Posts on this blog have been a bit scarce for the last couple of weeks, mostly because I spent a several days in a field in Somerset. I listened to music, watched comedy and saw the odd politician. 1 I was lucky enough to attend Glastonbury Festival, a cornucopia of delights that I have gone to since I was fifteen. This was my seventh time at the festival. I have been to others in the meantime, but it remains the original and the best. It is a marvellous tent town where the outside world is put on hold for a while, where the normal rules no longer apply and where art and hope rules above everything else. I thought I’d write about why it remains so special to me and many others.
As a wide-eyed fifteen-year-old, I was amazed that such a place existed. There are hundreds of bands on and thousands of people. all gathered together to celebrate art. The scale of the site is Glastonbury’s real strength (and weakness). It is huge. Across 60 odd stages, there are so many acts on that it is impossible to keep track of them all. The size is staggering. What really blew me away when I was younger was the sheer variety of performances around the site. As well as music, there is poetry, circus, comedy and film. The whole five days are a celebration of art in all its myriad forms. Seeing all those different acts in one place made a significant impact on me. It showed me that what I had considered music and art was really only a very small section of the world. There were so many more people creating and playing and performing than I had ever realised. It was incredibly inspiring to be part of a larger community.
The community is one of the reasons many people return year after year. Hundreds of thousands of people come together to watch bands together. At it’s best, I found this experience to be profoundly moving. During Elbow’s secret set this year, I found myself weeping as thousands moved together as one, swaying and singing the lyrics together.2 You surrender your ego at the gates and become part of something larger than yourself. It is a secular form of worship, abandoning the self into the crowd to be completely engulfed and moved by the music. I desperately need to get out of my head at the best of times so I find it rejuvenating. As well as this, People are almost universally kind to one another. It’s how society should be. The day I arrived it was the hottest day of the year. I stood in a queue for five hours, then was dehydrated and exhausted once I got into the site. Many people stopped to offer me water or help. The same stories are repeated across the weekend. Kindness and joy rules.
Society has used festivals throughout history as a release valve, to suspend and disrupt the normal rules of life. It’s an escape from the system. Sometimes it’s a feasting day, other times a fool is appointed lord of misrule. The same pattern recurs throughout history. Glastonbury offers the same function, creating an alternate reality just for a few days where the rules of the outside world no longer apply. Because the site is so huge and in the middle of the countryside, it really feels removed from the restrictions of everyday society. You can stop working and celebrate being alive. So people do things they wouldn’t usually, like drinking at breakfast and taking drugs to party through the night four days in a row. But people also dress in massive, elaborate costumes and create even more visual splendour than the site offers. It is not just a one-way exchange, but two-way, where people collaborate to create a huge explosion of art and creativity. The relaxation of normal rules for five or so days allows the real world to be that much more bearable. It’s necessary to escape it for a while.
Ultimately though, the reason I love this particular music festival is that it is what you make of it. More than any other, it offers an incredible variety of acts and experiences. Want to stay by the main stage and watch popular acts? Want to stay up all night raving in a replica of a tower block? Or do you just want to spend the weekend watching various circus acts? Go for it. All of these options and more are available to you. You can choose how the festival is going to go for you. The only rule is you can’t see it all. There’s way, way too much on for that. Sometimes I wish I had a time turner so I could go back and see the bands that clashed. But the variety and wealth of experiences is incredible. I think it is a reminder that in real life, away from the music, you chose your own path. Those experiences are out there, you just have to choose them. You largely make your own luck.
I know this is over thinking what is essentially five days of listening to music in the sunshine. 3 But I really feel at home in the fields. I’ve been lucky enough to go across thirteen years and more than any other event it has shaped my outlook on music and life. Five days every couple of years has greatly impacted my outlook on life. I was weeping in Elbow not just because of the unity of the crowd, but also because they were one of the first bands I remember playing thirteen years ago. It felt like my life had almost come full circle. Places become special not through any mysticism or magic, but because of people visiting many times, building up stories with them. Glastonbury is a special place for me and I am glad I got to go again.