'Oh good, it's raining again'
Charlie Brooker had never been to a festival before. In fact he'd never even been camping. So how would he cope with the full Glastonbury experience?
Monday June 25, 2007
Here's an entirely random list of things I hate. Mud. Rain. Inconvenience. Any form of discomfort whatsoever. Loud noises. People. People's friends. People standing next to other people, with yet more people in between. Drunks bumping into you and being sick down your leg. Poorly maintained public toilets. Camping.
You'll find all these things and more at the Glastonbury festival, which is why it has always struck me as heck on earth. A long weekend in a wet field surrounded by students on cider, thirtysomething Faithless fans, and everyone I avoided at school. That's not a holiday. That's a penance.
In summary: pretty far removed from my idea of fun. Consequently, I've never been. Until now. I got talked into it by the Guardian. From the start, I was adamant about one thing.
"I'm not camping," I said. "I hate camping more than I hate the Nazis. Plus I can't use sleeping bags because I get restrictive claustrophobia."
"What's that?" they asked.
"It means I panic in any situation where I can't fan my arms and legs out to their fullest extent."
"Are you making this up?"
"Almost, but no. Anyway, I'm not camping."
"But we want you to experience it properly," they said.
"Sod 'properly'. I don't want to experience it at all. I can't do it. I won't do it."
Many complain that Glastonbury has become too corporate and sanitised. These days you're more likely to see Alan Yentob slipping in a puddle than a naked hippy up a tree; celebrities outnumber acid casualties. There are phone-charging tents and cashpoints. It's a theme-park ride. All of which should make it ideal for cosseted, mid-30s media crybabies like me. Instead, here I was falling at the first hurdle. To a wuss like me, a mere tent represented intolerable squalor.
In the end, we struck a deal: the paper would supply me with a magic pop-up tent, so simple a cat could assemble it. All I had to do was promise to camp for one night, and I could spend the rest of the festival sleeping off-site in a winsome, rustic cottage full of potpourri. During the day, if I got scared of the crowds, the press pass meant I could hide out in a backstage compound, gawping at Pete Doherty. The toilets were the clincher: apparently the ones backstage flush properly .
And so I agreed. But even the prospect of one night of camping terrified me. A seasoned outdoorsman I ain't. Within an hour of the phone conversation, I was standing in a branch of "outdoor experts" Black's - true alien territory - panic-buying like a man who had foreseen Hurricane Katrina. Cagoules, wellies, rucksacks, pocket torches, a rain hat - even waterproof socks. Anything capable of repelling the elements. All that was missing was a sword and a shield.
But who should I go with? Everyone I knew either didn't want to go or already had a ticket. In fact, the only person who'd expressed any interest at all was Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace, the "ghetto princess" from last year's Big Brother, who has, inexplicably, become a friend of mine in recent months. So I invited her.
Since Aisleyne knew even less about camping - or Glastonbury - than I did, it gave me the chance to play the expert. Over the phone, I sagely listed all the equipment she'd need, down to the waterproof socks, while she took notes. The day before the festival, she rang to double-check her inventory.
"I've got a tent from Argos," she said. "It was only £7.99."
Unfortunately for Aisleyne, I didn't know enough about camping to realise that wasn't a good idea.
We bagged a lift with some friends of mine, both Glastonbury veterans who wouldn't raise an eyebrow all weekend. The arrival was a shock. Being an almighty and unashamed puss, I'd never been to a music festival before, let alone the biggest one in Europe.
Having parked somewhere behind the smallest of Saturn's moons, you have to trudge on foot across what feels like the width of a small county, lugging all your equipment on your back, staring grimly at smartarses who'd had the good sense to cart their stuff on to the site in a wheelbarrow. Laden with half the contents of the Clapham branch of Black's, I scarcely fitted through the gate. Straps dug into every square inch of my flesh. My shoulders grew extra muscles just so I could pull them. And the walking never stopped. This was like being in the army, except at least there you get to let off steam by machine-gunning people in their thousands.
Once you're in, the sheer scale of it is initially overwhelming. Imagine forcing the cast of Emmerdale to hurriedly construct Las Vegas at gunpoint in the rain. Then do it again. And once more for luck. That's Glastonbury: a cross between a medieval refugee camp and a recently detonated circus. Roads of sloppy mud and drunken civilians shivering in tents; this is what London would look like if I'd been in charge for 100 years. Not because I'm some kind of laid-back dreamer, but because I couldn't organise a piss-up in a pissery. It'd take me six decades to assemble the most rudimentary infrastructure. There'd be no museums in my London. Maybe a bin or two, at a push.
Wherever I looked, there were options. Things to do. Food stalls, poetry huts, henna-tattoo dungeons ... and music. It was only Thursday, and the headline acts weren't due till Friday, but already there were sound systems and bands and people banging musical pots together. Yet in the midst of so much choice, I had focus. I knew what I wanted to do. Leave.
Instead, I had to pitch my tent. The Guardian wanted me to camp out in the main fields, among the public. I chickened out and opted to set up home in the backstage compound (which turned out to be a mistake - more on this later).
The pop-up a tent was a joy. It comes flat, disc-shaped. You throw it in the air and it unfurls into a canvas shell. Within seconds I was the proud owner of a home fit for a tramp. Aisleyne's Argos special took longer to assemble, and turned out to be a striking visual definition of the word "flimsy". If Christmas crackers came with folded-up tents inside, they'd look like this. It seemed to be made out of soluble material - possibly the same stuff as those translucent breath-mint strips that dissolve on your tongue.
But it wasn't raining yet - in fact, the air was downright balmy - and I was optimistic. Perhaps camping would be fun. Hell, I might stay here for the whole thing. I went to the backstage bar, which seemed to be full of people hugging themselves with joy at being "allowed" backstage. (The sole advantage to a backstage pass, incidentally, is that the area doubles as a short cut between the two main stages. That's it. That's all you're "missing".)
We left the backstage area and headed off into the "proper bit". Getting in touch with my festival-hardened friends soon proved impossible - text messages were taking two hours to arrive, making it impossible to sync up a meeting.
Outside the backstage compound, everyone was astonishingly friendly. And astonishingly everywhere. It was like the height of rush hour conducted by lazy people in love. When someone stepped on your foot, they apologised. There was laughter and music, genuinely funny T-shirt slogans and a palpable sense of relaxed excitement. We walked up to the Lost Vagueness area and saw people eating in dodgems and children dressed as spacemen. For an eight-year-old, Glastonbury probably makes more sense than, say, Basingstoke.
After hours of walking and gawping, we headed back to the hospitality section, stopping at a food stall along the way. (The food at Glastonbury was far, far better than I'd expected, by the way.) Then, full and happy, I headed to my tent for an early night. Which is when things started to go wrong.
If there's one piece of Glastonbury advice I can give you, it's this: don't camp backstage. On the plus side, there was no flooding, no thieving, and the toilets did indeed flush properly. On the minus side, at 3am a group of post-pubescent upper-middle-class music-industry gitsacks pitched their tent beside mine, and no power on Earth could make them stop braying witless bullshit at the top of their idiot lungs.
For hours they tramped round my tent, tripping over the guy ropes and gurgling. One of them had a bassoon. All of them were howlingly impressed with themselves. It suddenly occurred to me that if you fashioned a thick block of concrete the precise shape of the backstage compound, and dropped it from a helicopter, crushing everyone below, you'd improve the quality of life on the planet by at least 3%.
The most annoying one was an infuriating raspy-voiced nincompoop who kept waving a blue light-sabre around, subtly flirting with his female companions by pretending it was a glowing penis. And when he wasn't doing that, he was bragging about how much ketamine he'd taken.
"I'm going to fall over any second," he rasped. He was saying this while bouncing up and down next to my head. He's going to break my neck, I thought. I'm going to have my neck broken by an imbecile with a light-sabre.
All the goodwill for humankind I'd built up during the day drained away in seconds. I felt like ripping through the side of my tent and pushing his eyes into the back of his skull with my thumbs - which isn't really in keeping with any festival spirit I know of.
Instead, I sulked off for a charming moonlight piss. But by now, the bog was overflowing. Someone - maybe Pete Doherty - was defecating noisily in the cubicle beside me. I returned to my tent only to discover someone had taken my wellies and inexplicably left them outside. Then I unzipped the door and found a stranger sleeping on the floor. And then I realised it wasn't my tent. Of course, even in the dark, mine should have been easy to spot. It was the one with a bunch of light-sabre-swinging Barnabys beside it.
The next morning I awoke feeling as if I'd been beaten up. But I'd had it easy compared to Aisleyne, whose joke tent had been kicked to death by an early-morning downpour. She was soaked through, and claimed to have cried herself awake - which is quite a skill.
And then it rained and rained and rained. The whole site resembled a warzone: I couldn't believe the mud, which seasoned visitors were already shrugging off as nothing compared to '97. All I wanted was a hot bath in the cottage, which by now sounded like the promised land. I couldn't face this merry hell without my creature comforts. Sod camping. Sod it to the moon and back. The thought of being kept awake another night by Captain Lightsabre was too much to bear. Macho be damned. I needed cosseting.
I didn't see any bands that afternoon. I had a bath, stretched out on a comfy sofa, drank tea and watched Operation Petticoat on Channel 4. Then I went back to the site, headed up to the Healing Fields, and got an excellent neck massage. Thus recharged, I returned to the breach and proceeded to drink heavily. This, I discovered, is key to enjoying the festival. Your mind needs to be dislodged from its normal position; your filter adjusted to the point where stomping through endless mud ponds seems gently amusing rather than, say, grindingly depressing. In fact, the mud eventually becomes nothing more than an ever present slapstick punch line. The first time you fall over in it, you feel angry and stupid. Second time you shrug and laugh and scarcely care.
Mind you, I had a flouncey cottage with hot running water. The people in tents must be idiots.
The rest of Friday night became a bewildering, enjoyable blur - so much so, summing up individual moments feels pointless. I bumped into a friend with kids and carried her daughter on my shoulders through half the Arctic Monkeys set, like I was Phil bloody Hogan or something, before heading for the Jazz stage to catch the end of Damian Marley (who was fantastic). Then there was more drink and more things to see. At some point, I realised something was wrong with my face. It was smiling.
Saturday was equally strange and fun. I ended up backstage at the Roots tent watching Damian, Stephen and Ziggy Marley, after one of the 3am girls blagged us in. Hanging around with Aisleyne has unforeseen advantages. Aisleyne, incidentally, had recovered from her tent trauma and was now in her element. Although she failed to teach me to skank.
At Glastonbury, I've learned, for every high, a low will inevitably follow, generally a low involving a large amount of rain or mud or both. If you're lucky the highs cancel out or even outweigh the lows. So far, I've been lucky. Fate dictates that'll have changed by the time you read this - there'll be a tornado or a massacre in the interim to redress the balance. But for now, at the time of writing, here in the Guardian Portakabin, I'm enjoying the Glastonbury festival. Something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong in my universe.
Glastonbury 2007 reviews
23.06.2007: Arcade Fire, Other stage, Friday, 9.20pm
23.06.2007: Arctic Monkeys, Pyramid stage, Friday, 11.05pm
23.06.2007: Björk, Other stage, Friday, 11.35pm
23.06.2007: Hot Chip, John Peel stage, Friday, 11.20pm
23.06.2007: Kasabian, Pyramid stage, Friday 9.15pm
23.06.2007: Martha Wainwright, The Park, Friday, 6.50pm
23.06.2007: Rufus Wainwright, Other stage, Friday 7.50pm
23.06.2007: The Hold Steady, John Peel stage, Friday
23.06.2007: XX Teens, Dance East, Friday, 1.10pm
Full coverage in our special report
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