DISKUS Vol. 10 (2009)
Glastonbury Festival and the Performance of Remembrance
Dr Marion Bowman
The Open University
Glastonbury Festival and the Performance of Remembrance
The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performance Arts (better known simply as The Glastonbury Festival) is an eclectic annual gathering during which diverse performances of music, dance, comedy, circus arts, film and other expressive forms are on display. It is also significant as a site where, primarily in the Healing Field and King's Meadow (also known as Sacred Space, Sacred Ground), various forms of healing and contemporary religiosity are on show, and as such it is an important centre for the dissemination of these phenomena. However, less obviously, it is also the locus for the performance of remembrance in a variety of ways, from one off memorial 'installations' and, exceptionally, permanent memorials for people connected with or influential to the Festival, to more general sites of mourning and remembrance for festival goers. This article - very much work in progress - looks at some of these sites, and their underlying aesthetics, rationales and significance within the Festival context.
The Festival Context
From a review of the literature on music festivals, Larsen and O’Reilly (who look at music festivals as a form of utopian practice) identify three main significant characteristics: ‘their spatial and temporal form, the way they create cultural meaning and social structure, and the formation of community’(2008:2). As a number of authors have pointed out, festivals are important socially and culturally, in that they facilitate cultural participation and the creation of temporary communities (e.g. Connell and Gibson 2003; Shuker 1998). Waterman contends that an important facet of festivals is that they are to do with space, and that “all festivals have at least one thing in common in that they are ephemeral” (1998:58). As Larsen and O’Reilly comment, ‘Music festivals are places where capital, the market, consumption, culture and the human spirit come together in wonderful and unusual combinations, and write fascinating human stories.’ (2008:2).
Photograph of Glastonbury Festival Site copyright Marion Bowman
The Glastonbury Festival
For many years I have been studying vernacular religion and contemporary spirituality in the town of Glastonbury (see Bowman 2008), but often when I say that I do research on Glastonbury, people assume I mean the Festival rather than the town, so synonymous is Glastonbury with the Festival. (The Festival is actually held at Worthy Farm in nearby Pilton.) However, since 1999 the Glastonbury Festival has been part of my fieldwork (on some occasions the muddiest part of my fieldwork) on account of its interesting inter-relationship with the town. The reasons for my interest in the Glastonbury Festival are varied. Primarily, what is happening in terms of spiritual trends in the town of Glastonbury often feeds through to the Festival and because such trends get picked up and disseminated by festival goers, who are often different people from regular visitors and pilgrims to the town itself, the festival adds another aspect to Glastonbury’s national influence and importance. In addition, more generally, I like to observe trends in the spiritual, ritual and material culture displayed in areas such as King’s Meadow (the sacred space at the top of the festival site), the Healing Field, Green Futures and Field of Avalon; the examples cited in thispaper come from these areas. It is also instructive to see how different ‘alternative’ groups and individuals, spiritual service providers, mainstream religions and movements such as ISKCON and Brahma Kumaris present themselves in this context. Having become increasingly aware of the extent to which Glastonbury Festival has become the locus for the performance of remembrance in a variety of ways, this has provided another dimension of interest in the Festival and its significance.
Photograph of Healing Field copyright Marion Bowman
The Glastonbury Festival is characterised by Michael Eavis (owner of Worthy Farm) in the foreword to Glastonbury Festival Tales (Aubrey and Shearlaw 2004) as ‘a party that started in the 1970s with a handful of people in a field’ and grew into a famous festival. Various histories of the Festival have been written (eg McKay 2000, Aubrey and Shearlaw 2004) attempting to place it in socio-cultural and political context, numerous websites refer to it and each year there is considerable media coverage of the more high profile performance events. Its scale has become vast: from an estimated attendance in 1970 of 1500, in 2008 134,000 weekend tickets and 6,000 Sunday tickets were issued, plus 37,500 passes (for stage crews, performers, stewards, traders, etc). However, for many the Glastonbury Festival experience consists not simply (or not even) in seeing the ‘headline’ acts but in retreating to the upper reaches of the Festival site to the areas designated Green Futures, Green Crafts, Field of Avalon, Climate Camp, Healing Field and King’s Meadow. Here the creation of temporary communities, the transformation of places from everyday settings (in this case a dairy farm) into temporary environments created for and by specific groups of people (Waterman 1998) are particularly obvious. There is immense creativity in the construction of spaces and sites for gathering, passing through, meditating and taking time out, and the various zones display different and distinctive foci, goods and services, ethos, aesthetics, and material culture. King’s Meadow challenges some aspects of the idea that music festivals are temporally and spatially ephemeral for there are some constant features to the site, notably the stone circle and large wooden dragon, and other installations, such as the Brigid Garden, though not permanent are persistent (but their contents and ethos do change and develop over time).
Photograph of King’s Meadow showing stone circle and wooden dragon copyright Marion Bowman
Given,then, that there is a community aspect to The Glastonbury Festival, that there is much continuity as well as change, that there are self-consciously spiritual aspects to the festival, it is perhaps not surprising that the festival has spawned memorials, rites and spaces of commemoration. As a place out of place and a time out of ordinary time, where there is great creativity and many outpourings of energy and emotion, there is considerable scope for varied and creative expressions both of grief and memory, plus celebration of and reflection upon the dead. The Festival provides a number of sites of and opportunities for commemoration, from high profile and permanent to low key, personal and transitory.
Glastonbury ‘community’ memorials and memorialisation
Photograph of Jean Eavis memorial, 1999. copyright Marion Bowman
I attended my first Glastonbury Festival in 1999, the year that Jean Eavis died. On the right side of Kings Meadow, a garden area was created, in which was placed a colourfully decorated hoop and suspended within the circle a laminated sheet of paper, featuring a colour photograph of youthful and happy looking Michael and Jean Eavis walking together in a field; above the photograph were the words "This space is dedicated in memory and celebration of the life of Jean Eavis 11th of May 1939 - 16th of May 1999". There was also a large wooden sculpture, the Angel of Remembrance. Another tribute was a small statuette of a female figure with in front of her a heart shaped stone bearing the initials JE. Other tributes appeared elsewhere on the Festival site and a minute’s silence was observed for Jean Eavis at the Pyramid Stage area.
Photograph of statuette tribute to Jean Eavis, 1999. copyright Marion Bowman
Another figure with significant Glastonbury Festival connections, John Mellor (better known as Joe Strummer of The Clash), died at the age of 50 in December 2000. His widow Lucinda set up the Strummerville Charity for aspiring musicians, and at each Festival, in connection with the charity, there is the Strummer Stage. A Glastonbury stalwart, Mellor is commemorated by the Strummer Stone, chosen by Eavis and Lucinda, erected in a wooded area near the stage. Looking like a small standing stone, the attention paid to the Strummer Stone seems to have increased over the years. Initially I was aware largely just of tealights at its base, but in recent years very colourful, Indian-style garlands have decorated the area, and in 2010 the stone itself was draped with strands of colourful material.
Photograph of Strummer Stone 2010 copyright Marion Bowman
Arabella Churchill, involved in the first Glastonbury Festival and for many years the organiser of the Theatre Field and Circus Arena, died on 20 Dec 2007. At the 2008 Festival there was an ‘installation’ in her honour and tributes to her, while in June 2010 there was the official opening of a stone bridge over Whitelake River, leading to the Circus Arena and Theatre Field, and beside it a set of five large Tibetan prayer wheels, reflecting Churchill’s involvement in Buddhism in later life. A plaque on the bridge reads
"BELLA’S BRIDGE Arabella Churchill worked tirelessly in these fields for over 30 years creating some of the best theatre and circus shows in the country. By building this bridge, Glastonbury Festival wants to remember her tremendous efforts and to be reminded of her dedication to our aims and purposes throughout the years. Michael Eavis"
At the 2010 Festival, there was a vase of flowers on the ground in front of the plaque.
Photograph of Bella’s Bridge Memorial 2010 copyright Marion Bowman
These memorials relate to people significant to and closely connected with the Festival, and, as such, important figures in the development and ethos of the Festival itself; their loss is seen to be the Festival's loss, a cause for communal grief, celebration and commemoration.
Personal expressions of commemoration
Photograph of Floral Tribute 2008 copyright Marion Bowman
Just as some people choose to be handfasted at Glastonbury Festival because of its significance in their lives and the shape of their year, it is considered an appropriate site both of commemoration and memorialisation. This is seen most obviously in relation to King’s Meadow. In 2007, for example, there was a vase of sunflowers, attached to which was an A4 typed sheet explaining that they were to celebrate the life of a young man who had died in his sleep at the age of 23, only hours after receiving his Glastonbury tickets in 2006. His ashes had been scattered in the stone circle in June 2007. In 2008, a floral tribute in the shape of a guitar appeared prominently in the quiet garden area near the entrance to King's Meadow. There was no name on the accompanying card, just the message “You will never be forgotten. Always in our hearts and thoughts” followed by a list of names, and finally “You will be sadly missed by all.” The statuette used in the installation honouring Joan Eavis in 1999 has appeared subsequently in this garden area, minus the JE stone.
On the other side of King’s Meadow, Brigid’s Garden was first created in 2005 following the significant 2004 Glastonbury Goddess Conference, the focus of which had been Brigid (see Bowman 2007). A carefully crafted area created for spiritual reflection and experience, Brigid’s Garden also includes the the Angel of Remembrance statue in front of which reflection on the dead is actively encouraged. In 2008, for example, these words appeared printed on an A4 sheet near the statue:
The Angel of Remembrance
Come hence and remember.
Have memory of the spirit world from whence you came.
Remember the angelic realm. Angels protect and teach us and we them. How much better is our world when the human and the angel are friends.
Have memory of the ancestors who knew this land and left no trace.
Remember those you loved whom walk the earth no more. Death is not the end it is a transition through which the bonds of love endure.
In 2009 a sign referred to the statue as ‘The Angel of Glastonbury Festival’. The A4 sheet near the statue included the following text:
This angel has stood on this spot for many years. She stays when all is gone, still, until the turn of the year brings life once more to the greatest festival on earth. . . . .
Be quite a moment. Many remember loved ones here who have departed this life and wish them well in that to come.
In addition to encouraging reflection on the dead, one of the women who help create Brigid's Garden each year confirmed that ashes have been scattered in this area. A square stone slab positioned in front of the statue bears the words "KAY WE WILL LOVE AND MISS YOU ALWAYS LOVE MUM AND DA".
Photograph of Angel of Remembrance/Angel of Glastonbury Festival 2007 copyright Marion Bowman
Other sites and opportunities or exist for the expression of remembrance beyond Kings Meadow. In 2008, near the Strummer Stage, I photographed a large white board about 6' x 4' which read:
This space is for the commemoration of all the friends and family we have lost, so they may join us in the SPIRIT of our festival, please feel free to add messages of photos.
Below were pictures (including one of Arabella Churchill as well as other individuals) and messages, but also just names. In 2010, in front of one of the Tibetan Prayer Wheels beside Bella’s Bridge was a hand written sign “RIP Sue Catherine” with dates.
Confirming the contention that music festivals are "places where capital, the market, consumption, culture and the human spirit come together in interesting combinations" (Larsen and O’Reilly, 2008:2), it has been interesting to note the coincidence of commemoration and commerce at Glastonbury Festival. In keeping with the ‘green’ agenda so prominent in some zones at the Festival, Wyldwood Willow, in addition to offering basket making workshops in the crafts area, had various woven willow items on sale in 2007, including a basketware coffin, while the same year in the Healing Fields Brighton-based ARKA Original Funerals exhibited some of their eye-catching coffins (all ‘made from natural, sustainable, biodegradable materials’ such as recycled paper, cardboard or bamboo, ‘produced with a responsibility to the environment’).
Photograph of coffin copyright Marion Bowman
Light on Life (‘Creating Ceremonies for all Life Events’) within their area for 2007 not only displayed a cardboard coffin but invited people to paint and write messages on it. They had also created a ‘Memorial Tree’ (somewhat reminiscent of the Wishing Tree found around Green Futures) onto which people were encouraged to tie a commemoration of, tribute to or message for a dead friend or relative; clearly a large number of people had taken up the offer. In 2008 a handwritten sign at the open flap of one of the Light on Life tents read "Please come inside and light a memorial candle". Inside on the floor was a brass tray with a large candlestick in the centre, and around it lit and unlit nightlights were arranged in a circle. There was some seating so that people could spend time in that space. In the background there was a basketwork coffin on a stand with information leaflets on top. In their other (more spacious) tent a coffin covered in a patchwork of denim material occupied the central space, while an altar like table was positioned diagonally in the corner. A sign at the foot of the coffin revealed that it was the same cardboard coffin from the previous year, now ‘dressed in a patchwork of denim’, demonstrating how such coffins could be personalised. This mixture of commerce and service is rather reminiscent of ‘alternative’ shops which both sell goods and have healing shrines.
Photograph of Memorial Tree copyright Marion Bowman
Commemoration and comment on ‘high profile’ deaths
It should be noted that communications with or about the dead are not all personal and positive. In 2009, news of Michael Jackson’s death broke at the time of the Festival. Merchandisers sprang into action, and immediately there was a range of Michael Jackson related t-shirts, some positive (‘I [heart] MJ’ or ‘A legend never dies’) others negative (‘MJ was already dead’). There were also individual responses to the news; chalked on the ground in one field was the outline of a coffin within which was written simply ‘RIP Jacko’. At the Festival, fences can function as spaces for comment, providing surfaces to which large pieces of paper can be attached. Such areas regularly attract commemoration and comment on current events, and here a variety of opinions were expressed. Messages ranged from ‘Dear Michael, we will miss you’ and ‘RIP MJ – You certainly “Rocked my world”’ to ‘RIP Jacko PS your tour is going to be rotten’ and ‘Will he be black or white in heaven?’. A number of comments/ jokes were made concerning accusations about Jackson’s relationships with children. It is worth noting, however, that in this same area there were also positive and negative comments about Jade Goody (who had died very much in the public eye in March 2009) and, still, Princess Diana! In this case, the high profile people being discussed aroused strong feelings, but they were neither personally connected nor part of the Glastonbury ‘community.’ Nevertheless, comments on and memorials to the famous were also interspersed with personal messages and commemorations. In the festival context, these blank surfaces fulfil a function somewhere between the condolence book and the online tribute.
Photograph of wall of comments, 2009 copyright Marion Bowman
Celebrating its 40th year in 2010, Glastonbury Festival is an institution. It is a place of temporary permanence. It is permanent in that the site is reused, some features remain constant and other areas and installations are regularly recreated. But it is temporary, for although there is a great sense of community, both performers and participants change each year, and it is never the same twice. There is continuity and change, stability and dynamism. While some might think of Glastonbury Festival in terms of pilgrimage, I see it more in terms of calendar custom. It has become part of the shape of many people’s year, and it will survive for as long as it has relevance.
Just as certain aspects of Glastonbury Festival reflect and project spiritual trends in the town of Glastonbury and beyond, we see in attitudes and responses to death and commemoration familiar motifs and behaviour from popular culture and contemporary spirituality. As organisers and participants age, as some lifestyles prove nonconducive to long life, as accidents happen and healing fails, Glastonbury Festival provides the appropriate liminal, physical and communal setting for the expression of grief and commemoration. The Festival is a place of immense creativity, not just in terms of ‘official’ performances but also in the crafting of material culture, special spaces and community. The participative aspect of Festival culture, the sense that “every individual can play a part in creating and experiencing what Glastonbury has to offer “ (Larsen and O’Reilly, 2008:4) encompasses not just myriad lifestyles but loss. Glastonbury Festival, a time and place of myth and memories, is also the locus of shrines, sites and rituals of remembrance.
Aubrey, Crispin and John Shearman. 2004. Glastonbury Festival Tales. London: Ebury Press.
Bowman, Marion. 2007. Arthur and Bridget in Avalon: Celtic Myth, Vernacular Religion and Contemporary Spirituality in Glastonbury Fabula, Journal of Folktale Studies, 48 (1/2) : 1-17
Connell, John and Chris Gibson. 2003. Sound Tracks: Popular Music, Identity and Place. London: Routledge.
Larsen, G. and O'Reilly, D. (2008) "Festival Tales: Utopian Tales". Unpublished paper, Academy of Marketing Conference Proceedings. Aberdeen.
McKay, George 2000 Glastonbury A Very English Fair. London: Victor Gollancz.
Shuker, Roy. 1998. Key Concepts in Popular Music. London: Routledge.
Waterman, Stanley. 1998. Carnivals for élites? The cultural politics of arts festivals. Progress in Human Geography 22 (1): 54-74.
© Marion Bowman 2010