Online festivals? Virtually pointless, says this Glastonbury veteran
I should have been on the Glastonbury Festival site for two weeks now, setting up for the event’s 50th year. Instead I’m stuck at home in Glastonbury Town, the whole UK festival season having been put on hold for 2020 during the Corona Virus health crisis.
I keep hearing that this is the ‘New Normal’ that we’re going to have to adapt to living under lockdown, that mass gatherings will regrettably have to be consigned to history. I feel that those who are able to dismiss festival culture so glibly have failed to take into account it’s importance. I’d argue that it is a fundamental human need to gather together in large numbers. Once this virus is bought under control we need to get back out into the countryside to celebrate festival culture once again. I, for one, can’t wait.
(Edit: January 2021 – the news has just come through that Glastonbury Festival won’t be happening in 2021, what I wrote last year feels just as pertinent now).
I’ve been going to Glastonbury Festival for the last 30 years, in the early days I’d sneak in through the ‘Travellers’ Field’, but since moving to the town in 1993 I’ve done various jobs for my ticket. I’ve managed bookstalls, sold merchandising for bands, worked on the vehicle gates and helped coordinate the Tipi Fields. This year would have been my fourth as Site Manager for the Glasto Latino Big Top, making sure the physical infrastructure is in place to welcome dancers to Latin Dance workshops and long nights of Cuban music.
Right now I should be on site in my campervan in West Holts, right at the centre of the site, backstage behind the Glasto Latino big top. I’d be setting out the office portacabin, swearing at the printer and trying to work out how many fencing panels we need to order. For over a decade event management was pretty much my full-time job, Glastonbury being just one of the 10 or so festivals I would work at over the course of the year. This over familiarity meant I no longer excitedly anticipated the actual events, even Glastonbury, during the lead up. The weeks before became routine, ticking off tasks from a long list, getting absorbed by minor irritations.This year, with no festivals to anticipate at all, I’ve realised that this ‘It’s just my job’ attitude has led me to miss out on quite a big chunk of joy. If this lockdown has taught me anything it is not to take anything for granted.
I don’t tend to start looking forward to the event with excitement until the Wednesday evening, after the gates open to the public. It’s then I can relax a little, knowing that the bulk of my work is done. I head out into the crowd, up to the Stone Circle Field and absorb the buzz and excitement of those for whom this is all new. I have a moment of gratitude that I am a tiny cog in the wondrous machine that is Glastonbury, the greatest show on Earth.
I’ve missed out on a lot of talking about the weather this year. Festival goers worry about rain over the 5 days of the event, I start anxiously watching the forecast in May, as a badly timed and ill prepared for downpour during setup can cause long delays and difficulties. Whatever the predictions I take wellies and waterproofs, as everyone knows, failing to pack these guarantees thunderstorms. I’ve been delighted by the past week of torrential rain in Somerset, every time I started missing being on site I imagined standing in a field with a clipboard doing risk assessments in the inevitable mud.
I’ve not travelled much – I’ve not been outside of Europe, but once a year it feels like the world has come to my small corner of Somerset. Much of the musical and cultural diversity I have experienced in my life has been at the festival. That goes for social diversity too – I’ve worked alongside the hugely wealthy and travellers who live hand to mouth. Festivals are a great leveller, in a field it doesn’t matter who you are but whether you can work with others towards the good of the whole.
Festivals have been the biggest learning experience of my life, in this high stress environment I’ve learned to relate, to collaborate, to just get on with it. Horizons are wider in a field, out of our carefully curated comfort zones barriers are broken down. We are no longer defined by our jobs, our homes, our backgrounds, we are all part of the giant Glastonbury family.
There are virtual events planned for the weekend of the festival the BBC ‘Glastonbury Experience‘, the Facebook event Glasthomebury and an online party from the Shangri La Crew amongst others. I hope they provide pleasure to some, I’m sure they will, but for me there is really nothing about festival culture that can be meaningfully replicated online. Lockdown has shrunk our sensory experience, often to the size of a screen. No matter how big the screen, how good the sound system, a virtual festival will never capture the exhilarating sensory overload of the real thing, in all it’s glorious 3D, technicolor, surround-sound glory. The aroma of fresh doughnuts at 4am, the sharp assault of ammonia on the nostrils as you pass the longdrops, the hot sun and the soft mud between your toes, the joy of a cold shower after an afternoon sauna and the press of bodies in the dance tent.
I don’t know anyone who crews at events and bothers with an itinerary, the joy comes from serendipitous moments, random encounters, breathtaking performers you’ve never heard of in tiny venues, chance meetings in the toilet queue, catching the eye of a stranger and smiling. A friend listed the things he would miss at Glastonbury on a facebook post, one was ‘the joy when someone finally finds their contact lens liquid’. That summed up something fundamental for me – there is joy in the mundane and everyday at festivals. All the small triumphs – getting a hot meal, finding a newly clean compost loo, simply surviving in what, were it not for the kindness and care of others, would be a difficult environment. A small act of kindness goes a long way, I can name every single person who has given me dry socks when I have needed them at a wet festival. It’s about being in a very big field with a very large number of people, just getting on with each other.
I’ve been thinking about what I will miss most about the festival this year, running through my personal highlights of the event and I keep coming back to this scenario: It’s Friday or Saturday night, around midnight, I’m alone, free, no one to wait for or worry about losing. I’ve headed up to the Railway Line, one of the main arteries that crosses the event. I’ve joined the great swell of people there mostly heading towards the South East (or the ‘Naughty’ Corner as it’s known) where the music continues all night. The crowd carries me along, I surrender to it, happy to see where it leads me. There’s a great feeling of safety in numbers. These are my people. Even the gaggle of 20 year old girls from Manchester, in nearly-not-these clothes and unsuitable footwear, retching as they pass the longdrops. Even the bragging lads who’ve been here once before, smug that they know their way around, leading their friends to have their minds blown. It is in this moment that I feel most alive, exhilarated, the energy of the crowd is electric. Normal life fades away, becomes just the bits between festivals, I am in the moment. This is my life, this is my City, I know its shortcuts, rat-runs and dark corners, I grew up here.
Instead I’m at home in Glastonbury Town, fussing over courgette and tomato plants and doing my other job, as writer of Normal For Glastonbury. I’ve spent over four years telling visitors why they should come to England’s most magical, and oddest, Town, and three months having to ask them to stay away. Last week the shops in the Town started reopening again after lockdown, I headed into the High Street for a couple of hours, chatting with sixty or more people, more than I have seen face to face since the middle of March. For the rest of the evening I was on a buzz, the lockdown lethargy I had slowly become accustomed to dispelled, this simple human contact had reenergized me.
I’m enormously privileged to have been able to spend more than 30 summers at Festivals, to have been involved in enabling gatherings of large numbers of people to explore, play and learn, unfettered by the barriers of normal everyday life. A big part of who I am is made up of the experiences I have had at Glastonbury Festival in particular, it’s been empowering and transformative. No amount of post lockdown nonessential shopping is going to make up for its cancellation this year.
A fundamental human need to gather
Festivals must not become a pre-Covid memory, they have an important and irreplaceable part to play in our lives. There’s a fundamental human need to gather, to meet face to face, to touch, to evolve and grow. Glastonbury Festival couldn’t go ahead this year and a socially distanced festival is unthinkable, but let’s not consign mass gatherings to history just yet. As current events demonstrate, people have a basic drive to gather together, whether that’s in celebration or protest. Festivals bring them together in harmony, in a shared creative vision. This year it will be through the medium of a screen, but let’s not relinquish the power of coming together en masse too easily, lest we find a virtual life is not worth living.
There are more articles on Glastonbury – the Festival and the Town, in my book ‘Normal For Glastonbury: Life in England’s Most Magical Town’.
It’s a vivid picture of the joys and frustrations of living in a place that has attracted pilgrims, free-thinkers and mystics for millennia. Features a colourful cast of witches, hippies, alpacas, vegans and largely tolerant Somerset locals and illustrated with some not terribly helpful, but funny, maps.
Normal For Glastonbury the Paperback
‘Normal For Glastonbury – Life in England’s Most Magical Town’ by Vicki Steward, Illustrated by Debbie De Mornay Penny. Signed paperback. A5 format, 146 pages. P&P £3 to the UK.
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