‘It’s everyone coming back together’: why 200,000 of us couldn’t wait to get back to Glastonbury

·13 min read
<span>Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

At six o’clock on Wednesday morning, Emily Eavis is with her three children at the Glastonbury gates. Her youngest child is six, and has little knowledge of the beautiful chaos and cacophony that springs up here each June. Instead, the kids have grown accustomed to riding their bikes across the 360-hectare family dairy farm. “I think we’d got very used to the silence,” Eavis says. But now, after one fallow year and two pandemic summers, Glastonbury is back – and for its 50th year.

In the British social calendar it left a hole that represented so much more than just a wild few days away at a festival. It is the marriage of music and creativity and hedonism and politics and community. “I see Glastonbury as the annual explosion of the British soul,” says Mike Scott from the Waterboys. “Or maybe the weird side of the British soul.”

It’s why this year 200,000 people have been willing to wrestle with train strikes, fickle weather forecasts and the dread of festival toilets to head to this spot in the Vale of Avalon in Somerset. They are carried by the sweet promise of the days to come: of Paul McCartney on the Pyramid Stage, and cider at the stone circle, and late nights at NYC Downlow. After these long locked-down years, it’s time to find freedom again.

The festival’s countercultural heart is in the Green Fields, the area established in 1984 with the intention of putting “feelings before ideas” and providing a place of community. Today, this means blacksmiths, smudging, the stone circle, and a witch watch against Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant.

Shaz, centre, at the Green Fields with Beth (left) and India (right).
Shaz, centre, at the Green Fields with Beth (left) and India (right). Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Shaz, 56, from Shepton Mallet, is sitting outside her bag-making stall, Treacle Treats, considering whether it is yet an acceptable hour to add Baileys to her coffee. Last night was a late one: a trip down the hill to see the Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream, then over to Silver Hayes for a spot of dancing, and back to the Green Fields, where she chanced upon a band called Duncan Disorderly & the Scallywags: “The whole place was bouncing.” She got to bed at 6am.

It’s her 30th Glastonbury. “Oh!” she says, when asked what the return of the festival means to her. She covers her mouth with her hand and wipes her eyes. “Look, you’ve set me off!” she says. “It’s everyone coming back together.” What she likes most is the consortion of the young and the old. This year on site you are just as likely to see a pink-haired 70-year-old wearing a onesie and face paint as you are to see a teenager in the same bright regalia.

Shaz’s daughter is 20, and here with a large group of friends. Last night, Shaz recalls looking to her left as she danced, to see a friend she has known for 43 years, while on her right danced a crowd of teenagers. “Out in the world, you’re segregated,” she says. “But here we’re handing them the baton!” As if on cue, two of her daughter’s friends, both extravagantly dressed circus performers, stroll by and she rushes off to hug them.

In the Glastonburyless years, Shaz floundered. “I just missed it. It’s such a marker of the year. It affected my mental health. For me, the year undulates: in the summer I’m sociable, I’m out, I go to festivals, and then in the winter I slow down and go quiet. To have two years of winters was really horrible. It’s not right for humans to have endless winters.”

***

One of the problems with a festival of this size with limited phone reception is the vagaries of ever arranging to meet anyone. Equally ill-advised is trying to track down Jarvis Cocker, who has promised to let us accompany him on a buggy ride from his talk at the Free University of Glastonbury down to the Pyramid stage, where there will be an unveiling of Peter Blake’s new painting of Michael Eavis, the festival co-founder.

The crowd during the Libertines’ set at the Other stage.
The crowd during the Libertines’ set at the Other stage. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

When we arrive, Jarvis has left. We loiter a while at the Pyramid stage, until Michael Eavis emerges, wearing a pair of shorts and a “Peter Blake is 90” badge. What are his plans for the weekend? Paul Heaton, Paul McCartney, the underground piano bar. “It’s fantastic this year, after three years off.” He smiles. “I think I’m getting the hang of it now!”

As are Mandy Chan, 35, a lawyer from Birmingham, and Hayman Chong, 38, a business operations manager from London, who are queueing for the Somerset cider bus. They are here in a group of six sisters and cousins for their first ever Glastonbury. “We walked around on the first day and thought we’d seen it all,” says Chan. “But then we kept finding new things.”

Hayman Chong and Mandy Chan.
Hayman Chong and Mandy Chan. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

On Wednesday, they dragged their six-man tent up the hill to Michael’s Mead, their friendly neighbours helping them to set up, only to find it was too big to fit in their chosen spot. So they lugged it back down the hill and under a tree, where their new neighbours aided the repitching. “I didn’t expect everyone to be so friendly,” says Chan, relieved.

After the pandemic’s reduction of social contact, the mood is more open than ever. Emily Eavis, who has been helping to run the festival for more than 20 years, agrees – even noting there is less litter and queue-jumping. “It’s as if the experience we’re all been through has brought a hypersensitivity,” she says. “No one’s taking anything for granted.”

On Saturday morning I walk around the site at the strange festival hour when the last stragglers are heading back, while the early risers are unzipping their tents and heading for the showers. There is the sound of tooth-brushing, and murmuring beyond canvas, the scent of the morning earth, and the breakfast stalls heating up.

By one of the water stations I meet Yas, 19, who has the pale, happy face of someone who has not been to bed. “I’m not sure where I ended up,” she tells me. “I lost everyone and then I found everyone, but I met some new people, too.” She has glitter all over her face. “It isn’t mine,” she says. “It’s just from hugging people.”

Behind her, Mike, 54, is filling up a camping kettle to make tea for his wife. “I like seeing the festival at this time of day. I like walking about and wondering what went on the night before.”

For five days, the world beyond the perimeter fence seems a distant land. But if it’s big enough, news will break through – Britain hearing it would be leaving the European Union in 2016, or the sudden death of Michael Jackson in 2009, when people bellowed the news, like town criers in waterproof ponchos.

This year, on Friday afternoon, the US supreme court votes to overturn Roe v Wade. All weekend the news ripples across the site, with performers slamming the decision on stage: Billie Eilish declares it a “dark day”, Phoebe Bridgers lambasts “those irrelevant old motherfuckers trying to tell us what to do with our fucking bodies”, Megan Thee Stallion invites the crowd to chant “My body, my choice” along with her, and Olivia Rodrigo lists the names of every single supreme court judge who voted for the legislation change, then invites Lily Allen on stage to perform her song Fuck You.

Self Esteem backstage.
Self Esteem backstage. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

When I meet Rebecca Taylor, the artist known as Self Esteem, backstage ahead of an acoustic set, she has yet to hear. “What?” she says. She is part-way through taking off her jumper, and for a moment as the shock settles, it sits swathed around her head. “WHAT?”

Taylor is well placed to explain what this festival means to a performer. The last time she played here was in 2019, when she wore a dress made out of Boots Advantage Cards (a take on costume designer Lizzy Gardiner’s American Express Gold Card dress). This year, her stage outfit combines her loves of Madonna’s cone bra and Sheffield Meadowhall shopping centre, and she is lined up to appear on three separate stages, along with a guest spot with Pet Shop Boys. It is, she notes, a reminder of how far she has come since her last time playing here.

“I’m working on not needing validation from anyone, but I still need validation from a decent Glastonbury slot,” she says. “I really love what it stands for, what it does. This is the world I want to live in, here. Maybe fewer flower crowns.”

Hoping for a similar trajectory are the Leeds band English Teacher, who earned their Friday-morning spot on the John Peel stage as finalists in the festival’s Emerging Talent contest. All are Glastonbury novices, with the exception of guitarist Lewis Whiting, who attended several came years ago with his mum. She is here too. “She didn’t even have a ticket,” he says, with mock outrage. “But she wrote to Emily Eavis and told her this whole sob story about wanting to see her son play, and Emily gave her a ticket!”Mike Scott is a veteran, having played Glastonbury 11 times. This year he has even written a song, Glastonbury Fair, in tribute. “The first time we played was 1984 – my first ever festival,” he says, when we meet in the garden behind the Acoustic stage. “We were one of the first bands on, playing about midday on the Pyramid stage.”

He remembers how big the crowd was and how close they were. “Me and the drummer stayed up all night, ingested various substances, and I’ll never forget seeing Glastonbury Tor in the pink dawn at five in the morning on the skyline,” he says.

Mike Scott of The Waterboys
Mike Scott of The Waterboys. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“I don’t know if it’s because so many people have played the same spot, but on the Pyramid stage you feel the presence of all the bands that have played before. It always felt like it was playing me.”

Jarvis Cocker says he can meet us up at the Park stage if we get there before 5.30pm. It is 5.15pm, and we are far away on the opposite side of the site, so we run through the crowds, along the train tracks, past people pulling wagons full of children, and freestyle MCs, jugglers kissing couples, people in fancy dress, and couples sprawled out on the grass, disco napping before the night starts in earnest, and on and on, through throngs of dancers, pupils like moons, and people waving inflatable unicorns and queues for beer and crumpets and halloumi fries, and when we finally reach the Park we find that Jarvis has left. And we stand deflated and sweaty in the late afternoon sun.

Instead we chat to Nic and Andy, sitting outside a pasta stall. Nic, 38, a learning designer from Brighton, is wearing large lightning-bolt earrings, and Andy, 37, a Team GB table tennis player from Devon, has added rainbow-coloured spokes to his wheelchair. They have been to Glastonbury many times. “I love how you can be who you want, and wear what you want, and do what you want, be crazy if you want,” says Nic. “It’s been a long time coming, this one.”

Andy and Nic.
Andy and Nic. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

They have been making up for the lost years, however. Last night they stayed out till all hours, but somehow it was only this morning that Andy realised he had acquired a flat tyre. Getting about the festival is easy with his chair’s electrical attachment – “It’s detachable, which allows me to dance,” he says. “If you come to the festival as a wheelchair user you can bypass the crowds. Last night in Arcadia we got right up to the spider!”

Andy’s neighbours, Linden, 72, and Geof, 74, join us. They first came to the festival in 1970, when it was held on the Bath and West Showground. “It was prog rock and blues,” Linden remembers. It was not long after they met. “Love at first sight and all that,” Geof says. This weekend he is wearing the velvet coat she made for him that year.

They have been many times since. They talk about the year Jeremy Corbyn went on stage, the Thai curry, and their camper van, and the delights of watching Beans on Toast playing a song called There’s Always Money for War. “What we love about Glastonbury is it’s inclusive,” Linden says. “It gives you a vision of a different world. It’s important to keep that flame alive.

In his hotel room, Jarvis Cocker picks up the telephone. “Hello, Laura?” he says. He sounds a little sleepy. It has already been a busy festival – today he has read from his new book, and the previous evening he was spotted in the crowd at Primal Scream. Tomorrow he will play with his band JARV IS on the Park stage. “I’m sorry about today,” he says.

He recalls how he first came to the festival in 1984, and swore never to return, only making it back in 1994, to play with Pulp. And then again the following year, filling in at the last moment for the Stone Roses, after John Squire broke his collarbone on a bike ride. It was a huge moment for Cocker and for Pulp, and is widely remembered as one of the festival’s finest performances, the set debuting Sorted for E’s & Wizz and crowned by Common People.

He is halfway through telling me about it when the line falls silent. We play phone tag then I get a text: “I don’t think this is going to work,” he says. The little dots of the iPhone flicker.

When his message lands it is a perfect summation of what it means to be here, and why Glastonbury matters so very much to so many:

“‘95 was the biggie,” he writes. “We had to camp because there were no hotels left. And that’s when I finally got it. You have to submit to Glastonbury. It really is the last festival carrying those ideals from the counterculture forward into the 21st century: get over yourself, go with it. Once you can do that you can have the best time ever. It’s magical.”

You feel that different world everywhere here; a fierce sense of togetherness that had seemed so lost and so impossible in the pandemic, and that for all our recent return to life – to shows and theatre and holidays and on to crowded train platforms and into packed summer parks, had yet to really catch fire.

To stand pressed-close in a crowd this weekend and hear so many singing along carries a kind of wonder. It’s there at Wolf Alice, and Haim, and Big Thief. It’s at Megan Thee Stallion, and Idles, and Skunk Anansie.

It reaches its apotheosis of course in Paul McCartney’s Saturday-night set, when for all the glamorous guest stars (Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl) and the technical wizardry (allowing a duet with John Lennon), the real heart-lurch comes from the simple joy of standing in a crowd that stretches forever, every voice lifted to join the chorus of Hey Jude. As the tune carries out into the night, it feels as if the sad song of the last two years has somehow been made just a little better.

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