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Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Lull before the Storm

In three weeks time this ...

... will look like this
And this ...

... will look like this

The summer of 1986. The summer of lust and procrastination, the summer of glorious inconsistencies. The summer of cider, the summer of sweat. A young person, of indeterminate age and sex and looking uncannily like Joey Tempest’s younger sibling, is running wild and free. In between brief bouts of employment he drifts in and out of love. He’s at the height of his … well, I was going to say ‘powers’ but that would be making a vice out of a virtue. 

The 1986 Pilton Festival – that’s the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts to you ‘outsiders’ – represents the sum of all those parts; a metaphor for stasis and decay. At this point in time all permutations are possible. From the backstreets there’s a rumbling, smell of anarchy. No more nice time, bright-boy shoe shines or pie-in-the-sky dreams. Trouble’s brewing; the centre cannot hold, something’s got to give. 

You say Glastonbury, I say Pilton, let’s call the whole thing off. That’s more or less how I felt, lying alone in my tent under a stultifying sun during the hot and sticky summer of 1986. Madness were entertaining the drunken, loved-up hordes on the Pyramid stage, several kilometres away. A dull thud-thud pounding through the dry earth; a million tiny tremors to the tune of Baggy Trousers, Night boat to Cairo and The Prince. ‘An earthquake is erupting, but not in Orange Street’; those nutty boys never did quite grasp the difference between seismicity and vulcanology. 

I was fresh out of college with a third-class degree in Geography and Landscape studies to my name; I might as well have had ‘FAILURE’ writ large across my forehead. Somewhere else, later – or possibly earlier – The Psychedelic Furs took to the stage: ‘He’s walking around in this dress that she wore/she is gone, but the joke’s the same’. It’s like irony just staggered out the pub and vomited onto my grave.

Fast forward twenty eight years, to the summer of 2014. In the intervening period, let’s say the summer of 1996, the mother of all earthquakes changed forever the contours of my own landscape, toppling mountains and carving deep declivities in their place. It’s time to go back.

As the crow flies, Worthy Farm is as close to the cloisters of Wells as it is to the hippie-strewn streets of Glastonbury; it’s even closer to Shepton Mallet but nobody would countenance naming the festival after a town that’s famous for Babycham and pallet distribution. Back in 1986, unemployed and penniless, we cadged a lift up the A37 from sunny Weymouth and, like thousands of others, jumped the fence.

Or what passed for a fence. Comparing today’s two-metre-high steel erection to the Berlin Wall would be overdoing the hyperbole but that was the first comparison that came to mind. It is, logistically, a truly impressive construction. Circumnavigating the festival site yesterday took me a good four and a half hours; the gates don’t open for another three weeks but already the barrier is practically complete.

Until the mid 1980s the perimeter fence only enclosed half of the site, so anyone not wanting to pay merely walked around the edge! There was also no professional security team to safeguard the bands and the stages at the Festival. Vigilante style gangs would often turn up and take control of parts of the site. A group of Hells Angels forced their way into the festival for two or three years in the mid 80s as there was no real way to stop them. The festival organisers decided the best way to tackle the problem was to attempt to strike up a rapport with their leader. But their demands were often difficult to manage. Main stage organiser Mark Cann remembers one difficult instance when the Hells Angels were demanding to go on the Madness bus because they wanted to "say hello to Suggs"! Perhaps an early example of Madness’s extremely broad fan base!

1986. Politics was so much more sexy back then. Right or left, you knew your place and you stuck to it religiously, even in the face of unfortunate reality. The Tories had been in power for seven years, they would remain so for another eleven; just as well we young, idealistic lefties had no access to crystal balls. And the most important thing about Glastonbury was, of course, the ideology, not the music – or so we said to anyone who was sufficiently compos mentis to listen. Glastonbury Festival was the Glastonbury CND festival and the organisation’s logo topped the famous pyramid stage. That surely made jumping the fence a heinous, possibly sacrilegious act. Back then tickets were £17 for the weekend: I’m not sure how much that is in new money but a pint of Royal Oak in Weymouth’s Park Hotel cost 72 pence – I’ll leave you to do the mathematics.

It’s easy to see the modern festival as a controlled, corporate event that’s long since lost touch with its roots but let’s not allow nostalgia to blind our vision. Yes, it’s expensive, lost much of its spontaneity and free spirit but the excellent ‘Retro-Madness' website offers a pertinent reminder of how the festival really operated in the not-so anarchic nineteen-eighties:

The Glastonbury Festival of the mid-80s was rife with conflict between rival factions. Drug dealers and security guards, local farmers and landowners, festival-goers and travellers. Melvin Benn of Mean Fiddler remembers the festival of this era as having "… gangs from Bristol effectively running parts of the site. And anarcho-travellers. Decent hippie travellers didn’t get a look in … there were no-go areas … it was a free for all." Stonehenge Festival had been closed down in 1985 and the ‘anarcho-travellers’ that it used to attract then flocked to Glastonbury. Consequently this led to a massive increase in attendance levels in 1986, with lots more travellers than normal arriving at the site for their summer celebrations and a huge increase in 'fence jumpers.' Convoys of travellers from across England would converge on Glastonbury, all assuming they could attend without paying. Michael Eavis described it as being "very difficult to control and quite dangerous". The convoys were blasted by government ministers and broken up by police and made national headline news at the time.

Time to hit the fast-forward button again. June 6th 2014, this year’s Festival will open for business on Wednesday 25th. I’ll not be going, won’t be traipsing through the mud to see if there’s a plaque declaring ‘Siân Lacey Taylder once camped here'. But it won’t be generational pique that keeps me away, the notion that the festival can never be what it once was. Time and space, dear blogista, time and space: the essence of geography We move on, give the past its due but, after many tears and recriminations, we let it go.

At the top of Pennard Hill I turned my gaze from the Festival site and let it rest on the gentle contours of south Somerset. It was warm, increasingly humid, from the west cloud was building; the Spanish Plume was extending itself northwards, over the continent storms were brewing. The Glastonbury Festival of 1986 was, as far as I can recall, blessed by dry weather and warm sunshine, this year’s may well be a more soggy affair but by that time I’ll be striding over the arid Spanish Meseta. Times and space; there was a moment, yesterday, when I almost felt a tinge of grief, a passing memory, a fleeting vision of what might have been. 

Almost. In the early hours of this morning the storm broke: thunder and lightning and torrential downpours. Better to bury the past and make peace with its ghosts. Pray for the dead, but fight like fuck for the living.
... and it's already ominously we

1 comment:

  1. Great piece Siân, really enjoyed that and a good few chuckles to ease into a Sunday morning. Babycham and pallet distribution! Sounds exactly what a place called Shepton Mallet should be famous for. But also some serious points made about giving the past its due and moving on...Good luck with Spanish Meseta.