Glastonbury isn’t just a fleeting experience – it’s a mirror of society | Miranda Sawyer

From green activism to food to sexual politics, the festival adopts the trends and sells them to the world

Glastonbury is another world. At least, that’s what it feels like when you’re there: it’s so vast, so utterly overwhelming. The size of Colchester is the latest comparison (as though that means anything to anyone). At night, if you stand at the back of the Green Fields, you can see the festival stretching down, twinkling, filling the valley all the way to the lit-up cross.

Our tent is small, and so are you. Teeny-tiny you is inside enormous Glastonbury, part of it at all times, whether you’re being teased by drag queens in Block9, watching the sun come up in the Sacred Space, traipsing along the surprisingly quiet main drag in the heat or curled up on your coat in the foetal position somewhere between the Left Field and the Glade, wondering if you’ll ever stop shaking. It’s a Narnia of escapism, of living in the moment, a fantasy break away from the everyday. A bubble of joy – or at least a hiccup of concentrated sensation – in a world of never-ending routine. “In Glastonbury,” tweeted a friend yesterday, “my life is perfect and unsustainable.”

The experience of Glastonbury is so intense and fleeting, in fact, that it seems obvious to think of it as separate from everyday life. Surely this once-in-the-year carnival is a magical world that disappears as soon as you turn your back? But Glastonbury doesn’t float above the cow fields. It is plugged into our culture, deeply rooted. Not just in its locality – this is not about the ancient mysteries of Avalon, though some of us have time for that – but in our society. Glastonbury is born of the normality that we return to; its culture grows from its time.

In the late 80s, when the posters for Glastonbury still made reference to1960s psychedelia and the main stage was a pyramid because a pyramid was deemed to have special powers; when the drugs on offer were mostly acid and mushrooms, and the lasers were green and seemed as though they came from the future; back then, Glastonbury had a DIY, anarcho feel. There was a Travellers’ camping field and soap-dodgers (dogs on strings, road warriors): a big-booted, dreadlocked scary army. They drove through the festival in their Mad Max vehicles. Around that time, Archaos, the alternative French circus, performed on top of the Pyramid stage for three nights running, with a man walking the high wire and crashed cars plummeting down the sides. What can I say? It was of its time.

Glastonbury is banning single use plastics. The world’s largest greenfield festival wants to avoid scenes of the area in front of its legendary stages being strewn with plastic after the shows have ended. In 2017, visitors to the festival got through 1.3m plastic bottles. 

For 2019, festival co-organiser Emily Eavis said “We’re asking people to bring a reusable bottle to the festival this year, which can be filled up from one of 37 WaterAid kiosks or 20 refill stations.”

People are also being encouraged to take other steps to limit their impact on the environment, such as using public transport to get to the venue, avoiding the use of undegradable wet wipes, not leaving their tents behind to prevent them ending up in landfill, and opting for biodegradable glitter instead of the plastic kind.

This year the festival will also feature a procession held by climate crisis activists Extinction Rebellion.

As was the Madchester Glastonbury, some time in the early 90s, when hundreds of gatecrashers came in over the wall (easiest at the back of the festival), or under it and out through a conveniently positioned tent, popping through the flap one by one like a silent comedy sketch. That time when every crowd pressure point, the tight spaces where you crossed rivers or cut back along the train track, was full of Reni-hatted scallies, pushing pills.

We could be here for ages. Each Glastonbury is different. Mostly, you recall them by the mad things that happened: that one where the hippy fell out of the tree and his friends called for an ambulance by whistling down the valley to each other; that one where the naked, middle-aged woman masturbated next to the bandstand; that one with the man with the duck. Sometimes, you remember the bands, but they tend to be the backdrop, rather than the action. It’s the people who are the festival. Different people now, dressed differently, dancing to different music, doing different drugs. You could call this fashion, of course. Or you could call it society.

From the outside, Glastonbury appears to be a festival that has, as the dads say, its finger on the pulse. It generates news: minor royals getting down with the kids; “Wooh, Jeremy Corbyn”. This year, that chant has gone, replaced by Stormzy’s “fuck the government, fuck Boris” and the climate activism march through the ground by Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace. There are more queer people at Glastonbury, drawn by Block9, and the fact that Pride is on a different weekend, for once.

Glastonbury isn’t the first with trends, but it adopts them and brings them to mainstream attention, sells them to those who would never dream of going to a festival, the sofa-bound, tweeting, Fomo’d music lovers. There is an ebb and flow of influences, in and out of Glastonbury and everyday life. Health and safety culture, green activism, the fabulosity and kindness of drag queens, grime acts as pop stars. No plastic water bottles this year, everyone filling their own camping bottle from taps – this is starting to happen on the high street. And food: today’s pop-up, dirty burger, queue-forever dining experience is a direct descendant. If you’re having a meal in an indoor-outdoor food market, sitting on a wooden bench, eating from a tin plate – that comes from Glastonbury. If you’re going glamping – nature plus hedonism – likewise. Wearing sequins to an everyday event? Doing yoga, then balloons? Valuing experience over ownership? “Making” – God help you – “memories”? Glastonbury has got to you. Even if you’ve never been.

“It’s amazing,” someone said to me recently, “how Glastonbury seems to be the first with everything.” Well, duh. No matter how amazing the environment, how wonderful the bands, how trippy the new head-on-its-side stage, festivals exist because of the people who go there. Festival-goers are not passive consumers of extreme experience – many are active, ha ha – they bring themselves to the action. They are the action. All the small excitements, the individual joys, the silly moments with strangers. If you’re there, you are Glastonbury. In the words of now: it you. And though it might seem like a magical bubble, so much so that you cry when you see your front door because it’s over, you take Glastonbury home with you and, from there, out into the world. Into normal life.

• Miranda Sawyer is the Observer radio critic and feature writer


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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