A classicist at Glastonbury: “Headbanging in a raincoat? It’s as English as the Gardeners’ Question Time » | Glastonbury 2022

IIt’s a cliché to hear people say to their newbie friends upon entering the site: Glastonbury Festival is a city where 200,000 people live for just under a week and have no other purpose than pleasure. It is, indeed, the kind of impossible city you can imagine Jorge Luis Borges writing a story about.

But until you’ve climbed the hill to what they call the Crow’s Nest, by the embers of the giant bonfire lit to mark the opening of the festival, it’s hard to absorb the grandeur and the absurdity of the fact that, almost as far as the eye can see, this wide valley is covered with tents and pavilions and stages and waves and eddies of countless people. There is a passage in Homer’s Iliad where we are told that the campfires burning in the camp of the Greeks at Troy are as bright and numerous as the stars on a clear night. This came to mind when watching the Glastonbury Festival.

I have never been to Glastonbury before. These are the summer festivals that I love: the Proms. Edinburgh – especially the book festival. Glyndebourne. It’s not that I don’t consider Glastonbury culturally significant; it’s more that I dislike crowded places and have an old-fashioned respect for well-constructed sewers. Yet, invited to sample the biggest music festival in the world – a glaring gap in my experience – who am I to refuse?

At Laura Bam Bam’s laughter yoga workshop. Photography: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Nevertheless, the anxiety soon sets in. I throw myself at the mercy of my colleague Laura, who concocts for me, with touching patience, a list of disconcerting programming recommendations and a playlist. Packaging is a whole other nightmare. “Bring something fun,” my friend Alicia says, leading to at least an hour of fruitless beatings at charity shops. The only “fun” object I own is a jumpsuit, which I exclude: a hem coming into contact with the floor of a festival toilet seems undesirable to me. I post my to-do list on Instagram in hopes of getting some advice. My inclusion of tweeds – a practical pair of trousers that I sometimes use for gardening – is openly derided.

On the road trip to the festival from London, I was introduced by my friend David to an unworthy pre-Glastonbury ritual: pouring 750ml of whiskey into a plastic bottle in the parking lot of Frome Asda. (No drinks are allowed at the festival.) But let’s move on.

On the first day, I go to Healing Field, which seems to me as good a place as any to begin my exploration. Here I am participating in an Osho meditation, which involves breathing exercises alternated with bouts of cathartic shouting. I also sign up for the Alexander Technique supposed to relieve stress, find that the gong baths are reserved, and pass the holistic palmist, who is sitting in his little enclosure with his shirt off, munching on a pack of Walkers crisps.

While inquiring about a cocoa ritual (no idea), I meet a woman called Laura Bam Bam who recommends her Laughter Yoga class. It’s not the yoga that I know; it’s more like an acting class warm-up. One minute, we’re doing a “Dr. Evil” cackling; the next, roaring like lions, then hooting derisively at an imaginary post-Glastonbury credit card bill, which seems like a sensible exercise given that tickets cost £280. At the end, we lie down in a circle. Whatever happens is OK, we’re told – and what happens are small tides of laughter, escalating to big guffaws of belly laughter. All of these workshops are offered free of charge or for donations. It’s absolutely delicious.

Later, David accompanies me to what is officially called, although uninteresting, the southeast corner, but which my friends call “the naughty corner”. I have no idea where we’re going – and my disorientation will continue, despite a map, not least because many of the festival stewards look as confused as I do. This is not surprising, I suppose, since this colony did not exist a week ago and will disappear again in a few days. (Plus, the distances are prodigious — on Thursdays, I walk nearly 14 miles.)

The lights of a fairground – or rather Unfair – twinkle through the trees. David leads me to a bar called Maceo’s, then leads me, thanks to a bracelet, at the back of the urinals to the backstage. Beautiful drag queens glide like exotic butterflies. David raises a curtain that acts as a portal to another world – we are at the back of a club, NYC Downlow, whose exterior amazed me. It’s an entire building designed to look like a 1980s New York meat warehouse, here in a field in Somerset. Two nights later, I’ll be in there, dancing in a dark, crazy crush of sweaty bodies. In my gardening tweeds.

Charlotte Higgins receives Alexander Technique treatment at Glastonbury from Ticca Ogilvie
Charlotte Higgins receives an Alexander Technique treatment from Ticca Ogilvie. Photography: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Three nights later I have a surreal montage of a night in which I stand in a field with a crowd as a giant spider hurls bursts of flame in my brutal direction while a tiny Calvin Harris does its thing inside its body. (I can’t figure it out either.) Then we’re back at NYC Downlow. When we leave, the gulls flit about in a blushing dawn.

And the music ? I find myself too old for Billie Eilish’s wide-eyed injunctions to be grateful and not to judge herself. I love St Vincent, with its angry songs and scowl. I bathe gratefully in the subtle harmonies of Arooj Aftab, but I find Phoebe Bridgers a bit too soulful for my mood.

From behind the Pyramid Stage crowd, I watch Wolf Alice as the drizzle sets in. Under these conditions, a Briton at a festival, with his glittering face, sequined jacket and bucket hat, is only a shower away from a Briton no one on holiday on foot, with his sturdy boots and balaclava. A few people are headbanging in matching yellow rain capes. It’s as English as Gardeners’ Question Time.

Thursday, the day before the bands start, I find myself on a stage called the Lonely Hearts Club, where I’m supposed to meet some friends, but no. Doing a set is a DJ named Sherelle. (Wikipedia tells me that “her sets and mixes have been described as breakbeat, acid house, and footwork.” Sherelle, dressed all in white, attacks her work with the seriousness of a librarian doing re-shelving in the rare books section.

Charlotte Higgins at club Glastonbury NYC Downlow
Party at NYC Downlow. Photography: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

After Sherelle, I head for the cinema tent, the Piton Palace, for a screening of Orlando. Here I meet friends. We spend a long night grazing, stopping for mojitos, then burritos, then bhajis, then rum and apple, then donuts, before deciding on a whim to head to a drum circle. near the stone circle (“only built in the 1990s, but still very sacred”, according to my friend Hannah). We take a bit of a trapeze and light candles in the peace dome, then head to the Glade , a stage under the oaks, for what’s supposed to be a DJ CamelPhat set, but isn’t. We weave through the crowd and have a little dance anyway.

Later, on the way back to the campsite, a friend of mine asks, “What would Kenneth Clark have thought of that?” Would he have thought it was civilizationThat’s a good question. Glastonbury is either a very advanced form of civilization or the other way around, a form of anti-civilization. The food, the stench of the toilets, the trash piling up underfoot, the bodies , sweat, desire, intoxication: all that is raw and human is visible, on the surface, not buried or stored away, as in normal life.

My bedtime reading here is Euripides’ Bacchae, a play about people who, prompted by Dionysus, leave the city and camp in the desert, worshiping, mostly peacefully, the god who presides over the state of be out of your head. Well: we are all there.