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Glastonbury Festival: The Meeting of the Tribes

“I almost didn’t make it this year”, the younger sister of a friend told me at Glastonbury a few years ago. “It’s so expensive and I’m saving to get my buccal pads removed.” Buccal pads? “They are the bits of fat on top of your cheek bones”, she explains, pinching her attractive rosy cheeks. The time was when you would have been hard pressed to find anyone at the Glastonbury Festival planning cosmetic surgery, let alone being brave enough to admit to it. But Britain has changed and so has Glastonbury.

When I skipped school to come to Glastonbury for the first time a couple of decades back, the festival was a radical, counter-cultural event. Tickets, for those who decided not to step through the flimsy barbed wire fence, cost £17 – compared to £220 this year – and money raised went to CND. There were no Winnebagos filled with millionaire footballers, WAGs, supermodels and Conservative Party constituency chairmen dying in portaloos.

Headliners were edgy, musical outsiders rather than the likes of stadium rockers like the Rolling Stones and U2 or chart-toppers such as Beyoncé or Kanye West who will headline on the Pyramid Stage this year. Attending Glastonbury back then felt like a political statement and the only mainstream media coverage of the festival would centre on sporadic clashes between the police and traveller community. But even ’86 involved sitting around bonfires with veteran festival-goers who would bemoan the fact that Glastonbury was “not like it used to be”.

While Glastonbury has undoubtedly become more mainstream, however, it has not lost sight of its origins. Beneath the commercialisation and the hype, its political heart still beats strong.

The Glastonbury festival emerged more than four decades ago from the wider free festival movement whose philosophical roots can be traced back to a long tradition of British utopianism integrally connected to the land. Land rights and access to the land have always been an intensely political issue in Britain, reaching a climax in 18th century with the enclosure of common land under the Enclosures Act of 1761. The free festival movement of the 1970s and ’80s was founded on the principle of temporarily reclaiming patches of the countryside to create mini-collectives where normal rules and expectations would not apply.

The entry charge for the first Glastonbury Festival in 1970, headlined by Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn in Tyrannosaurus Rex, was £1. The following year, it was free. The early festivals had a loose manifesto of environmentalism and spiritual awareness-raising – the 1981 festival collecting an unprecedented £1 million for the anti-nuclear movement.

While the modern Glastonbury Festival may be surrounded by a virtually impenetrable fence and overseen by battalions of high-visibility security guards and police, it still feels remarkably free. It has retained strong links with the peace, environmental movements and campaigning organisations, eschewing virtually all corporate sponsorship.

According Rhian Lewis, WaterAid’s UK campaigns manager, the festival “provides us with a unique opportunity to publicise our work and reach out to new supporters” as evidenced by almost 18,000 signatories to a petition calling on the British Government to commit to lifting 100 million people out of water and sanitation poverty by 2015.

Graham Petersen, environmental co-ordinator of the University and College Union, has been coming to the Leftfield – an area where radical politics and music mix – since its inception in 1992. He believes that people are more receptive to new ideas at Glastonbury. “When you take people away from their hum-drum activities and put them in at festival in the middle of the countryside, their minds become more open”.

Yasmin Khan, former senior campaign co-ordinator at War on Want and regular speaker in the legendary Leftfield tent, was inspired to join War on Want when she heard one of the organisation’s speakers at Glastonbury a decade ago. “Most charities are not political. Rather than campaign for justice for the world’s poor, they focus on Band Aid solutions, like Bob Geldof and Bono before them. That is why Leftfield is so important – it’s about looking at the structural causes of poverty and inspiring people to get involved in the movement, be that by taking action against the cuts or in standing in solidarity with sweatshop workers in Bangladesh.”

Billy Bragg, who first came to Glastonbury in 1984 and now curates Leftfield, believes that in the face of the coalition Government’s unprecedented attack on public services the political side of Glastonbury is as important as it ever has been. I told him about the girl with the buccal pads and asked whether he ever despairs at how unpoliticised so many young people. “Not at all. Look at me. I wasn’t really that political until Margret Thatcher came along.”

In 2013 Michael Eavis, Glastonbury’s founder, stated that he wanted the festival to return to its political roots. He pointed out that the festival has “always been a sounding board for lots of unrest.” But while there may have been a record number of activists at that year’s festival, the most high-profile piece of political activism – an attempt by UK Uncut to stage a protest against Bono’s tax avoidance during U2’s set – was brought to an abrupt end by stewards.

Ed Gillespie, who spends much of the festival in the Green Field absolving people in the Earthly Sins Confessional Booth, believes: “Glastonbury may not be as vigorously, overtly political now as it has been in the past, but the systematic subversion that the festival subliminally disseminates is still a powerful force which is perhaps why the mainstream has worked so hard to co-opt and coerce it.” According to Gillespie, Glastonbury offers people an opportunity to express themselves freely and creatively without the constraints of societal norms. “More importantly, people are doing this together. They establish a sizeable and functioning city in a Somerset field that experiments with possibilities and asks many questions about how we really want to live.”

Throughout history, festivals have provided imaginative communal spaces for people to step outside their normal lives and their normal selves. While most festivals might not be overtly political, the process of coming together to create to a temporary society where people live and dance side-by-side is in itself both a political and politicising thing.

Glastonbury, like all festivals throughout all ages and cultures, is still about the gathering of the tribes. But the tribes of Britain are no longer Celts, druids and pagans.

Some echoes of ancient British lore may linger, but the “tribes” of modern Britain are complex, fluid and constantly shifting. Today’s Glastonbury is not the same as it used to be. But somehow the “Glastonbury spirit” endures. People of all ages and all classes from all regions of the nation gather in the lush English countryside. They live beside each other. They talk and laugh and dance together. And when they arrive home and step back into their everyday lives, they find that something within them has changed. It may be a subtle shift. It may not last forever. But whatever it is, it is something intrinsically political.

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist. He has written on music for the Independent, the Guardian, Dazed & Confused, AnOther Magazine, Prospect etc. He runs the New Bands In Town website.

This article was first published in Tribune.

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