At least once a year I have the ‘Glastonbury Festival Dream’. It’s always incredibly vivid and I can generally recall it in detail after I wake up. Although the dream takes many forms it always has the same theme – I either can’t get to, or can’t get into, the festival.
I’ve dreamt that I have such a huge mountain of clothes to pack that the festival is over before I finish (this may have some basis in truth – I once took 16 pairs of footwear to the festival, all of which were of course essential). Then there is the ‘vehicle trouble dream’, the ‘stuck outside the fence with no ticket dream’ and the ‘hopelessly lost in a field unable to find the way in dream’.
I’d never really thought about the Glastonbury Festival Dream, it was just an inevitable yearly occurrence, but then my housemate mentioned he’d had one and it occurred to me how significant the festival must be in our subconscious minds to figure in our dreams.
What is it that makes the festival so iconic and important? Chiefly I think it’s because the whole experience is so personally and collectively transformative. My first Glastonbury Festival provided the stunning realization that there were “other people like me”, not only that, but they were all celebrating together relatively peaceably. Friendships made at Glastonbury are unlikely to be forgotten, experiences and challenges become the stuff of stories.
Getting a ticket, packing, the journey, getting through the gate, finding your friends, each festival becomes a Fool’s Journey or a Hero’s epic tale. There is the satisfaction of simply having survived, particularly during a muddy year. A lot of stories I hear about the festival involve the kindness of strangers, random encounters, serendipitous events that appear magical.
Having worked behind the scenes for many years I tend to think of the festival as a game, all those tickets and wristbands that can be exchanged for thousands one day, yet are worthless on the Monday after the event (except as keepsakes). Superfences, security, multiple wristbands and laminates to get you into backstage areas. I’ve had jobs that give me ‘golden wristbands’ with access to the VIP camping areas in the interstage behind the Pyramid. I do get a frisson of excitement when I put on this, the Holy Grail of wristbands, as it gives me entry to marginally cleaner toilets and a shorter queue for the shower.
I’m sorry to disappoint you if you think a backstage pass is a ticket to drinking champagne at glittering celebrity parties. My experience is that it’s considerably less interesting than what’s going on in the public areas of the festival. Plus, a famous person who’s drunk too much champagne is just as sad, boring and embarrassing as anyone else.
For the young their first Glastonbury is an initiation, a modern Rite of Passage, For many, the escape from small towns to the temporary city that is Glastonbury shows that life offers experiences that never featured in the university handbook. Some see the event as a week of hedonism once a year, for others it shows that there are many more possibilities on offer for what they might be ‘when they grow up’. Some of us were so strongly influenced we ‘ran away with the circus’ so we could dress up every weekend, becoming musicians, acrobats, jugglers, riders of unicycles through rings of fire, whatever. Some moved to Glastonbury Town where the essence of the festival survives all year round. Arguably Glastonbury Town with its history of Bohemians and free thinkers provided the impetus for the Festival
Although for most the festival appears as a mirage, a miraculous city that appears only for a few days, in Glastonbury Town it is ever present, like a faint smell of wood smoke on the breeze. I hear little discussion in the town of who the year’s headliners will be, I don’t think anyone local bases their decision on whether to go to the event on who’s playing particularly. We remark on the fences going up; trailers with strange cargos passing through town – destined for the Unfairground perhaps, or what jobs might be going on-site for the set up.
Scarcely does one festival finish than preparations begin for the next, and in the short intervening period there are the rumours to keep you going. Last year’s big story was that the entire event would be moving to Longleat in future, I never believed this for one minute. Logistically it would be simply impossible to move an event of this size – unless it became just another soulless arena show, and it can’t be Glastonbury somewhere else, it’s inextricably tied to the land. The festival isn’t simply plonked down on the fields, everything is arranged to accommodate the topography of the site. Walking dogs on the fields in Winter, in the absence of tents and signs and stalls and structures and crowds you recognise the arenas by the rise and fall of the hills, the hedges, the individual trees.
People take it very personally when they get wind of changes to the festival – particularly if they think these changes might make it harder for them to get a ticket. They start sounding off like Michael Eavis is personally trying to keep them from the party. Perhaps it’s the contemporary version of exclusion from the tribe. My experience is that if you genuinely want to contribute there is always a way in.
I googled ‘what makes Glastonbury festival so popular’ and discovered a lively forum thread. Glastonbury is now on almost everyone’s ‘Bucket List’ – like everybody must go once. Only what happens is people go once and keep going, every year if they can, they tell their friends and they come too. Festival goers parents have started coming along too and I met a lovely couple in their 80’s running a stall in the Green Fields last year who were loving their first Glastonbury – despite the weather. It appears to me that Avalon is still bringing in the pilgrims, but the temple is a pyramid now.
Glastonbury is also important because of its history and longevity. It originated out of 1960s hippie counterculture, was strongly influenced by the Free Festival movement, became a refuge for the Convoy during the Thatcher years (when festivals were seen as hell holes of the ‘great unwashed’) and has now become an event that the famous and fashionable must be seen at. Once upon a time, Glastonbury was viewed with horror by the media – reported solely in terms of deaths and drug busts, now that everyone has cottoned onto how much money can be made there, it merits full-colour spreads of celebs in frocks and rainbow children. It’s also perceived as being safer than it was in the 90’s, thanks largely to the Superfence.
Yes, it’s lost some of its anarchic edge – I do miss the dreadlocked crusties in tail-coats and ragged top hats selling shots of vodka from an old pram, the shouts of ‘two’s up on your chillum’ and ‘acid for sale’, You can still find the old vibe in the South East corner – only it’s been taken to a new level. It’s hard to be too nostalgic about the past though when everyone’s so bloody nice, you’re not wondering if you’re going to get salmonella from that filthy fried egg sarnie bus and you aren’t worrying that the dodgy looking geezer in the hoodie is going to mug you.
At Glastonbury it has always been safe to be left wing, or a peacenik, a hippy, a naturist, a road protestor. It seems to me that other large gatherings, like the bike rallies I went to before I discovered festivals, are never really that comfortable unless you’re conforming to the ‘norm’, at Glastonbury Festival there really is no normal to conform to. You want to paint yourself blue and roll in the grass laughing? Go ahead, I might just join you.
Glastonbury is a very tribal event, whether you go to see your favourite band of all time, or if you chose to ignore all of the headliners and spend your time in the Green Fields weaving willow or lying naked in the sun at Lost Horizons sauna. Which isn’t to say it’s all cliquey and alternative, sometimes the tribes embraced are quite broad – the only time I’ve never understood the appeal of football was when the World Cup was shown, when England scored I heard a cheer go up around the site that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
For those of us who have been going for years, whose journey to the site might only be a matter of a few miles, the challenge of getting in and simply surviving is no longer enough. We have to push ourselves further – for some this means taking on a role at the event and helping to manage a part of it, so we, in turn, contribute to the experience for the many thousands of ticket buyers. Almost every skill or talent can be incorporated into a job at the festival – not only musicians and performers but also photographers, administrators, tractor drivers, number crunchers, bin painters, sound engineers, cooks and kite sellers.
The joy of working at Glastonbury for me is being part of such an amazing crew, all doing their best to create an unforgettable weekend. It never fails to impress me how nice the production crew are – even those in the most stressful jobs. People always seem willing to lend a hand, or an essential bit of kit, at just the right moment – whether that’s a telehandler or a pair of wellies.
I’m writing this in the Glasto Latino production portacabin on the festival site a week before the event opens to the public. It might be my 24th or 25th Glastonbury, I’m not at all sure. It’s all a bit of a blur, especially the early ones, where I snuck in through the Travellers field and lived on fried egg sarnies, scrumpy and ‘special’ truffles. Today I’ve spent the day having a hundred conversations about tents and lights and water and plumbing and cable ties and rope and generators and compost toilets and radios and passes. I’ve hung the office with fairy lights, listened to the Archers and I’m enjoying the calm before the marvel that will be Glastonbury Festival 2017.
If you are coming this year do come and check out the Glasto Latino Big Top in the South East Corner, learn to Salsa or Tango at our daytime workshops, then come to our late night live musical fiestas with bands from Cuba, Panama and Columbia.
Read more of my thoughts on the Festival in this 2016 post ‘Glastonbury Festival -It’s Not in Glastonbury’.
If you’ve enjoyed reading about Glastonbury please share my blog and facebook posts (this is really important – it’s how I reach more readers!), check out how to support this blog, ‘like’ my facebook page and contribute your own stories and comments, or subscribe to the blog by email. See my ’Hire Me’ page if you’d like to pay me to help you with your own projects.
All words and pictures copyright Vicki Steward.