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Feeling the burn at Glastonbury

by Rob Crossan

2nd July 2009

What happens when a self-proclaimed 'albino' with a pathological aversion to mud travels to the Glastonbury Festival with only factor 10 sun block? Rob Crossan checked into the disabled camping area of the world’s greatest outdoor music event and is now dishing the dirt (literally) for Ouch!
Rob Crossan in amongst the festival crowds at Glastonbury
“You’re about to enter the best camping site in the entire festival”, grinned Andy, our shuttle bus driver. I had to admit that this was feeling like one of those moments when I was pathetically grateful to have a disability. Bruce Springsteen may have been the headlining act at this year's Glastonbury, but I had an inkling that the disabled contingent weren’t lagging too far behind the Boss in terms of getting the very best of the festival's VIP privileges.
On Thursday night, as the rain lashed down across the site and thunder storms began to crackle above the electricity pylons that loop over the vast meadows of Michael Eavis’s farm in the Somerset village of Pilton, I observed the already filthy ordinary punters staggering through mud that had the consistency of paint mixed with liquorice. It reminded me of the many times in years past that I’d braved this world-famous festival without disclosing either my visual impairment or my lack of skin pigmentation. On those previous occasions, flags had been stolen from construction sites to make sure I could locate my tent in a sea of guide ropes and canvas, and mates were forced to plod around the festival carrying a stick with numerous balloons attached to it in order to give me any hope of meeting up with them again. How foolish I was not to use my disabled credentials earlier, because it turned out that myself, my wife Ashley and our friend Mark were about to enter some kind of festival Narnia.
For starters, as we travelled towards Glastonbury, the disabled sticker we put on the windscreen (sent to all disabled campers and camper van dwellers by the festival organisers) enabled us to take a dramatic shortcut away from the narrow country lanes, with their near legendary eight-hour plus queues to enter the site, and into a disabled punters-only carpark. From here a shuttle bus, driven by Andy, took us the short distance to our accessible camping area.
Tightly-packed tents are the norm in the rest of Glastonbury's camp sites
Situated on one of the highest points of the farm, the campsite was wonderfully quiet, there was still lush grass on the ground whilst everywhere else slowly turned into a squelchy brown goo, it was at minimal risk of flooding and it had at least a dozen clean portaloos and two hot showers. All this for no more than a couple of hundred disabled campers, which meant that finding my tent would be a breeze. Bliss indeed. But the high point for me was the sight of two helpful festival workers putting our camping gear into a cart and pulling it all over to our reserved spot on the site. Surely even some of the bands performing didn’t have it this good backstage?
The campers right next to us were a bunch of Geordies who spent the majority of the time arguing about whether they should go and see The Wombats or not. But my sympathies had to go towards our neighbour on the other side: a wheelchair user and what I can only presume was his PA. I hope so, as surely this long suffering individual would never have let officially The Most Boring Carer On Earth accompany him through choice.
Every night - as we returned to our tents from an evening of cider-fuelled debauchery in the 'Dance Village' or the strange, Blade Runner-esque set of art installations, impromptu parties and performance artists that made up the 'Shangri-La' and 'Trash City' areas of the festival - we could hear him talking long into the night about such scintillating topics as how he managed to get a refund on his last stereo purchase. That anecdote took at least two hours to tell. His day at Chepstow Zoo story worked brilliantly at sending me and my wife off to sleep. We can only presume that the carer’s surreally boring tales did the same job to our wheely man. We never heard a single word from him during these all nocturnal tirades of tedium.
Glastonbury crowds in front of one of the stages
If you’ve never been to Glastonbury before then the shots from the telly just don’t reflect how absurdly massive it has become. Forty-five minute walks to get from one stage to another are quite the norm. Yet wheelchair-using Glastonbury revellers are clearly in possession of some of the sturdiest machines on the planet.
All over the festival we found that our welly boot-clad trudging through the mud, which quickly baked hard thanks to some ferocious sun from Friday afternoon through to Sunday night, was simply no match for the wheelie contingent. They scooted past us in the manner of a Porsche-driving businessman cutting you up on the motorway. All that was missing was the flicked V-sign as they disappeared into the horizon.
Saturday saw Attitude is Everything - the organisation campaigning to improve deaf and disabled people's access to live music – putting on their debut line-up of disabled DJs and bands on the frankly pretty obscure ‘Club Dada’ stage, which was located in the aforementioned freak zone of ‘Shangri-La’. I suspected the worst when I saw rock singer and former Big Brother winner Pete Bennett striding in the opposite direction, away from the area, as I embarked on the epic walk from my tent to get there.
Sadly, the crowd for most of the afternoon only numbered around 15 people. Pity really, as Spaceships Are Cool belted out a set of summery pop tunefulness that would be the perfect accompaniment to any California cocktail party circa 1958. They were joined, as all the acts were, by a pair of sign language interpreters who looked surprisingly grumpy. Maybe they didn’t get into the disabled area that we’d now all christened ‘Camp Cushy’.
Two members of Heavy Load on stage
The Deaf Rave crew didn’t do much to liven up proceedings. As a blindie punter it was hard to get too involved in the simple throbbing bass lines, though the half dozen or so deafies in the crowd appeared to take at least a partial interest. The highlight was, inevitably, learning disabled punk rockers Heavy Load, who caused carnage by releasing about a thousand beach balls into the crowd (now numbering about 100) each emblazoned with the logo ‘Gay at Weekends’. Songs including the theme from ‘Batman’ and ‘Is Bruce Forsyth Dead?’ worked up a considerable storm, with even a few diehard old school punk rockers drifting into the tent.
Blur's Damon Albarn, whose band closed the festival on Sunday night
Sunday saw the reformed Blur close the entire festival on the main Pyramid Stage. The problem for me here was whether I should use my sparkly disabled person’s wristband to take up my place on one of the disabled-only viewing platforms. Sadly, these were located so far back from the stage that for somebody with my impaired vision, it would have taken a viewing aid with the strength of the Hubble telescope to see the band from there.
Instead, I chose to get sweaty down in the crowd, though by this stage I had become somewhat softened by the privileges offered by ‘Camp Cushy’ - heading straight back to the tent afterwards for tea and toast rather than spending the last night (with more epic rain) trudging around in the mud looking for the one remaining open bar.
Rob Crossan in his tent on Glastonbury's disability camp-site
The disability experience at Glastonbury provides everything you could possibly require as a festival-goer with an impairment. Unfortunately for me, it doesn’t include a nanny, because I could have done with one to tell me that although I was slapping on the sunscreen like it was going out of fashion, it was doing little good because the small text on the bottle had stopped me from seeing that it was only factor 10. As a result, my unpigmented skin got progressively charred as the weekend went by.

If you really want to get down and dirty with the true unwashed spirit of the Glastonbury Festival, then staying on the disabled camp-site and making use of the accessible viewing platforms might not be for you. But, to be honest, if I have to sacrifice a modicum of ‘keeping it real’ in exchange for a hot shower and a prime spot for my tent, then I’m proud to admit that I’m one happy disabled sell-out.

Ouch! would like you to note that we know the preferred terminology is 'person with albinism', but Rob insists he's nowt but an albino. What can you do? Ed.


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