being adults now, we fell into our old ways as if we’d never been apart. We talked until 1am, and it would have been later if we both didn’t have obligations early the next morning.
I left Chippenham at 8am on Wednesday, I was bound for the festival site itself grateful I only had 40 more miles to cover; I made my way south via Trowbridge to pick up some last minute things that I’d remembered I’d forgotten. From there on in, my journey to having a well-deserved rest in my freshly erected tent was suspiciously straight-forward. The festival itself opened on Wednesday morning, although the car parks had been open since the previous day, so a fair number of people had already arrived and made camp. Happily though, after only a brief delay on the A37, I was able to get parked in a field designated East 8, close to the A37 itself.
Actually getting through the dual ring of steel fences and into the site itself was more complicated, exacerbated by carrying 20-odd lbs of camping equipment, the intermittent rain and the several thousand other people that were all desperate to get in and were incapable of listening to instruction by the stewards. Then there was the ticket barrier to get through. Anti-counterfeit measures have resulted in the organisers supplying you with a ticket that has a picture of your face and your postcode printed on it, by recorded delivery. Upon gaining access to the site, your ticket is scanned and you’re asked for your postcode. You’re then fitted with your wristband, a fabric strip that’s secured around your arm by dint of a terrifying mediaeval-looking device that squeezes an aluminium crimp into place. You’re still obliged to carry your ticket around with you at all times though.
I was able to find a decent camping spot quite quickly for my little one man tent, a spot over-looking the main Pyramid stage. The rain had already made the site quite muddy, and even at a little after 10 am there had already been an influx of campers. Seemingly not realising that it’s actually quite a big site and other fields were available, I decided to take my chances on a small pitch between the Church marquee and the toilets, which flew in the face of the advice I’d been given. Still, I was at the crest of a slope, and I reasoned this reduced the chances of my tent being flooded.
After I’d erected my cheap tent, which was little more than a reconditioned shellsuit help up by nun-chuck like poles and sheltered my possessions from the drizzle, I had a better opportunity to recce where I’d be living for most of the next six days. I’d accidentally found myself a pretty good space, close to a property lock-up, some cash machines and a food outlet. On closer inspection, even the toilets turned out to be ‘deluxe’ versions, with proper porcelain bowls and seats, and they flushed the effluence away. Away I know not where, but there was very little smell from them.
I made a further trip back to the car to collect my food and toiletries, and the defects in my festival started to become apparent. Firstly, I was starting to feel lonely. I didn’t really know anyone else that was going well enough to ask if I could camp with them. This would have been impractical anyway, with the huge numbers of people arriving from various parts of the UK at different times. It was also tired, having had 5-6 hours sleep after an 8 hour drive, I was hungry, and it was still just about drizzling, enough for the site to have become notably muddy. Upon my return, I retired to my tent for a nap, and when I awoke I had acquired new neighbours, the scraps of remaining grass being covered by tents of all sizes, shapes and colours.
After a brief wander around the site near my tent, I embarked on a walk to the southern expanse of the site, crossing the old railway line and heading between the Healing and Craft fields and up to the Stone Circle to while away an hour or so.
I bought some food and turned in for the night; there was a lot more to do and see on Thursday, although the first bands didn’t arrive until Friday. However, I struggled to get to sleep due to a combination of having cold feet (my own fault for not wrapping them up adequately), and then my neighbours returning after midnight and having a very loud and very tedious conversation about which drugs they prefer to take before going on to gossip about people from their work. And I missed all the fireworks.
Due to the lack of sleep it was a cranky and miserable Jay that emerged on Thursday morning, leave his tent to enjoy the emerging sunshine and get away from my surroundings. My first stop was one of the three mobile phone recharging tents where I spent an hour or so topping up the battery on my spare mobile (I didn’t want to risk losing my smart phone), my only lifeline to the outside world, and the only thing likely to keep me sane if I was left in my own company.
I was fascinated by the sight of tipis high up on the hill next to the field the stone circle was on, so I decided to trek over to them, taking in the Park on the way. The Park has been described as being a ‘festival within a festival’, with the interesting Rabbit Hole venue and the Park Stage, where the weekend’s two surprise special guests would play (Radiohead and Pulp). From my point of view however it resembled a battlefield, and I quickly made my way up onto the hillside that sported the sign that spelled out Glastonbury in large letters. The view was terrific it had to be said, with the whole of the valley unfolding beneath me and the Tor resplendent to the west.
By early afternoon, the cinema tent was showing films, so I ended up killing a couple of hours watching Thor in 3D, a film which I enjoyed on first viewing a couple of months ago. If anything, it was better on this second sitting, although the 3D effect was negligible when a quarter of the screen was obscured by a support column. It was then back to the tent, then some more food before I returned to the cinema to watch Killing Bono, a recent low-budget Irish release I was keen on seeing. I was slightly perturbed when the film announced its title as ‘The Honey Killer’, but I persevered, assuming it was all some kind of meta reference. After a good 15 minutes of decidedly non-Irish, poorly acted and po-faced action, I had to assume I wasn’t in fact watching Killing Bono. Leaving the tent, the schedule did indeed confirm that the film I had wanted to watch had been switched to Friday night, and would now be shown during U2’s headline set. Which I was planning to watch. Some chicanery was afoot.
By 11pm I was in my bed, taking care to make sure my feet were insulated this time, and by 4am I had been woken up yet again by my charming neighbours, this time talking about vampires, and caught this comment;
“That fucker there’s probably a vampire; his tent’s practically coffin shaped and we never see him during daylight hours”.
Can’t help but think they were talking about me…
Friday promised more, with the arrival of the bands. It was initially brilliantly sunny, and I wandered over to the Speaker’s Forum, ostensibly to listen to Caroline Lucas. Instead, I caught the tail end of a talk by Martin Abrams of the RSPB. I then decided as I am wont to do that I wasn’t going to listen to Caroline Lucas and went to see Emmy the Great at the Oxlyers in West Tent. I arrived early, and caught some of Summer Camp, and while I was waiting for Miss the Great, more rain arrived, and shortly after her set started, I found myself needing a piss. So I left, and didn’t return. I’m not sure why, but I found myself back in my tent for a couple of hours while the Wu-Tang Clan set drifted over from the distance.
Despite slipping into another foul mood, I was able to rouse myself and make my way down to the Pyramid Stage to see the legend that is B.B. King, and I’m glad I did. Then at 8 o’clock, the first act of the weekend I really wanted to see was due on stage; Steven Patrick Morrissey. While I love the Smiths, I prefer them for their music, which of course came courtesy of Johnny Marr. But the Smiths are one of the very few bands whose lyrics I genuinely enjoy and identify with [admit it, you’re surprised], and Morrissey wrote them. I find his solo stuff a little bit-and-miss, which is probably due to the absence of Marr’s composition skills, but thankfully he does sing Smiths songs as well. No fewer than five made an appearance here, including the wonderful ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ and ‘This Charming Man’. There were a couple of his solo classics as well, particularly ‘Everyday is Like Sunday’, ‘Alma Matters’ and ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’.
After Morrissey was the one single band of the weekend I wanted to see; U2. Their first album was released when I was seven months old, and their music has always been popular with my local radio station Radio Clyde, so I’ve grown up with their music in the background, figuratively speaking. It wasn’t until I started university that I started listening to them seriously, and that was mainly due to the release of the single ‘Beautiful Day’. Its parent album All That You Can’t Leave Behind was the first LP of theirs I bought, and from then on I was hooked.
That said, I’d never seen them live, mainly because it appears almost impossible to get tickets for their tours, even if you can afford it. One of the reasons I bought the Glastonbury ticket was because I suspected they would play the festival, having had to pull out of 2010’s event due to Bono’s back injury. I’m pleased I was proved correct.
Many people of course don’t like U2 or Bono, and will vociferously tell you so given half the chance. It’s best not to let them. Bono gets on my nerves sometimes as well, but in general I do find him an entertaining frontman and…yeah, I like him. He’s a flawed individual, but aren’t we all. In any case, like Morrissey before him, he dialled down his political posturing and proselytising and instead set out to charm the crowd.
The band’s setlist was virtually perfection (would have liked to have seen ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’), but all of my favourites they’re likely to ever play were present. I didn’t even mind the rain or the pain in my back and feet. The show maybe lacked something of their own stadia tour set ups, but the performance made up for it. This evening at least, I went to bed a happy man.
Saturday morning started with a bang, almost literally. I had been careful about washing my hands and had been using wet wipes copiously, but maybe I had eaten or drank something…anyway, there was no way I was going to be able to wait in the queue for the toilets, but I’m thankful to the individual whose forum post convinced me to take some bin liners with me. And lots of wet wipes.
And so, while I had planned to see Stornoway on the main stage, I instead had to make my way to the onsite pharmacist to seek advice, and they sold me tablets for £6. That said, they did appear to work, and after testing my constitution with some bottled water, I decided it was safe to join the queue for The Infinite Monkey Cage in the Cabaret tent.
The Infinite Monkey Cage is a Radio 4 comedy/science programme featuring Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox. I confess to never having listened to it, but in fairness, I’ve only become aware of its existence in the last few months. It would appear to be quite popular judging by the massive queue for entrance to the tent that greeted me, but in a rare, fleeting moment of optimism, I joined. And got in.
My joy was tempered by learning the awful Billy Bragg was to be part of the panel. I’ve never had much time for the man, and his attempts at playing devil’s advocate (at least I hope they were attempts, otherwise he’s a thicko) were thoroughly dismantled by Ince, Cox and other guest Professor Tony Ryan. It was a thoroughly enjoyable show.
However, I also planned to see Infinite Monkey Cage acolyte Dr. Ben Goldacre who was giving a talk at the Free University of Glastonbury, situated in the muddy mayhem of the Park. Astonishingly, I made it in plenty of time, despite having to battles hordes of sub-burned undead coming in the opposite direction and the conditions underfoot being far from ideal for powerwalking. And it was worth it; I don’t know the first thing about epidemiology, but Dr. Goldacre is an engaging and entertaining speaker.
I had intended to stay in the Park for Graham Coxon’s set, but I was hungry and tired, my feet and back ached and I needed to sit down but it was too muddy. So I made my way back to my tent. I did feel somewhat guilty about the bands and acts I was missing, but at the time was in so much pain listening to music was the last thing on my mind.
I resolved that while I could barely stand to stand, I could visit the cinema tent, watch the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film and be at least faintly stimulated while most importantly, sitting down. I might be missing Elbow, but I could handle that. And my plan went swimmingly until just over an hour into the film when the projector broke and we were all turfed out. Once more, I returned to my tent, and had a long dark tea-time of the soul.
By 9pm on Saturday, nearly 2/3rds of the bands had played, and I’d seen a handful of songs, never mind bands. I hadn’t even set foot in the faintly terrifying south-eastern section. My week away was beginning to look like something of a figurative and semi-literal washout. And then I found some resolve. I took a couple of painkillers, and decided I was going to make my through the mud and punters and I would fucking see the Chemical Brothers.
Coldplay’s set had started by the time I made my past the Pyramid stage; they struck out with a new song from an album that hasn’t even been released yet, which I thought was a bit odd, and faintly arrogant. I decided I should also break my temperance and have some lager. Mixing painkillers and alcohol isn’t clever of course, but in such small doses I didn’t think it would be a problem. And let’s face it, I’d still probably have been among the top 5% most sober people there that night.
After withdrawing some more cash to buy said booze, I got to the other stage having missed maybe a third of the Chemical Brothers’ set. But the two thirds I saw were brilliant. I’m not strictly speaking a devotee of dance or electronic music, but I do really enjoy the Chemical Brothers for some reason. I suspect there’s enough melody and bass in their records to counteract the somewhat repetitive beats.
I’d been up and about for about an hour, but thanks to my self-medicating, I was feeling minimal ill effects. So I decided I was going to do the Arcadia/Shangri La/Field of Avalon circuit, an area of the site dedicated to ‘after dark’ venues. Apparently it had gotten so popular in previous years that a one way system had to be put in place for this year’s event. This meant joining a vast stream of people heading east towards one of the pedestrian gates, and then swinging south towards Arcadia.
It took maybe 15-20 minutes to reach the first zone, Arcadia, and I steadily made my way through all its neighbours, although regretfully I couldn’t find Strummerville. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all; it was noisy and there were pyrotechnics and some amazingly elaborate ‘sets’, but maybe it wasn’t meant for me. Maybe I barely scratched the surface.
In any case, by now I was feeling a little run down, and my drugs were starting to wear off. I returned to my tent, this time at 2:20am and made myself comfortable for the evening. The last thought that crossed my mind before I fell asleep was that it wouldn’t rain during the night as I’d just noticed a hole in my tent.
On waking on Sunday morning, my plan was to pack up my failing tent and the rest of my belongings before taking it all back to the car. I would then return to the main site with just my shoulder bag, allowing me to depart quickly once Paul Simon’s set was finished at 7. That was the plan anyway. It turned out that Sunday was hot. Damn hot. Walking the mile plus back to my car carrying a full rucksack, my shoulder bag and a bin liner full of other bits and bobs soon became a much more challenging prospect and I had to stop halfway to buy a cold drink. Happily, I made it back to the car in one piece where I was thankful for the shade provided by the van parked behind my Volkswagen. I put my camping equipment in the boot and enjoyed the sensation of walking around on dry grass without my wellies and then I sat in the car to change my sim card back into my smartphone and a huge oppressive weight was lifted off my shoulders and I knew I had no intention of going back into the main site. I was going home.
Home via Glastonbury town, Bristol, Box and Chippenham, but I was on my way home. I didn’t make it to Glastonbury Tor because my back and feet ached again, I didn’t have enough cash for the car park, there wasn’t another bus to the Tor for a further two hours…then my smartphone’s battery died. I don’t have a paper map in the car as I use the phone exclusively to navigate, so I was in a bit of a pickle. The phone would only charge if the engine was running, which meant driving with no direction or sitting with the engine running. That’s how I found myself traversing the A4, through Bristol and Bath and Box and having the wonderful experience of the magnificent Western Portal of the Box Tunnel explode unexpectedly into view out of my driver’s side window.
Bex was unfortunately unavailable on Sunday evening, so I hammered my way back up to Glasgow, fuelled by Lucozade and the Foo Fighters and blessed with the quiet, lorry-free motorways of Sunday evening, eventually crawling into bed at 4am.
It’s difficult for me to know what I make of Glastonbury. I certainly had no epiphanies or spiritual awakenings as people strongly suggested I might, and in many ways the experience reinforced some negative stereotypes I had built up over the years. Despite all the hype and bluster, the majority of the festival isn’t much different to the others I’ve been to over the years, crowds, stages, beer tents, small portions of over-priced junk food.
The Glastonbury site is divided physically and ideologically by a disused railway line. North of the railway, the majority of the site, is where you’ll find the mainstream, commercial interests. The Pyramid stage, burger outlets etc. South of the railway is where the alternative spirit lives on in the Healing and Green Futures Fields, the Stone Circle and the Park…
There are reportedly 175,000 people on the site over the five days. Scores of thousands of them must be staff and performers and I suspect the vast majority of the rest aren’t particularly interested in the ley lines and environmentalism and would rather alter their brain chemistry and stare at the bright lights. And that’s what a good deal of the festival caters for, that’s why Coldplay and Beyonce headline and Elbow only play songs from the two albums that shift units.
It’s Greenpeace vs. Orange. But what of those of us that fall between these two ethe? Shangri La, Arcadia et al are aimed at clubbers and Block 9 celebrates gay culture. Even if I were gay, I still don’t think that would be my scene. I’d more likely be tucked up in bed watching Castle. I could appreciate the magnificent scale and extravagance of these areas, but I was just dancing to a different beat. Or not dancing at all as the case may be.
Perhaps I simply wasn’t chemically adjusted enough. It’s perhaps unfair and inaccurate to suggest that everyone that enjoys Glastonbury spends the entire weekend oblivious on various legal and illegal substances, but I do suppose a lot of them were. Michael Eavis turned down a request from St George’s medical school, University of London to analyse sewage generated onsite to be tested for illicit drugs, and we’ll probably never have exact figures.
To be perfectly frank, I didn’t enjoy myself. Or if I did, it was fleeting. There was great pleasure to be had in standing a few dozen feet away from Morrissey while he sang ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, and I’m glad I’ve finally seen U2. But would I go back in 2013? No, I probably wouldn’t. My most vivid emotion over the weekend, apart from misery at the pain in my back and feet, was the elation I experienced the Sunday I got into my car, drove out of the car park and into the country roads of Somerset and felt as thought I’d escaped the event horizon of a black hole. Perhaps I’d go back if I knew I was going with someone or if I was playing one of the stages (yes, I haven’t quite given up o that dream yet). But I’m sad to say, Glastonbury did not provide me with any answers about who I am.
Photographs (such as they are) can be viewed here.