With a capacity of 177,500 the festival is, for those few days, the 32nd largest town in the country, and 20 times the size of Glastonbury town. The Dance Village on Thursday night had a feel of a town centre on a Friday night: a throng of young people inappropriately dressed for the weather, stumbling without aim as a single inebriated mass.
But, where else would you learn how to gauge the depth and viscosity of mud by sight? This skill has few practical applications in our urbanised lives, but for one weekend, it was of utmost importance.
Where else can you hike for miles through mud and rain to reach Shangri-La? Where else can you see guitar king Duane Eddy while 100 feet away in the sauna-hot Cabaret tent, a magician is juggling active stun guns over the nervous body of a ‘lucky’ punter? Where else can you see Beyonce on the same day as John Cooper Clarke?
I’ve seen Glastonbury referred to as ‘Disneyland for adults’ which doesn’t seem quite accurate… but there is definitely a sense of the absurd and theatrical running through the festival. The Theatre and Circus may be bright and loud but there’s also the diseased dystopia of Shangri-La and the constructed ruination of Block 9 for those who like a bit of staging for their bacchanal. At every turn, the festival begs for your attention. It is now so big that nobody can experience the whole thing, and even trying to see your whole wish list is a hard task.
It definitely pays to be prepared: the difference between wearing flip-flops and wellington boots is the difference between calamity and success. This year I went for a pair of army boots which allowed me to storm through even the stickiest mud like I was on manoeuvres with the Irish Guards. On the other hand, heavy boots are only heavier when covered in mud.
Even us set list collectors, with our gold dust ‘Backstage All Areas’ laminates, find Glastonbury to be a logistical challenge. There are 60 stages and 11 of us to cover them, which is maths that will never quite add up as we’d like. Still, this year we managed to reach 21 stages, with attempts made at some of the smaller stages too. There’s nothing like making contact with our members in their natural habitat!
Pilgrims to today’s Glastonbury are a relatively diverse group – although observations that the audience remains conspicuously, predominantly white do remain somewhat true – and have different aims. Not everyone is there to go crazy, and not everyone wants to wallow in mud and grime! It always amazes me to see people, even on the final day, who have perfect hair and make-up and spotless, uncreased clothes. On the other end of the scale, some punters are happy to get covered in mud on the first night and stay that way for the whole weekend. Or indeed, walk around naked but for hats and sandals, as seen more than once on Sunday.
Still, for all the diversity, there are recurring themes: drink and money. Like the ancient pilgrim trail to the Abbey, there are plenty of people looking to make some money from catering stalls, merch stands, fairy wing retailers and shamans. Like pilgrims of old, festival-goers consciously take part in the commercial side. Critics, who say that Glastonbury has ‘gone corporate’ might do well to remember that in 1970 the festival was already being accused of being too commercial. Even so, £6.50 seems a bit steep for a small plate of veggie chilli...
To be honest, it’s near-impossible to explain Glasto. Until you’re stood in the middle of the crowd singing along with Stevie Wonder (2010), until you’ve watched so-called Paddy-rockers The Popes follow The Wombles, until you’ve seen the madness of Shangri-La at 2am… you’ll never know the many mixed feelings it invokes. For all the criticism, it remains an utterly unique experience each year.
To be honest, if you watched the coverage on TV in your warm, dry home, with a cuppa and some snacks to hand, you probably had the best deal. But maybe ask me again in a couple of weeks when the blisters have gone and the sunburn has faded. I’ll probably have changed my mind.
Dispatch from the front line, by Clare Worley, PRS support services, set list collector 2011.
Read an insider's review of the East Dance Tent - performances including Skepta, Ke$ha, Professor Green...