In 2016 I came across an article in a local paper titled “King Arthur Pendragon Restored”. The jist of the story was this: Facebook refused to accept that a living man, known in Glastonbury (and beyond) as ‘King Arthur’, was officially named ‘King Arthur Pendragon’ and deleted his account. They wouldn’t even accept his driving license in the name of ‘Arthur Uther Pendragon’, insisting that it wasn’t a real name. It wasn’t until the Western Daily Press stepped in that they reinstated his account.
The article said “King Arthur, who realised he was probably the reincarnation of the once and future king of Britain back in the mid-1980s and duly changed his name legally, said he thought druids and pagans who are against his battles with English Heritage had complained to Facebook about his name”.
“I don’t know who keeps falsely reporting me to Facebook as a non-person or a made up name but they do,” he said. “It’s a pity they don’t take action against them rather than me.”
For King Arthur it was just another in a long line of battles – with English Heritage over access to Stonehenge with the legal establishment who once confiscated Excalibur, even with other Druid groups. For more about Arthur see this article on The Medievalists Website, and this brilliant Vice Article. C.J. Stone authored his autobiography ‘The Trials of Arthur’.
Arthur doesn’t live in Glastonbury, but he’s been a regular visitor and this strikes me as a very Glastonbury story.
One of the appeals of Glastonbury is that it offers the opportunity, perhaps even the obligation, to reinvent yourself. For some this means simply following their dreams, for others identifying with a mythical character, or a cosmic superhero. Identifying their own ‘superpowers’, their unique gift to the world, gives meaning, for many it becomes the basis of their personal mission. In Glastonbury, where such behaviour is generally accepted, it also gives a sense of belonging.
It’s never too late to reinvent yourself. People of all ages come to Glastonbury in a spirit of curiosity. They find themselves at a gathering of witches or pagans or ravers or Buddhists or alien abductees where they feel completely at home and accepted. Perhaps for the first time in their lives. The tendency is often to embrace this new community wholeheartedly and uncritically, adopting a new garb, a new name, a new vocabulary. This can come as quite a shock to those back home, who thought they were and would always be a quiet, cat loving, widow with a fondness for the Archers.
I must admit I’ve taken the piss rather mercilessly out of some of these reinventions – I’ve nicknamed quite a few locals and those nicknames have stuck on occasion (The Twat with the Owl, The Fat Fairy….) However, my attitude has mellowed over the years. If someone feels more in control, more confident, more interesting, striding down the High St in a rainbow cape, wearing a ridiculous hat, calling themselves Crystal Moonbeam and talking about their friends the fairies then good luck to them.
On one occasion a man known as ‘Storm’ was sitting outside the Mocha Berry Cafe and discussing his next visit to his friends on an American Indian Reservation, and how he might come home with a new name. I rather rudely butted in with the comment that he might try changing his name to something completely dull like Nigel. He went silent for a surprisingly long time, eventually replying somewhat plaintively ‘But my real name is Nigel’. I was only momentarily embarrassed. I have since realised that a surprisingly large number of Glastonbury people who’ve adopted new monikers started out as Nigels. Let’s face it, if I was a Nigella I’d change my name too.
Authenticity has become a buzzword. If you can be more authentically yourself by adopting the persona of Intergalactic Dream Wizard, carrying a fuck off huge wand and playing the harp (badly), rather than accepting the circumstances of your birth and unwillingly joining the family accounting business in Little Piddle, then better that than submitting to a lifetime of boredom and dissatisfaction. It’s no more ridiculous than many of the limited constructs people in the mainstream have to choose from. No one ever achieved anything by making themselves smaller. All success stories have an element of defying the limits set upon you.
I have never heard anyone in Glastonbury say “Well this is who I am, I’m too old to change now”. Life is a constant journey of reinvention, and adaptation to circumstance. Many have discovered that even deep-rooted problems – anger, bitterness, inadequate self-worth, can be overcome with self-development techniques derived from ‘pop’ psychology or religion. Glastonbury bookshops are full of self-help guides and numerous workshops take place in the town that aim to guide you on your journey to self-discovery. Even I’ve attended one of Jonathon Kay’s fooling workshops, although I love his shows I’m afraid it wasn’t for me – I like to play the fool entirely on my own terms! Jamie Catto’s ‘Transforming Shadows’ workshop really did give me a boost though, as he says it unlocks “dormant creativity and … is a huge permission slip to stop exhausting yourself wearing masks and being all these different roles for different people”.
I think Glastonbury is a town of misfits, weirdos, adults who were once nerdy kids at school. I guess it is an unusual place in that most people actively choose to live here. Things may have changed since the town experienced a rash of new builds, but in my experience, most people move here because they feel an irresistible draw to the place, many come for a visit and somehow never leave.
Glastonbury offers those from more anonymous towns, who move here, or visit at length or frequently, an opportunity for reinvention. Ordinariness seems to be something to be striven for in other places. Here it is scorned. I don’t think there are many in the town who would describe themselves as, for instance. “Just a housewife”. Here they become witches, artists, mystics, workshop leaders, Reiki masters, poets, permaculture gardeners, teachers, even bloggers. A hobby or a passion becomes a vocation. Kids of my generation were frequently told not to ‘Show off’. Drawing attention to yourself was to invite shame. Dressing up was for special occasions if at all. Here self-expression is celebrated, and even those most determined to draw attention to themselves are tolerated and only gently mocked.
Glastonbury offers numerous opportunities to play and dress up – the Goddess Conferences, Faery Balls, Beltane and the Glastonbury Zombie Walk (although I hope no one takes that as inspiration for everyday wear). The fancy dress parties we had at the Glastonbury Institute of Gracious Living sometimes gently encouraged others to explore and expand their sense of self. Even the Glastonbury Carnival – one of the least ‘alternative’ of all the large events held here, gives locals the opportunity to become a Viking or a Naughty Nun for a few nights a year.
Some visitors must feel like they have walked into a film set, where the actors have forgotten they are playing a part and are endlessly ad-libbing.
I think that we are all playing a part, taking on a role. Many are persuaded that their role is pre-determined and largely unchangeable – by virtue of the circumstances of their birth. They might stay in their hometown, take the job that they were expected to, marry someone from a similar background. Even then they will indulge in hobbies that enable them to express themselves – be that live action roleplay or building dolls’ houses.
You only have to watch Wife Swap to realise that everyone thinks their lives are ‘normal’ – their dysfunction is just the way they are or ‘human nature’. If only everyone thought just like them the world would be safe, contained, sensible, non-threatening. It’s other people that are the problem – the deviants, the misfits. Fortunately Glastonbury provides a relatively safe haven for those who aren’t able to fit themselves comfortably into the little boxes that mainstream society and the advertising industry has fashioned for them. I have noticed however that Glastonbury often expels those whose deviance is so extreme that it threatens the safety of others around them.
It’s arguable that Glastonbury is just selling fancy dress outfits, accessories for a make-believe new you. You can buy anything here – cloaks, wands, hand felted shawls, upcycled cardigans, medieval style velvet dresses, wizard hats, rainbow jumpers, psychedelic leggings. I wonder how many extraordinary items of clothing bought in Glastonbury for a weekend or a workshop now languish in visitor’s cupboards
If you want to buy clothes that just stop you being naked, keep you warm and are suitable for normal activities, i.e. going anywhere you might not actually want to be noticed – like Yeovil, you’ll have to go to Clarks Village in Street, the neighbouring town.
One of the things I most appreciate about this town is people’s freedom to make themselves appear (to the eyes of the more cynical amongst us) utterly ridiculous. These characters give the town its colour and vibrancy. Their sheer enthusiasm inspires others to dare to ‘think outside the box’. They also give me a wealth of material for this blog……..
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