I recently read a review in the Guardian of ‘Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular’ by Derek Thompson, which examines “the secret to making products that people like”. Here’s a link to it.
Several things came up for me from reading this short review. The first point Thompson makes in his book is that the most popular articles on the internet are those that tell the readers about their favourite subject – themselves.
In the context of this blog I’m guessing that most of you like reading it because, as people who love Glastonbury, who live here or visit, or even just identify strongly with the town, I’m essentially writing about you. I imagine you recognize yourselves in these posts. I recently posted my funny Glastonbury Town Map up again on the NFG facebook page, within a week it had been shared over 500 times and reached an audience of 60,000. Reading the comments many people ’recognized’ themselves on the map, or tagged friends or made suggestions for things I could add based on their own observations or experiences in the town.
It’s funny because that map took me no time at all – I simply sat down (outside the Mocha Berry of course) and wrote down what I saw, then added a dollop of artistic license and a sprinkling of humour. (If you like the map you can, of course, buy it printed on a mug!)
In his book Thompson examines the idea of things ‘going viral’ on the internet, apparently he dismisses this disease metaphor. Word of mouth isn’t that powerful after all and quality alone is not sufficient to ensure success. You actually need good marketing, or influential friends, or for real results, a celebrity ‘broadcast’. So, people want to read about themselves, but they are also interested in what celebrities are thinking, talking and nowadays, tweeting, about.
I found myself wondering – if word of mouth alone had bought my map to 60K+ readers, what audience might I reach if a celebrity’ or ‘star influencer’ chose to share it? And which globally known person would I pitch the blog to if I wanted it ‘go viral’? I was talking to a friend who runs a Glastonbury-based business and was asking my advice on getting it out to a wider audience, again it got me thinking about celebrities with Glastonbury connections. Personally, I’ve always been rather ambivalent about the idea of celebrity, if I was to pursue a celebrity endorsement it would have to be from someone whose work I really admired, as it offends me that simply because someone is famous their opinion should be afforded more weight that anyone else’s.
Google defines Celebrity thus “a famous person, especially in entertainment or sport.” and “the state of being well known”:
Word Origin and History for celebrity from the Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
n. late 14c., “solemn rite or ceremony,” from Old French celebrité“celebration” or directly from Latin celibritatem (nominative celebritas) “multitude, fame,” from celeber “frequented, populous” (see celebrate ). Meaning “condition of being famous” is from c.1600; that of “famous person” is from 1849.
When the old gods withdraw, the empty thrones cry out for a successor, and with good management, or even without management, almost any perishable bag of bones may be hoisted into the vacant seat. [E.R. Dodds, “The Greeks and the Irrational”]
I’d always assumed that, in the past at least, that a select few became ‘celebrities’ due to being ‘celebrated’, in other words, that their great talents or qualities led to their being recognized as exceptional. Nowadays celebrity seems to be the reward for symmetrical features, minor talent and luck.
I have a theory that we have a different approach to celebrity in Glastonbury than in most other places. It seems to me when I visit other parts of the country that people talk about ‘stars’ as if they know them. Certainly, there are vast numbers of celebrity magazines and TV programmes that encourage readers to have an opinion on the appearance, relationships, whatever of those in the public eye, much like people might gossip about others in their own community. I don’t hear so much of that in Glastonbury, nor do I hear discussions on the plot of soap operas – except of course for the Archers (which I have been known to bang on about rather a lot). Amongst my friends, there is also a fair amount of discussion of the plot of fantasy and historical drama – Game of Thrones, Vikings etc.
Humans obviously have an appetite for drama and gossip, it’s often said that the goings on in Glastonbury would make a great soap opera. I wonder if the community satisfies that appetite within us without the need for Eastenders or Coronation Street? Who needs celebrity TV stars when we have our own larger than life characters to love or loathe?
Who Are Glastonbury’s Celebrities?
I put up a post on my personal facebook page asking my Glastonbury friends who they saw as the celebrities in town. Michael Eavis and Nicholas Cage were mentioned, but it was also noted that neither of them actually live here. Lots of people nominated Glastonbury residents who, although hardly household names, are ‘larger than life’ characters and well known locally. I’m not going to list them, nor am I going to put forward my own list, as I know how it feels to be left out, and besides, everyone should be celebrated for something. Pretty much everyone I meet in this town reveals a talent, a passionate interest, or simply a life history, that makes them remarkable and worthy of celebration.
One person I do want to mention though is Paul the Painter – sadly Paul died in 2011, but was a well-known local artist, frequently to be seen with his easel in the High Street painting local shops and people. Paul travelled by bicycle and lived in a tent, but despite his nomadic lifestyle and scruffy appearance, he was celebrated by all sectors of the community. He died suddenly of a heart attack and his funeral service was held in St John’s, who made no charge due to Paul’s local popularity. The church was packed with people from every section of Glastonbury’s community. The speeches were particularly notable – Pixi, punk, traveller, busker and a larger than life personality himself spoke fondly of Paul, then left a can of Special Brew on the casket for Paul to take into the afterlife. (Tragically Pixi’s own funeral took place in St John’s only a few years later, again the church was packed to the rafters). Pixi’s speech was followed by one from the then mayor of Glastonbury with an amusing story involving Paul borrowing a fiver. I think this is something particularly endearing about the Glastonbury community that Paul was so widely appreciated and celebrated. I still expect to hear him in the High Street sometimes, he had a great bellowing voice, whenever I walked past in a short skirt he would shout across the road “Great legs!”.
Here’s a video dedicated to Paul, you can see his work in many of the shops, cafes, and pubs in town.
I also wanted to know about people’s attitudes to the idea of ‘celebrity’. Some of the most interesting, and in my opinion, laudable, observations made by my Glastonbury Facebook friends were these:
Rachel ”The word celebrity is surely meant to be someone to celebrate whereas the meaning nowadays tends to be someone famous (or infamous) and possibly often in the public eye. I would like to reclaim ‘celebrity’ for Glastonbury to mean the former and celebrate people who deserve it – such as people who have done some kind of good works for the community.”
Flint “I would venture to suggest that anyone who you admire or consider a true friend is a real life personal celebrity and should be celebrated daily and so we are fortunate in town here to be over run with them!”
Jon Cousins, our Mayor (himself a local celebrity of the Vegan, identical twin, and thoroughly nice chap variety said “Surely, Glastonbury is – itself – the celebrity?”
Is Glastonbury itself the celebrity?
I think Jon’s got a point here. What is a more celebrated and iconic national monument than Glastonbury Tor? Glastonbury has been home to numerous of the most celebrated people in the world over the years, our tourist industry over many centuries has been based on the town’s association (sometimes tenuous!) with Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus, King Arthur, Saint Patrick, Saint Dunstan and numerous other historical and mythical figures, besides giving its name to one of the biggest celebrations of all.
Derek Thompson points out in his book that:
“Most consumers are simultaneously neophilic – curious to discover new things – and deeply neophobic – afraid of anything that’s too new.”
Or, to put it another way, people want something that’s a bit new but also deeply familiar. Is this the reason for Glastonbury’s popularity I wonder? Is it that it is a deeply familiar small English market town, with a tea room and a cricket team and church bells, while simultaneously being somewhere people visit from around the globe to talk about new ideas, particularly in the realms of spirituality and belief?
Next door to us, once a year, the small Somerset village of Pilton becomes a mecca for global celebrities when the Glastonbury Festival comes to town, see my post about the festival Glastonbury Festival – It’s Not In Glastonbury. Is the festival the reason for our general ambivalence towards celebrity? If Kate Moss pops in to grab a Glastonbury Pasty from Burns the Bread does anyone really notice or care? I had the misfortune to work in a VIP camping area at Glastonbury Festival one year, I can honestly say that I have never had a more boring time at the event. All the fun and vibrancy and colour that was going on in the public areas was missing. Instead, there were an awful lot of people conspicuously following around celebrities, everyone was clearly ‘too cool’ to be seen actually enjoying themselves.
Numerous musicians in town have worked with well-known bands, and yet when I try and think of anyone who is an actual household name associated with the town I come up with nobody. I daresay there are actors too – Nicholas Cage lives locally, but he’s not shouting from the rooftops about Glastonbury, beyond being seen in local cafes I haven’t heard any rumours of him joining a local community group and championing any causes. I think he largely gets ignored here by the locals. I wonder if he enjoys the obscurity that Glastonbury gives him?
Do we really celebrate each other in Glastonbury? I’d like to think we do but…
Max and Lisa, Ex Guardians of the White Spring and hard working Glastonbury community members, spoke to me on their return from PantheaCon in the US recently. They were most struck by the mutual respect the 2500 attendees, from every flavour of pagan faith, showed each other. This seemed to me to be in sharp contrast to Glastonbury, where, although it is true to say that practitioners of over 70 faiths manage to live together in largely peaceful coexistence, there still appears to be an enormous amount of infighting and sniping. the idea of 2500 Glastonbury pagans getting together in one conference and managing to quit bitching and back-biting and actually celebrate each other sometimes seems slim to me.
Not that this bickering is restricted to pagans either, I’ve heard that various Christian groups in the town compete quite fiercely over use of one of the spaces they regard as most holy in Glastonbury. In fact, it seems that any group endeavour in Glastonbury will in time split into factions and descend into argument.
What is this competition about? Everyone seems to want to be the ones who embody the true spirit of Glastonbury, who hold the true magic, guard the holiest places. Many people are able to do this in a spirit of humility and thankfulness. Others, however, seem terrified by the competition – loudly proclaiming that only they hold the true sanctity, everyone else is an imposter. I’m reminded of this video sketch from Little Britain about ‘Being the only gay in the village‘.
There is, of course, another type of fame that is perhaps more popular in Glastonbury than TV stars – ‘Spiritual Celebrity’. Numerous posters advertise visits and workshops by ‘celebrated’ healers, mystics, gurus, prophets, experts in arcane knowledge. In my more cynical moments Glastonbury begins to feel like a spiritual supermarket, a shop window for cosmic brands (I wrote about that in a previous post here). Yet, amongst all the glitter there are many with a useful and positive message who chose to come and share it here.
In conclusion, all this thinking about celebrity has made me consider how much I celebrate the remarkable people around me, and encourage and support them in their creativity. I do believe that everyone has their own particular genius, that we all have something positive to contribute, and that despite our faults as individuals that Glastonbury is generally a good place in which to find and cultivate our talents.
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All photos and text copyright Vicki Steward.