Wednesday 10 July 2024

Lost and Found: Glastonbury 1983 and Other Memories

You don’t have to write everything down. You can trust your consciousness that what needs to come back into your mind will come back.

— Fran Houston

This post was inspired by two recent conversations. The first happened a week or so ago at work when the discussion turned to music festivals. Someone mentioned Woodstock. I said I was a little young to have attended (I was eight years old and on the wrong side of the Atlantic) but I’d attended Glastonbury twice, in 1983 and 1984. One of my colleagues asked what bands I’d seen. I couldn’t remember. I told him I’d have to look in my diary!

The second conversation was with Fran. A few months ago she began keeping a journal, in the form of weekly letters to her mom. Discussing her most recent letter, she commented that it isn’t necessary to write everything down. I asked what she meant. “You can trust your consciousness,” she said, “that what needs to come back into your mind will come back.” That struck me as an interesting insight. I decided to use it as a jumping-off point to explore my experience with journaling and memory.

I’ve written a daily diary for almost fifty years. I’ve long been aware of the interplay between what I choose to write down — events, feelings, details of friendships and relationships, hopes, fears, and dreams — and what I remember. I’ve always felt that I don’t need to remember things, because at any point I can take down my diary from the shelf and remind myself what I was doing, thinking, and feeling. Whatever I chose to record at the time isn’t lost to me. The flip side, of course, is that what I don’t write down — either deliberately or because it’s not possible to record everything that happens — is likely gone forever. At best, it’s subject to the vagaries of my organic memory.

I decided to reread my diary for June 1983. Before doing so, I asked myself what I could recall of Glastonbury. I couldn’t remember who I’d seen perform but there was plenty that came to mind. The three friends I went with: Pete, Richard, and Dawn. The weather. Both weekends were blisteringly hot. (I’m aware that for seasoned festival goers you’ve not really been to Glastonbury unless you were knee deep in mud for three days!) I remembered Pete and I being offered weed within hours of arriving, and politely declining the offer. I remembered our tents. The Pyramid stage. Cutting my foot open on a discarded tin can. That last one turned out to be 1984.

Glastonbury was a revelation. I’d never experienced anything like it, not least the number of people there. The official website records attendance in 1983 as 30,000. Most were in their late teens or early twenties but there were plenty of older folk too. Some as old, if not older, than I am now, forty years on. Couples with young children. Babies. What struck me most were many different lifestyles, attitudes, and cultures on display. The colour. The noise. The sense of being free to express who you are, no matter how or who that might be. I captured the essence of the weekend in my diary:


Children — Sun — Rock/Reggae
Hash — black — hot knives
Everyone/everything accepted
Lack of privacy
Women topless — men naked
Stalls — food — clothes — records
jewellery — alcohol — candles
CND — Greenpeace — Ecology
Relaxed — Slow — L. O. V. E.

It’s worth saying that no gathering of thousands of people is without its issues, up to and including criminality, serious drug use, and violence. I felt totally safe both years we were there, but there will be people whose experiences and memories are far less rosy than mine.

Reading through my diary, it turns out I saw some pretty significant bands and performances. These included Marillion, ASWAD, Incantation, and UB40 who I’d previously seen play at the Student Union in Bradford. Most significant to me at the time — and I can hardly believe I forgot this — was seeing American singer-songwriter Melanie Safka perform on the iconic Pyramid stage.

After eating we went to the Pyramid for what must surely be my most personal memory of this Festival, watching Marillion and Melanie.

Don’t ask her why she needs to be so free | She’s gonna tell you that the only way to be | She just can’t be chained to a life where nothing’s gained and nothing’s lost | But such a cost ...

If you’re interested, the following performances from Glastonbury 1983 are on YouTube: Incantation, UB40, and Melanie Safka.

As I turned the pages of my diary the memories flooded back, tender and bittersweet. The following paragraphs are excerpted from what I wrote over the festival weekend.

As I begin, it is about 1:15 am Friday morning and I am sitting in the car at Glastonbury. Pete is in the film tent watching a rather silly sci-fi film, which I walked out on, mainly because it was getting a bit cold. Rich and Dawn are in their tent.

We spent all afternoon sunbathing and listening to some excellent music, including the Enid. It was very hot — several woman were topless and there were even a couple of naked men (for Dawn!)

Around 3:00 pm I drove Pete into Taunton where he was catching a coach to Barnstaple for his interview tomorrow. When I got back, R+D were in their tent. We had tea of cheese and corned beef sandwiches, then R+D had to pack up to leave. I didn’t stay to wave them off, but went for a wander up to the market area to get Dawn a rainbow belt she wanted. Then to the Pyramid to hear some more music — reggae and African roots — and watch the fireworks display. It wasn’t very late when I went to bed.

It’s natural enough to forget details after forty years, but there are some things I can’t recall at all despite the evidence of my own hand. A prime example occurred a few days before Pete and I met up with Dawn and Richard at the festival site.

Pete and I got up very early this morning and caught the train from Durrington to Portsmouth, then the ferry over to the Isle of Wight for the day. We first went to Alum Bay via Newport, on the bus, saw the Needles and the lighthouse, then walked along the clifftop for a few miles in the gloriously hot sunshine. After that we caught another bus to Shanklin where we had tea on the prom, by which time it was about half past six and time to head back.

I have zero recollection of that day. If anyone had asked me if I’d ever been to the Isle of Wight, I’d have said no, never. It’s odd — even disturbing — to have no memory of what was clearly a significant and enjoyable day. This exercise has highlighted to me the complex interplay between memory and reality. I can distinguish six categories of memories.

1. Things I remember, despite never having written them down anywhere. My diary can’t add to these in any specific way, but might help set them in context by recalling other events and experiences of my life at that time.

2. Things I remember, that I recorded in my diary at the time. My diary might add context, clarity, and details to my recollections.

3. Things I don’t recall, but am reminded of when I read my diary. My diary helps bring these back to me. Watching Marillion and Melanie perform at Glastonbury are examples of this.

4. Things I wrote in my diary that I have no recollection of, even when I read about them later. My visit to the Isle of Wight is the perfect example.

5. Things I don’t remember and didn’t record in my diary at the time. These events, feelings, and experiences are lost to me unless something happens to bring them to mind.

6. Things I remember that never, in fact, happened. I still hold fast to treasured “memories” despite having been reliably informed they’re factually incorrect.

Maybe this is what Fran was hinting at when she said, “You don’t have to write everything down. You can trust your consciousness that what needs to come back into your mind will come back.” Her words seemed naive at first, because I interpreted her as saying “don’t worry about recording things, you’ll remember what you need to.” Having thought things through, I parse it differently. She’s not saying “what is important will come back to you” but rather “what comes back to you is important.” Journaling has a role to play in that, as does writing letters, blogging, or talking with people who were with us at the time. In the midst of the covid pandemic, I discussed this in a post titled Remember When? Building Shared Experience in Unprecedented Times.

The people we hold close now will forever be part of our coronavirus experience. We will turn to them in months and years to come for comfort and to validate what it meant to live through these times. “Remember when?” will help us make sense of it all. That is something powerful and profound, and worth preparing for.

But what we forget is important, too. Dementia and other forms of memory loss extort a terrible price, but forgetfulness can be a blessing. There’s a grace in letting go of the need to remember everything. After forty years of daily record keeping, I sometimes wonder why I bother to write a diary when I rarely revisit what I’ve written. Fran’s insight might hold the answer. Journaling allows me to release thoughts and feelings onto the page so I no longer have to carry them around with me. They can be retrieved, but there’s no imperative to do so. Opening a diary — including one’s own — is a perilous undertaking. My 1983 diary contains much more than my three-day weekend at the festival. It was one of the most intense years in my life to date, which is saying plenty. Engaging with it now is not without its challenges, as warm as most of the memories are. I’m content for some things to remain unremembered. My diaries serve their purpose even if they remain on the shelf, unread.

As I’m writing this, Glastonbury 2024 is in full swing. Headlining this year are artists even I have heard of, including Dua Lipa, Coldplay, Shania Twain, and Cyndi Lauper. I could watch online, but I’ve no interest in doing so. It could conceivably bring some forgotten memory to the surface, but it’s as likely to taint those I hold dear. Things change. For context, official attendance in 1983 was 30,000. The ticket price was £12 (£40 in today’s money). This year’s attendance is estimated to be 200,000 with tickets priced at £360. It bears the same name, but it’s not my Glastonbury.

As fickle and fragile as my memories are, I’ll let go of the need to remember everything. As Fran suggested, I’ll trust that what needs to come back into my mind will come back.


Photo of Glastonbury Festival 1983 by Martin Baker.


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