A classicist at Glastonbury: ‘Headbanging in raincoats? It’s as English as Gardeners’ Question Time’

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

It’s a cliche you overhear people saying to their first-timer friends as they enter the site: Glastonbury festival is a city, in which 200,000 people live for just less than a week and which has no purpose other than pleasure. It is, indeed, the sort of impossible city that you can imagine Jorge Luis Borges writing a story about.

But until you have climbed the hill to what they call the Crow’s Nest, by the embers of the giant bonfire lit to mark the festival’s opening, it is difficult to absorb the grandeur and absurdity of the fact that, almost as far as the eye can see, this broad valley is covered in tents and pavilions and stages and waves and eddies of innumerable people. There is a bit in Homer’s Iliad where we are told that the campfires burning in the Greeks’ camp at Troy are as bright and numerous as the stars on a clear night. This came to mind when I gazed down at the Glastonbury festival.

I have never been to Glastonbury before. These are the summer festivals I like: the Proms. Edinburgh – especially the book festival. Glyndebourne. It’s not that I don’t regard Glastonbury as culturally important; it’s more that I dislike crowded places and have an old-fashioned respect for properly built sewers. Still, invited to taste the world’s biggest music festival – a glaring gap in my experience – who am I to refuse?

Charlotte Higgins at Laura Bam Bam’s laughing yoga workshop
At Laura Bam Bam’s laughing yoga workshop. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Nevertheless, anxiety soon sets in. I throw myself on the mercy of my colleague Laura, who engineers for me, with touching patience, a list of recommendations from the bewildering lineup and a playlist. Packing is a whole other nightmare. “Bring something fun,” says my friend Alicia, which leads to at least an hour’s fruitless coat-hanger-flicking in charity shops. The only “fun” item I possess is a jumpsuit, which I rule out: a hem coming into contact with the floor of a festival loo strikes me as undesirable. I post my packing list to Instagram in hope of tips. My inclusion of tweeds – a practical pair of trousers I sometimes use for gardening – is roundly derided.

On the road trip to the festival from London, I am initiated by my friend David into an undignified pre-Glastonbury ritual: decanting 750ml of whisky into a plastic bottle in the car park of Frome Asda. (No glass is allowed at the festival.) But let’s move on.

On my first day, I go to the Healing Field, which strikes me as as good a place as any to start my exploration. Here, I join in with some Osho meditation, which involves breathing exercises alternated with bouts of cathartic screaming. I also sign up for the supposedly stress-relieving Alexander technique, find that gong baths are booked out and pass on the holistic palmist, who is sitting in his tiny enclosure with his shirt off, munching on a packet of Walkers crisps.

The DJ Sherelle attacks her work with the seriousness of a librarian reshelving the rare books section

While enquiring about a cacao ritual (no idea), I meet a woman called Laura Bam Bam who recommends her laughter yoga class. This is not the yoga I know; it feels more like drama-class warmup. One minute, we are doing a “Dr Evil” cackle; the next, roaring like lions, then hooting derisively at an imagined post-Glastonbury credit card bill, which seems a sensible exercise given that tickets are £280. At the end, we lie down in a circle. Whatever comes is OK, we are told – and what comes is little tides of giggles, rising to big breakers of belly laughs. All these workshops are offered for free, or for donations. It is altogether delightful.

Later, David walks me to what is officially, if uninspiringly, called the South East Corner, but which my friends call “the naughty corner”. I have no idea where we are going – and my disorientation will continue, despite a map, not least because many of the festival stewards seem as confused as I am. This is unsurprising, I suppose, since this settlement didn’t exist a week ago and will disappear again in a few days. (Plus, the distances are prodigious – on Thursday, I walk nearly 14 miles.)

The lights of a funfair – or, rather, of the Unfairground – twinkle through the trees. David conveys me to a bar called Maceo’s, then ushers me, thanks to a wristband, round the back of the urinals to a backstage area. Beautiful drag queens glide past like exotic butterflies. David lifts a curtain that acts like a portal into another world – we are at the back of a club, NYC Downlow, the exterior of which I was just marvelling at. It’s an entire building made to resemble a New York meatpacking warehouse from the 1980s, here in a field in Somerset. Two nights later, I will be in there, dancing in a dark, crazy crush of sweaty bodies. In my gardening tweeds.

Charlotte Higgins get an Alexander technique treatment at Glastonbury from Ticca Ogilvie
Charlotte Higgins get an Alexander technique treatment from Ticca Ogilvie. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Three nights later, I have a surreal montage of a night during which I stand in a field with a crowd while a giant spider hurls bursts of flame in my rough direction while a tiny Calvin Harris does his thing inside its body. (I cannot fathom it either.) Then we are back in NYC Downlow. When we leave, the gulls are circling in a blushing dawn.

What of the music? I find myself too old for Billie Eilish’s wide-eyed injunctions to be grateful and not to judge each other. I absolutely love St Vincent, with her furious songs and her take-no-shit scowl. I bathe gratefully in Arooj Aftab’s subtle harmonies, but find Phoebe Bridgers a touch too soulful for my mood.

Related: ‘Miraculously we’re here’: St Vincent, Paul McCartney, Billie Eilish and more meet biggest Glastonbury crowd in years

From the back of the Pyramid stage crowd, I watch Wolf Alice as the drizzle sets in. Under these conditions, a British person at a festival, with their face glitter, sequined jacket and bucket hat, is but a rain shower away from a British person on a walking holiday, with their sturdy boots and cagoule. A couple of people do some headbanging in matching yellow rain cloaks. It is as English as Gardeners’ Question Time.

On Thursday, the day before the bands get going, I find myself at a stage called the Lonely Hearts Club, where I am supposedly meeting friends, but then not. Doing a set is a DJ called Sherelle. (Wikipedia tells me that her “sets and mixes have been described as breakbeat, acid house and footwork”.) After a bit, I am into it, dancing on my own. Sherelle, dressed entirely in white, attacks her work with the seriousness of a librarian doing a spot of reshelving in the rare books section.

Charlotte Higgins at Glastonbury’s club NYC Downlow
Living it up at NYC Downlow. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

After Sherelle, I head to the cinema tent, the Pilton Palais, for a screening of Orlando. Here, I meet up with friends. We spend a long night grazing, pausing for mojitos, then burritos, then bhajis, then rum-and-apple, then doughnuts, before deciding on a whim to head to a drumming circle by the stone circle (“only built in the 1990s, but still very sacred”, according to my friend Hannah). We take in a bit of trapeze and light candles in the peace dome, then head to the Glade, a stage beneath oak trees, for what is supposed to be a set by the DJs CamelPhat, but isn’t. We weave our way into the crowd and dance for a bit anyway.

Later, wandering back to the campsite, one of my friends asks: “What would Kenneth Clark have made of it? Would he have thought this was civilisation?” It’s a good question. Glastonbury is either a highly advanced form of civilisation, or the opposite – a form of anticivilisation. The food, the toilet stench, the rubbish that piles up underfoot, the bodies, the sweat, the desire, the intoxication: everything that is raw and human is visible, on the surface, not buried or tidied away, as in normal life.

My bedtime reading here is Euripides’ The Bacchae, a play about people who, impelled by Dionysus, leave the city behind and camp in the wilderness, worshipping, mostly peacefully, the god who presides over the state of being out of your head. Well: here we all are.

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