A Somerset legend
PUBLISHED: 14:26 19 August 2015 | UPDATED: 14:26 19 August 2015
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SIMON ANGEAR visited Glastonbury Festival's remarkable 79-year-old inspiration, Michael Eavis, to learn more about his achievements, his passions, and his love of the West Country
He’s the man behind the world’s best music festival, Time magazine rates him as one of the 100 most influential people on Earth, and he’s done it all from his family farm in the ‘absolutely beautiful’ county of Somerset.
There’s a hypothetical question, typically trotted out at dinner parties or on long car journeys, about a fantasy dinner party; if you could pick any four people, dead or alive, to join you in meal-time conversation, who would you choose?
Michael Eavis has long had a place reserved at my table.
For me, like many other Glastonbury Festival devotees, Eavis holds near-mythical status. Farmer, philanthropist, family man, and festival aficionado, he’s the man who dreamed up and gave birth to an event without equal anywhere in the world, and whose passion for the arts – and for people – continues to burn bright with his 80th birthday just months away.
An hour with the man himself at Worthy Farm therefore ranks as a dream journalistic assignment, and it is with great excitement that I set off for our appointment one beautiful mid-May morning. The festival is still some six weeks away, but preparations are very much in full swing upon my arrival.
One of the many fluorescent-jacketed stewards already patrolling the site steers me towards the farm’s elegant 2014-built TNG building, where we are due to meet. Its interior blends modernity with homeliness, opening into a farmhouse kitchen replete with the comforting aromas of coffee and toast, and giving way to contemporary offices.
It is from one of those offices that Michael Eavis emerges, bang on time, with a warm welcome and a firm handshake.
However, instead of steering me into an office, he tells me we’re taking ‘a tour’, and I’m invited to join him in his trademark red Land Rover to explore the work-in-progress that is the festival site.
“So…what are we talking about today?” he asks as he settles behind the wheel, clearly a man used to having journalists intrude upon his daily routine.
And the answer is… a little bit of everything, though not in the order I had planned. Such is his open, gregarious nature – and the challenge of taking shorthand notes in a Land Rover bumping along rutted farm tracks – that our conversation takes something of a scattergun course. For every question I ask him, he asks me one back. He seems as curious about me as I am about him, and he wants to know about my own experiences of his festival, my career, my family. It quickly becomes clear that he’s a people person in the truest sense of the word, keen to soak up detail from everyone he meets.
This is further demonstrated by the frequency with which he pauses to confer with workers as we meander slowly around the site.
“Progress report?” he calls out to one team, before becoming embroiled in conversation about whether 12 or 14 drainage pipes will be needed to add another 10 feet of usable space to a camping field.
“Got plenty of help, have you? Lovely job,” he says to the next team. “Not seen you for a week. Got some good people this time?” he asks another.
Some, explains Michael, have worked on festival preparations for 40 years. He has time for them all and seems entirely au fait with the minutiae of their roles.
“This is the most fun part of it for me, the most exciting,” he says. “I enjoy walking around, I know all their names. There are loads of really good people working here, but they all come to me. This has been my baby for 45 years. I’m the only person who knows the full story.
“I love it, I really do. I enjoy every minute of my life. Of course, I could be sitting in a deckchair on Weymouth beach – but that’s not very appealing, is it?”
He laughs wholeheartedly and often, and it’s clear he means every word. He wears his passion on his sleeve, but it is a passion which extends beyond his festival to other interests, too. He talks knowledgably of the arts, of conservation, and of his love of Somerset.
“It’s my home, and it’s a hell of a county, isn’t it?” he says. “Youth culture and creativity are the best in the world. Farming, of course; cattle, milk and sheep.
“Somerset Arts Week is amazing. Is there another county which has as much creativity? I very much doubt it.
“Then there is the beauty of the Mendip Hills, the churches and cathedrals. Somerset has got it all.”
He talks glowingly of the Hauser & Worth art gallery at Bruton (‘amazing – not another place like that in the country, and they’ve done it purely because they love Somerset’) but holds the Avalon Marshes wetlands and Shapwick Heath nature reserve in even higher esteem. He ranks them among his favourite places.
“All the bird life, cranes, bitterns, starlings – it really is something else,” he says. “I’m keen on all that stuff, and love the space, the quiet. I enjoy a long walk there, a visit to the bird hides. I take the binoculars to look at the birds on the water – absolutely beautiful.
“I like the idea of natural environment over a large area. They are hoping to extend the marshes, and I’ve been talking to them to see if I can help a little bit.”
And that idea of helping, of giving something back, is the bedrock upon which the Glastonbury ethos is built.
Although the festival now boasts an annual turnover of £32million, Eavis famously shuns the riches which could easily be his. Most of the cash goes to charity, meaning the bank balance restarts from scratch each year.
He is keen to support the community too, taking pride in the £100million shot-in-the-arm which the festival delivers to the Somerset economy and going to great lengths to build relationships with neighbours. As a result, villagers in picturesque Pilton have in recent years warmed to the festival and the five days of eccentricity and disruption which come with it.
The post-festival Glastonbury Extravaganza at the nearby abbey is organised by him as a thank you for that local tolerance.
And while the festival itself caters for every musical taste under the sun, the extravaganza demonstrates a more personal input. He raves about the performances of George Ezra and Robert Plant in 2014, and is hugely excited by this year’s top-of-the-bill acts Ray Davies of The Kinks and Joan Armatrading. Davies in particular is a performer Michael says he ‘absolutely loves’.
“The extravaganza is for the town folk who don’t want to come here. People who don’t fancy the mud, the crowds – it’s for them,” he says. “We owe it to them. After all, we use the name of their town.”
But while his modern fame and industry contacts are key tools used to put together both the extravaganza and the festival itself, he is clearly less comfortable with other elements of that renown.
He seems genuinely baffled by the extent of his own iconic status.
“I don’t seek publicity at all,” he says frankly, adding after a moment’s pause “but I’m not sure people believe that. I hope it doesn’t bore other people.”
He professes not to know about a Facebook campaign calling for him to receive a knighthood, and appears almost embarrassed by his listing as one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.
“That was good, wasn’t it?” he laughs. “I thought they had the wrong address at first, but Americans love us to bits.
“Of course, nobody knew who I was when I started. I had been to the Bath Blues Festival in 1970, and I got caught up with the whole mood. Anti-war, anti-Vietnam, the flower power era… just brilliant. The whole movement appealed to me, musically and emotionally.
“It all came from that very humble beginning. Now we’re improving the site all the time. First off, we didn’t have the money to do it with, but now we have the income. It’s grown gradually, but now we are the top people in the world at this. We’re way ahead, nobody is even close to us.”
The Land Rover has completed its circuit, and we’re back at Worthy Farm. He cuts the engine. “Get everything you need?” he asks.
And I have – except for one more ‘slightly silly’ thing; that hypothetical dinner party. Who would be invited to break make-believe bread with Michael Eavis?
He thinks hard, and offers an intriguing selection: a trio of musical legends in Jerry Garcia, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, plus historian and peace campaigner Edward Thompson.
A fascinating foursome, all no doubt with insightful opinions and entertaining stories to share. Yet after an hour in his company, I still suspect it would be Michael Eavis at the centre of the conversation.
Indeed, it’s a measure of the man – his candour, his affability – that meeting him leaves the legend undiminished. He remains the first name on my own hypothetical guest list.