Research Explorations in the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site What does Glastonbury Do
The mythology of the original Glastonbury Fayre in 1970 paints a picture of a spontaneous gathering of people who were seeking escape from the confines of mainstream society. Inspired by the hippy counterculture, they sought a place where they could re connect with the land, channel the ancient vibrations of old Albion, dance naked in the sunshine, listen to revolutionary rock music and make love not war; a place where they could take mind altering drugs and enact a utopian vision of society; where they would hurt no one and could reject the moral vacuum and crass commercialism of the post war culture of progress. The mythology of Glastonbury Fayre is one of communality, shared beliefs, engagement, equality one annual guarantee about Glastonbury Festival, notwithstanding anxieties about the weather, is the fact that people will always say ‘it is not what it used to be.’ Now in its 41st year, how could it be? Glastonbury has become the biggest festival of its kind in Europe, if not the world. In 2011, 200,000 people attended and 18.6 million watched the event on TV. I have been going to Glastonbury every year since 1995, first as a fence hopper and for the last 11 years as a stage manager on one of the smaller stages. Whenever I hear that annual complaint, I remind myself that not only has Glastonbury changed since 1971, but so have I and so has everyone else who goes there. We are all in a state of becoming. Nothing stays the same.
In the context of continuing economic meltdown, record levels of youth unemployment and catastrophic cuts in public services, 2011 was billed as the ‘political’ Glastonbury. Plans for an anti U2 tax protest were trailed in the media, and journalists speculated that the festival would become a focus for wider dissent. One of the great things about Glastonbury is the fact that the festival, for all its organisational controls, its mainstream musical product, its super fence, its health and safety legislation and carefully controlled policing, is still viewed by some (Michael Eavis included) as a potential locus for revolutionary thought and action.
In fact, the 2011 festival was, as usual, notable for its peacefulness, and once again the socio political status quo went unchallenged. The anti U2 protest was put down by heavy handed security, but, like at the student protests in London, the general public didn’t seem to mind that much. There were only 123 arrests out of a crowd of 200,000; 2,200 people needed medical treatment, one attempted suicide.
The death of Tory grandee Christopher Shale from unknown causes in a VIP festival toilet, however, provided the ultimate sym converse shoes bol of the split personality of the contemporary Glastonbury carnival. David Cameron’s ‘rock’ was found perched atop a stinking mound of festival excrement; the ultimate grotesque carnival juxtaposition; a symbol of the countercultural world turned upside down. His death was a symbol of the hollow freedom that Glastonbury has in some ways come to represent; evidence of a Glastonbury whose mythology has been infiltrated by the elite, proof that the Tory organisers of the greatest assault on public services since the Second World War can party unchallenged at the symbolic heart of the British counterculture, their feet of clay, knee deep in the mud just like the rest of us. The hippy mythology of Glastonbury also died in that toilet. This death was a visible symbol of Glastonbury as a networking event, as a hierarchy of backstage passes, insiders and outsiders, the hidden venue and the secret gig. To quote from Withnail, it was proof that Glastonbury had become ‘free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those that can’t.’
Don’t get me wrong. I love Glastonbury. I love its cultural messiness, the clash of the pure and the profane. I don’t expect it to represent utopia or to challenge the status quo, its hippy past is qualification enough for me. I no longer expect rock music to change the world as Billy Bragg commented at Glastonbury this year, young revolutionaries are using YouTube and the Internet to change the world these days, not guitars. I go to Glastonbury because as a UK festival it is unique in its diversity of art forms and contributing subcultures. I go because I want to contribute creatively to the cultural conversation that it raises every year, because I get to work at what I love and dig out a couple of good new bands each time. I go there because standing in a crowd of thousands singing the chorus to my favourite pop song (Blur, Tender, 2009) is as close as I can get to a sense of unity in today’s globalised society. I go there because it is still occasionally possible at Glastonbury to convince myself that the normal social rules don’t apply; that people can interact in a more egalitarian, open and distinctly un English way, chatting to strangers and letting go of their repressions. I cling to at least that part of the hippy dream the idea that inside the fence we are all one big family.
I also can’t claim, even after eleven years, to know Glastonbury. It is far too big for that, covering 1000 acres with dozens of different stages and several miles of market stalls, complete with payphones, cashpoints, a post office and no fewer than 3000 stinking toilets. Make no mistake, for all the primitive ruralism of its mythology, for all its ‘Worthy Farm’, ‘weekend in the country’ discourse, Glastonbury is an urban environment. It is a city. It is a city of tents and makeshift buildings, with bad drainage and sanitation, but a place with all the population, communications, and spatial controls of a city nonetheless. Its entrances and exits are carefully controlled, it has residential areas which reflect extremes of wealth, it has a police force and a sanitation department, it has emergency services and a workforce who pay taxes and submit receipts. So the idea of the Glastonbury Free State, where mainstream ideas about social organisation do not apply and where things ‘just happen’ in an anarchic spirit of spontaneous, creative co operation, is a myth. It is a beautiful myth, one which harkens back to the communal hippy idealism of the 1500 original Glastonbury Fayre revellers; a myth which appeals to the best sentiments of humanism, but it is a myth nonetheless. To paraphrase Jerome Bruner, Glastonbury is not an escape from mainstream society, it is mainstream society.
But what does Glastonbury do? It is a question worth asking if the event is to reflect on accusations of decadence and perhaps reinvent itself after its break in 2013. The answ converse shoes ers I propose are based on purely personal observations. Feel free to say ‘my festival wasn’t like that.’ Of course it wasn’t. It belongs to no one and everyone. Glastonbury is a dynamic network of hundreds of thousands of individual experiences, playing in and out of each other, filtered by a thousand political, social and economic positions, informed by the evolving spatiality of the site and the weather. Even when we sing the same chorus at the Pyramid, we all sing for different reasons. Nevertheless, here’s my list of things that Glastonbury does, tries to do, fails to do or gives the illusion of doing:
Glastonbury is ‘free’ space: Glastonbury has its spiritual roots in the concept of free space; within its fences you can go where you like, when you like. You can drift, wander, get lost, re surface. The idea is that the normal timetable of life is suspended. Day becomes night, night becomes day, you see the sunrise, you escape the strict timekeeping of the Monday to Friday 9 5 and just do your thing. The problem lately is that this is no longer true at all for the majority of punters. Every stage has a strict timetable. To get your 195 worth of mainstream music you have to plan your time very carefully, factoring in hiking time, ground conditions, a trip to the loo and your general state of inebriation. The result is a discipline of time based consumption that this year saw regular mass migrations, as if by clockwork, across the site. Up to 30,000 festival goers, programmed by mainstream culture and the power of spectacle into distinct patterns of consumption the must see of Glastonbury migrated West to East after the last act on the Pyramid in search of the futuristic, Hollywood meets videogame hedonism of Arcadia and Shangri La. At the top of Glebeland they were corralled like sheep into a switchback of crash barrier pens, held in the rain and herded into the great British tradition of queueing, funnelled into a one way system which ran along the perimeter fence into their preferred destination and finally spat them out at the other end along the Old Railway Track.
A one way system? At Glastonbury? Sheep pens? Stewards in hi viz jackets telling you where you can go and where you can’t? This is not the spatial freedom promised by the hippy dream. Rather, it is a reflection of the sheer popularity of these new areas of the festival their mainstream, theme park appeal, a response to health and safety paranoia and a provision against the crushes of 2010. Free space it is not. Glastonbury has long shown signs of Disneyfication, of metamorphasising into the theme park of the counterculture. In her 1998 paper Carnival and Control: The commodification of the carnivalesque at Disneyland, Deborah Philips describes theme parks as a ‘heterotopia, a compensatory fantasy world, a site of leisure contingent on, and structured in, its difference from the world of work.’ Glastonbury is full of weekend warriors caught up in exactly that fantasy of freedom. Philips cites Foucault to raise a more sinister undertone to this kind of spatial and cultural programming. According to Foucault, cultural capitalism operates by disciplining the individual to certain proscribed actions and movements: ‘exercising upon it a subtle coercion obtaining holds upon it at the level of the mechanism itself movements, gestures, attitudes, rapidity: an infinitesimal power over the active body.’ Sheep pens. Hi viz jackets. Health and Safety. Necessary conditions for entry into the ironically named Hollywood film sets that are Arcadia and Shangri la. Surely, in Utopia there is no such timetable.
Glastonbury claims cultural space for the marginalised: Ironically, the focus of this control system is the Mutoid Waste Company builders of Arcadia and anarchist survivors of the Battle of the Beanfield, free travellers driven off the roads by the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, who recycle military hardware into dystopian, fire breathing sculptures for the party at the end of the world. Glastonbury is a huge collection of such marginal camps, many with their own speakeasies and line ups. The Candle Powered Boat Man, the Nip In, Strummerville, all come together like clockwork at Midsummer in the same place, alongside the lantern makers, willow sculptors and permaculturalists; all the dreadlocked unwelcome neighbours of middle England.
Up in the Green Fields, Glastonbury reminds us that these cultures still exist in opposition to our world of corporate capitalism. It raises a chance that mainstream lives might be altered by spontaneous encounters with the wise women of old Albion, with the blacksmiths and wood turners. It raises the possibility that the green spirits of sustainability, pole lathes, ley lines and the 300 house might infect yet another generation, keeping the old ways alive in preparation for the Big Collapse. I love this part of the festival. I love its woodsmoke, its calm, its twinkly lights and its barefoot, grubby kids. I stand in awe at the practical skills of its inhabitants. And I try really hard not to give in to the cynicism that whispers ‘hypocrisy’ in my ears; the hypocrisy of the people who come here for a weekend of spliffs but would call the cops in a heartbeat if any of these caravans turned up on their village green. I try to ignore the cynicism that suggests that all the Green Fields achieve is to give the punters a chance to get a foot massage and buy some nice iron candlesticks for the dining table, to enjoy an hour ‘in the countryside’ before heading back to Babylon for a pork roll and some laughing gas on the way to watch Coldplay on the world’s biggest TV.
Glastonbury challenges capitalism: 195 per ticket means wage slavery is a condition of entry for all but the wealthiest in society. The festival raises significant amounts of money for Greenpeace, Oxfam and Water Aid, which makes us all feel a bit better about the fact that everything costs at Glastonbury. The average punter will spend upwards of 20 for three meals a day, more for alcohol and other substances. Wages are low for paid workers. Everything is for sale; then there are the TV rights, post festival downloads and associated album sales. Money rules, and while we are unified in our shared consumption, we share no ideology. Glastonbury does not encourage us to ‘turn on, tune in and drop out,’ more (as is the way with cultural capitalism) to ‘log in, pay up, party and piss off.’ For many Glastonbury punters, practical engagement with the ideals of Greenpeace, Oxfam and Water Aid is as fleeting an experience as ‘proceed to checkout’.
Glastonbury is revolutionary: Speaking in the Guardian just before the 2011 festival, Michael Eavis said he thought current conditions would make Glastonbury ‘a sounding board for lots of unrest’. ‘ If people are really faced with dire circumstances,’ he said, ‘that will get them angry and motivated, and that the way we heading at the moment.’ Despite the mainstream nature of its product, Glastonbury has a die hard tradition of left wing politics and a rump within its organisation that does try its best to challenge the political apathy of large parts of its audience, an audience which comes to party, not to change the world. Unfortunately, this effort is increasingly ghettoised into certain specific areas of the festival. It is corralled into the Green Fields, Green Futures and the Leftfield and has little presence elsewhere. These areas are cathedrals for the converted. They try their best to bolster sustainability, trade unionism, human rights, CND and the development agendas of Greenpeace, Oxfam and Water Aid and Glastonbury is still the only large UK festival where such spaces of hope exist but this theming of progressive politics into certain areas of the festival allows for an almost complete political cleansing of other areas of the event. It means that for the average musically motivated punter (who treks between music stages and does not explore the site more widely) it is perfectly possible to experience Glastonbury without engaging with a single political thought or action. Even the Pyramid, the sacred centre of the festival, is politically neutral. We can hardly expect meaningful, radical, anti war, anti capitalist or anti government statements from mainstream acts on the Pyramid Stage. The Pyramid is a space now reserved for artists who have too much to lose and nothing to gain from attacking the status quo.
In spite of all this, Michael Eavis bless him at least stil converse shoes l believes that it is politics that gives Glastonbury ‘soul and purpose’. He is clearly troubled by the decline in its political edge and its growing identity as a pleasure park. He also has cause for greater concern, given the evidence this year of truly oppressive cultural forces at work within the Big Fence. The most shocking evidence of this repression was the reaction to the U2 tax protest, when security forces fought with protesters from Art UnCut as they tried to float a 20ft balloon with the incendiary words “U PAY TAX 2?”, a protest designed to raise concerns about U2’s rationalisation of their tax affairs to Holland in order to escape new Irish taxes on artistic royalties.
Given its symbolic, if not practical, role as the festival heart of the UK counterculture, Michael Eavis is right to expect that Glastonbury should be a focus for dissent, especially in the current economic and social conditions. The economy is on the rocks, public services are being decimated, our nation is complicit in torture and international corporate corruption on a massive scale. Our Press is in the mire, the env converse shoes ironment is at threat of collapse and our leaders are still spending billions on nuclear weapons and ill advised military escapades in pursuit of oil and international financial influence. Ordinary people are paying through the nose for the crimes of the international banking sector. Youth unemployment is rife. Striking teachers, railwaymen, nurses and care workers are being painted the villains, while bonus bloated bankers hob nob it with rock stars in festival VIP lounges all over the world. Surely something has got to give, and Glastonbury should lead the way? No chance. Glastonbury has become a spectacle, a big distraction from the real world, where the revolution ends as soon as you get back on the train home and First Great Western make you put plastic bags on your boots to keep the Worthy Farm mud off their carpets.
Glastonbury is the Royal Wedding of festivals (expect to see Wills and Kate there some time soon!); a pretend revolution, a televised, fenced in spectacle where people experience an illusion of freedom dressed in the retro wardrobe of revolutionary cultural history. At Glastonbury, in the words of Guy Debord, ‘all that was once directly lived has become mere representation’. Glastonbury punters passively consume a commodified version of the 1960s cultural revolution, a revolution which has been mediated, sterilised, packaged and re heated for mass consumption. This year, 30,000 people can proudly say ‘I saw Beyonce at Glastonbury’ but for most of them she was visible only on a massive TV screen, and their friends at home shared exactly the same experience, only with better toilets.
If all this is true, why do people go? Have you listened to nothing I have been saying? People go to Glastonbury precisely because of all this schizophrenic anxiety, confusion, hypocrisy, ecstasy and illusion. It is this instability and contradiction, this chaotic carnival of competing values and ideas, which makes it the greatest festival of its kind in the world. It is all things to all people and a huge mirror held up to our society. Getting there is still a rite of passage for the young, and this year there were even rumours that at last the super fence had been penetrated by liggers. The Glastonbury mirror reflects the fractured sensibilities of the contemporary cultural psyche. It is post modernism writ large in material form, a shifting, elusive, hydra headed fiction, a multiple mythology shot through with a plethora of competing cultural and commercial values. At Glastonbury, the amorality of late capitalism meets the embers of 1960s idealism in a carnival of mud, sunburn, long drops, tent sex, drug use, laughing gas and a wasteland of litter. It is a gladiatorial contest between the unsustainable decadence of cultural consumerism and the small voice that cries ‘leave no trace, don’t piss in the streams.’ It is the party at the end of the world.
Recipe for a revolution: No Glastonbury next year, no fences, no health and safety, no licenses or permissions, just the Olympics and the expectation of orderly street parties across the nation to distract us from reality and celebrate the last gasp of our imperial ambitions. What a great opportunity for the counterculture to really assert itself, to really stage a cultural revolution. With the world’s cameras upon us what raves and micro festivals we could stage in our parks and streets in the summer of 2012, showing up in our caravans in the dead of night and feeding each other for free. No VIPs, no corporate toilets. Unknown bands, free entry, bizarre expressionism, political shut downs. We could do Glastonbury anyway, but do it on our own streets, without asking for permission. We could tear up the Criminal Justice Act and pitch our tents on priv