A Quiet Night In

Will Frears goes to Glastonbury

Leaving for Glastonbury calls for the same last-minute purchases and elicits the same foul tempers that going on holiday always does. Only it’s not tablets tor Montezuma’s revenge (though that would help you to avoid the toilets so it might be a good idea for next year) and did you arrange with the Joneses to feed the cat, but bottles of vodka and Rizlas and arguments about who was supposed to buy the toilet paper.

An entirely normal train journey, a free bus to the site and suddenly you are confronted with the sight of Tent City. The most amazing thing about this is that so many people actually own tents and must use them the rest of the time for straightforward camping. But suspension of disbelief is put on with the suntan lotion and it’s off for the mile-long trek down to the gate, stopping only for a brief thought of the ‘I wonder how I’m going to get in without a ticket’ kind.

The walk down is obviously designed to separate the true festival-goers from those who just thought it would be a laugh to go to Glastonbury. The temperature is in the mid-eighties and everyone is loaded down with full pack. The French Foreign Legion could use it as an endurance test – or, if it comes to that, as a recruitment opportunity, since most of these people are about to commit some heavy-duty offences. One group that has seen the possibility of serious recruitment are the Christians, who are dispensing free squash. Hardly anyone is taking them up on their offer for fear that the drink has been spiked with some terrible drug that makes you want to wear socks with sandals. About two hundred yards from the gate entry is procured from a guy charging £20 to stamp you with the entry pass. Another half-mile hike to the Stone Circle, where I’d arranged to meet people; ‘let’s meet at the Stone Circle’ has a better ring to it than ‘see you down the pub.’

People met, bags dumped in the tent, plans made to meet again: this established a pattern for the entire weekend. Later on, waiting as arranged at the Hare Krishna tent, I met a 16-year-old from Manchester who had spent the last six weeks living in a car under a bridge in Paris, had hitched to Glastonbury and was preparing to head to Rotterdam, where he had heard he could buy 50 tabs of acid for £200. His big plan was to buy these and go and live in the mountains in Holland for a month. It seemed unfair to point out that there are no mountains in Holland – besides, after 50 tabs of acid, mountains would be among the least of the interesting geographical features Holland had to offer.

Having met up again, we made plans to meet up later and once again went our separate ways. If all this meeting up and then planning to meet up later is beginning to bore you, believe me it was a lot duller in real life. D. and I wandered around, stopping only to procure some herbal Ecstasy, which is thoroughly legal and, not surprisingly, nowhere near as potent as its chemical and illegal big brother. On the plus side, it doesn’t give you the Fear. In fact, it seemed to require alcohol to have any effect at all; and generally alcohol can be relied on to do the damage by itself. After this venture into the wilder side of ginseng it was time to get into position for Oasis, the biggest band in England and headliners of the whole shebang.

A band with less festival spirit it would be hard to imagine. They dedicated one song to the people at the back with long hair smoking silly cigarettes, asked for one stage dive for the mushies and even stopped in the middle of a song so that the lead singer could challenge a member of the audience to a fight. But despite their refusal to play along to the general peace and love ethos, Oasis’s songs are what Glastonbury is for. Lines like ‘Lennon said I should free my head; but that to me was just a day in bed’ or ‘These could be the best days of our lives’ or ‘You and I are going to live for ever’ provide a pretty good definition of what it was all about up there in the Vale of Avalon – or seemed to do so at the time.

Gastonbury at night is a mixture of bacchanalian frenzy and a quiet night at home spent in a field. Raving outside a blanket shop that had a booming PA system was followed by a cup of tea. Glastonbury may be a full-on celebration of hedonism but for most of the people involved, drugs and dancing all night are just part of their way of life. An exception must be made for the man who was lying in the middle of a field talking to a blade of grass. It was great, and a far cry from the Tiny Tea Tent which so resembled my kitchen on a Saturday night that I thought I was in the middle of a flashback and immediately contemplated finding a blade of grass with which to have meaningful discourse.

Saturday morning dawned and I slept right through it. When I got up around eleven it was cold and dismal out. As we walked down to the centre to see what was happening, a child of about six took one look at me with my hood up and sunglasses on and said categorically: ‘It’s way past your bedtime.’ Suitably chastised, I resolved to take it a lot easier that day. Many people, it seemed, felt the same.

Saturday day was accordingly spent uncovering the non-hedonist Glastonbury. Places like the Tipi Field, where an entire tribe of travellers who normally lived in tepees in Wales were staying. They sat in the field playing bongos and when the sun briefly broke through, an almighty cheer rang out from those gathered to watch them; as if for one brief moment it did seem that a positive vibe could change the world. Then the sun went behind another cloud, and it was off to the healing field, where one poor woman had the foulest job of the festival: she was giving foot massages to people who hadn’t bathed for at least two days. It may well have been that she was too spiritual to notice such things.

Glastonbury has the reputation of being full of 16-year-olds from Winchester and terrible students intent on drinking themselves into cider frenzy. This reputation is entirely justified. What’s never mentioned is the number of families and their children – among them that uncommonly perceptive six-year-old. These people have their own field to camp in, which I regret to say I never entered, although I had visions of tents with bunk beds in. We thought of going to the circus but when we walked in we found the entire company singing ‘Everybody Needs Somebody’. I didn’t need that and went off to the trapeze show where nothing much was happening either – except for one glorious moment when the performer who was practising on a mat got herself all tangled up doing some complicated procedure and had to be unravelled by her friends. The roller disco wasn’t doing any better, probably because of a large sign forbidding anyone under the influence of drink or drugs to take part.

By late Saturday afternoon, it was time to get back to the music – in this case the Boo Radleys and Jamiroquai. The first of these are a supposedly classic Britpop band in the vein of the Beatles. If anyone can name more than three of their songs I’ll be impressed. I can only do four and I own the album. The lead singer had some sense of this and after abusing the crowd flounced off stage halfway through the last song. No one seemed to mind. Jamiroquai aren’t perfect either. The lead singer has an incredible voice ruined by just a few things: the fact that his need to save the world is greater than his need to write songs that live up to his singing ability; a tendency to jazz disease, a strange affliction which prevents musicians from performing songs the way the audience knows them; a fondness for the didgeridoo, an instrument of which a little goes a long way.

The music side of things was redeemed by Orbital, whose ‘ambient’ sounds, playing as lasers and the sunset filled the sky, gave the audience a sense that electronic music could work. At the climax, pictures of John Major with an X stamped across them appeared on screens at the back of the stage, drawing the biggest cheer of the festival. After Orbital came the Stone Roses, the band that people had waited five years to see. A band that had defined what it meant to be around when England rediscovered its freedom in the summer of 1990. Unfortunately one of them fell off his bike and they cancelled. In stepped their replacements, the third-choice band who had to try and salvage the musical centre of the festival.

If Pulp seemed to be unlikely saviours, remember that they do have Jarvis Cocker as a frontman. He is a six foot four freak wearing NHS specs and the kind of Seventies clothes that will never become fashionable, who prances about the stage singing songs about ‘wanting to sleep with “Common People” ’. In one of his many monologues he told the crowd that if he could do it then anyone could: what he didn’t say was that they would need to want it as badly as he obviously does. His big moment came with the unveiling of a new song which, according to him, was perfect for festivals: first because it used an acoustic guitar, and secondly because it was called ‘Sorted for Es and Whizz’, which most of the audience clearly were. The chorus to it went: ‘Twenty thousand people in a field, is this the way the future’s meant to feel?’ When those twenty thousand people are standing in a field singing along to ‘Common People’ it certainly feels as if it should be.

After Pulp there wasn’t really much to do. Most of the people had been going strong since at least Friday morning and the festival was beginning to think it deserved a night off; so after the customary activity of finding friends at the other end of the event from where you’d previously been attempting to meet them, we dragged ourselves tentward, past a field of mad bongo-players who were having none of this going to bed nonsense, in an attempt to prepare ourselves for day three of this by now slightly subdued madness.

Sunday is the day of rest and a more restful day it would be hard to imagine. Lying by the main stage reading the papers, drinking tea and listening to but never actually seeing the Bootleg Beatles, with the sun shining overhead. After the innocuous morning there was the usual discussion about where to go, which was interrupted by a rather large woman who grabbed me by the chest and told me I was going with her, baby. Needless to say, I fled. A short while later we found ourselves at the NME stage with a bunch of people listening to the cream of British alternative music, drinking vodka and orange from a bottle, and standing next to a man selling nitrous oxide balloons for two pounds fifty a pop. Anytime he failed to sell one, he would do it himself. I have never seen anyone as high as he was, and in the best tradition of dealers who do their own stuff, he ended up giving most of it out for free. In the evening Elastica played and the DJ asked Louise to go to the police tent to bail out her parents. I had a vision of two middle-aged hippies, busted for public nudity and possession of a controlled substance, being bailed out by their furious, embarrassed and thoroughly respectable daughter. It was in every sense an absolutely fabulous moment.

Standing at the back of a punk concert is a waste of time. The music isn’t so wonderful that you can just stand and tap your foot appreciatively. The point of punk is its energy and to experience this you have to get up to the front and bounce up and down. Once I did get there Elastica were a great live act, with the raw energy that others often lose playing in the wide open spaces of Glastonbury. Are you listening, Sice of the Boo Radleys? At the end a naked man burst on stage, attempted to mount every member of the band, shook his tackle into the TV camera and disappeared.

When someone offers you a ride home, you assume they have at least a vague idea where their car is. Not at Glastonbury. My friend the driver had been so stressed at getting in that he had no idea how to get out. We traipsed around the fields full of parked cars looking for a black Saab in pitch darkness. A zen exercise in nothingness yes, a good idea no. We only realised this after about three hours of searching and asking probing questions like, ‘Are these the railings?’ or even better: ‘Can you remember where the Big Dipper was when you parked the car?’ The answer to that question was: ‘What does the Big Dipper look like?’ Tempers were not merely frayed: they got ripped up and turned into dusters. We returned to the festival knowing that all we wanted was to get back to running water, toilets that flushed, and the sensation of sitting down with our backs against something. So we decided to take the first train home, which left at 4.45 a.m. and in order to do that we had to catch the first bus to the station at 4 a.m. and to do that we had to leave right now. There was a bit of trouble with the first bus, the driver of which appeared to be psychotic and wouldn’t allow anyone to bring a bag on board. We were so frightened that we meekly got off his bus and waited for the next one. When it arrived every representative of the counter-culture gave in and put his bags where he’d been told. Thanks to the four kids sitting next to me and, more important, thanks to their family railcard, I got back to London.

You could write an entire book about some of the side-effects of living in a field for three days. Indeed an entire book could be written about the different ways women go to the bathroom. On day one they queued for an hour; on day two they’d go behind the skimpiest of bushes; on day three I noticed two women squat down in the middle of a crowd just before the band came on. I was staggered to see how quickly people get back to nature, but even odder is the way normality rules in this sea of madness: tea in bed, the Sunday papers and wondering what to do at night are just as much a part of Glastonbury as they are of normal life. Forget an entire field of people turning to chase an ambulance because they saw the flashing lights, heard the siren (music of a repetitive nature) and thought it was a rave, forget the Hare Krishnas jumping up and down and exhorting people to chant with them, or stranger still, the fact that people did: the least expected thing I saw at Glastonbury was a woman going jogging.