OPEN LETTER TO MICHAEL EAVIS - July 1998
I'm glad that everyone you met at this year's festival was apparently having a good time. I can only assume you left on Thursday night.
Now, clearly you can't control the weather. But Glastonbury is in the South-West of England, bang in line with the Gulf Stream, and takes place in June, yet every time it rains everyone appears to be quite stunned. This, I'm afraid, is just a symptom of the extraordinary amateurishness with which the entire festival appears to be organised. This was my first Glastonbury (having previously only been to other, less "spiritual" affairs like Reading), and while I went with some trepidation, I'd never expected anything this bad in my most harrowing nightmares. First, I was invited to park my car about a mile away from the actual festival in a muddy field, completely unmarked and unlit. How difficult, exactly, would it be to put up a load of posts marked "Parking Area 3,006,453" or whatever? Thousands of people don't camp at the festival for the duration, and are expected to find their transport in the middle of the night by torchlight in swampy, remote fields with no distinguishing features whatsoever. If the parked van I was navigating by had left before I did, I'd have been stranded, soaking wet and freezing cold in pitch darkness, all night. I know you don't like people coming to the festival by car, but either have the courage to ban them outright, or stop punishing them for it.
(Getting out was a whole new farce - first, an agonisingly slow crawl across fields in order not to wheelspin myself a 6ft trench, only to be forced down not down the road I came in, but down a potholed, narrow, unlit farm track meandering in all directions for about a mile and a half, only to emerge at a completely unmarked T-junction with no indication of any kind as to which way anywhere might be, and a couple of miles of solid, jammed traffic in either direction before you found out. Go on, ask me how I know it was "either" direction.)
Navigation in the festival itself was, if anything, even worse. I've seen more detail on pirate treasure maps in Bugs Bunny cartoons than on the ones supplied to festival-goers. Whole entire areas simply didn't appear on the maps at all, and the site was almost entirely bereft of signposts bearing even the vaguest ideas of which direction things might be found in. I was with some friends who've been going to Glastonbury for 10 years, but it still took us fully 45 minutes to find the not-exactly-minor New Bands Tent, starting from a position that turned out to be about 200 yards away. You make much play in the programme of the fact that the festival is bigger than the city of Bath - how well do you think Bath would function without any signposts? (Or, come to that, any roads. Or lights. Glastonbury is REALLY fun when it gets dark, and you don't know if you're about to step into a small puddle, or a mud-filled abyss leading all the way to Hell.)
As for the mud, well, clearly it IS possible to alleviate the worst of its effects - certain areas around the Other Stage, for example, were easily passable thanks to boarding or deep gravel tracks. So why aren't such courtesies extended to at least the main routes through the festival and camping grounds? 95% of the site was ankle-deep in treacherous, sucking mud, on sloping land rutted with deep tractor tracks - no matter how careful your step, no matter how painstaking your progress, there would always come a point when you'd slip, land on your arse (or, if you were really unlucky, your face) in the filthy gloop, and that was it. There was no way of ever getting clean or dry again. (What's the point of a shower? You've still got to get back into your filthy, wet, muddy clothes afterwards.)There wasn't a SINGLE dry place to sit down at Glastonbury after the rain started. Even the Somme had dug-outs.
Also, the mud only worsened what's already a dreadful situation in terms of scale - why on Earth is everything so far apart? There can't be any logistical reason for having huge camping areas stuck slap bang in the middle of the site, forcing patrons into a will-sapping 25-minute walk between stages - every other festival I've ever been to manages to have all the stages in a manageably-sized central area without any problems with sound bleeding across, big crushes of people, or anything else.
Now, it might seem reasonable to expect people to put up with this for the chance to see so many top bands in one place. Except, of course, that the lovable-amateur ethos is also applied to he running order. The daylight parts of the bill are largely filled with nobodies (Taj Mahal on the Main Stage? Ben Harper And The Innocent Criminals?), and then all the big names come on at the same time. Sure, you can't cater for everyone's individual tastes, but it doesn't take a genius to realise that Primal Scream and the Chemical Brothers, for example, share almost exactly the same audience. So what the hell were they doing on at the exact same time on Friday night? In my experience, other festivals spread acts fairly evenly, try not to have two similar bands on at once, and stagger starting times so you've got a chance of at least catching a half-decent chunk of both conflicting acts where there are any. Not Glastonbury. My own tastes lie pretty much broadly in line with the festival bill, nothing particularly outlandish, but in 12 hours on Friday, between getting lost, wading through mud, and everyone good being on at once, I managed to catch two half-sets (Catatonia and the Jesus And Mary Chain), three songs from Rocket From The Crypt, and fully one by Scott 4 (although to be fair, it was 24 minutes long.) That's a total of 16 songs for £85 (including "booking fee" - wow, I thought only pornographic chatlines cost £5 for a 45-second phone conversation), by which time I'd had more than enough of being treated like a farm animal and went home, never to return. I understand things got worse on Saturday.
Leaving early became an even smarter decision when it took my friends seven hours to travel 200 yards while attempting to leave on Monday. This (as with all the other traffic problems) ISN'T an inevitable state of affairs - plenty of other organisations (major agricultural shows, for example, also with tens of thousands of visitors) hold very large gatherings in small rural locations without any of this chaos. It's a matter of organisation, and allowing for the fact that people WILL break down/get stuck/whatever, and having contingency plans when it happens. This means staffing the place with professionals, not unqualified volunteers doing it for a free ticket.
Now, I'm given to understand that in perfect weather, Glastonbury is a lot of fun. Certainly, the endless trekking around, completely lost, would be a lot less of a grind without the grotesque mud, and I imagine that there's a lot more temptation to watch acts you haven't heard of before if you can actually sit down on a nice bit of grass in the sun to do it. Then again, in hot weather, I can only imagine that the toilets are even worse, and that's not something I'd like to think about. But that's still no excuse to put almost no infrastructure in place and hope for the best. You can't pretend that a festival which takes in at least £10,000,000 a year and is the size of a fairly large town is some kind of chummy, hippy, everyone-mucking-in-together kind of operation any longer. You can't have it both ways - either treat people like proper paying customers, or stop charging them as such. You might say that people have a good time regardless (and I'm sure that many do, especially those who have low personal hygiene standards anyway), but I believe that's what's known as the Blitz Spirit - the British are famed for it. And while I'm sure being bombed by the Germans in 1941 was worse than being at Glastonbury (although from what I hear of the Bob Dylan set, it was a close call), at least no-one had to fork out £85 for the privilege.
Looked at with a newcomer's eye, Glastonbury is nothing short of an utterly disgraceful way to treat human beings. (If illegal immigrants or convicted murderers were kept in these conditions, there'd be criminal prosecutions for cruelty.) The very least you can do, Michael, is stop pretending that everything was fine, that it doesn't really matter and that no-one really minds. Plenty of people out there with broken ankles, hypothermia, ruined clothes, stolen possessions or just light wallets and miserable memories would disagree with you.
Bath (in both senses of the word)