Twilight at Wimbledon and Glastonbury
It’s not technically midsummer any more (particularly if you’re not in the Northern hemisphere; The Metropolitan strives to be a globally-minded publication). But it’s close enough, here in Surrey, a couple of weeks after the solstice. In the southern UK at this time of year the light comes at around 5 in the morning and finally disappears around 10 in the evening.
On midsummer evenings millions of years ago my parents would send me to bed at 7pm despite it being blazing daylight outside, and I’d creep to the window and look out onto an incomprehensible midday world. But I only noticed the specific quality of British summer evenings after taking holidays in the Mediterranean, where night slams down like a shutter. One moment you’re cowering in the shade, the next all the taverna lights are on and the day’s landmarks have disappeared into black.
Summer is different in these mid-northern latitudes. At a fundamental level, it’s a lot less hot and a lot less sunny. But there’s something else that’s different too, an atmospheric phenomenon that bleeds into an emotional disposition. We have twilight: long evening hours during which the light melts slowly, and everything around you is rendered in gold and blue-pink and then forest green and grey, covered in a fine grain, underexposed like a ‘70s Polaroid.
Twilight clings; it wants to stay with you, although you both know it has to leave. It lends itself to grieving, if only for the end of the day and the approaching end of these brief midsummer weeks, and all the remembered summer days from all of the years: all the swimming trips, all the ends of term, the parties spilling into the street and moments of sudden garden quiet. The veil between past and present thins to a threadbare layer, and ghosts slip through. They brush past you in the warm air, just out of reach.
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It’s 1986. I’m coming up to my 15th birthday, and my friend Emma has somehow procured ground tickets for Wimbledon. Even more surprisingly, our parents have agreed that this is a sufficient reason for us to miss a day of school. It’s the first Monday of the second week, which means it’s the Men’s round of 16; the best of all the rounds, when the wild cards are still ricocheting around the courts and everyone left in the draw is at the height of their powers.
In 1986 there is a standing pen on Centre Court. It is open to anyone with a ground ticket who is prepared to remain on their feet for hours, and we are two hormonal teenage girls with a plan. By 11am we and a few other maniacs have seized our ground up against the front barrier. We are still there, joined by several hundred more, at 2pm when Centre Court play finally begins. The Australian pin-up Pat Cash and the curly gentleman Swede Mats Wilander are first up. Emma is Cash. I am Wilander. We are both vibrating at a very high pitch. We have been careful not to eat or drink anything, because if you need to pee you have to give up your place and you’ll never get back in; the queue outside the pen’s entrance is now a quarter of a mile long. It’s a beautiful English summer’s day - by which I mean it’s about 25 degrees - but thankfully we are in the shade.
Cash beats Wilander over four sets during which Emma and I shake, sweat, holler our guts out and approach extreme dehydration. At around 5pm, when the match is over, we finally give up our places and stagger out into the concourse outside Centre Court, where we briefly stand still. We see players moving around the club surrounded by rapid travelling knots of fans and officials, and the flowers and the ivy and the grass and the crowds. We’ve seen it all on TV a thousand times, but somehow - by some mad alchemy - now we are actually here, and we know we will never execute a frivolous plan quite so perfectly ever again. We don’t know that we will gradually fall out of touch, and will see each other for probably the last time on Emma’s wedding day in midsummer 1998.
Determined to stay until the end of the day, we travel around the outside courts, dipping in and out. We finish our marathon stint some time after 9pm, high up in the West Stand of the old No. 1 court. We haven’t eaten since breakfast; we are vertiginous on wooden bleachers, looking across the All-England Club complex and through the soft darkness to the hills of Crystal Palace, and I think we are a little high in both senses. We are barely able to see the doubles match being played a couple of hundred feet below us, and eventually, light - or rather, dark - stops play.
I don’t remember how I got from the All-England Club to Wimbledon railway station, but I must have called my dad from a payphone there asking him to come and pick me up. What I remember is standing outside the grand Art Deco facade of the station, waiting for him to arrive. And it must have been after 10pm at this point, and I hadn’t been out on my own that late before, and the area around the station was buzzing with tennis fans and midsummer party crowds and long-day office workers finally on their way home, and the pavements were humming with the heat and every window of every pub was wide open. And it was the first time I consciously formed the thought: summer evenings are magic.
It’s 1994. I’m two years out of university, living in bewildered squalor with friends in London, and my brother Matthew has somehow procured complimentary tickets for Glastonbury. (If you’re forming the impression that I tend to float around on the back of other people’s initiative, you are correct.) We cannot arrange the time off from our respective jobs, which means we will arrive long after the festival has started and even longer after the keen aficionados have pitched their tents.
But we are not aficionados. We barely know what Glastonbury is, or where it is, or who is playing. The festival is not yet a fixture of bourgeois-bohemian summer; there is no live coverage on BBC TV. It’s a ratty, drug-infested hippie hangover, full of freaks and acid casualties, ravers and Travellers, bikers and wall-jumpers. At least, that’s what you think if you haven’t been. Next year, in 1995, thousands of people will breach the festival barrier, infuriating the police and the local council and finally forcing Michael Eavis to begin the construction of a proper wall around the site. Crusties will tell you this was the beginning of the end, and for them, it was.
Matthew and I don’t have a tent; we are both intensely impractical, and neither of us are what you would call ‘outdoorsy’. Given these constraints, we decide that we will go to Glastonbury for 24 hours only. We will drive down in Matthew’s ancient Ford Cortina on Saturday morning and leave on Sunday morning, and we will simply stay awake the whole time. To this end, we are carrying a substantial quantity of illegal substances and very little else.
I hadn’t been to Somerset before this trip. I’d spent a lot of time in Wales, which is around 50 miles north of Glastonbury, but Wales and Somerset have very different vibes. As you head down the M5 towards Bristol and then turn south off the motorway onto the Somerset Levels, something changes; something is different, not only from the drab manicured outskirts of London but also from the muscular prettiness of Hampshire and Wiltshire. The landscape dips and rolls, and everything is green and secret and somehow ancient. As you approach Glastonbury you enter an area that has been singled out and consecrated by cults and religions for thousands of years. And although I don’t think of myself as a spiritual person, something in the hills and the valleys, something in the very soil, makes you want to pledge allegiance. Matthew, who is most definitely a spiritual person, talks about leylines as he parks the Cortina, and we wander through the understaffed gates.
This midsummer evening at Glastonbury, three days after the solstice, is benign chaos. We are still at the tail end of rave culture; people would rather dance than fight. We have absolutely no sense of where we are on the site, and we have no itinerary. We see hundreds of home-made flags fluttering over tents, and people moving to music that we can’t hear, and people who might be dead but are probably just unconscious, and fire-eaters.
We walk along a high ridge through the twilight, and settle down on the grass at the back of a large crowd in front of a monstrous black stage. We can see pinprick figures setting up, and we briefly wonder which band it will be. We drink and smoke and drop our pills, and chat about our shared world, our parents and family in Wales and our common friends and enemies and where we are going next and what we will do with all the years to come. Matthew has already had one brush with the schizophrenia that will kill him nearly 30 years later, but the mutual incomprehension that will kill our relationship has not yet emerged. He is still my handsome and extraordinarily charismatic brother, fresh from a stint in the tunnels with Swampy at Twyford Down, where they are trying to stop the extension of the M3.
It is Matthew, I think, who first realises that we’re watching Orbital. Neither of us are particular fans, but we both recognise ‘Remind’. Their intensely melodic trance music, wordless and euphoric, is perfect for this moment. As the stage falls into darkness you can see they are wearing goggles with little round lights, staring out into the crowd and bouncing around like giant techno frogs. But up here on the ridge, rising above the bowl of the stage, it is still just light for an extra half hour or so, the last soft drench of a long day. And then the darkness falls completely, and Orbital play ‘Chime’, and it’s genuinely transcendent. We don’t know that Orbital are siblings too. This whole time, we’ve barely known anything at all.
Some hours later, at dawn, we are walking down a quiet track in a campsite - I can’t remember why, probably trying to find some reasonable toilets - and I realise that my friend Paula is walking towards us. We recognise each other, smile and wave hello and then - as though we have stumbled over a fairy ring in the woods - we separate and walk on. Paula didn’t know we were here, and we didn’t know Paula was here. We are all supposed to be hundreds of miles away. It shouldn’t be possible to accidentally encounter a friend at 5am in a festival of 100,000 people. But what are you doing at Glastonbury in midsummer, if you don’t believe in magic?
For other summers long faded into dusty dusk: