[sic] Magazine

Glastonbury Tales

Arrival and Thursday.

Intimidating. That’s not a word often associated with Glastonbury. But it all gets a little overwhelming as my feet reach out of the car and I step onto Worthy Farm’s hallowed grass for the first time. By then the enormity of the site has appeared on the horizon; its patchwork of blue and red tents sprawled like the world’s biggest picnic blanket. The ground beneath me is hard and undulating, not nearly as soft and comforting as I expected. Although I had mentally prepared, the amount of everything still manages to awe the senses. The amount of cars. The amount of people. The amount of fucking tents. Glastonbury unfolds its arms as I roll the sleeves up on mine. My one-too-many bags (or five-too-many bags and a wheelbarrow in other members of my party’s case) hug my back and hang off my arms and hands like overfed gorillas, as I stoop and walk with uneven stride toward the best times of my life.

Is this the nervous quiet before the storm perhaps? Or perhaps the nerves of a camper that are as raw as my burning, strap-indented shoulders. Pitching a tent in a field of 170,000 is not something a first-time camper looks forward to. Even finding space for a tent turns into an assiduous pursuit for precious real estate. Having arrived unfashionably late, Glastonbury’s many fields are bereft of grass. A garish cocktail of colourful polyesters and plastics are now strewn across its rolling hills. I lay my tent on damp grass, and as I scan the scarcely believable site from the lofty vantage of Pennard Hill I think about the insignificance of any one person in this field of massed humanity. Glastonbury is not a place for loners. Although it is hard to be anything other than a fleck of a person among all these people, it is simply impossible to run away or disappear. Sensing a feeling of slight homesickness, I correct my mindset and let intimidation be overcome by veneration.

The significance of Glastonbury hits you as you find your bearings in the first few hours. The empty Other Stage, looking like the black hollowed face of a giant wraith, is full of portent. The John Peel Stage and Dance Stages – standing like yellow and blue circus tops – look barely capable of housing the fervent crowds that will enter in the following days. Already, the wonderfully intoxicating local ciders seem to be taking their first victims as people lie prostrate on the grass under vestiges of sunlight and the gathering of cloud. The main stages and the vast spaces around them are hard to comprehend. Soon they will be overflowing with buoyant crowds, the kind of crowds I’d seen on the BBC and had always longed to be a part of. A Glastonbury crowd has always been just that, a Glastonbury crowd – never merely a festival crowd.

And then, as I walk eastward along the Old Railway Track, Glastonbury suddenly makes sense with a turn of 90 degrees. Going northwards along the main market stalls area with Glastonbury’s more traditional, spiritual heart lying in the Green Future and Healing Fields behind me, I face a heaving mob of colour and life and the realisation that all those tents equals all these people. Seeing such a volume of people instantly feels semi-biblical. OK, so the Israelites didn’t walk across the desert in hot pants and comedy t-shirts, but this kind of movement of people is a rare sight today. Like old times, there is the sense that people here are also seeking refuge, but today it is under the guise of escapism and hedonism.

Happy when it rains

The pace is busier and more rushed than I had expected. Stalls are overrun with demands for waterproofs, camping accessories and other last minutes or forgottens that escaped the minds of thousands of excited backpackers. I buy a waterproof jacket. The clouds and forecasts are far too threatening to ignore. But smiles are aplenty. The place is awash with them, though I can’t help think such well-fueled enthusiasm may burn itself out by Sunday twilight. What’s on the mind of this expectant throng? Who’s on Queen’s Head Stage, perhaps? What kind of set will Bruce Springsteen perform, perhaps? No. The universal thought is the same. Is it going to rain? When is it going to rain.

Until… the most bizarre rumour starts circulating the festival. People are drunk. It’s a festival. People will start these silly, juvenile stories. So Michael Jackson is dead. Really. No, really he’s dead. Look at my iPhone. Shit. It’s a strange feeling. Just by being at Glastonbury, it is probably not too big-headed to assume that I am part of the biggest news story of the weekend. The death of one of the world’s greatest icons and most creative musical talents has a way of changing the news somewhat. It didn’t alter the mood any. On the eve of the festival proper, the night becomes even more of a celebration.

As the rains fall, 170,000 people’s fears about the extent of the downpour hang in the sky as its very own cloud. It’s an odd sensation being pelted by rain while sleeping in a tent. With no feeling of rain or water, I might as well have been pelted with frozen peas or shot at by a thousand paintball guns. Although the day has been spent driving long distances, trudging long distances and reflecting on the long distances between stages, sleep refuses to come easy – as the violent noise of rain on tent batters my eardrums. Having a small, one-man tent doesn’t help either. It feels like I’m just another random item that has been left in a tumble dryer post-drying. I feel like a part of some kind of still chaos. Moving around the tent is difficult. Entering and exiting is often closer to dangerous.


Morning eventually arrives. Cold droplets of water splash onto my fingers as I unzip the tent door. Walking around a muddy Glastonbury doesn’t feel as bad as I thought it would. In many ways, it makes you more resolute. I will have a good time. I won’t let the rain and mud affect me. Aside from an intense but short bout of rain towards the end of the festival, Glastonbury isn’t hit by rain again. Even nearby towns have a worse time of it. We’d been saved. The amount of rain we do have has the strange effect of making things even more fun. With a now mandatory pair of wellies, navigating Worthy Farm’s fields and paths is an unexpected joy. I wanted to walk through the bigger puddles just as I had when I was a kid, and each time I did I couldn’t quite believe my feet were still dry. Glastonbury is good at that. It brings you back to your childhood without a hint of embarrassment.

Fleet Foxes

Friday was more a day of muddy exploration than music appreciation. My brother (and best Glastonbury guide there is) makes sure I know every square foot of this vast place before I leave. So extensive is my tour, I often miss or simply forget about the bands I had red-circled in the previous days. So extensive is Glastonbury’s scale, it is possible to remember who you want to see, plan to see them and still arrive a little tardily. But that really isn’t the point of being here. The music pricks up ears, yes, it might even make people buy tickets for the first time, but it is the indefinable, liminal feelings that cling to every surface and bleed through every person that make the hairs stand on end and bring on an almost constant smile.

With clouds clearing and smiles broadening, Fleet Foxes take to a Pyramid Stage bathed in sun. Harmonies bounce around the stage’s surrounding fields like an array of technicolour beams. People stand and let the music overcome them with its innocent messages of love, loss and friendship. No one in this field has any doubt what Glastonbury means now. Those who already knew simply nod in approval, smile in appreciation and close their eyes to take in the music.

Animal Collective

The night is spent at the new Park Stage. Hidden in the greener, northern hills of the site, the Park Stage is the perfect mix of intimacy, seclusion and big draw acts. Tonight, it’s Animal Collective. Transferring the futurism and experimentalism of Merriweather Post Pavilion to a stage was never going to be particularly straightforward. Ten minutes in and a considerable crowd is under hypnosis. I’ve taken some drugs in my time, but this performance doesn’t need any. It is nearer to real-life close encounters of the third kind. A dazzling sensory attack of synchronised light and sound mesmerises everyone here and closes the night with a few thousand minds lost out in space. We fall back down to muddy earth and prepare for Saturday.


Each morning is a struggle. Sleep deprivation is a common affliction for many here. Hangovers are slightly less prevalent than I thought they would be. The countryside air has a way of dealing with them. Smiles are a little less pronounced, however, and heads are a little less proud. I go on the hunt for a decent coffee and consult the band lists. Today will be a more focused outing. Glastonbury is a music festival, after all. Again, the Park Stage is one of the most satisfying locations, and the majority of the day is spent there. With the sun beating down from cloudless skies, the grassy knoll that overlooks the entire site and the stage provides a romantic setting from which to take in the warmth of the sun and relax to the melodious melancholy of The Low Anthem. Some bands are made for Glastonbury. Easy melodies and blissful harmonies help, of course. Brian Wilson, as always, has a lot to answer for. Between bands, I peer through squinted eyes and trace the movement of thousands of people. I think about how this year’s lineup owes so much to history. These fields have been privy to it all; contemporary music’s emergence, its generation and its constant regeneration. Underneath Glastonbury’s muddy top, its soils must be fertile.

Bombay Bicycle Club

Bombay Bicycle Club perhaps owe a little too much to history. The lead singer’s deep, unsettling croon sounds like Ian Curtis. Ironically, the band’s music sounds more like Interpol or Editors than it does Joy Division – younger bands needn’t look that far into the past. With the unrelenting sun likely to lead to unforgiving sunburn, we decide to rehydrate and reconfigure the day at the Acoustic Stage. With the heat starting to stifle, the Acoustic tent was the perfect retreat. Its shade, gentle breezes and a few cool ciders is exactly what the doctor ordered. No one is standing as Bap Kennedy takes to the stage. Quite a few had dozed off by then. Those that are still awake barely have the energy to tap their feet. It has been that kind of day. Fighting the incredible urge to sleep, I give myself a mental slap round the face and convince myself that sleeping in a darkened tent at Glastonbury is rather bad form. On to the Park Stage. The combination of Horace Andy and hot summer days is as classic as strawberries and cream. The sweet pungency of cannabis laces the air in anticipation and celebration. As the Park Stage collectively shakes its hips and the sun cools and deepens in colour, the realisation that we are more than half way through and nearing the festival’s climax dawns on everyone.

Florence and the Machine

The night pulls me in two directions. Florence and the Machine perform Glastonbury’s arguably most memorable set. With the packed-in audience in the palms of her hands, Ms Welch owns the John Peel Stage as bands destined to headline Glastonbury have in the past. By her infectious zeal and by her rousing songs, she communicates directly to the flag-waving throng. Waves of uncontainable energy ripple through the tent and erupt into nearly visible cascades. For that hour and a half, this crowd’s dog days are resoundingly over. On slightly dryer, firmer ground, I make my way back to Park Stage for a performance I wasn’t sure I wanted or needed. While a large portion of the Florence and the Machine crowd choose to stay on the crest of a wave with yesterday’s man, Bruce Springsteen, I choose to take a detour with one of today’s best singer-songwriters, Bon Iver.

Bon Iver

It is fitting that Bon Iver’s late set should be met with bracingly cold weather. The humidity of previous (and following) nights has been replaced by conditions closer to the wintriness of For Emma, Forever Ago – an album conceived in the winter wilderness. A respectful congregation of a few thousand makes time for gentle reflection; its knees huddled between shivering arms and chins. Hearing songs of loss forces a jolting mood change. The intimacy of the songs and the serenity of the setting is at odds with the the majority of the festival’s optimism and tempo. There is little conversation as the night grows colder and moths flicker about the departing crowd.

Sunday and departing day.

One day to go. And with one day to go the will to make the most of it is tempered by the fatigue that courses through everyone. Sun-burnt cheeks, unkempt hair and muddied clothes are commonplace. The spirit of Glastonbury may elude the faces of passersby, and the stride may have slowed to a snail’s pace, but the intention is still the same. We march around in the heat like the mad Englishmen that we are. Time for lunch. Scouring the many, many stalls for food is a daily pleasure. The world’s cuisine is available for hearty, well-deserved consumption, and for some reason, everything costs £7. Jerk chicken and Goan fish curry become my staple meals. Yes, everything at Glastonbury is a complete joy. Without any sense of reluctance, the heat and close humidity force me to take refuge once more in the brilliant acoustic tent. Although I collapse on the floor and breathe a sigh of relief, the majority of the crowd stands and waits for the Martin Harley Band. I bob my head and tap a swollen foot to the band’s bluesy ditties. My view is probably the worst in the house. All I can see is a forest of calves in wellies. The unimaginably sorrowful music of Kate Walsh is next. She explains that she still hasn’t cheered up much. I sit there, close my eyes and selfishly hope that she never does.

Unadvisedly, I summon the energy and elbow my way into the front of the crowd that awaits Imelda May. Three songs is the most that even the most enthusiastic dancer can last. As my energy levels bottom out, I decide instead to marvel at the awesome skill of her backing group. Their mastery of rockabilly blues is jaw-dropping. Imelda May is jaw-dropping. I pick up my muddy chin from the floor and wander in the direction of the John Peel Stage. As I correct my pace to blend with the slow-moving crowds, I take the chance to indulge in one of the the festival’s most enjoyable pursuits before the light recedes for the day. People-watching should be banned, it’s that much fun. Without becoming knee deep in a lechery swamp, the gap between hot pant and welly is a constant mood-lifter. Ladyhawke is rocking the stage by the time I arrive. Again, I can only watch from the tent’s exterior as the tent’s interior is packed in as tightly as the contents of a sardine box. Once the show is finished and people stumble out, I notice just how one-sided the crowd is. Just as with Florence and the Machine, the young female public has found another idol. Alternative music has always felt like the preserve of the young, white male, but the future looks bright for both genders. Confident, effortlessly sexy and naturally imbued with a sense of style, girls have powerful figureheads once again – and there’s no need for any kind of nauseating “girl power” artifice.


As I approach the final performance of the final day, I look around at the hordes that wait for Blur. There are as many emotions as there are people at Pyramid Stage. Some look reinvigorated. Some look relieved. Others are worn out ghosts of the people they were on arrival, barely capable of much emotion. I am tired, too tired to force my way to the very front. There’s something emotionally crushing about Glastonbury in its final throes. No one that is standing alongside me wants it to end and the normality to begin. Yet there is the universal acknowledgment that we’ve had it good, we’ve had our fill
. The two feelings collide wearily, as day finally turns into night. Blur’s set encapsulates a long weekend of emotions. Damon Albarn’s ebullience and energy is still evident as he leaps around the stage in a dizzy sweat – proving its not just the punters that are gleefully turning back time. The massed assembly follows his lead by proudly bellowing out lyrics like soldiers on a training run. It’s hard to see much of a stage that is obscured behind a still procession of flags, but then I’m not particularly bothered about what I can see. Simply hearing To The End, The Universal and Tender – ballads that punctuated my youth and described the simplicity of love to me – is, after a weekend such as this, a shattering denouement. As Damon collapses in tears, the crowd offers its shoulder by echoing his words: “Love’s the greatest thing, that we have…”

I sleep easy that night. I am a spent man. The clouds finally empty on Monday morning but no one cares. It has been a long while since weather dictated mood. As I make my way to the car and slowly leave Worthy Farm behind me, I am just one more vacant expression. Glastonbury asks a lot of everyone, but it gives it back ten-fold. Like everyone that emerges from these muddy fields, mine is a bigger and warmer heart. Until next year Glastonbury, I shall miss you.