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Artillery Row

Deep England

Glastonbury isn’t just for leftists

Glastonbury Festival occupies a curious space in English culture. It has grown from a hippy folk and rock music festival, held on a dairy farm in Somerset, into a global phenomenon. It is the blueprint for the modern music festival, one of the few truly iconic festivals in the world — rivalled only by Coachella in the United States.

Despite its fame, it is not universally celebrated in this country. Were one to read press coverage and online commentary about the festival, it appears to be at the heart of Britain’s culture wars. Musicians stand on stage and campaign for open borders and climate justice, crowds sing anti-Tory chants and eulogise Jeremy Corbyn, charity-run showers are signposted for those who “identify” as men or women, and urinals for “womxn” have been erected across the site. The festival boasts a mantra of “leave no trace”, yet the site often looks like a landfill come the end of the festival. Every speaker calling for open borders does so behind multiple security walls and increasingly high ticket prices.

Glastonbury is an essential slice of English culture, fit for all of the English

So far, it seems the perfect haven for yoghurt-weaving guardianistas to safely indulge their vices and brandish their virtues. As someone who has been to the festival multiple times over the last 15 years, however, initially as a teenager celebrating the end of his GCSEs, I think this picture is misleading. It obscures the fact that Glastonbury is an essential slice of English culture, fit for all of the English.

The festival itself is huge. Over 200,000 people pay to attend, and tens of thousands more work there, many because they missed out on tickets. Between two and three million people try to buy tickets each year, even as they jump in price, more than doubling from my first visit in 2009 to this year’s cost of £350. The demand to attend is huge, with good reason. If there’s good weather, it is a glorious holiday for attendees. Indeed it should be thought of more as a camping holiday with music, rather than the activist movement that much press coverage implies.

First, it is incredibly good value. The £350 ticket gives festival-goers access to music across 63 stages over four days, which includes music played into the early hours and beyond. This compares to £290 for merely seven stages of music at Reading Festival. The BBC’s coverage, which focuses on a small number of stages, tends to obscure this; it is understandable how someone watching at home might think it is a grand rip off.

Going to see the individual bands would be a far more expensive endeavour. Take some of the biggest acts at this year’s Glastonbury as an example. Tickets to see Queens of the Stone Age in London this year will cost well over £100, as will tickets to see Guns N Roses at Hyde Park. The remaining dates on Elton John’s world tour will cost hundreds of pounds to attend, more than the cost of a ticket to the entirety of Glastonbury in some cases.

Then it is the festival’s unexpected universality. In 2000, Boris Johnson attended the festival with Billy Bragg, whilst he was editor of the Spectator. After reciting passages from the Iliad on stage in Greek, Boris said he admired a “natural toryism” to the festival and its attendees. The people there camping and selling their wares demonstrated their individual gumption and self-reliance, part of a great capitalist extravaganza taking place on Worthy Farm over the course of a long weekend.

This was naturally a typical case of Boris Johnson mischief, but it hinted at a different reality to the festival that goes beyond Billy Bragg and the memorials to the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It isn’t just a commercial behemoth, but as much a set piece event in the English summer season as watching the Ashes. Many will do both.

This is only really apparent when one is on-site. Whilst a recent article in the Sunday Times suggested Glastonbury was some sort of movement, a special place which attendees think should be an example for the rest of the world, it seems different to me.

Its setting in a rolling Somerset valley roots it in an ancient English landscape

Instead it feels like a carnival for all of England at once, middle England as well as its bohemian fringes. Whether it was three generations of one family sitting on the hillside on inflatable sofas, flying the Union Jack and a banner emblazoned with “it’s five o’clock somewhere!” and a pina colada, or the huge crowds of youngsters sporting the party uniform of the era (bucket hats and skin-fade haircuts for the boys; chunky black boots, denim shorts and tiny sparkly tops for the girls) the sheer normality of attendees is as striking as the eccentrics present as well. The surprising ubiquity of St George’s crosses fluttering over crowds and campsites — some with local football club names written on them, “Blaydon Mags”, “Hull City, pride of Yorkshire” — brought a flavour of the football terraces and the Euros to the festival. There was a sense of people from all over the country coalescing on a corner of Somerset for a weekend blowout.

The tedious leftism at the festival cannot be denied. The last Corbynites in the jungle are ever-present, and the murals across the site exhibit every left-wing cliche imaginable. The most annoying was a banner calling for the nationalisation of Clarkson’s Farm. It is hardly as if performative leftism weren’t present in the rest of our cultural life, though. This week, English cricket is subjecting itself to a pointless bout of self-flagellation over discrimination in the sport. It is hard to single out one music festival as the vanguard of progressivism when the country’s Conservative government marches in lockstep with much of it anyway. Despite the huge crowds cheering for Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury in 2017, many attendees today seem slightly bemused by much of the politics on display, if not exactly opposed.

Glastonbury Festival has become an important part of our culture, with good reason. Its setting in a rolling Somerset valley, in view of the Glastonbury Tor, roots it in an ancient English landscape. The references to Avalon throughout the festival conjure memories of mediaeval Wessex, the feasts and festivals of Camelot. Rather like Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem, it could only take place in the West Country, where respectable provincial England and anarchic crusties collide in a particular fashion. For some it is a holiday in the countryside with their family; others treat it like a weekend of pure hedonism or a spiritual adventure. Overall, it is a piece of England that the whole country can share in, just as long as they don’t mind the loos.

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