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Glastonbury, Brexit, and Euro 16: Will Self on the Weird State of Britain

An odyssey into the abyss, starting in the Somerset mud.

Photos from Glastonbury by Madeleine Self

At West Somerset's Castle Cary Station, there's a nice little waiting room with neatly arranged tourist information leaflets extolling the virtues of tandem-riding through leafy lanes. The cloistral space speaks softly of an orderly old rural England in which social ties are an organic fact of life, and all farming is necessarily organic because industrially produced nitrate fertilizers don't exist yet. But step outside the waiting room, reverse the flow of time back to the future, and soon enough you'll find yourself on a farm that's thrived for the past 46 years by growing and harvesting human consumers––a crop that thrives on all sorts of strange additives, and without, so far as I'm aware, any sort of European Union subsidy.


When I pitched up at Castle Cary Station on June 23, the polls were still open, and large numbers of British were voting in a referendum that would define the nation's political destiny for years to come. Meanwhile, the national football squad, under the redoubtable leadership of Roy "Cosmopolitan Linguist" Hodgson, was limbering up for its Euro 16 fixture the following Monday. Facing the team in the green and over-lit bowl of the Stade de Nice would be those mighty trolls from Ultima Thule: the Icelanders, a berserker bunch of amateurs, crazily corralled by a part-time manager who's a full-time dentist.

If you'd asked me then for odds on all three events, this is what I'd have given: Glastonbury odds-on to be a huge success, with thousands of muddy music lovers collectively achieving orgasm as Adele hit the high notes; the Brexiters against the odds to win the referendum and plunge Britain into political turmoil and possible economic meltdown; and England to lose against the plucky horn-heads from the land of the midnight sun.

My reasoning? Glasto is pretty much always a success nowadays––it has to be. It's the focaccia-and-circuses of the British middle-class hoi polloi, and such is their collectively delusory state, it'd still be a success if Armageddon broke out over the pyramid stage. As for the referendum, I began to feel the crapulent wind of change blowing through the beer halls about three weeks before polling day: There were British lions out there in the sticks who the pollsters didn't even know existed, let alone asked about their intentions, and while rational anxiety can be a political motivator, feared-up bigotry is a far better one.


And finalement, Ingerland: For life-long supporters of the national side such as me, perhaps its most endearing characteristic is the sheer brilliance at… losing. Give the England players a crucial tie against a traditional enemy, and they can be guaranteed to play dully for the full 120 minutes before spectacularly losing a penalty shoot-out. Give them a match they should stroll through, and they can be guaranteed to fuck it up royally. The England fans had been singing on the French terraces throughout the championship: "We all hate you––we voted Leave!", and in retrospect, this was clearly the preparatory mass-erucation before they drowned in their own rancorous bile.

This year, I joined the uptight British on the long weekend when they garland their normcore sensibilities in flowers and head for the hills surrounding Glastonbury Tor, a picture-postcard landscape some believe to be the Avalon of Arthurian myth. Here, on the family farm, Michael Eavis began the festival in September 1970 with a few hippies and a firkin or 40 of cider. Presumably when one or other of them got full up, he or she staggered off a few paces and took a leak.

But so swollen and dropsical has the Brobdingnagian beano become that these days new arrivals are greeted by a "piss crew": young men and women who receive subsidized entry in return for several shifts of dancing about in colorful costumes, waving their own placards blazoned with the pissy facts, the most significant of which is that from the urethras of approximately 250,000 festival-goers some 2.8 million liters of urine will spit and sputter. It's an arresting thought, and when I took a leak and made the mistake of peering into the Dantean hellhole of the chemical toilet, I nearly heaved––and that was only on day two!


It is not my intention to piss all over Glastonbury in what follows. As a food critic of long service, I know I have a responsibility to discount the "dyspepsia factor" when I review an establishment where I just happened to have arrived already over-inflated. But when it comes to mass gatherings of any sort, I'm heaving from the get-go––you see, I'm more or less phobic when it comes to any of the following phenomena: crowds, loud music, and traffic jams. So, I have to concede that at least 80 percent of my negative reaction to this inspiring and deeply humanistic people-gathering was a function of my own psychopathology, rather than the presence in one place of so many astrologers.

I managed an afternoon at Glasto, and I was sweating profusely by the time I made it out of that terminal moraine of the counter-culture ––because really, puh-lease, that's what it is: In this greeny-brown and not entirely unpleasant ground, the spirit of rebellion and experimentation that the 1960s unleashed, finally curled up on its air-mattress and carried on glamping. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson wrote that the Circus Circus in Las Vegas was "what the whole hip world would be doing if the Nazis had won the war"; to extend the analogy, the Glastonbury Festival is what all of vaguely hip Britain (with certain key exceptions I'll come to later) actually is doing, because Chicago School economists won the ideological war. On the morning of Friday, June 24, Britain woke up to the cold wet fish of a Major Change smashing into their collective mush––but not, I warrant, in the Valley of Eavis, for here there were more important matters afoot than the destinies of millions; namely, the kicks of a couple of hundred thousand revelers.


"Keep Calm You're at Glastonbury" read a predictable T-shirt slogan with a British bulldog's chest bulging behind it––but this really was just about the lamest costume I saw (besides my own). To wander the muddy sloughs and rutted holloways of the Eavises' farm is to find yourself psychotropically transported to a wonderless land, in which a quarter of a million largely middle-class and white Britons have gone berserk raiding the dressing-up box. Superheroes and cartoon characters, novelty beer cans and belly dancers––true, lots of folk make a real effort, and I was surprised by how many of the younger women were in full nightclubbing maquillage. (Although—why? I've known for years that entire precincts of London's tonier western 'burbs decant here for the duration.)

But that being noted, the overwhelming impression is of a dreadful mess: so much tie-dye, Indian-printing, modern primitive tattooing, face-metaling, hair-spritzing––and all of it irrespective of age. Mutton dressed as lamb and lamb dressed as veal: This is a farm on which the human stock has been subjected to a sort of sartorial-genetic engineering. Jean-Paul Sartre said hell was other people, but really it's other people's stretchy shorts slipping down to expose billows of white flesh cinched by the waistband of their designer underpants.

The alternative and politically radical aspects of Glasto appeared, on the basis of my brief immersion, to have been reduced to the aforementioned piss gang, antediluvian hippy nomenclature––Avalon, et al––and an enormous placard made up of a tapestry of right-on sentiments that the festival-goers slushed right past in their wellies. When it comes to saving the world, Glasto is firmly part of the Geldof-Bono Axis of Bleeding Hearts; the philosopher Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but the consciences I encountered already seemed pretty unburdened. The festival isn't cheap, and the tickets sell out in hours––if not minutes. Everyone wants to be a part of… Well, of what's effectively a synecdoche of contemporary, socially liberal Britain.


And what's contemporary, socially liberal Britain like? Well, it's pro-environment and very keen on fairness, but less keen on altogether abandoning a vertiginous economic order, which means that tickets to gigs like this are super expensive. Somewhere on the massive site, glampers were raising glasses of Krug to their lips in centrally heated tepees, but you can be sure those lips were unlikely to belong to someone with ethnic minority heritage.

As I wandered hither and thither, I thought of the chapter of Melville's Moby Dick entitled "The Whiteness of the Whale," in which he descants on all the multifarious shades of the color: beige-white, liver-spotted white, appallingly tattooed white, red sun-burned white, pale-freckled white. Some black and brown people come to Glasto––but not that many. I suppose I wouldn't have noticed the whiteness of the Glastonbury whale quite so much if it hadn't been Referendum Day, at the end of a campaign that had been typified by the dog-whistling racism of those determined on leaving the EU. Paradoxically, I would think the Glasto crowd were, probably, largely Remainers––but they need to consider, now that Michael and Boris and Nigel have whistled the dogs out, how far their advertising-catalogue racially mixed image of contemporary Britain really reflects its reality.

Everyone I spoke to seemed gripped by the Glasto spirit, which is really only a febrile, possibly MDMA-enhanced version of traditional British politeness. My daughter, who was along to take the snaps, is a seasoned festival-goer; she said it was the same at many of the other massed loud-music gatherings that nowadays bedizen the British summer months. "I've been lost and wet and cold and in pain," she told me, "and other people have gathered me up and fed me and bathed me and treated me like their own." Which is what plenty of socially liberal Britons want the wider society to do––but rather than massing at the barricades, they're all monged out of their collective brain in a muddy field, under gray skies and fluttering pseudo-Tibetan prayer flags, eating––among much other excellent provender––the famous "square pies" that are otherwise to be found on sale at London's hipster cynosure, Spitalfields Market. Well, that was then––and those square pies have long since been composted, while the indigestible political reality of Brexit remains sticking in our collective craw.

Still, even with the curse of hindsight, I can say I enjoyed my little outing. The fierce rain that occurred the two days before I went to Glastonbury had been causing the proverbial traffic chaos––yet everyone seemed positively beaming as they schussed their wheelie-bags through the morass.

As I said above, Glasto is a scale model of a society I've lived in all my life. True, I was last in this valley 40 years ago, when I dropped acid and grooved to Floyd's Ummagumma in the ancient tower atop the tit-shaped Tor. We were in our late teens, and already thought we were doing something incredibly recherché––and how mad is that? If I'd known then that four decades later I'd be watching a man my own age pretend to play a collapsible camp stool as if it were Dave Gilmore's guitar, I would've considered myself to be having a very bad trip indeed.

Then again, if you'd told me––while I was watching that middle-aged man pretending a camping stool was Dave Gilmore's guitar––that Britain was about to be entirely fucked over by a dumb blond and a man with a face like a fetus that's been left out in the Glastonbury rain, I'd have assumed I'd been… spiked.