Leaving Lost Vagueness: how Glastonbury left bohemia behind

Documentary recording the rise and fall of the anarchic festival-within-a-festival goes on release

It was the after-midnight naughty corner of the Glastonbury festival, a tucked-away stretch of the Somerset fields where tens of thousands of revellers flocked when the bands stopped playing.

They called it Lost Vagueness – an ironic pastiche of a Las Vegas strip with casinos, theatrical bars, naked burlesque, even an “unholy” wedding chapel and a boxing ring.

Now the festival-within-a-festival, which ended in 2007, is the subject of a documentary, released to coincide with Glastonbury’s fallow year. The film, Lost in Vagueness, was shot over 12 years by director Sofia Olins, who describes it as a journey from “anti-society DIY debauchery” to “prescribed corporate anarchy” – a shift she believes is indicative of Britain’s modern festival culture.

“I’d grown up in the rave scene when we all wore tracksuit bottoms and acted completely asexual,” Olins says. “So when I jumped into Lost Vagueness it felt scary, dirty and weird. But aesthetically, it blew my mind.”

Lost Vagueness was born in the 90s out of Glastonbury’s battle with new age travellers – a convoy of drifters who believed Michael Eavis’s annual bash should remain true to its roots as a “free” people’s festival. “There was going to be a crunch time where all of us were either going to get beaten up by the police or thrown out. Something had to change,” said Roy Gurvitz, who emerged as the travellers’ unofficial leader.

Gurvitz wanted to save the movement but knew it had to reinvent itself. After intense negotiations with Eavis, they carved out a piece of Worthy Farm, in the south-east corner, as the travellers’ new base.

What happened next, though, nobody could have predicted. In a moment of inspired irony, Gurvitz persuaded his entourage to ditch their army fatigues and start wearing tuxedos and ball gowns instead.

Lost in Vagueness trailer.

“We put on a disguise, and lo and behold everybody looked at us very differently,” he says.

They set up a cafe, with a small casino and a tent for ballroom dancing. Almost overnight, Glastonbury’s “travellers’ problem”, as Eavis had called it, disappeared and ticket sales began to pick up. “It changed the image of Glastonbury forever, it meant that you could come and do something else. It wasn’t just a muddy field,” says Olins.

Lost Vagueness took off big time. The tents got bigger, the number of bars grew and the shows and performances took on a life of their own. In its heyday, in the mid-noughties, 50,000 revellers would head to the “strip” for the late-night entertainment. But over the years, the sedate 1920s ballroom dancing gave way to hedonistic anything-goes parties.

“People had a certain expectation of a Lost Vagueness gig: they didn’t want it to be sanitised, they wanted the whole thing to be completely debauched,” says Leila Jones, who produced many of the acts. “It was an excessive period, and part of the package was that we had to be super-excessive. It wasn’t sustainable.” The turning point, she says, was when Lost Vagueness, the brand, started to be approached by corporate groups to run their parties. “When people are coming to you with offers of proper money – how do you retain your integrity? They wanted us to be debauched idiots but then suddenly you’re hosting a party for MTV. The two things weren’t compatible.”

By 2007, its final year, the Lost Vagueness site had tripled in size. Issues of health and safety were becoming a headache, and Gurvitz was getting harder to negotiate with. “In those final years, Roy was so full of anger and jealousy, and he was behaving irrationally,” says Jones.

Gurvitz remains defiant. “You try organising 2,000 people who think they’re anarchists,” he says. The problem, as he sees it now, is that the monetisation of Lost Vagueness happened too fast. “We weren’t accustomed to working like that, nobody was. What we were doing was at the cutting edge of performing arts. But dealing with tens of thousands of people was stressful.”

Roy Gurvitz seen in footage from the film.
Roy Gurvitz seen in footage from the film. Photograph: PR Company Handout

He insists, too, that the “powers-that-be” at Glastonbury wanted him out. “What we were doing had become too leftfield for them,” he says. “I started to feel like the enemy, like I was being demonised by people whose objective was to push me out and take over that area. They saw it had so much potential. They wanted me out so that they could tidy it up and use it themselves.”

In another twist, many of those who run the current version of Glastonbury’s naughty corner – Shangri-La – are the same people who used to work for Gurvitz. “They’ve all got their own production teams,” says Jones. “It’s slick, well organised and doesn’t feel like everybody’s about to get squashed.”

Gurvitz, who still lives “off grid” – currently in a solar powered vehicle on a disused airfield – has not been back to Glastonbury since he left, in a tank, a decade ago. “I think the festival capitalised on the popularity of Lost Vagueness,” he says. “Shangri-La had an easy ride. I mean, rather than having to invent themselves as an entity of the festival, they were handed it on a plate.”


Rob Walker

The GuardianTramp

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