The Glastonbury Festival is the UK's most popular regular music event. People from every part of the planet converge on a West Country farm for three or more days of music, ecology and alternative pursuits, as they have done in ever increasing numbers for more than thirty years. It continues to thrive when others have faded: its unique blend of the commercial and the anarchistic, organisation and chaos, makes it a heady and revitalising experience.
It's a glorious antidote to the individualistic, schismed, urban society in which we spend the other fifty-one weeks of the year. I've been six -- or is it seven, it's hard to tell -- times, and have the usual selection of weather, wonder and plumbing stories to tell. But it doesn't look like I'll make it in 2004: technology has let me down.
Glastonbury's attitude to technology has been characteristically ambiguous. Many of the first festival-goers were back-to-nature types very suspicious of big science and its toys, but the place has always had its own little radio station and a papal dispensation for Marshall amps. Mobile phones were for yuppie scum, until Orange banged in a base station on the farm and you could call your mates at the end of a gig. Now, they're indispensable.
And it is mobile phones, together with that darn Internet, that have cooked my goose this time. For while 100,000 people or so attend the festival, nearly twenty times that many would like to come. Most of those people have access to at least two phones and a modem; many will have been able to scrape together four or five mobiles and be on broadband. The result, when the tickets went on sale last night at 8pm, was an unintentional denial of service attack on the ticketing agency that put the siege of Troy to shame.
I started at 8 p.m., with just the one broadband connection and three phones, and by 2 a.m. was exhausted. Because of new anti-touting rules, even if I got through I could only have bought two tickets: myself and a friend had a compact whereby whoever hit paydirt first would sort out the other. He gave up at 4:30 a.m. There are still tickets and we are still trying, but with little hope.
Everyone expected some problems, but the parlous state of the online ordering system is unforgivable. The press office says that it's working, just very slowly: it is not. Five times I managed to get through to enter my details: three times it rejected my card details, and twice it told me that the tickets were sold out. My card is valid and there are still tickets: overload is one thing, but spewing incorrect errors is the action of a broken machine.
You can't fit two million people into a Somerset dairy farm. It is an impossible task for the Glastonbury organisers, but they're not doing anyone any favours. The best thing about Glasto is going with your mates -- but with pot-luck on buying tickets, many decades-old groups of dedicated festival goers will be broken up. It's also particularly unfair on those without Net access or banks of mobiles, and this harms the inclusiveness that makes the experience so special.
Glastonbury is about alternatives and fairness. It would be far better not to treat the ticketing like a big gig -- the festival isn't just one huge Madonna concert. Sell tickets in small batches over time; have a lottery for people who write in ahead of schedule, arrange for tickets to be available across the country through the good causes who benefit, allow people to apply as a group. Anything would be better than relying on a broken, inappropriate and frustrating method that has probably wasted ten million hours of all of our lives.