‘Even the police have glittered cheekbones’: My take on Glastonbury for the Guardian…

Ed Balls with his wife Yvette Cooper on top of the Ribbon Tower

It’s not the crowds or the noise or the buzz but the smells that hit your senses with an unexpected intensity. The tangy, mulchy pong of wood chips scattered liberally across motorway-wide pedestrian thoroughfares. The acid stench of urine rising up from the “long-drop” mass open toilet blocks. The strong and spicy scent of vegetable pakora frying 24 hours a day at corner cafes. And, as dusk falls and the headline sets creep closer, the unmistakable whiff of cannabis drifting through the expectant crowd and clinging in your clothes, hair and memories.

I arrived a Glastonbury virgin – but in my mind I am a regular, a veteran of so many great festival moments over the years. I was there with the Sunday-night crowd dancing to Beyoncé’s astonishing finale set. I have rocked to the Killers, smiled at Coldplay and lovingly enjoyed those afternoon nostalgia sets by Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie and ELO. And I have been present when new talent was spotted – a young Florence Welch wowing an afternoon audience; and an even younger, and clearly massively talented new singer, Amy Winehouse, performing a lyrical ballad, accompanied by just an acoustic guitar, with such passion and pain.

But until this year, my prized entry ticket has been provided by the BBC, my campsite the comfort of our home. And I have created a festival atmosphere by opening the windows wide, pouring a beer, turning up the telly and keeping the curtains open so the stars twinkle as the night grows late.

And I have never really wanted for more. Until last year, that is, dropping my older teenage daughter off at Paddington station and watching her walk off down the platform in shorts and wellingtons, with a groaning rucksack on her back. I felt a pang of loss as I wondered: should I be going too? (Her view was most definitely not.)

Ed Balls in selfie with festival goers

But here I am, rucksack on my back, ticket and ID firmly clenched, queueing with other excited festivalgoers, about to enter the hallowed Worthy Farm turf for the first time to discover what – if anything – I have been missing. My mind races with the questions us home-alone festivalgoers all ponder on our sofas – will all the food stalls be vegan? Can the toilets really be that bad? Are those flags as annoying for the rest of the crowd as it looks like they must be on the TV? And is there a chance I might be plucked out of the crowd and pulled up on stage to perform?

The first thing that hits you is scale. I thought Glastonbury would be big – but it is massive. There are not just fields of tents, but acres and acres, stretching for miles. The crowds are not just heaving in the main arenas, but packed in every stall queue, venue and pathway. It feels like the first 10 minutes at the end of a football match, but lasting from noon until many hours after midnight.

Yvette and I dump our stuff at our tent and join the throng as we set off to climb a 21m (70ft) tower with a panoramic view. From up there it is clearly not just a festival but a small city, with tents and camper vans stretching across the horizon, a seething mass of humanity and logistical triumph. And as we survey the scene, with different musical beats surging and mixing and clashing from venues left and right, we hear the first “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” chant drift up on the wind.

It is Thursday night and the festival is loud, packed and bouncing – and formally things have not even properly begun, so we set off on an exhausting and breathtaking tour of “off-the-main-drag” Glastonbury. We are befriended at the top of the tower by an impromptu guide – a veterinary surgeon who takes a fortnight off every year with his team to volunteer – and we find ourselves at an outdoor cinema filled with old American cars. There is a rumour that Johnny Depp will be saying something before a screening of his film Libertine but we can’t wait, we have places to be.

The route to Block 9, in the “exotic” south-east corner, takes us through the Healing Fields and Avalon, vast paddocks of food stalls, self-help stands, bars and street performers, with people everywhere, all taking selfies with their friends, passing strangers – and me. We enter what appears to be a dystopian nightmare, a New York square with a massive light show illuminating a 10-storey wrecked tower block as thousands of ravers dance to pumping music. But this is not our final destination – we slip through a doorway and enter a gay club, NYC Downlow. The drag show is wild and uninhibited, sweat dripping and music blaring. We are as far away from my living-room Glastonbury experience as I could have ever imagined.

Ed Balls dancing at Shangri-La

I am exhausted from walking and dancing and I have not even seen a band yet. And as we loop back through Shangri-La, with venue after wildly themed and decorated venue spewing out light and sound, I realise that the closest thing I have experienced to this is not a football crowd but Disneyland on a Saturday evening – packed, larger than life, constructed and buzzing – one big exciting dream.

It’s not just the numbers of people and massive scale of the entertainment, but the fashion that I am completely unprepared for after my years of TV participation. Of course, the quarter of a million festivalgoers are not an accurate cross section of modern Britain. The combination of the ticket price and muddy camping puts paid to that. But while the festival is lacking in ethnic diversity, it absolutely pushes the boundaries of fashion diversity. It is breathtaking.

I arrive on Thursday in checked shirt and chinos and realise very quickly that my bland “dad out at the weekend” outfit is totally out of place. Indeed, I stand out because of my blandness – at Glastonbury you blend in by trying to stand out. In the first hour I see pink hair, red wellies, tiger-striped tights and glittered cheekbones, and that was just the men. I realise that my Strictly “Mask” outfit of yellow suit and green face would have helped me get lost in the crowd.

Lacking courage on Friday morning – after a fashion disaster in the shower queue kindly captured by hidden paparazzi and published online before I have even had a bacon sandwich – I decide to eschew glitter and opt for shorts, straw hat and sunglasses. We take a morning stroll through the circus fields, dodging jugglers and stilt-walkers, and here even the police officers, dressed in their black uniforms, have opted for glittered cheekbones. But as we enter the Peace Garden, to watch a 27-strong peace choir, all dressed in red and practising devotional chanting, I realise I have not noticed the other ubiquitous Glastonbury fashion accessory, the front-facing bumbag. All the female singers have one, and in all sorts of shapes, sizes and glitter, jangling and sparkling as they chant.

Ed Balls with Yvette Cooper and a couple of festival goers

The clothes are a delight, but the food is – to my disappointment – less exciting. There is certainly plenty of choice. And everyone has somewhere to recommend – “the Goan fish curry by the West Holts stage is to die for” – but I never seem to be anywhere near the right place at the right time. Once the music programme starts, it takes so long to get from one venue to another that making a big detour for a better curry seems a step – actually, probably a couple of thousand steps – too far. It is just so much easier to grab a quick cheeseburger as you walk past the Park stage.

Which brings me to the music. It is the reason why most of us are here, and the one bit of Glastonbury I now know the BBC coverage really does a brilliant job of capturing.

We start off on Friday morning at the Other stage to hear the Pretenders. It is a joy. Introducing I’ll Stand By You as “that song they’ve sung in so many reality TV shows, people don’t know it’s one of ours”, Chrissie Hynde delivers it with rasping, throaty power. And after feeling rather aged the night before at Shangri-La in my chinos, I am relieved to discover that I am in the youngest quartile of the Pretenders audience as we sing along to hit after hit. Just behind me, a woman stands on a box and jiggles along while in front a man sits on a camping chair doing the Guardian crossword.

We stay to the triumphant end and then slip off to see Joni Mitchell-esque Lucy Kitt at the Acoustic stage, and then the riotous Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs whip up the audience with energetic skiffle.

We decide that, without the BBC to help, we need to see some new talent and have a great time watching a brilliant young guitar band, Port Erin, at the Rabbit Hole – the kind of new band I would have liked to have watched late at night on BBC4. And then we return back to the Other stage to see Circa Waves, where I discover I am now in the oldest audience quartile – and I don’t know the words.

Ed Balls with festival goers taking selfies

One musical aspect the BBC coverage cannot quite capture is the revealing audience reactions to different sets. But, plunged in among the spliffs, pints and pushchairs, you can get a real sense of how each act is going down. We start Friday night up at the John Peel stage to hear Clean Bandit do a breathtakingly brilliant set: wonderful lights, catchy tunes and brilliant dance production which has the whole audience roaring for more. But when we move down to the Pyramid stage, the atmosphere for Radiohead is funereal, the end of each song barely acknowledged by anyone other than the hardcore fans at the front. People around us chat through the songs, openly bored at the dirge-like offerings. And yes, there is a good reason why the large screens sit either side of the stage to help faraway audiences stay engaged; if you fill the feed with fuzzy, blurry, psychedelic pap, then it’s no wonder you lose your audience. What a contrast to go over to the Other stage and join the energy, excitement and musical wizardry of Major Lazer. It would have had me bouncing on the bed at home.

On Saturday, we are better prepared, managing to coordinate seeing the dreamy Solange and eating Goan fish curry (excellent). But while I enjoy the Jacksons, Kaiser Chiefs and Stormzy in his pomp, the stand out set of the night is Foo Fighters, a band I probably would not choose to listen to in the car but, live, put on a truly memorable show. We stand in the middle of the crowd, too far back to see the stage, and marvel at the spectacle, the fireworks, the technique, the charisma. But set of the festival? For musical brilliance, passion and delight to be invited, I am calling it for the Black Dyke Brass Band, whose Sunday-morning opening set at the Pyramid stage did Yorkshire proud.

Of course, for anyone other than hardcore Radiohead fans, the highlight of their Friday set was when the crowd rebuffed Thom Yorke’s disparaging remark about “useless politicians” by repeating the “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” chant. Because the mood at this festival is anything but cynical. Countless people – young and old – grabbed me over the course of the weekend to talk about how hopeful they felt about the possibility of change. Surprisingly, perhaps, Brexit was – in my experience at least – little mentioned. But at Glastonbury, the consensus was that austerity has run its course and Corbyn was definitely the symbol of that sentiment.

As for my other couch-questions: there was, in fact, a wide range of vegan, vegetarian and meaty options; the communal toilets are rank but functional, at least if you are a man; and, yes, the flags are much more annoying for the crowd even than they appear on TV. Oh, and when my invitation arrived – to play the drums with electronic dance duo JeanGa and George up at the lovely Crow’s Nest venue to a very small but enthusiastic crowd – it was so worth the wait. It was the debut of JAG-Balls – and it may turn out to be our farewell as well – but what a journey it was. In retrospect, my only mistake was not to specify a more detailed rider, but the Crow’s Nest does a very nice cup of tea.

Ed Balls drumming with JeanGa and George

Losing my Glastonbury virginity was definitely a special experience. I now know, for all my virtual festival-going, that the television cannot come anywhere near the consuming and pulsating reality. But what makes it so special? It’s not the camping or the food, and the music is, frankly, better on the box. But it is only in the flesh that you can see and smell Glastonbury’s ambition, variety and passion. The festival has a quirky British love of the absurd and of self-expression. It has a disdain for authority and pomposity, captured for me by a woman taking a selfie with her mates directly in front of me, who suddenly turned to me and said: “Are you photobombing my selfie?” I protested I was just watching the act, but she told me firmly: “You can be in it if you want, but you have to ask first.”

Of course, Glastonbury can only reflect aspects of modern British society: young, urban, relatively affluent. But it does embody the British spirit of creativity, eccentricity and resilience, here based on years of suffering days of rain and fields of mud and still loving every minute. As result, it does feel like a big family which is loyal to its own. Once you come, you don’t want to leave. And you definitely want to come back.

Click here for original Guardian article. All photos credited to the Guardian. 

Posted June 27th, 2017 by Ed