Alex McDonnell went to Glastonbury festival with a group of volunteers in June this year to raise money for Aisling.
Aisling will be 20 next year and for most of that time we have been working with the Workers Beer Co. (WBC) through the summer at music festivals around the country raising money for the charity. How it works is: WBC has contracts for many of the biggest festivals in the country and other events like the Proms at Hyde Park, to run beer tents. These events require huge numbers of people to help out in the bars and so they offer the jobs to charities and campaign groups. The WBC as the name suggests was started by trade unionists as a means of raising cash for the labour movement and associated campaign groups. Many of the original founders of WBC were Irish and so Aisling, as a charity working with disadvantaged Irish people fits right in with the ethos. This year at Glastonbury we had eight volunteers working with Aisling in the Mandela Bar- eight among about 100 servers working in three shifts. The Mandela is one of about 12 massive beer tents managed by WBC at the biggest festival in the world so the total number of WBC staff is over 1,000, all of whom get a free pass to the festival, a safe camping area with showers (!), canteen and, of course a bar. They also get to raise money for their charity as their bar wages go to their particular charity or cause – Aisling in our case. It’s a great system and a great way to see the festival and support a good cause.
The Mandela Bar is a big marquee in green and yellow stripes decorated with pictures of the great man. As Nelson had recently gone into a coma and was on life support during the weekend lots of the punters asked us about his state of health. One in particular looked at the giant pictures and cried out in sorrow, ‘Oh no has he died?’ Which was a major testament to our organisational ability really, that we could have painted the tent in ANC colours and got together huge pictures of Mandela at such short notice. As it was we did have a contingency plan in case Nelson did die which included black arm bands and drapes for the bar. Definitely not free beer. Happily we didn’t have to break out the black crepe. Working 6 hours a day gave us a lot of time to see the festival and as we were placed close to the main stage we got to hear a lot while we were working. It is always the case though that with so much going on you are going to miss a lot of the acts you would have loved to see. Sods law kicked in during every shift.
Before we set out for the festival Aonghus had printed out a list of all of the gigs on all of the many stages across the festival and on the bus going down was checking which he wanted to see, highlighting them with a marker. Of course when the shifts were eventually pasted up most of the highlighted bits were during our shifts. As any seasoned festival goer will tell you though the best times at any festival are those where you just wander off and go where the mood takes you, particularly at Glastonbury where there is so much going on all around and the other people there are as entertaining as the stuff on the stages. Some of the best stuff is going on underground or on the margins where it hard to get to and you are rewarded for your efforts by something infinitely strange like the hobbit hole in the side of a hill only accessible through a sewer pipe where the test of entry is for one of your group to take the round-the-table challenge. From a prone position on top of the table you must go around underneath the table back to the top without touching the ground. A lot harder than it looks and not many made it but Brendan did and through the sewer pipe we went to find a circular arena dug out of the earth with stone slabs for seats on two levels around a stage. There were about 100 subterranean table crawlers down there watching a few blokes knocking a tune out on a banjo a whistle and a piano (!!??). We had one of the best times ever.
This all takes place in the weird and wonderful Shangri-La area which is designed to be like a dystopian vision of the future, all abandoned factories and crumbling apartment houses hiding thumping dance venues. The trouble is this goes on all night and as most of the other stuff has finished it gets mobbed and huge queues form snaking around crash barriers into the early hours. We managed to get there when it was relatively quiet as everyone had left the Rolling Stones gig to go straight to the Fat Boy Slim gig which was rumoured to have Daft Punk as guests (not so).We finished up on a misty dawn at the stone circle. The ancient, mystical stones planted by Michael Eavis, the canny farmer about 20 years do have a calming effect which might have something to do with exhaustion from the stiff climb. From here you can get an idea of the whole mind-blowing size of the site and pick out the distinctive stripes of the Mandela Bar.
The Rolling Stones were the event of the festival with most people heading to the Pyramid stage to see them headline on Saturday night. The main arena was so crowded that they closed it off half an hour before they were due to start. A couple of us hung around in front of the Mandela Bar with a few thousand of our closest friends where we could see four old blokes with skinny legs looking skinnier that ever on the big screen seen at an angle. Amazingly after about 30 minutes Mick Taylor and Bobby Keyes joined them on stage after 30 years away and suddenly the band once again assumed that lurching swing that made them sound so good in the 70’s. So that’s what had been missing.
Our volunteers made the most of Glastonbury. Aonghus was out every morning at 11.00am regardless of shift times clocking up bands on his list. Tom and Mick were at their first festival and were goggle-eyed from the moment we arrived at the vast site and only got more so as they uncovered the mysteries of the festival. Ben, Venice, Abi and Charley were old Glastonbury hands and were regulars at the stone circle and usually made it back to the campsite around dawn or shortly after. We all worked hard and played hard and I felt fitter than I had for years thanks to all of the hard work serving drink and the harder work of trying to carry pints of the stuff across bumpy fields in search of some further amazement. That is until I crashed out at home in my own bed for 24 hours dreaming of impossible things being taken for granted. Did I really see Wayne Kramer of the MC5 knocking out Kick Out the Jams on his own with an amped up electric guitar in a virtually empty tent? Goodnight and sweet dreams.
Aisling volunteers are working in bars to raise money for the charity at Latitude and Reading festivals in England and at Longitude, Electric Picnic and Oxygen in Ireland this summer.