Welcome back then, Glastonbury and its stay-at-home facilitator, the BBC. After two fallow years, the delayed 50th anniversary event returns tonight. According to a press release from the corporation earlier this month, the festival will be shown, for the first time ever, in “ultra high-definition”. Coverage will run all the way from Thursday to Sunday night – another first.
This is not a good thing. The BBC’s Glastonbury footage is a licence fee-funded nostalgia generator, distorting and burnishing our summery youths. And at desks up and down the country next week will be the wan faces of those who spent a weekend on their sofas, rapt in a collective reverie of envy, mortality and gloom.
Personal Glastonbury anecdotes are self-absorbed and intolerable, like the retelling of dreams. But for the purposes of this piece, it’s necessary to simply state that I, along with hundreds of thousands of others, went to Glastonbury three times, in 2000, 2003 and 2005. We were young, did all the things that young people do, and it was lovely.
But I am 39 now, with two young daughters. I’ll watch Glastonbury this year in stolen chunks; on the train with a phone propped up on a cramped tray table, at home as the children sleep.
The BBC’s coverage of the festival is, of course, excellent. But it is quietly intolerable to many 30-somethings at home in the suburbs. Why? Because it exists and it is unavoidable. For many, Glastonbury is a symbol of their lost youth. The festival is such an epochal moment for young people that to annually broadcast an updated version through every medium is like force-feeding a sort of unwilling reminiscence. Later this month we will blithely tune in to watch Billie Eilish’s headline slot but go to bed thinking about the boundless optimism and inflatable chairs of the early Noughties.
Relentless broadcasting is a genuinely new thing as far as British youth culture is concerned. The acid house summer of 1989 and Britpop excess of 1996 were not replayed annually to ageing former attendees. Instead they were boxed-up, packed away and mythologised; encountered only by the chance discovery of Polaroids in old shoeboxes, or by Gen Z unearthing them for the first time now. But Glastonbury, which remains the defining point of many young people’s fragile coming of age, returns year after year on the BBC, as the body sags and the lines grow deeper.
We remember youth selectively, convincing ourselves we had clear skin, a rapier wit and absolutely no self-doubt. The BBC’s footage is equally beautifully shot and edited. Glastonbury, seen through the BBC’s lens, is a series of mass singalong set pieces. The sound is pure, the view unobstructed. (Shots of tired humans queuing for port-a-loos or overpriced goat curries are notable by their absence.) Play the memories of youth through the filter of BBC footage and we’re left with a perfect storm of fictional, unattainable adolescence.
The BBC has also told us that Jo Whiley will be back this year, presenting in front of those artfully strung fairy lights. This will make matters worse. Wiley is now 56 but appears to be no older than 25. The years and the fashions change but The Wiley remains rooted and ageless, a narrow-eyed colossus straddling Glastonbury coverage like Hebe in a kaftan dress. Her enduring presence feels like a ploy by the BBC to unsettle us: Glastonbury must be relevant to us, we think, in self-doubting moments – after all, Jo Whiley’s still there and in her twenties, dropping Chris Martin’s name like it’s 2001.
It’s not all the BBC’s fault. Having children has changed Glastonbury, too. I now see the girls with the heavily glittered cheekbones perched on the shoulders of their hopeful male friends and imagine my daughters at Glastonbury in a few years’ time. Where I used to see my generation getting younger, having fun without me, I now see the next one getting older. And I wonder how – or even if – my little girls will fit into it one day. Some parents soldier on, returning year after year with their children in tow. But I couldn’t face going to that place, so loaded with the memories of a gilded youth, and having to worry about wet wipes, kids’ factor 50 and keeping the girls’ beakers clean. So, like millions of others, I’ll watch the BBC’s relentless coverage instead: in stolen moments on tiny screens, as the festival’s cultural relevance slips further from my view.