‘IF anyone has Tom Waits’ phone number, get in touch…’
Everyone would love the opportunity to organise a stage area at Glastonbury, right?
John Kerridge is a name you may not have heard before, but Glastonbury Festival regulars will all know the West Holts stage (formerly Jazz World) and surrounds.
It is possibly the ‘third’ stage at the Somerset festival, alongside The Park nowadays, and features some of the biggest names on the bill – who could forget Candi Staton or John Fogerty in 2007, or Jeff Goldblum and his band in 2019?
But how on earth does one go about organising such a huge part of the festival? And how do you deal with such a responsibility?
I spoke with Mr Kerridge via email and here is an edited transcript of what he said…
I suppose the place to start is what your role is and how long you’ve been working at Glastonbury?
I find myself in the happy business and helping to organise the best party in the world. I’m very fortunate to be in the position I find myself in, and I respect that very much.
My first Glastonbury was in the early 1990s, and I’ve been working at West Holts since 1997.
I started as a volunteer doing a variety of jobs and through to my current role as the organiser at the West Holts Stage.
The point I’m making is that for half of my life now Glastonbury has featured in it.
This reflects a broader point about the festival. It becomes a way of life, and that is not easy to explain to the uninitiated or for those who’ve found the festival is not for them.
As the job title suggests I work alongside a network of people from site planners, safety experts, access professionals, sound engineers, toilet cleaners, production, drivers, programmer, litter pickers, bookers, licencing, neighbouring areas, bin painters, caterers, lighting specialists, hospitality team, I could go on.
It sounds mind-blowing, but in reality, I find myself surrounded by a group of people who are not only dedicated but passionate about what they do.
With the festival marking 50 years, conversations have inevitably been turning to the word ‘legacy’. From the earliest to the most recent festivals, everyone I speak to about Glastonbury, whether they’re veterans or bucket list goers, at some point mentions an ‘ethos’, almost unspoken. Do you think the Festival ever had a core ethos, and if so, what was it – and does it still exist today?
The reason, I guess, as to why this isn’t very easy to pin down is due to our individual experience.
The build-up, contemplating every nugget of news, the moment you walk through the gates, to the journey home.
The lives improved by there being a Glastonbury Festival; The stories we share with friends and family.
So the Festival means different things to different people. It’s a cocktail of memories, artist performance, meeting a new friend, falling in love while here.
Altogether, maybe, it’s a living legacy rather than something that has a start and a finish. Continually morphing as these stories, memories and experiences shift from one generation to another.
Describing the festival’s ‘ethos’ is something I try not to involve myself in.
What I can say from a personal perspective is we share a planet whose inhabitants often find it uneasy to coexist, be it poverty, injustice or intolerance towards one another.
Glastonbury Festival is, without a doubt, a force for good in these circumstances. Personally, I’m more than happy with that as an ethos, if one is needed.
A muddy West Holts in 2007. PICTURE: Paul Jones
A couple of years ago, interviewing Mr Eavis, I was keen to pin him down on what he thought the legacy of the Festival was. Being, as you know, someone who doesn’t seem to ever like to stand still, or dwell on the past, he mentioned how Glastonbury did things differently; from welcoming travellers, 50,000 people without tickets, staging the event in a Tory-led area etc. Do you think Glastonbury is still able to ‘do things differently’, in a world dominated by risk assessments, corporate influences, etc?
I can honestly say, with hand on heart, that corporate influence has never been an issue placed on me for anything I do for the festival. If anything, the pressure is more on how we promote the good causes the festival is associated with.
I don’t live in a world dominated by risk assessments. My number one priority is to ensure West Holts, as part of the festival, is safe for enjoyment and work.
Risk assessments are but a tool to achieve this at the end of the day. There is also a big difference between being risk-aware or risk-averse.
Change is rarely easy, though. Given my age, I have a responsibility to encourage and provide the opportunity for a younger and more diverse team to evolve at West Holts.
If I may put the critical debate about gender-balanced line-ups, which I have supported wholeheartedly for many years, to one side for a moment, the issue from my perspective runs much deeper and throughout the festival industry.
How we build diverse teams that run the show is just as equally critical. So, yes, we need to do things differently, but that starts with people like me taking responsibility for that change.
It’s been really interesting to hear from the different ‘silos’ of the festival about friendly rivalries, the insular nature of such an intense build, that sort of thing, so I’ve been keen to see how people regard themselves within the broader event. When planning something like West Holts each year, are you conscious of your place in the wider Festival – and does it change the way you go about things?
My mind’s eye looks at the festival, as 200+ mini festivals sitting under the umbrella of Glastonbury. We are encouraged to be different, quite positively.
Having said that, I work closely with Theatre and Circus and Greenpeace, who are most affected by our presence. Behind the scenes, we are helping each other out. Most times, this is very practical though.
My job involves quite a lot of diplomacy. A good example was the new PA system and shift in the stage position we introduced in 2019. Most of my fallow year (2018) was taken up with technical assessments, sound planning and ongoing discussions with my colleagues from the neighbouring areas. Involving them in the design and then the solution was not only respectful but was also common sense and achieved a good outcome.
In general terms, with regard to Glastonbury, have things changed for the better? Has the super fence meant the event has lost something or has it gained something else, for example?
Firstly, West Holts: We are working to a plan that will incrementally improve West Holts without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
2019 we were very much focussed on:
1. Sound quality (the new PA).
2. Audience viewing (the shift in the stage position)
3. Keeping the West Holts Arena alive beyond our headliner’s (relocating Glasto Latino into the West Holts Arena) and increasing the food offering.
2020 will be more subtle, but some further improvements are planned, which may or may not go unnoticed.
Each year brings a new set of challenges, and 2020 has certainly lived up to that rule! One thing that often goes unreported, working behind the West Holts Stage is a team that consists of contractors and regular volunteers who return year-on-year to deliver a highly professional show. They are the unsung heroes.
The festival: Glastonbury Festival, when in full swing, has a larger population than many UK towns and cities.
Think about that for one moment.
In this context, you can approach the debate about changes like the so-called super fence as a restriction hampering the festival’s historical ethos, or a necessary requirement. I’m not going to attempt, nor do I have the capacity, to change minds on this one. I can only share my opinion.
Those who were around in the early years of the festival will have experienced something unique during an extraordinary time. I envy them.
Speaking both as a parent and somebody with responsibility for helping to organise the festival, if I pack one of my daughters off to a festival, or if I’m encouraging people to come to West Holts, I want them to enjoy themselves in a safe environment.
And with such an important role, creating something so high profile at such an important event, could you define your single biggest aim with West Holts?
I’d like to take credit for the line ups we’ve had over the years, but I’d be lying.
We have a dedicated programmer who has a knack for developing a diverse programme. Each day of the festival will span performance from new, old and shall we say more challenging aspects of the music world.
I’m still a festival fan at heart, and I try to avoid knowing our line up until as late as possible.
I enjoy the rumours and speculation just as much as anybody. Still, I can honestly say that until the turn of each year, I literally have no clue and I like it that way.
Obviously, there comes a time when I need to know.
When this happens, it usually results in my eyes rolling to the back of my head, or laughter, but never boredom.
The Shibusashirazu Orchestra in 2016 comes to mind. They were just extraordinarily beautiful. I look back at Bobby Womack’s performance with a joyful sigh. I’m an old punk at heart, so if anybody had told me back in the day that Kool & The Gang would get me dancing 40 years on, I would have laughed at them. But they did.
So, I have two aims for West Holts:
One is ongoing. To put smiles on faces.
The other… If anybody happens to have Tom Waits telephone number, please get in contact.
RESPONSIBILITY: West Holts area organiser, John Kerridge
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