‘Glastonbury’ does not happen in Glastonbury but many miles out of town. There was a time when the Glastonbury Festival took place in the town itself. It was not dedicated only to contemporary arts but all kinds of things, especially the local folklore of course, though by no means exclusively. The aim was to embrace all that may be considered culture including the traditional and the classical.
Recently graduated, I was part of a performance company led by Neil Oram, the poet and playwright. We did some performance pieces. Neil went on a pilgrimage to India.
I remained in Glastonbury as part of the short-lived but interesting arts centre.
Was it really forty years ago? I can’t be so old. It was, and I am. My time in Glastonbury now seems no more than an interval, but at the time there was so much happening. The arts centre on the high street began well with a visit by the RSC as a fund-raiser. And so for a while things happened, especially in the summer festival. We did have some events at Worthy Farm. There had been the famous Glastonbury Fayre [filmed by Nicholas Roeg]. That was seven long years before, and since then nothing had happened at Worthy Farm. It was not too difficult eventually to persuade Michael Eavis to lend a field. The following year, 1979, it was several fields. The Worthy Farm festivals then were free.
That was part of the dream being realized. Oh well’.
Some dreams are worth remembering. On a personal level there was the winter’s night when Liz Reeve brought her company, Word and Action, to the arts centre. Liz and I had been students together. And so what then had been a possibility now became a reality.
There were many other realities. Two visionary painters, Adrian Doolin and Louise Hodgson, launched their prolonged and successful careers in the dream days. Neil Oram returned from India to announce he was working on a play. The Warp [apparently the longest play ever written] contains scenes and characters of the time.
Spontaneity was the watchword then. Events were planned and organized but other things just happened. Jeremy Sandford turned up one day out of the blue. He had so much to say that was interesting. [We kept in touch for a while thereafter]. Another fine writer was Heathcote Williams who really did wow the audience with his verve and brilliant wit. Unforgettable.
If only these things were on film. In the days before social media nobody thought to record anything. Moments were of their time and were then lost except in memory. I don’t even have a photograph. There may be some news film locked away somewhere because we did persuade HTV to come down [the news editor was another college friend].
The BBC wasn’t the least interested in the antics of hippie types in Somerset, not even at Worthy Farm. It took the mainstream a long time to catch up with what was happening. There was not much publicity, but the charm and eagerness of Andrew Kerr and Louise Fitzgerald kept things going. Their abilities to organise were a template every administrator could learn from if they had a little of Andrew’s and Louise’s humanity. And, of course, there were others too who brought a range of skills, often without expecting, or receiving, a fee.
There was idealism in those days. The feeling was that something amazing was about to happen. However it was rationalized, however it was named, there was to be a leap of consciousness that could make a better world.
Were we hippies? The nucleus of people keeping the arts centre going combined alternative ideals with impressive media/publishing/creative careers. Everyone seemed to have contacts. I learned some valuable lessons from this: society is a network of influences; human instincts are essentially tribal. We were all of a certain type, with a distinct manner and way of speaking.
That was the problem. The experience was essentially that of a coterie, although that obvious truth did not present itself at the time. We were in but not of Somerset.
What we had to offer could feel to local people like an imposition, which is why few local people actually attended our events.
In time it seemed to me that whatever was happening in Glastonbury should not be confined to Glastonbury. It needed to permeate society, although I had no blueprint detailing how that could achieved. Political events suggested otherwise, with a tidal wave of austere reaction, a war against the young. 1980 was a watershed.
With no arts centre and no festival at Worthy Farm, the dream was fragmenting. I took up a lecturing job far away, and so we left Glastonbury. It had felt not the beginning of something, but a postscript to the Sixties, a lovely dream from which it was time to wake up.
We woke up to the mainstream media getting in on the act. What had been an eclectic range of arts was in danger of narrowing into stadium rock. But it’s good to see a broader range of events has prevented a complete collapse into showbiz.
‘Glastonbury’ retains its power to enliven and enrich, not because of the media attention but in spite of it. There is a poetic justice in the sight of tens of thousands cheering an ageing radical outsider whom the mainstream media never took seriously until his quiet determination came within a whisker of forming a government. That was the dream [almost] fulfilled.
But in 1980 there was a lull. I had arrived in Glastonbury an enthusiast for ways of looking at the world beyond the confines of liberal humanist culture. The fallacies of the New Age spiritual culture soon became evident. An ambivalence about its meretricious allure hardened into prolonged doubt. However, there was a moment perhaps – no, there was for sure – when something was moving through the minds [and bodies] of a generation. Then it faded. I am not certain when it began, nor when it went. But we all learned something.
What we have learned recently is that a rising generation has felt something move, something beyond the immediate and the material. And it is something from which all of us can learn. An idealism has been regenerated when often it is felt that the selfish philistines have crushed the spirit out of everything. The BBC thinks it is broadcasting a party. And so it is, but it’s a party that at heart doesn’t need the BBC, however useful its broadcasts are.
This is a movement the mainstream cannot control because it cannot understand it however hard it tries. I am not sure that I can envisage where it will lead. One thing is certain: it won’t be the past revived. It never is. It might be the future that we were cheated of last time.
The hope is that we wake up to something within our grasp at last.
This article was drafted before the sad news of the death of Heathcote Williams.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall