Glastonbury “queue here to complain etc”

Now that the dust is beginning to settle on this year’s Glastonbury (with the Arctic Monkeys, Daughter, Jake Bugg and Dizzee Rascal absolutely nailing it – along with that other quite famous band who headlined), there’s been an enormous amount of commenting on the event; and what is says about ‘Britain Today’ etc.

So…having valiantly read just about everything I could find on the annual mudfest, I reckon that Hugo Rifkind got it spot on. If you haven’t seen it already on Twitter etc, here’s his epic piece about Bankers, Tattoos and the general meaning of life when it’s 4am and you’re eating a rain-soaked burger, surrounded by people dressed as aliens. (Which is basically what you get every weekend in Brighton, but there you go).

‘On Sunday night, quite a few hours after leaving the Glastonbury Festival, after a long, hot drive back along the M4 and a decent period of sitting on the sofa staring at the wall, I had a text message from a friend I’d dropped at Bristol Airport. He’d just met another man in Departures, he said, who had a large henna tattoo of a dragon across one side of his face, and was looking glum.

Apparently he’d woken up with it and didn’t really remember it happening. By now he’ll be back at work, I gather in a bank. They last about a month, henna tattoos; maybe six weeks. Hold this man in your mind as you read this column, which is to be about the Glastonbury Festival, but also about the world outside it, too. For he, I think, is the point.

Glastonbury has changed. In the backstage hospitality area, just down from the yurt hotel that you pay more than £1,000 to spend a night in, and just around the corner from the sign that read “QUEUE HERE TO COMPLAIN THAT THE FESTIVAL IS NOT AS GOOD AS IT USED TO BE”, I found a wall in the press tent with pictures of the past. The one that sticks with me was of three policemen, holding truncheons, standing in front of a helicopter.

There are plenty of policemen on site these days too. I saw some the moment I arrived, trying on pink wigs while a gaggle of girls in facepaint posed with them for photographs. But the guys in the picture were different. They had moustaches. And blue shirts, as some policemen used to. (Nothing quite says “impending police brutality” like a blue-shirted copper with a moustache, does it?) And they are not smiling, these policemen. They are the thin blue line, holding back a tide of hippy filth. You can see it in their eyes.

When people enthuse about the notion of music festivals, they always hark back to the spirit of the 1960s, or maybe the 1970s. What they rarely mention is the spirit of the 1980s, which was just a little bit more tense. Online, if you hunt, you can still find footage of a clash in 1985 between Wiltshire police and a convoy of several hundred New Age travellers en route to a pre-Glastonbury festival at Stonehenge. It’s bloody and brutal stuff, sometimes remembered as a footnote to similar scenes from the miners’ strike, but more often not really remembered at all.

It’s a matter of debate, still, whether the buses, trucks and caravans that bounced around between West Country festivals in the 1980s represented a burgeoning and largely positive social movement that threatened the hegemony of the Thatcherite Establishment; or a drugged-up crime wave on wheels. Either way, one would not in 1985 have predicted a positive future for Britain’s music festivals.

Michael Eavis, on whose farm Glastonbury takes place, fought a running battle with his local council throughout that decade and well into the 1990s simply to keep the festival going, with both sides frequently taking each other to court.

Simultaneously there were actual running battles on the site itself. In 1990 a riot took place on the day the festival ended when travellers didn’t want to leave and security guards wanted to beat them up. In 1994 there were shootings. In 2000 there were so many gatecrashers that the fence was torn down. Throughout this time every drug dealer in Britain was treating the thing as a trade convention. This, frankly, is the perennial problem with hippies. They don’t half make for easy pickings.

And yet Glastonbury not only survived, but thrived. Security improved dramatically. Mendip Council wouldn’t dream of trying to shut down the festival now; it earns it a fortune and causes few problems beyond traffic. Tents still get burgled, but you’re very unlikely to get mugged. You see toddlers running around with their parents’ mobile phone numbers scrawled onto their arms in marker pen. Police roam, but not in any sense that feels particularly proactive. There’s an on-site hospital with a casualty unit. And the festival has become, as a result, probably the safest place in the world to get completely off your head.

So people do, but it doesn’t mean what it did. Getting wasted at Glastonbury is no longer a countercultural act. Indeed, with Winnebagos and yurts and tents in which telecoms companies offer to recharge your mobile phone, and with an average attendee age of 36 (my age) this is firmly a cultural festival, not a countercultural one at all. And I keep hearing that this is a bad thing. And I really don’t understand why.

On the main stage on Saturday afternoon I watched Billy Bragg — who is a staunch defender of the modern festival, but still seems somehow angsty about it — sing his 1988 hit Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards, about his yearning for the world to change. And standing there in the sunshine, listening to cheery, weekending hippies singing along, at this festival covered not only by every newspaper in the country but also by Radio 2 and even Radio 4, I thought about 1988, and I thought about now, and then I thought: “But it has.”

Bragg knows this. In an interview on the radio he described how when he first played Glastonbury Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Simply playing a pop song in the open air, he said, felt like a revolutionary act because you knew she’d have hated it. “Now, the Prime Minister is a Smiths fan!” he said. “What can you do?”

Be glad, I’d say. Celebrate the fact that, socially at least, Britain is a far less divided country than it used to be. There’s a reason why the overt politics you get at music festivals these days feels uncomfortably tacked on, and that’s because it is. (Bragg started talking about nuclear power at the end of his set and 20,000 people started yawning.) It’s because the simple act of being there is no longer a step into the political margins. To go is not to express dissatisfaction with the status quo. Unless, perhaps, you are actually watching Status Quo.

I like this country. I’m sorry if this sounds smug and Pollyanna-ish; I think it might. But I do, and coming back from something like Glastonbury always makes me like it more. Yes, it’s safe and tame. But what’s wrong with that? I like the open-hearted pragmatism of it; the transcendent triumph of fun. I like the way that we no longer have to divide ourselves up between hippies who like to party and the people on whose behalf those hippies get clubbed by moustachioed policemen in blue shirts. I like the way that, like a man in a bank with a henna tattoo, we’re all a bit of both.’

See what I mean? The man’s an utter genius. (To quote Withnail).

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