For the first time since 1990 I decided not to go to Glastonbury this year. It was a purely practical decision: the drug intake needed to get you through those three days is so vast that it wipes you out for the rest of summer and, for a change, I thought it would be interesting to see what July, August and September are like unmediated by insomnia, lethargy, paranoia, depression and the continual urge to dance to anything with a repetitive beat.
Watching it all on TV instead, it struck me that the BBC’s fantastically thorough coverage of Glastonbury is one of the wonders of the modern world. I won’t say it’s almost better than being there — that would be silly. But it is nice, instead of constantly worrying as you do when you’re there that the real highlight of the festival is taking place on whatever stage you’re not at, to check out every big act like some jaded emperor simply by flicking from BBC2 to BBC3 to BBC4.
Since the death of John Peel, the job of the BBC’s chief Glasto anchorperson has gone to Jo Whiley, and two things really impress me about her. First, her costume changes: she always looks clean and fresh and ready for a night’s larging (spangly tops; cowboy hats; that sort of thing). Second, what we in the TV trade call ‘synch’ — i.e., the stuff that comes out of her mouth. It’s not quite A.J.P. Taylor talking about world civilisation. But it’s relaxed, uplifting, fluent and reasonably lucid — which for anyone operating under Glastonbury conditions is pretty damned remarkable.
Phill Jupitus has this gift, too. Less so Mark Radcliffe, whose critical faculties appeared to have been bludgeoned by the Glasto vibe. For example, he kept telling us that, if anything, the flash flood had made the atmosphere even better than usual. This is rubbish. From experience, I can absolutely assure you that Glastonbury in the mud is half the fun it is when it’s sunny. You spend your whole time trying and failing to find somewhere dry to sit down and skin up, and all the distances are twice as long. My sister was quite pleased, though. She was supposed to earn her free ticket by working every morning in a laughter workshop (she had to laugh for an hour; then spend another 15 minutes selling laughter CDs), but the tent where it was meant to happen was wiped out.
Definitely the worst thing about not being at Glasto was that I ended up catching a bit of Richard Curtis’s mawkish agitprop drama The Girl in the Café (BBC1, last Saturday). Bill Nighy was uncharacteristically mannered and lame as a tongue-tied civil servant trying to woo a young Scots girl he’d met in a café, then going on to do something worthy at the G8 summit, though God knows what, because by that stage I had my head buried in a bucket. The film’s only notable achievement was to make the noisome scene in Love Actually where the Hugh Grant Prime Minister kisses his new charlady girlfriend at the primary-school nativity play look like a model of sophistication and restraint. If this is where popular culture is heading, then I fear there is nothing for it: we shall have to have a bloody revolution full of atrocities so hideous they make Goya’s atrocities of war look like a Women’s Institute bring-and-buy sale.
Luckily, there was Mary Seacole: the Real Angel of the Crimea (Channel 4, Sunday). Those of us who never studied her at school — I would guess this means most Speccie readers — probably have a cynical suspicion that her achievements have been bigged up and imposed on the National Curriculum as part of a PC mission to make black children (Seacole was half-Jamaican) feel good about themselves.
But, no, by the rollicking account of this handsomely shot, charmingly acted tribute, Seacole really was one of the more remarkable people of any colour or sex in history. The daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican healing woman, young Mary learnt her trade making herbal salves and potions at the hotel-cum-hospital her mother ran in Jamaica for ailing army officers. After a marriage of convenience to a frail, shortlived English naval officer, a godson of Lord Nelson — he provided the status, she the nursing skills — she decided to offer her services in the Crimean War.
Rejected by the War Office and by Florence Nightingale’s hospital in Scutari, Seacole instead headed for the Crimea itself where she set up a hotel and general store. All the profits from her inflated prices went straight into nursing. Almost every day, aged 50, she would ride the five miles to the front line and tend to the wounded men, sometimes while under fire.
When the war suddenly ended, Seacole had to abandon her hotel and its stock, losing all her money. So beloved was she by Crimean veterans, however, that they organised four subscription concerts attended by 80,000 people; and she was later granted a pension by Queen Victoria. Florence Nightingale was not impressed. Where Seacole’s warm bedside manner often extended to giving soldiers hugs and massages, Nightingale’s methods were about strict hygiene and icy detachment. Their portraits — Seacole’s was only recently rediscovered — now glare at one another in the National Portrait Gallery.