Glastonbury has it all: 1,000 acres of Somerset is turned for a week in June into a city within a steel ring.
On the inside 180,000 live, love, lounge and long for a connection with this unique event. What is special about this festival is that it works in spite of itself: its many faces, the contradictions and tensions, this is where for a few days reality and myth collide but do not crash.
The staff are mostly young – cool and laid back – yet they all know exactly what they are doing and it works like clockwork. The layout seems random and haphazard, yet stage after stage is sited so that a performance on one does not clash with one on another unfeasibly close by. Performers get to the right stage at the right time on the right day and perform as billed starting and stopping to a detailed timetable.
Cheek by jowl, you have the VIP area, private hospitality for the privileged where you can book a table for lunch or dinner and the wine is chilled and the food is good, and tens of thousands of people moving constantly through apparently endless catering and shopping.
Much focus is on the main Pyramid Stage and the Other Stage. Year on year the superstars perform on each. This year recorded some fine moments – Stevie Wonder, Scissor Sisters, Florence and the Machine, Paloma Faith, Ray Davies, and the mighty Muse, the last of which I enjoyed (sic) from the mosh pit. But scratch deeper and you find much else to entertain: on the John Peel Stage set inside an enormous marquee, Marina and the Diamonds played to a packed house, while far away Steven Harley and Cockney Rebel rolled back the years, as The Stranglers did the night before.
But to think of Glastonbury as an extended rock concert and no more is to rather miss the point of it. Allow it to draw you in, let go and experience it in all its many forms and then you get it. Wander amongst the eco villages where products are offered for sale by absent trusting stall holders content to leave a note asking for you to leave money for what you buy – and people do, and no one touches the cash left.
Face painting, next to an elderly bearded man in an orange skirt dancing badly to a loud sound system while clutching a plastic machine gun as six girls dressed as for vaudeville – but on stilts at 3pm on a hot Sunday afternoon – gaze on. And all the time, no one cares, no one criticises, no one judges, and the weird and wired exist side by side, as nothing shocks or surprises.
Then there is the smell, and yes, Glastonbury smells! Of loos, of chemicals to stop the loos smelling of what loos otherwise smell of, of products smoked, of bodies not recently acquainted with the showers, of food cooked and unfinished – the smell of a festival.
The abiding imagery of Glastonbury is of hippies dancing in a trance-like state under leaden skies in a sea of mud. Everywhere and on everything and in everything mud is caked. But this year the skies were blue, shelter was sought but only from the sun, and everywhere wellies went unsold as straw hats attracted a premium. This year, the dog days were long and languid.
This year, Glastonbury is 40 – its life has just begun….
Richard Lissack QC is head of strategic development at Outer Temple Chambers