Welcome then, Glastonbury and his stay at home, the BBC. After two fallow years, the postponed 50th anniversary event returns tonight. According to a company press release earlier this month, the festival will be screened in “ultra high-definition” for the first time. Coverage runs Thursday through Sunday evening — another first.
This is not a good thing. The BBC images of Glastonbury are a license-funded nostalgia generator, warping and polishing our summer youth. And next week, desks across the country will show the pale faces of those who have spent a weekend on their couch, enraptured in a collective reverie of envy, mortality and gloom.
Glastonbury personal anecdotes are self-centered and unbearable, like the retelling of dreams. But for the purposes of this piece, it needs to be said simply that I, along with hundreds of thousands of others, went to Glastonbury three times, in 2000, 2003, and 2005. We were young, doing all the things young people do, and it was delicious.
But I’m 39 now, with two young daughters. I’ll be watching Glastonbury in stolen chunks this year; on the train with a telephone on a cramped table, at home while the children are sleeping.
The BBC coverage of the festival is, of course, excellent. But for many people in their thirties at home in the suburbs, it is quietly unbearable. Why? Because it exists and is inevitable. For many, Glastonbury is a symbol of their lost youth. The festival is such a groundbreaking moment for young people that broadcasting an updated version every year through any medium is like force-feeding some sort of unwilling memory. Later this month, we’ll happily tune in to watch Billie Eilish’s headliner, but go to bed thinking about the boundless optimism and inflatable seats of the early 1990s.
Relentless broadcasting is really new to British youth culture. The acid house summer of 1989 and the Britpop excess of 1996 were not replayed annually for aging former visitors. Instead, they were boxed, put away and mythologized; only found by the accidental discovery of Polaroids in old shoeboxes, or by Gen Z who is now excavating them for the first time. But Glastonbury, which remains the defining point of many young people’s fragile maturing, returns year after year on the BBC, as the body sinks and the lines deepen.
We selectively remember childhood, convincing ourselves that we had clear skin, a rapier humor and absolutely no self-doubt. The images from the BBC are equally beautifully shot and edited. Glastonbury, seen through the lens of the BBC, is a series of massive sing-alongs. The sound is pure, the view unobstructed. (Photos of tired people queuing for port-a-loos or overpriced goat curries stand out for their absence.) Play the childhood memories through the filter of BBC footage and we’re left with a perfect storm of fictional, unattainable adolescence.
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The BBC also told us that Jo Whiley will be back this year, presenting for those artfully strung Christmas lights. This will make things worse. Wiley is now 56, but doesn’t seem to be more than 25. The years and fashions change, but The Wiley remains rooted and timeless, a small-eyed behemoth who straddles Glastonbury coverage as Hebe in a kaftan dress. Her continued presence feels like a BBC ploy to upset us: Glastonbury must be relevant to us, we think, in moments of self-doubt – Jo Whiley is still here after all and in his twenties, leaving Chris Martin’s name fall like it’s 2001.
It’s not all the BBC’s fault. Having children has also changed Glastonbury. I now see the girls with the heavily glittering cheekbones on the shoulders of their hopeful male friends and imagine my daughters at Glastonbury in a few years. Where I used to see my generation getting younger, having fun without me, now I see the next getting older. And I wonder how — or even if — my little girls will ever fit in. Some parents go on and come back year after year with their kids in tow. But I couldn’t bear to go to that place, so laden with the memories of a gilded childhood, and worrying about wet wipes, child factor 50, and keeping the girls’ cups clean. So, like millions of others, I instead watch the BBC’s relentless coverage: stolen moments on small screens, while the cultural relevance of the festival continues to elude my view.
[See also: Revolve: The festival where only the TikTok elite are invited]