"[A] hilarious series of field notes...Mr. Gill's rants can produce a genuine high...The fun lies in wondering which next innocuous comment will cause him to blow his top." Richard B. Woodward, The New York Times
Previous Convictions: Assignments from Here and Thereby A.A. Gill
Critic, essayist and cultural savant A.A. Gill is probably the most widely read columnist in Britain. His books The Angry Island and A.A. Gill is away have found delighted fans in America as well, and sparked a loyal following.
His new book of travel essays, Previous Convictions, ranges from Gill's nearby domestic locales of Glastonbury and/i>/i>/i>
Critic, essayist and cultural savant A.A. Gill is probably the most widely read columnist in Britain. His books The Angry Island and A.A. Gill is away have found delighted fans in America as well, and sparked a loyal following.
His new book of travel essays, Previous Convictions, ranges from Gill's nearby domestic locales of Glastonbury and the English countryside to Haiti, Guatemala, Pakistan and exotic, dangerous, downtown Manhattan. In this collection of notes from the corners of the globe, and sometimes from the edge of sanity, he confesses about his travels far and wide, "The more I see of the world, the less I think I understand. Familiarity breeds even more astonishment. The world just gets wider and deeper and weirder."
These pieces are wickedly funny, sometimes pointedly even purposely critical of many cultures and traditions, and always edifying and enchanting. As an adventurer and as a writer, Gill never disappoints; while he may take others to task for their customs, habits, idiosyncrasies and plain bad taste, his own indefatigable curiosity keeps him going back again and again for more, and provides us with spectacular entertainment along the way.
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What is it with hippies and fire? You only have to spark up a Zippo and four of them will come and stare contentedly into the flame. At Glastonbury they light up everywhere. In the field in front of the main stage while some deathless bit of old pop flotsam is offering his timeless classic in the middle of 300,000 swaying, wigged-out happy campers, you'll trip over a little family of hippies, cross-legged in front of an improvised bonfire, watching the salamanders and phoenixes in the flames with their third eyes. I saw a bloke stroll down one of the festival's makeshift ley-lines and just put a match to a pile of rubbish. It wasn't so much an act of pyromania as the offering of a small prayer, the elemental, Promethean act of spiritual bollocks. In the age of nuclear fission and quantum physics, plasma screens and 3G cells, hippies can still look into a fire and see the meaning of life and the answer to everything.
So there I am, you see, seven sentences in, and I've started already with the hippy baiting. You just can't help it; to know them is to mock them. What's amazing is that they've lasted so long. At the bottom of the child-line of bullied pop trends, hippies are now in their third generation. Born in the mid-sixties into a blizzard of mockery, they've suffered, for forty years, the ridicule of almost everyone. They've tried rebranding as yippies, travelers, crusties, hairies, the tribe, the clan, eco-warriors, alternative health practitioners and outreach coordinating social workers. But we all know they're just the same old hippies in a new shapeless jersey. And credit where credit's due, what other useful fad or fashion has lasted as long? No one says, "Oh, you sad old teddy boy." Your mods, rockers, suedeheads, soul boys, new romantics, Goths, punks and Bay City Rollerettes are now just embarrassing photographs and a ridiculous pair of shoes at the back of the wardrobe. Only hippies have transcended the natural life-span of their music and knitwear.
And if you sit down and think about them without sniggering, there's a lot of hippy shit you quite like. Flower power became the green movement, and you quite like that. The don't-work-just-feel-the-vibe-and-roll-a-spliff thing has its points, and as a weekend mini-break you'd rather make love than war. And you wouldn't mind fathering a lot of blond kids from a number of surprisingly attractive and nonjudgmental free-spirited women who can bake. Actually, when you get right down to it, there's a bit of you that would like to live in a tepee. Yes, there is. With some mates and Liv Tyler in August. It would be a laugh and you quite fancy having a go on those Celtic drums. (Obviously, you don't want the Hoover-bag hair, the scabies, the compost sleeping bag, a mate called Bracken and a lurcher called Stephen.)
Perhaps we all need to get in touch with our inner hippies. Which is partially why I decided, finally, that it was time to go to Glastonbury. It's funny, Glastonbury. It's a secret password. Whisper it to gray men in offices, your accountant, your MEP, a hedge-fund analyst, and it's likely a look of beatific remembrance will pass like a cloud over the sun and they'll say, "Yes, I went once, years ago." Glastonbury is a secret medieval heresy that's remembered with hidden joy. "I was once a free-love hippy, Mott the Hoople acolyte and hand-painted chillum maker" is probably not what you want to hear from the merchant banker handling your corporate takeover. Actually, medieval heresy is the decorative theme of Glastonbury, which, by the way, means "place of woad," or more exactly "place of the woad people." Inside, the huge curtain wall of the temporary, self-governing state of Glastonbury is a reprise of the thirteenth century, or at least the "Jabberwocky" version of it, while outside the Black Death of progress tears up the earth and eats people. Getting into Glastonbury is about as easy as the Black Prince found getting into Calais.
Having made the decision to find my inner hippy at Glastonbury, I had to make a decision as to what sort of hippy I was looking for. Was it Swampy? Or Donovan? Or was it the Marquis of Bath? Over the years there's been quite a variety of hippies. You could, if you so wished, hold a Eurovision Hippy Contest or a Hippy Olympics. I like to think of Glastonbury as Hippy Crufts, a walled, heretic, medieval Hippy Crufts. That just about gets the flavor.
I have an advantage in shopping for an inner hippy because this is my second go. I was there at the start. I'm a child of the sixties, albeit at school in rural Hertfordshire, which wasn't exactly Woodstock or the Prague Spring or even Eel Pie Island. But we had the music and the hair and a bit of Red Leb and I know where my nascent, born-again hippy lurks. He's a cross between Malcolm McDowell and William Blake with a dash of Jethro Tull. This is really the crux. I'm fifty this year. Glastonbury is the last act of my forties. Glastonbury is unfinished business now that I'm closer to an undertaker than I am to boarding school.
When I was a hippy first time round we used to say, never trust anyone over thirty (with shrill, clipped, upper-middle-class accents). Now I'm over fifty I'd add, never sleep in a tent over thirty. I'll do Glastonbury but I'll do Glastonbury Soft, Glastonbury Lite, which is why I'm sitting above the twenty-mile traffic jam in a Winnebago. Not for me the stews and refugee camps of windy canvas, the dank sleeping bag; a Winnebago is the way to go. You see, a mobile home is a great luxury, the stars' accessory, the private box on nature unless and this is a big unless it actually is your home, in which case it's trailer trash. Ours appears to be the main residence of the man who's driving it. It has the mildly weird feeling of trying to hold a dinner party in a peculiarly strange man's bedsit with him in the inglenook saying, "Don't mind me."
I'm traveling with my girlfriend. This will be the last year I'm able to say "girlfriend" without sounding utterly Alan Clark. I'm also taking Matthew, my personal photographer, another little luxury you can give yourself after forty-five (going to Books and sticking the things in the albums is such a bore), and Alice BB, who's a dear and here because when I told her I was going, she became so overexcited I thought she just might rip off all her clothes and do floral finger-painting on her body. So I said she was welcome to tag along, as it was a sort of hippyish thing to say. She is still improbably buoyant, staring out of the window, squeaking like a spaniel going shooting.
Getting into Glastonbury is like crossing a particularly fraught border: there are thousands of policemen or pigs, as I suppose I must go back to calling them, hundreds of cones and signs and labels, a Kafkaesque amount of paperwork and when you see the security fence marching across the country it's a reminder that the price of freedom, to be a bit of an anarchist and a fire-worshiper, is a lot of razor wire and a bulk discount from Group Four.
We finally park in the private, behind-stage, Bands and VIPs field, which is like a pilot for a Channel 4 sitcom: Celebrity Trailer Trash. Over there is Kate Moss, the pinup sprite, the Bardot of postmodern Notting Hippydom. I go and find the press tent to get more passes and paperwork, and bump into Roland White, a man whose hidden hippy has probably been sold for medical research. He does my television column when I'm not there. I'm only introducing Roland as a walk-on here because he made one very clever observation and I don't want him to think I'm stealing it. "Have you seen the tented village yet?" he asked. "Well, when you do, you'll notice it's become a tented suburb. Well, a number of suburbs. It's rather John Betjeman; there are people laying out gardens and putting up carriage lamps."
Inside the press tent the latest news is that no one's managed to make it over the wall but security guards with dogs have apprehended ten people and they're all Liverpudlian (the liggers, not the dogs). It's like the punch line to a joke, isn't it? "...And they were all Scousers." The tickets are now £100 each so naturally, in a right-on, hippyish way, we're all for people breaking in over the wire. But on the other hand we're jolly pleased when they get caught. There's a lot of nostalgia about Glastonbury: people who've been here every year since they did it without microphones say they miss the gangs of Hell's Angels, the drug-dealers' turf wars, the endemic thievery, the adulteration and overdoses, which just shows you can be nostalgic about anything.
The truth is that this alternative weekend nirvana all comes down to plumbing and waste management. There are armies of kids who've been given tickets in exchange for picking up rubbish, of which there is an extraordinary amount. But it's bogs that are really the central leitmotif of Glastonbury. It's all about one thing: colonic endurance. Can you go the full three days without going? Because the very thought is so nauseous, so utterly medieval, it makes a colostomy bag sound like a civilized option. There are plenty of loos laid out like back-to-back miners' cottages. You can see the rows of feet in the morning, the whole-earth pasty shoe next to the Nike Airs, next to Doc Martens. That's the thing that's rarely mentioned about hippies they've managed to achieve completely unisexual footwear but, my darling, the smell.
By the third morning it's, well, it's half a million turds and all the trimmings. There are horror stories of dropped stashes, of tripping and slipping, of horrible, horrible rectal explosions. But for me the most poignant, the most grisly, is the girl who told me she'd been putting off the call of nature for as long as sphincterally possible and until she was so comprehensively stoned and drunk she could face the drop. So at 2 AM she gingerly made her way to the pitch-black amenities block. Opening the door, she dropped her pants and with the tense precision of a Romanian gymnast, lowered her posterior over the open sewer. Something cold and clammy squidged between the cheeks of her buttocks and in a sudden dark, repulsive flash of third-eye insight she realized she was squatting on the point turtle's head of the last occupant's offering, which itself was the high peak of a mountain of shit that had risen like the devil's soufflé from the bowl. She said her scream woke at least 4,000 people.
Glastonbury is all about plumbing, 100,000 sloppy bladders. I came across my goddaughter, Florence, a gamine French girl with the most beguiling look and syrupy accent. She's an art student and therefore penniless, so she was here on a green ticket, her job to stop men peeing in the little river that runs through the site. In years past it has become so urically toxic that it's cleared out all the animal and vegetable life for a couple of miles downstream. It's also so pharmaceutically complex that frogs have been found copulating with mushrooms, and sheep lying on their backs baaing "Green, Green Grass of Home" in three-part harmony.
I asked Florence how it was going. "It's going a lot. Zer are many, many very drunk boys and zey don't listen. I say, 'No, no, put it away, you must not pee-pee, it will damage zee nature.' But it is too late, and I am 'aving to jump."
On that first night we walked out into the humming darkness and stood at the crossroads in an improvised street along a hedge under a stunted hawthorn. A cold moon gave everything the silvered look of an old photograph. Thousands of people walked past in the dark. As Alice said, it was like those films of city streets where all the car lights make long red-and-white streamers. Every single person who passed us was off their face. Not just a little tipsy, not a bit mellow, but utterly slaughtered, mullered, wrecked, legless, shit-faced, arseholed, fucked deeply, deeply irretrievably fucked. They were like sleepwalking commuters. Faces would leer out of the dark, glassy-eyed, beatific. Occasionally the very undone would stand and rock before being taken up again by the stream of alternative humanity.
What made it all the more weird was that I was utterly, utterly straight. I was so chemical free you could have tattooed the Soil Association logo on my forehead. I have been straight since the Falklands, since before most of these kids could eat with a fork. It was a straightening feeling to know that I was the only person within a city mile who could, as the label says, safely operate heavy machinery.
But an even weirder thing happened and I still can't really explain it. I never take notes. I trust my memory to edit out what's not needed, and in a decade of reporting it's never let me down until Glastonbury. As if in sympathy, as if by osmosis, it pressed the delete button and I have forgotten pretty much everything that happened. I can't remember coherently, even less chronologically. I've looked at Matthew's photographs and unarguably I'm in them. There I am in a pixie hat and a harlequin velvet coat. Where the fuck did they come from? It jogs only static. My memories of Glastonbury are like putting your head in the sea and staring at the bottom. It's another medium, another world.
"You must remember free hugs," said Alice. "That big man who was giving away free hugs, he gave you lots; and the banana shaman, the man dressed in a black bin liner with a banana skin." No, but I do remember the girl standing in front of her crudded boyfriend, grooming him like an ape, delicately picking coke bogies out of his nose and eating them. And I remember standing at seven in the morning in the middle of tented suburbia, as the chill and full bladders woke the weekend hippies far too early, and the transcendent look of pain and nausea on their faces as they poked their heads out of their tents to confront a bright good morning. It was like a slap. I stood and watched it happen over and over again like open auditions for a silent movie. And I remember the lost boy in the middle of the night, fucked and buggered, stopping one in three to ask: "D'you know where my tent is?" What's it look like? "It's green." Right, and is it near anything? "Yeah, yeah. [Excited] It's next to another tent, a blue one." Sorry, can't help you, mate.
And I remember buying Florence a fairy ball gown so she could go to a late-night costume party that looked like an Otto Dix painting. And I remember the T-shirt stalls "Dead Women Don't Say No" and "I am Spartacus" I so wanted one of those. I wanted one that said, "I am the Eggman," and I wanted to give Matthew one that said, "I am the Walrus." And I remember the Welsh "Te A Tost" stall where the bloke said, "What you want is a feast, see? That's two rounds with my Auntie Wendy's marmalade and a cup of tea." And that's exactly what I did want. And it was a feast.
And I remember the nude wanker. Occasional nudity is respected at Glastonbury. It is the original flavor and spirit of nonviolent alternative protest, where hippies came from. Where would your flower power happening be without some flaxenhaired, clear-eyed child of the morning getting her tits out and flicking peace signs at the world? This one wasn't exactly from central casting.
In front of the un-amplified folk gazebo where real, headshaking, lonely mandolin-pluckers and finger-in-ear, off-key whingers attracted a crowd of two or three delicate souls so hammered and wrung out that their heads had been turned into iPods, there was a lady who had been so carried away by a folk combo that she'd taken all her clothes off. Nothing wrong with that. She'd been so transported by the music she was moved to give herself a bit of a wank. Not a gentle, feel-good fingering, but the complete, top-of-the-range, brace-yourself-Doris, blurred-wrist seeing to. No, maybe not too much wrong with that either. But there's an over-twenty-one age limit and it's Glastonbury. The half dozen pigs walk round with blinkers on doing community relations funny-hat-wearing. Lord Lucan jacking up with Osama Bin Laden would have difficulty getting arrested here, but the trouble was that this wasn't some buff, fit, pert hippy chick with flowers in her hair and plaited pubes. It was an old, fat, hideous, meat-faced nutter bagwoman and something had to be done on purely aesthetic grounds. She was putting the folk off their protest songs, and they were complaining.
Two large security guards spent a lot of time animatedly shouting into their walkie-talkies before gingerly approaching the frotting troll with rubber gloves and a blanket, the old trout desperately trying to finish off the full Meg Ryan while at the same time telling Securicor to fuck themselves, like what she was doing. And they danced around her trying to grab her wrists without getting the finger. I watched with bated breath on tenterhooks. Would they? Will they? And then one of them did. Gave me the punch line. "Oh, please, love. Come quietly." Yes!
And I can remember the alternative health field, with every variety of absurd astral chakra voodoo hokum known to people under forty who've never been really ill. There were lots of circles for noddy-humming away cancer or drumming for a better back and world peace. But what I remember most was a bloke in the door of one tent doing utterly perfect yoga sun salutes. He must have been about my age and as supple as pollard willow. He drew an admiring crowd, they'd all tried a bit of yoga and they knew how difficult it is to link your fingers on the soles of your outstretched feet from a sitting position. But all I could think of was that in the time he'd learnt to do this, Tony Blair had gone from being in a band called Ugly Rumours to being Prime Minister, J. K. Rowling had become a billionaire and most of the blokes he was at school with had got careers, bought houses, had wives and kids, built things, made stuff, taken an interest. And in all that time he'd mastered the sun salute. I looked at him and I thought, "There but for the grace of God," if I hadn't fortuitously lost my inner hippy.
And, finally, what I remember is the tepee field. In hippy terms this is the dock at St. Tropez. Living in a tepee makes you traveler mega A-list royalty. This is having it all, in that it's having hardly anything. The rest of us are just here rubbernecking in avaricious awe. The tepee field really does look like a glimpse into another world: hippy Jerusalem. And the dwellers go about their blessed daily chores with the sort of casual insouciance that comes from having been stared at a lot. The difference between these and the mega yachts of the South of France is that these aren't hideous. These are the essential accessories of the willfully modest. There are a few ethnic blankets, a log or two, black pots hanging over state-of-the-art fires, a brace of shaggy, blond children in thirteenth-century jerkins and jelly-bean sandals, a couple of lurchers, a Merlin staff, and a tom-tom finishes off the look that makes the rest of us want to burn our central islands with breakfast bar and trash the Range Rover.
We know in our hearts that our Philippe Starck is stupid bollocks, the espresso machine and sorbetière dust and ashes in our mouths, the weight and vast amount of our stuff is a rock about our necks. It's vacuous, unnecessary petty snobbery, a terrible indictment of our insecurity, our earthbound, hoarding dullness. We look at these soaring tents and the fragility of devoting our precious existence to things with plugs and keys. What do you give the man who has everything? A tepee and the opportunity to have nothing but his life back and some self-worth and maybe a dose of goodness and bravery. Bravery and goodness and nits. Bravery, goodness, nits and bad breath. Bravery, goodness, nits, bad breath and cold water with bits in, a bird with organic wilderness body hair and a shit in a shrub.
The tepee field was where I finally faced my inner hippy and found that he was wanting. He was wanting underfloor heating and dinner at the Wolseley. So that was Glastonbury as far as I can remember. I have this feeling it was a life-changing event. My life has a no-returns policy but I got a credit note. The girlfriend loved it; Matthew the snapper, I think, loved it; Alice BB adored it and for Florence the goddaughter it was just another weekend in that gilded time of your life. I have a picture of her in her dressing-up frock on my desk.
You will have noticed that I haven't mentioned the music. Well, it was there, it's the reason for Glastonbury but it's really not the point. And that's another good thing about the Winnebago. You can watch it on the telly.
I asked Nick Mason of Pink Floyd what he thought of Glastonbury. "Well, it's like the English hajj, it's going to Mecca." And I reckon that's pretty spot-on. Glastonbury's a secular pilgrimage. Music and getting off our tits are the only things we all still believe in. Did you ever play there? I asked. "No, I don't think we did." Have you ever been? "Good grief, no," he replied with a look of mild horror. This is a man who really, honestly, doesn't know how many cars he owns to the nearest ten.
Copyright © 2006 by A.A. Gill
Meet the Author
A.A. Gill was born in Edinburgh, but has lived in London for most of his life. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
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