John Whale’s last big festival was the Isle of Wight in 1970. He was a wide-eyed 19-year-old and saw Hendrix and the Doors. When the Stones announced they were playing Glastonbury, he and his mates decided to have one more festival fling. But would the breathing apparatus he needs to stay alive run off a campervan battery?
“I hope I die before I get old,” Roger Daltrey once sang. That was nearly 43 years ago in the early hours of the morning of 29 August 1970. I was 19 years old and sat in a field with 600,000 other people on Afton Down, Freshwater on the Isle of Wight watching the Who.
Well, the definition of old has changed in the intervening years. Roger no longer expresses a desire to croak it prematurely although he is 69 years old now and back on the road. However, that long lost bank holiday weekend at the Isle of Wight in 1970 has remained a magical time to me. If ever I get stuck in a Groundhog Day scenario, that would be one time I would be happy to relive again and again.
It was not just that such great artists were there – Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Leonard Cohen et al. It was the concentrated zeitgeist of the time. It was the fag end, last gasp of the 60s, the summer of love’s final encore.
It was also one of my first sojourns as an adult into a big bad world. Coming from the relative backwaters of rural Wales, it was an eye-opening experience. But I loved every minute of it. There was no planning of any sort involved. A couple of friends and I just decided to go a few days before: no advance booking of tickets, no telephone or online reservations; we just hoped for the best. We had no tents, no camping equipment; in fact, we had no idea whatsoever other than to have a good time. All I took with me was a small shoulder knapsack that contained a six-pack of beer, cigarettes, matches, a bag of crisps and a toilet roll.
I can barely remember sleeping or eating the whole time I was there. Not because of any illicit substances imbibed, but from the sheer adrenaline rush of just being young and being there (although I’m sure the all-pervading smell of pot smoking and incense added to the intoxication). At some point I purchased a large brown paper sleeping bag that had a picture of Bob Dylan on it. I crawled into it for the occasional nap and to my shame I did nod off briefly while Jimi Hendrix played on the Sunday night, sadly his last UK appearance before his death just a couple of weeks later. Perhaps another reason why that festival burned such a deep impression in my mind.
When I think back to those days I remember the seemingly perpetual sunshine, the amazing music and the friendship of strangers. I vaguely recall the endless queues for the primitive toilet facilities which, after the toilet paper ran out and the cesspits were full, seemed to consist of the nearest tree and a few sheets of the News of the World. It’s only when I look at the websites dedicated to the IOW 1970 festival that I remember the chaos of the organisation, not to mention the open hostility of some islanders who thought we were an alien invasion from Mars. I am normally a glass-half-empty person but my memories of the 1970 event are all good.
Aside from a sojourn to the Great Western festival at Bardney a couple of years later, that was my last festival experience. That was until autumn last year, when I received a message on Facebook from one of my oldest friends, Chris. The message read: “There’s a rumour that the Stones are going play Glastonbury next year, are you up for it?” Chris was a survivor of the IOW campaign, not to mention several other camping trips. He had been best man at my wedding and I at his. Both us had moved away from our hometown in Wales a long time ago and now lived in different parts of the country. Although we had always kept in touch with work and family, we had had precious few face-to-face meetings over the past 30 years.
When we did we just picked up from where we left off the last time. It was as if time had stood still. Many a happy hour was spent reminiscing about our adventures. Much to the annoyance of our wives this usually was about our festival and camping days.
I told my wife that we were thinking about going to Glastonbury 2013 and asked if she wanted to go to. “I would rather have root canal surgery without anaesthetic than go to Glastonbury,” was the gist of her response. I told Chris and he said: “That’s OK, my wife doesn’t want to go either. It will be just like the old times, just the two of us.”
We both registered for tickets on the Glastonbury website. My wife thought I was crazy. “You are in your 60s and can’t survive in a field on a can of beer and a packet of crisps now,” she said. But I was not going to miss this chance to relive my youth one final time. My mind was made up – it was Glastonbury or die! When tickets became available we jumped at the chance and booked them.
However, there was just one dark cloud on the horizon that had the potential to bring things grinding to a halt. About six years ago I had been increasingly suffering from excessive tiredness and my wife had been suffering from my snoring and gasping when I slept. The curtains would almost be hoovered off the windows when I breathed in. I would wake up in the morning as tired as I was when I went to sleep (I couldn’t even watch a TV programme past the opening credits). My wife had taken refuge in the spare room due to the volume of the snoring, which was now akin to that of a road drill. After several doctors visits I was diagnosed with severe Obstructive Sleep Apnoea. During sleep I was stopping breathing on average 44 times an hour for up to 30 seconds at a time. It was as if someone was putting a pillow over my face and trying to suffocate me every minute and a half throughout the night. No wonder I was so bloody tired.
About 6% of the adult male population suffer from OSA, almost all of them undiagnosed. It can lead to potentially life-threatening conditions. A study of people killed in road traffic accidents shows that many of the drivers involved had undiagnosed OSA and had nodded off at the wheel. As the old joke goes: “When I die, I want to go peacefully like my grandfather did – in his sleep. Not yelling and screaming like the passengers in his car.”
There is no cure for OSA, but there is an effective treatment if people can stick with it. This treatment is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, commonly known as CPAP. Basically it is like having a reverse vacuum cleaner strapped to your face that blows air down your throat and prevents the airway collapsing when you go into deep sleep. I was finally prescribed one of these CPAP machines about three years ago. The fight I had to get one through my local health trust is another story, too long to tell here. The CPAP unit is about half the size of a shoebox and has a hose attached to a face mask. Of course, it needs electricity to run. But once you use it, you really notice the difference. You are no longer living in a never-ending fog. Before and after CPAP is like the difference between night and day.
But back to the planning of the Glastonbury 2013 campaign. I had told Chris that I would need an electric hook-up and told him about my predicament. He did a bit of research and came back with the bad news: there are no electrical hook-ups available at Glastonbury.
Using local hotels or hiring a camper van would have been prohibitively expensive (I might not be as poor as during the IOW days but I still don’t have that much money). A travel battery would have been too heavy to lug around.
At Christmas my son gave me a large box labelled “The Old Codgers Glastonbury Survival Kit”. Inside there were some wellies, a rain poncho, wet wipes, glow sticks, a torch, tissues and other such things. I was just hoping that they were not going to be wasted.
Then in February came another message from Chris. He had found out that a friend of his was also coming to Glastonbury in a camper van. It had power and he was happy for us to share the van. Result! I went into full festival prep mode, letting my hair grow and refusing to shave. I was thrilled to hear that the Stones were confirmed as the headline act. I would have been really pissed off if it had been some rap artist !
Still I had some more prep to do regarding the CPAP machine. I’ve travelled with it before, usually staying in hotels. It just needs to be plugged in to a three-pin mains socket. There had been some minor problems such as the power socket being in the wrong place so that it was too far from the bed. On that occasion I had to sleep upside down in the bed for the hose to reach. I also had to get the CPAP working as well as possible on the van’s 12 volt DC power supply rather the usual 240 volt mains. I bought a 300 watt power inverter and hooked it up to a car battery I lugged into the bedroom. Very Heath Robertson – but it worked!
Final arrangements were made. The Tuesday before was spent packing. There were a few items that I had to pack that I never had to think about in my younger days: various blood-pressure medications, a hospital urine bottle I bought on eBay. I think anyone over 60 will appreciate the need for that.
Wednesday, and the long-awaited day had arrived. The last thing to pack was the CPAP machine with all the cables and hoses. Of course it could not have been packed any earlier as I had to use it the night before. I checked, double-checked and triple-checked I had all the bits. I was ready at last. My wife drove me to the coach station and I was on my way.
The first part of the journey to Bristol was pretty uneventful. There were no festivalgoers in sight. I went into a park near Bristol coach station and lay on the grass, propped up on my backpack. It was a real deja vu moment. My thoughts went back to the many times I had done the very same thing in my youth. Who would have thought I would still be at it at 62!
It wasn’t until I boarded the coach to Glastonbury that I had serious reservations about what I was embarking on. The coach was full of mainly very young people. I was old enough to be their father, and for some, their grandfather. They were dressed in weird clothes that were clearly designed by a psychopath. Some were painted, some were tattooed, and some had piercings in every conceivable part of the visible anatomy. Nearly all were screaming very loudly in to mobile phones in text speak.
My mind once more shot back 43 years, but this time I realised I was not the young festivalgoer but – to my horror – one of the uncomprehending Isle of Wight locals. I made a silent vow to be more understanding and to cast such prejudiced thoughts out of my mind.
As we neared the site another scenario reared its head: I had no idea where Chris would be and I didn’t even know who Phil was, let alone where he would be. What if there was no mobile coverage?
I proceeded to the entrance gates past the numerous stewards and security. The contrast was so great compared with the IOW festival – there was no chance whatsoever of anyone getting in here without having paid! To my great relief I received a text from Chris: “Meet you in front of the Pyramid stage at 9.30!”
It was now about 8.20, why wait till 9.30? It soon became pretty obvious. The Isle of Wight site was very compact and bijou compared to this. It would probably take me the best part of an hour to get to the Pyramid stage.
I had a small rucksack on my back with my camera, spare phone batteries, personal hygiene stuff, medication, bottles of water and some snack food. I also had a larger tote bag that had wheels on that contained a change of clothes, my sleeping bag and of course my CPAP machine, power inverter and other odds and ends. Let me tell you, dragging a bag with wheels on across the tracks and fields of Glastonbury is not easy or fun. I had serious concerns that either the CPAP machine or I would not survive.
After about 40 minutes of passing endless rows of portable toilets, fast food stalls, bars and stages, I neared the Pyramid stage. This festival was so well organised compared with anything I had experienced before – this was truly a money-making enterprise now. But one thing had not changed in 43 years – the smell from the portable toilets was just as disgusting as the open cesspits at the Isle of Wight.
Finally I was by the Pyramid stage and there was Chris and his friend Phil. I was so pleased to see them. Hugs and handshakes all round. Then it was off on the final 30-minute walk to the camper van.
Once there, Phil (an electrician, helpfully) connected up my best friend and things looked promising. I put the mask on and breathed in. There was a brief bust of air and then the lights went out.
“It’s just not hacking it,” said Phil.
“What are our options?” I asked. “Can we work around this?”
Phil rummaged around in a cupboard and pulled out a box of electrical test gear. He found his readings. Then his face dropped. “The van can deliver four amps,” he said, “but your gizmo needs eight. I’m sorry, but I just can’t fix it.”
I was not ready to give up yet. We discussed the options until well after midnight. Was there anyone at the site who could help? Would this count as a medical emergency? Could I just tough it out? After all, I had gone years with the condition undiagnosed. I decided to give it a try and settled down to sleep. But as the others snoozed, I couldn’t. The hours crawled by. By 7am I had not had a wink of sleep – disrupted or otherwise.
It was now approaching 24 hours since I had last slept. I started to worry about whether or not my health would cope with all this. If I stayed, I could become a medical emergency, holed up in the Glastonbury medical tent. I might also risk ruining Chris and Phil’s festival too. To put it bluntly, the choice was this: hold out for the Rolling Stones and risk dying, or leave now, defeated. I agonised about it, but in the end I knew I had to leave. I love the Stones but I was not willing to die to see Mick and his gang. I would have to leave.
I woke Chris up around 7.30am and told him about my decision. We stayed in the van until about 11, discussing all the options again, but each came to the same depressing conclusion. I packed my stuff and we all set off for the exit. We had to pass the deep-drop lavatory cubicles on the way, the ones on stilts that have containers below and you cover up your droppings with sawdust – similar to those at IOW. As well as being sleep deprived I was now also dying for the toilet. Once off the site there was no knowing when I would get the opportunity to go again. For old times’ sake I felt compelled to have that festival toilet experience just one more time. I did my business and it was every bit as unpleasant as it was decades ago.
It was easier than I imagined to get out. I bade farewell to my old friend and my new friend and left the site around 12.30. Three hours later – and 32 hours since I last slept – I was back home.
My wife is doing her best to hold back from going into a full blown “Well, I did tell you” rant, but I suspect there’s going to be a lot of humble pie on the menu in the weeks to come. I have no one else but myself to blame.
So that’s it. My festival days are over. I spent a fortune not to see the Rolling Stones (unless you count watching it on TV, which didn’t give me much satisfaction). “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out!” was the phrase commonly used by the counterculture in the late 60s and early 70s. For this ageing ex-hippy I am going to take the liberty of amending that to: “Lie Down, Plug In, Sleep Tight!” And I did just that, for about 12 hours.
But allow me to leave with one final recollection: at the Isle of Wight Festival, John Sebastian performed the song Darling Be Home Soon, a sentimental little ditty about friendship, self-understanding and hope. Always a favourite of mine, the song contains the line: “And now/A quarter of my life is almost past/I think I’ve come to see myself at last.”
That line has always resonated with me, I was the right age when I first heard it. Of course, a large fraction of my life has now past. I sometimes wonder if Sebastian is still singing that song, and if he changes the lyrics?