With the Dalai Lama topping the bill of this year's festival, the focus was firmly on politicsby / July 13, 2015 / Leave a comment
I met the Dalai Lama. Ok, not quite, but I got close during his “secret gig” at Glastonbury. It was one of those special moments that linger in the mind long after you’ve cleaned the last traces of mud off your wellies. The rumour that his Holiness was due to appear had been flying around Britain’s biggest music festival. As someone who has made the pilgrimage to Worthy Farm on and off for the past 20 years, I was sceptical—surely Glastonbury is a place for partying, not preaching? If the organisers had failed to book rock legends Fleetwood Mac, had they really managed to woo the Dalai Lama? But, on Sunday morning—thanks to a friend’s talent for picking up information around campfires—we found ourselves trudging through the early morning mist to the festival’s spiritual centre, the Stone Circle, where a crowd of 200 reverential revellers had gathered.
Peering out from a specially constructed wooden stage adorned with the Tibetan flag, his Holiness spoke for over an hour. As well as extolling the importance of education and the need to combat climate change, he also commented on the conflict in the Middle East. “In this very moment, in some parts of the world, like Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and some other places—they’re killing, human to human being. Unthinkable. And the worst thing [is that] conflict, killing each other, in the name of their faith,” he said.
Somewhat surprisingly, given his location, the Tibetan leader revealed he wasn’t much of a music fan. Disputing the notion it can be a source of inner peace, he made the point that pop music had done little to resolve the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. He also conveyed to the spellbound crowd the real meaning of the word “jihad.” Disputing the idea that it means making war on those who don’t share your beliefs, he described it as a spiritual struggle to combat destructive emotions. “I daily use it in my five hours of meditation, this kind of jihad,” the Tibetan leader said.
There were moments of levity—when asked if he wasn’t the Dalai Lama for a day what would his Holiness like to be, his response was a tractor driver. I wonder if Michael Eavis gave him a ride on a JCB around Glastonbury?
But it wasn’t just the unexpected presence of one of the world’s spiritual leaders that added a politicised feel to this year’s festival. Normally, Worthy Farm is a hedonistic wonderland where for five carefree days you retreat from the stresses of everyday life. There are no bills to pay, no 24-hour news bulletins, very few rules, and, above all, no drunken political rants around the campfire. That would be just so not Glastonbury, dude.
It wasn’t always this way. The festival has a strong political history—founded in 1970 at the height of the counter-culture era in the wake of Woodstock, it was first known as a hotbed of political dissent. Originally held in conjunction with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), its founder Michael Eavis has always made a point of donating a large chunk of the festival’s profits to charity. In 2013, ticket sales brought in £35m from which £2m was donated to causes such as Water Aid, Greenpeace and Oxfam, which are still the only organisations allowed to place sponsorship banners on the main Pyramid Stage.
Yet the festival mood over the past few decades has shifted from political awareness to hedonistic apathy. This is attributed to the higher ticket price (£220), which has brought a more middle-class crowd to the festival—many of whom stagger round in spandex, drinking organic cider and brandishing selfie sticks. In 2011, Eavis told the Guardian that he was hopeful that anger against the then coalition government’s spending cuts might help the festival recapture its political soul: “I think it [the festival] could well become more political. We’ve always been a sounding board for lots of unrest… If people are really faced with dire circumstances, that will get them angry and motivated.”
This year, in the aftermath of one of the most polarised elections of modern times, which prompted the highest voter turnout for 18 years, the festival finally reconnected with its political past. The need for voters to “recharge their activism” was the theme of the Left Field stage, where Tony Benn made one of his last public appearances in 2013. Curated by the singer-songwriter and activist, Billy Bragg, it boasted a packed programme of talks, debates and performances. Russian feminist punk protest group Pussy Riot drew a huge crowd. Other highlights included: a discussion on the rise of radical movements across Europe with representatives from Syriza and Podemas; Shami Chakrabarti speaking out against the government’s plans to scrap the Human Rights Act; and an impromptu speech from singer-turned-activist Charlotte Church, who stressed the need for the public to stop being complacent and blindly trusting politicians.
Even Glastonbury’s after-hours epicentre, ShangriLa, took up the political theme. Located on the site of the fields formerly given over to new age travellers, whose right to free entry was withdrawn after a fracas with the police in 1990, ShangriLa has become one of the festival’s biggest draws since its inception in 2008. This year, the organisers decided to draw on the mood of uncertainty over what the next five years of Tory government might bring, and highlight the importance of taking an active role in the political process. ShangriLa Artistic Director Kaye Dunnings said: “ShangriLa is a vast platform for the arts and social media. I felt that we needed a shift and that we have a responsibility to say more and use [ShangriLa’s] popularity as a vehicle for change. Just like protests and demonstrations—festivals bring people together en masse.”
Comprised of two open-air stages (Heaven and Hell), giant artworks, several indoor venues, grand scale installations, a speaker’s corner auditorium, and placard-strewn streets, ShangriLa felt like a micro festival in itself. In true seventies spirit, a giant “bed-in” lasting 107 hours was staged in a glass-fronted venue by the performance artist Harry Clayton Wright. At the centre was a giant mosaic of David Cameron’s face crafted from images of people protesting against government cuts, which was the work of the acclaimed street artist, and Banksy collaborator, Chu. While it was slightly disconcerting dancing to bands and DJs with the prime minister’s face ever-present, it certainly provoked lively debate.
“With the Dalai Lama coming, Pussy Riot speaking, and artists such as Patti Smith and [civil rights campaigner] Mavis Staples performing, this year’s festival had a distinctly more political feel,” said Dunnings. “In ShangriLa we worked with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to build a maze designed to inform people about the £100bn cost of renewing Britain’s nuclear deterrent programme…Taking a message and turning it into a live experience is something that works well at Glastonbury. I hope that people will remember the message behind the gigs, talks and installations, and become less selfish and more open minded.”
While it’s easy for those who watch the festival on TV to sneer at the thought of sleeping in mud and being surrounded by hippies, the community-based, non-hierarchical nature of Glastonbury engenders a desire to explore new ideas and experiences. With the political left in this country in a state of disarray, following the Labour’s election wipeout and the failure of more radical parties such as the Greens to connect with voters, it was refreshing to see signs of life amid the fields of Worthy Farm. There was a desire to see beyond the shrill scaremongering about austerity, and understand what big challenges Britain will face over the next five years. I don’t know whether it was the influence of the Dalai Lama or the soul-lifting impact of sets by Lionel’s Ritchie and The Who (let’s not mention Kanye), but I for one came away feeling enlightened.