Outside Edge: Never trust a festival over 40

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If nothing else, the visit of Prince Charles to Glastonbury this week tells us that the world’s most famous music festival is entering a very respectable middle age. Forty years after Michael Eavis first opened the gates of his Somerset farm to the counterculture, the event has become what all scourges of the establishment eventually must: a national treasure.

The milestone should make me worry, for the festival and I have grown up together. My parents were there at the outset, my mother becoming one of the faces of the Glastonbury Fayre in 1971 when she appeared on the cover of a booklet accompanying the festival LP. My father, for his part, had a cameo in Nicolas Roeg’s film about the event, flashing past in a conga-line of hippies. A hiatus followed, but by the time the festival was revived in 1979 I was around to participate in what was to become an annual pilgrimage.

This should put me in the camp of those veterans who bemoan Glastonbury’s transformation from an idealistic gathering of 1,400 into a global media event, where the BBC alone has despatched 400 staff to deliver real-time updates on everything from
the headline acts to the interiors of celebrities’ luxury motorhomes. I see their point, of course, but to join them would betray my younger self – because to be honest, I never quite got with it.

In fact, I came to dread that weekend in late June. I recoiled from the mud, the crowds and, most of all, the Augean squalor of the open toilets that became such a part of Glastonbury legend. Sulking in my tent, I would prefer the company of books to that of the older generation as it went about recapturing the spirit of ’71. Remember the prime minister who had run away from the circus to work in the City? Youthful rebellion can take strange forms.

True, a few moments punctured my determination to be unimpressed: seeing the vast crowd silenced by the anti-nuclear oratory of the historian E.P. Thompson, for example; or, better still, being the only 11-year-old in Glastonbury collecting ring pulls for a Blue Peter charity appeal, an exercise that earned me one of the programme’s coveted badges for young do-gooders.

By the early 1990s, I was old enough to opt out of the Glastonbury experience – at the precise moment, inevitably, that my friends decided en masse to opt in. But already the festival was changing. High ticket prices and even higher security did much to tackle a seamy underside that had at times appeared to threaten the festival’s future. Glastonbury became a little more like the world outside its perimeters – and the world outside became a little more like Glastonbury.

Yet through it all, one thing has remained constant, and will shape the experience of the 170,000 who descend on the festival this weekend just as it did that of the early pioneers. The toilets are still truly awful.

The writer is the FT’s deputy comment editor

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