For me, the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts is beginning to look a lot like Christmas: A lot of people I encounter tell me that the whole thing is a shallow and commercialised shadow of its former self, yet I still spend half the year eagerly awaiting the beautiful escapism and overarching warm and fuzzy feeling the festival provides.
And the festival provides.
2014 was my sixth Glastonbury. The weekend was the usual chaotic mess of music, mud and mayhem. I ate many burritos and drank the worst wine available to humanity. I met one of my heroes (Julian Cope!) and was reduced (or raised) to an emotional mess of a man during Yoko Ono’s set.
Of course, there were downsides. The rain became oppressive, and certain areas truly are becoming overrun by the sort of selfish braying drugged-up morons who only seem able to have a good time at the expense of others.
But I don’t let them get me down too much, as with every passing year it becomes increasingly obvious which areas of the site are to be avoided in order to minimise the chances of encountering such laddish bros.
Despite a few low moments, Glastonbury 2014 was ultimately wonderful. Once again I left the site with a renewed sense of purpose. Life’s too short to be wasted. It must be spent DOING THINGS; helping others and actively working to make the world a better place.
Beyond the diversity of the lineup and the sheer weirdness of the weekend, it’s this life-affirming power that I think makes Glastonbury the best festival in the world. The tedious moans that it’s “sold out” are rendered irrelevant by the Greeenpeace and Water Aid banners on the main stages, the Tony Benn tribute films played between bands, and the fact that I for one left with a Yoko Ono peace pencil and a fresh conviction that the debt must be dropped; that Trident must be scrapped; and that it’s never wrong to punch a Tory in the cock.
Yet one thing is becoming obvious about my relationship with Glastonbury. Strangely enough, this one thing acts as a further parallel between the festival and Christmas: for all the weirdness and wonders the festival provides, I am starting to strongly prefer the run-up to the festival over the festival itself.
Years ago I realised that Christmas Eve is always much more beautiful than Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, the overarching feeling in my family is that weeks upon weeks of preparation has finally come to an end, and we’re now free to settle down and get on with the serious business of enjoying ourselves.
Similarly, for at least my past two Glastonburies, I have much much much much preferred the Wednesday and the Thursday of the festival over the Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
If you’ve never been to Glastonbury, allow me to explain. Whilst much of the major music (and all of the TV coverage) takes place over the weekend, the festival gates actually open on the Wednesday beforehand.
Though they do put some things on on the Wednesday and Thursday, the majority of people onsite seem to spend these days just drifting. We amble, we saunter, we bimble. We sit around, we drink cider, we spend precious idle hours with the people that mean the most to us – because most people really do attend Glastonbury in the company of those that mean the most.
This year, on the ticket gates through which I entered was a painting. It started with a man in a business suit hunched over a computer screen. As the painting moved from left to right, the man’s tie got looser, his clothes were shed, his hair got messier and his smile got broader. The final image was one in which he was the very image of carefree hedonism itself.
That’s essentially what happens on the Wednesday and Thursday. The festival gets under your skin, and you become… if not the real you, then a version of yourself that’s much more easy going, and a lot more open to new ideas and new experiences.
It’s important to remember that, in many ways, Glastonbury is a ruddy ordeal. Year on year, demand for tickets is so high that, for most, the day they go on sale involves a stressful morning of endlessly hitting the refresh button as you stare helplessly and desperately at a webpage that simply refuses to load.
Getting to the festival, too, has never really been easy. Even if you live relatively close, during your journey you will still be encumbered with all manner of heavy bags and burdens. And the site’s big. So big that most all new arrivals are obliged to endlessly trudge across vast roving hills and fields as they search for a mythical quality pitch. My walk usually ends with me drenched in sweat, collapsing with heavy limbs into the grass. And that’s before the tent’s even been put up.
But by that point I’m arrived, and I’m free. It took a long time to get there, but when your travels are arduous and determined, it truly does feel as though you’ve left the stress and tedium of your daily grind far, far behind.
What descends then is one of my favourite feelings. It’s only ever felt twice a year – on Christmas Eve and upon arriving at Glastonbury. Come 17:00 or so on Christmas Eve, all the shopping’s finally been done; everyone who’s coming home is now home; it’s cold and dark outside but warm and glowing inside; there’s a good film on TV, there’s plenty to eat and drink, and it’s finally time to start enjoying Christmas.
The preparation is a difficult slog, and the event itself rushes by far too quickly. But in those quiet hours in between, everything feels wonderful, and I am at my happiest.
Indeed, once the bands start playing on the Friday morning of Glastonbury, my time no longer feels like my own. I find myself rushing from stage to stage to take in all the bands I’ve been so looking forward to for the past six months. Before I know it, it’s Monday morning, I’ve a throbbing eye-bleed of a hangover, and all I’ve got to look forward to is the stress of packing and returning to work.
But on Wednesday and Thursday, the possibilities seem endless. We have unriveted ourselves from all the demands that came before, and it’s finally time to start enjoying Glastonbury.
I speak to some people who seem able to make that feeling last all weekend. The trick, it seems, is to watch as few bands as possible once the festival starts proper. Instead, you continue to drift, allowing yourself to take in whatever you happen to stumble upon.
I would dearly love to take this approach to the festival, but the allure of the live music is always far too great for me. I just know that, within hours, I would be anxiously glancing at the guide, unable to stop thinking about what I might be missing.
Perhaps here lies the secret to true happiness and real contentment. Don’t think about “what else” might be going on. Instead, prepare to make the most of whatever you may encounter.
I encountered the penultimate ever set from Biggle’s Wartime Band. Something of a Glastonbury institution, their music is an endearing and hilarious mix of worldwide folk standards and gleefully inept interpretations of the music of Robert Palmer, Tom Jones and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.
They were the first band I saw all weekend, and I saw them on Thursday afternoon. Incredibly, their set included an anarchic medley of Christmas songs.
It might have been a joke, or it may not just be me who feels festive at Glastonbury. How nice to hear a ska-punk rendition of Away In A Manger just as I was feeling at my most unseasonably Christmassy.
The festival provides.