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Field notes from Glastonbury

Inside 2019’s Glastonbury festival, from the headliners to the blazing heat.

Before I had even packed for Glastonbury, I was starting to feel overwhelmed. It was my first time at the festival, and as someone who can be more than a little nervous about new experiences, I had canvassed hardened veterans for tips, and received a lot of conflicting advice. Bring wellies! No, real experts wear hiking boots! Camp near the stages if you don’t want to spend the entire weekend walking. Camp as far away from the stages as possible if you want to get any sleep. Don’t overpack; your aching body will regret it before you’ve even arrived – but don’t forget essentials like spirits and mixers, a pillow, snacks, toilet rolls, a picnic blanket, and an ice box!

I had flashbacks to Reading festival in 2010, when a pool of retch-inducing stagnant water somehow formed inside the tent my Dad had lent me, and a lad from my hometown, high on ketamine, cut his foot open on a hacked-apart cider can – which quickly became so infected that, months later, solemn whispers circulated that he would “never play football again”. I made a WhatsApp group of equally apprehensive friends called “Glastonvery anxious”, borrowed a sleeping bag, bought a tent (my Dad’s never did recover), and tried not to let phrases like “long drop”, “mudbath” and “trench foot” enter my mind.

As it turned out, I was blessed with the best possible introduction to the world’s biggest greenfield festival. In a small miracle (or, a terrifying omen of our planet’s impending combustion) there was no downpour, no mud, not even a single drop of rain. I arrived at Castle Cary train station in brilliant sunshine, and the revellers on my shuttle bus (bottle openers were nailed to the backs of the seats) were delirious with excitement.

Entering the site itself was like walking into a never-ending central London park at 5pm on a Friday on an unexpectedly glorious day: the whole place hummed with manic Brits Abroad energy. Everywhere I looked, I saw topless men with horrific sunburn – meaty magenta necks peeking out of the pale silhouettes of now-abandoned T shirts – and girls in Love Island bikinis and fishnet dresses. It was impossible to tell whether yet another lad in a bucket hat was staggering back from the end of a long night or had simply let the first few drinks go to his head in the heat.

I pitched my tent in what I thought was a perfect spot (ten minutes away from the main stage, but tucked away enough to be a respite) until my friend asked, “Can you hear a buzzing sound?” and I realised we had planted ourselves directly beneath an enormous, crackling power line. Once I’d tuned into it, I couldn’t ignore the constant, fizzing drone, and started to become paranoid that I was developing some sort of brain tumour. When I stepped on the field in my sandals, the grass that brushed my feet gave me small electric shocks.

My first day was a sweaty blur: the site is, as I was warned, impossibly large (there are entire swathes of the map that I never made it to). But, of course, there was some music. There was Rosalia, a Spanish pop star of incredible power, gloss and precision. Wearing an unbuttoned jumpsuit that looked like silk pyjamas and pillowy, slipper-like white trainers, she mixed flamenco vocals with R&B beats and crisp, sharp choreography. There was George Ezra, a man who I find almost unbearably twee on stage, but whose cider-sweet, summery pop I regrettably cannot resist. And there was the British rapper Stormzy, a booking who came as a surprise to many but exceeded expectations in a fast-paced, furious, funny set (getting the 100,000-strong crowd to shout “Fuck the government, fuck Boris!” – twice) that was also emotional: he teared up multiple times, flashing a humble, dorky grin that said, “I can’t believe this is actually happening”.

My night ended in the steamy, dark corners of NYC Downlow, a now-legendary on-site LGBTQ space built to resemble an Eighties gay club in Manhattan’s meatpacking district (down to the fake carcasses hanging on hooks outside) that houses cage dancers in leather harnesses, drag queens on stage and off, and an intimate, diverse, chaotic crowd of attendees. Still in a dress and sandals, and slick with sweat, I trekked back to my tent to dutifully follow another piece of advice: shower in the wee hours, before the queues.

The sun had its drawbacks. Saturday was a test of endurance. I was forced out of my tent early by the stifling heat, wandered up to the hill to watch an anaemic “secret set” from Vampire Weekend, and found myself unable to get back down again. It was a day spent desperately chugging water, searching for shade, and frantically googling things like “heatstroke symptoms”, “can you die from drinking too much water” and “wild swimming Somerset how far”. People crammed themselves under decorative sculptures to shield themselves from the sun’s glare, and poured jerrycans of water over their heads. All the showers were closed for the day to conserve drinking water. The smells emanating from campsites, toilet stalls and the backs of bars became increasingly mature. Very few people seemed to see any actual acts.

I just about managed Shura (a Mancunian indie electropop performer who, dressed in a white cape, described herself as “your friendly neighbourhood lesbian vaping pope”), Janet Jackson (who gave a supernaturally sleek, if somewhat mechanical, performance) and Liam Gallagher (I went in cynical, and came out briefly contemplating an Oasis tattoo), before I became overwhelmed by nausea. The day had defeated me, and I was in bed before The Killers were on stage. (Every cloud…)

But on Sunday the weather mellowed: everything was bathed in golden sunlight, with a gentle breeze. I saw the wonderful Jessie Buckley deliver offbeat country ballads, and explored the craft and healing fields. This is where the hardcore Glasto-goers live, the kind who come every year “for the atmosphere, not the music” – dressed as 18th-century pirates or in crocheted leggings, offering Tarot readings and classes in needle-felting and the construction of authentic antique-style wagon wheels. I stared at these huge pieces of woodworking, wondering how on earth anyone successfully took one home with them, then I embroidered a small patch of fabric for 30 minutes, and felt gloriously relaxed.

At teatime, Kylie Minogue gave an incredibly, if endearingly, naff set in the Sunday “Legends” slot that won over the biggest crowd of the weekend. But my highlight of the day, and the whole festival, was 17-year-old Billie Eilish’s absurdly self-assured performance. In an oversized T-shirt and shorts combo emblazoned with the Yellow Submarine Blue Meanies, the young Californian drawled her way through her menacing, idiosyncratic pop with masculine, grungy swagger. It was a thrill to watch, invigorating the atmosphere of a festival which somehow manages to feel new, almost 50 years on. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 05 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion