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Mud, mud, glorious Glastonbury mud: why Laurie Penny's not working pro-Bono

Bono should find time in his busy schedule of high-profile philanthropy to pay the hefty tax bill he owes.

By the time you read this, I will be up to my navel in slurry. When I was first offered a pass to the Glastonbury Festival, I hesitated. I am not one of nature's happy campers. My idea of fun does not involve standing around in freezing sludge for four days with nowhere to plug in my laptop. It's going to be worth it, though, just for the chance to see Bono cry behind his wraparound shades.

The Guardian-reading left has a guilty conscience about Glastonbury, which is understandable, given that party-goers now pay £195 to do the song and dance of social awareness. Over the years, as the Pyramid stage has been taken over by bland, big-name acts, "Glastonbury isn't what it used to be" has become a rallying cry for certain sections of the British bourgeoisie, rather like "we're all doomed" or "you really shouldn't buy avocados from Israel". This year, however, there's a real protest going on.

Anti-cuts activists from the direct action group Art Uncut plan to disrupt U2's headline set, demanding that Bono find time in his busy schedule of high-profile philanthropy to pay the hefty tax bill they claim the band owes the Irish exchequer, which could certainly use the money.

Lurid blue hellboxes

This tiny protest has fascinated the press. It gives the lie to the Live Aid school of global justice, whereby wealth inequality is acceptable as long as the fortunate pay for the occasional fair-trade coffee or charity concert ticket; and the very wealthy can opt in or out of society as they choose. Art Uncut points out that tax avoidance (and evasion) perpetuate the very injustices that the saintly rich dabble in denouncing. It's about decency and fair play and sticking together. Which are as much part of the soul of the British left as flasks of tea, folk music and endless mud.

The endless mud is essential to the fun, for a very British understanding of the word "fun". When I last went to Glastonbury in 2007, sober and in charge of two young teenagers, it rained all weekend, turning the small Avon farm into a nightmarish collision between a messy Shoreditch warehouse rave and the Battle of the Somme.

Then, there were the portable loos. We are not going to discuss the loos, save to say that by the time I got to the end of the sodden, freezing, hour-long queue for one of those lurid blue hellboxes, there was not a hole, so much as a heap. I stumbled out after seven unforgettable seconds like one of those revivified corpses lurching out of upright coffins in that scene from The Mummy Returns, and retched emptily into the hedges for a further 20 minutes, at the end of which the prepubescent sister I was meant to be minding had wandered off to chat up a man in the falafel queue with Ian Brady eyes. This is the sort of thing the British call character-building.

The sister dragged me off for even more fun, which involved standing in a giant lake of groin-deep, ice-cold water with thousands of spaced-out teenagers listening to the Kaiser Chiefs whine about how terrified they are of the working class. Dante-esque red spotlights spun in tempo over the shrieking crowd. I had to escape.

Squeezing my way through hordes of revellers, I finally found the Left Field, the small political camp edged away from the main stages that the festival organiser, Michael Eavis, has described as the "heart" of Glastonbury. I sat down on a tree-trunk next to a filth-caked estate agent who shakily informed me that she had just had to cut her way out of her tent with a pair of nail scissors and swim to safety, after a mudbank collapsed.

Here, the ground was drier. A nice young man with dreadlocks gave us both some hot chai tea and a hug, before engaging us in a gentle debate about the nature of surplus labour. We shuffled into the acoustic tent to listen to a girl with flowers in her hair sing some offensively beautiful pop ballads.

The assembled hippies held each other quietly, refugees from the horror outside. And suddenly, I understood. Glastonbury isn't just about smoothie stands and mood music. It's a place where we remember what Britain has done best, over centuries of imperialism and bad weather.

We scrub around together in the horrible mud and try to create something fantastic enough to distract ourselves from the sanitation. Which we are not going to discuss any more.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

Lloyd Mann (University of Cambridge)
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“All four of us vomited in the library”: Bobby Seagull on life as a University Challenge icon

In an age of attacking the elites, why have British audiences started making cult figures out of University Challenge contestants?

“BOBBY SEAGULL HAS REPLIED TO LOTS OF MY TWEETS!!!!!” cried a lovestruck fan on Twitter earlier this month, punctuated with three red hearts. It was the semi-final of University Challenge at the end of March, and two team captains who had become cult figures were going head-to-head.

One was Eric Monkman of Wolfson College, Cambridge, a bespectacled Canadian with a uniquely intense way of answering questions. His competitor was Bobby Seagull, the whimsically-named and endlessly jovial captain of Emmanuel College, also of Cambridge – “the happiest University Challenge contestant ever”, according to the BBC, and declared “The cult hero of University Challengeby The Times.


Emmanuel College University Challenge team. Bobby Seagull sits second from the right. Photo: BBC

Over the course of BBC 2’s ten-month tournament, these two competitors became unlikely icons, their geeky “bromance” (they’d been friends as students for years) gaining an excitable online following.

“Eric, you and Bobby are indubitably the loveliest, most team-oriented people ever to appear on #UniversityChallenge and we love you!” one tweeter breathed. “I’m sure you both have serious career ambitions but WE WANT TO SEE THE BUDDY MOVIE” demanded another.

And it looks like that wish could be fulfilled. Seagull has barely left our screens since he was defeated by his nemesis and chum in the semi-final. I meet him looking dazed but delighted in the bustling courtyard of BBC’s New Broadcasting House. It is the morning after the University Challenge final, during which the triumph of Oxford’s Balliol College team was overshadowed by an outpouring of love and lament for runners-up Seagull and Monkman.

Seagull is a smile in a suit. A compact figure and nattily dressed, he wears a grey blazer, pink shirt, white pink-striped tie, ocean blue chinos and brown leather shoes – fresh from doing a round of BBC morning shows.

He carries a Cambridge crest-emblazoned overnight bag almost as big as he is. He caught the 5.45am train this morning to London from Cambridge, where he teaches maths at a local state school. Remarkably youthful-looking at 33, he gets mistaken for a pupil in school if he doesn’t keep his facial hair – a groomed moustache and beard.

We sit down for a coffee, and he commands the whole café with his garrulous anecdotes. “I got a question in my first round horribly wrong, when they asked for a Dickens book and I ended up making up a book called Little Miss Dorrit,” he hoots. “There were tweets saying I should be taken out of Cambridge! In the last few years, we’ve seen Twitter definitely develop a relationship with contestants. Eric and I have taken it in good humour. We joke about ourselves. I think that’s endeared us to the public.”

Seagull’s personality – “hammy, chatty, gregarious”, in his words – and intellect now have him lined up for other quiz shows and potentially as a presenter on a new TV programme about maths.

“I grew up with gangs, violence, things that young children shouldn’t see”

Seagull started life on a council estate in East Ham, east London, which he describes as “rough, difficult” – a place with “gangs, violence, things that young children shouldn’t see” that was a 40-minute walk from the nearest shop. Born to immigrant parents who left Kerala in south India for London in the late Seventies, Seagull was the second of four brothers. “Two rooms, two bunkbeds”, is how describes his family home.

“This sounds like I’m playing the fiddle now,” he groans. “In my family we were quite lucky; we had a really strong family unit. But for a lot of people there, it wasn’t an easy path of growing up.”

Seagull’s father got a job as an IT consultant and his family eventually moved into their own home in East Ham. Seagull puts his grasp of general knowledge down to his parents, whose support of their sons’ education would often lead them to spending money meant for groceries on second-hand books.

“All of us vomited in the space of half an hour. The library was not happy”

Every Saturday, his father would take them to the local library and they would read books for four or five hours – treated with listening to the football scores if they behaved well (Seagull is a big West Ham fan).

“There was one amusing time when I think we had food poisoning. First, one of my siblings vomited in the library,” he giggles. “And then the next one five minutes later, the next one ten minutes later, so I think all four of us vomited in the space of half an hour. The library was not happy!”


Bobby Seagull in Cambridge. Photo: Lloyd Mann (University of Cambridge)

Still, Seagull had only ever watched a few minutes of University Challenge before he applied for his college team and got a place on the show. “Now, if I have kids at some stage, they are going to watch this show from the age of five, and they’re going to win it!” he cries. “I won’t tell them I was on it, I’ll just make them watch it casually and if they get something right, I’ll chuck them a biscuit – Pavlovian condition them to get the right answers. So maybe in 30 years there’ll be a Seagull lifting the trophy.”

When he was 15, Seagull found an advert for scholarships to Eton in a copy of The Times. It asked: “Are you are bright boy?” he recalls, while struggling to open the plastic pot of granola he’s having for breakfast. “I’m really bad at practical things,” he pleads. Eventually, I open it for him.

“People come up to me and say they don’t normally support Oxbridge; they support anyone else”

He left his London state school, where former Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw was headteacher, and started at Eton when he was 16. Just like everything else he’s done, he loved it. A contemporary of Prince Harry and Eddie Redmayne, Seagull was perhaps destined for such an unusual journey – after all, his namesake is Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, the eponymous character of Richard Bach’s pseudo-philosophical Seventies novella. His father loved the book, and gave two of his sons the surname.

“In this book, the seagulls eat, sleep, catch fish; a monotonous routine. Jonathan Livingstone thought there must be a greater purpose to life. And he tried to inspire others to fly,” Seagull beams. “The weird thing is that my life is following that path in terms of I think my passion is numbers and I want to encourage a love of education.”

So he decided to go into teaching, and is also about to begin studying for an education PhD at Cambridge. This was after a few years working in the city as a banker and then an accountant. He was a trader at Lehman Brothers when it collapsed in 2008; he saw trouble brewing in the firm when it began to stop stocking the stationery cupboard, and took action. He had £200 on his vending machine allowance and didn’t want it going to waste if the company went under, so he spent it all on chocolate bars just before the crash.

“We’re just sort of normal people, relatable. Maybe a bit eccentric”

“I think we’re still in a country where people do look at the liberal elite, the city, the top professional institutions, MPs, Oxbridge, and there’s a sort of us-against-them mentality,” he reflects, looking mildly less euphoric than usual. “People come up to me and say they don’t normally support Oxbridge on University Challenge; they support anyone else.

“But this year, because of me and my friend Eric, they actually think, ‘we really like the way you’re just sort of normal people, relatable’,” he says. “Maybe a bit eccentric, but likeable people who they would like to have a conversation with. That's given me a great sense of satisfaction. In the modern world, things are changing all the time. Society, Brexit, we’re constantly changing. But University Challenge gives us that familiarity.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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