Hope, Disappointment, Oblivion – Why Glastonbury Sums Up What It Means To British

Here we go again. A national institution returns. Thousands of us, united in excitable, expectant chatter; our enthusiasm tempered only by a collective dread of rain spoiling the fun. A giddy, sky-high plateau of impossible expectation that can only be followed by a plunging abyss of disillusionment and despair.

But Wimbledon isn’t the only thing going on this weekend. There’s also a little music bash called Glastonbury.

You’re probably sick of hearing about Glastonbury by now. 130,000 people are going. Ten times as many people will see Take That next month. But the crucial difference is, everyone in the media will be at Glastonbury. And since media people love themselves, they assume that if they’re doing something, then the wider world is practically slashing its wrists in its pathetic desperation to hear every last detail.

Which is why, no matter what you’re doing this weekend, or which media outlet you turn to – with the exception, possibly, of Al Jazeera – you will, at some point, be forced to listen to Rufus Hound banging on about how The Rumple Strips were absolutely tremendous on the Park Stage last night.

NME.COM will be there too. But I’m not going to apologise for the punishing relentlessness of our coverage. Because I firmly believe that there’s still something unique abut Glastonbury. More than a festival (and at the risk of sounding like a Daily Telegraph editorial), this long-running carnival of doomed excess has become intimately interwoven with our modern sense of what it means to be British.

How? Well, there’s the rain, obviously. And the trudging. But also something more subtle and profound – a sense of stoicism in the face of sustained misery, commingled with a Herculean determination to get absolutely shitfaced beyond all reason. There’s also an enormous amount of brilliant, original music being played and enjoyed, by more than one generation. These things are related, and they’re worth treasuring.

I’ve seen a number of things at Glastonbury that I know I’ll never see anywhere else in the world. In 2003, bored into delirium by a Sunday afternoon set by Damien Rice, I took a walk up to the Green Fields and came across an acoustic tent that was utterly deserted – apart from a naked woman of advanced years, masturbating exuberantly with a pizza slice. It’s the kind of thing you just don’t see at Rip Curl Boardmasters.

Now, I’d hesitate to claim this act of onanistic abandon as a cherishable emblem of British liberality – wanking in public is, as we all know, far more characteristic of the French – but it’s indicative of a certain anything-goes lassitude that only exists at Glastonbury. This woman was probably a corporate lawyer during the week. It’s nice to think that, for one weekend only, there was a place where her inner libertine (or, more likely, sectionable lunatic) could be indulged and nurtured.

In his book ‘Real England – The Battle Against The Bland’, the environmental journalist Paul Kingsnorth argues that the British have always excelled at seditious, rebellious behaviour, from Wat Tyler to the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the Levellers (the seventeenth-century political movement, not the smelly blokes behind ‘One Way’) – only this mutinous tradition has now all but disappeared, trampled underfoot by rampant development, hypercapitalism, robotic management speak, and clone towns.

Kingsnorth makes a convincing case. It’s perhaps only at Glastonbury, at sunset, when you sit up at the Stone Circle and cast an eye over the kaleidoscopic throng – the hippies, the folkies, the druids, the cyber-crusties, the drop-outs, the post-GCSE indie kids, all of them freewheelingly alive – that it’s possible to believe that the doom-mongers and cynics might be wrong; that there might still remain some still small voice of anti-establishment defiance – an unconquerable spirit of misrule yet pulsing beneath the deadening strata of routine, cynicism, and bitterness.

Then it starts raining and you think: bugger. But maybe next time…