An hour to spare yesterday allowed a chance to drive the short distance from Street to Glastonbury and to enjoy the ambience of a town for which the word “alternative” is an entirely inadequate description. Glastonbury is filled with the esoteric, it is a place where people can be whatever they want to be and inhabit whatever world in which they wish to live. It is filled with characters who might have stepped straight from story books; if one wishes to walk the street as a witch or a wizard, no-one notices. A man carrying a large cardboard wallet of papers crossed the street, he wore brown boots, orange flared trousers, a polo neck sweater and a jacket and cap made from purple velvet, he was deep in serious conversation about some business matter. It will forever be 1967 in Glastonbury.
Opening Frank Barrett’s Treasured Island last night, his humorously intended comments comments grated:
Wells is one of those places in Britain that seems to lie on the border between sense and non-sense. Glastonbury, a few miles away, is firmly in the land of Nonsense; it may even be the capital of that strange country. But once you reach Wells, you are aware that daftness is not terribly far off.
Daftness? No-one in Wells or Glastonbury could be as daft as the bankers who bankrupted the world ten years ago and brought a decade of austerity for the poorest people. No-one in Wells or Glastonbury inhabits a world as full as fantasy as President Donald Trump and those who treat human life as expendable. Quiet, gentle people who live their own lives in their own world seem the very epitome of wisdom when compared with those whose images fill the television news.
Frank Barrett seems a little discomfited by the Glastonbury retailers. He writes:
When I first visited the town in the early 1970s, Glastonbury was a normal, working place with several shops selling the leather goods and sheepskin coats made at local factories, for which the area had become well known. Now these factories have gone and most shops here seem to sell things like scented candles, dreamcatchers and a selection of ‘mystical’ paintings and sculptures that inhabit the cramped artistic space that lies between ‘weird’ and ‘awful.’
In one of the mystical shops, I asked the lady at the till about the Glastonbury Thorn, which is said to grow from a staff that Joseph of Arimathaea plunged into the soil after arriving in Glastonbury. The tree blooms every Christmas; a blossom is cut from one of the tree’s branches in a special ceremony December and sent to the Queen. It seems I had touched a raw nerve: ‘There’s been a few thorn trees in Glastonbury and some berk keeps damaging them,snapping off the branches and that. What sort of nutter does something like that?’
As she asked me this I glanced at her bookshelves and spotted a slim volume: Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop: And Other Practical Advice In Our Campaign Against The Fairy Kingdom. Perhaps it’s goblins, I suggested.
‘Goblins? Yes, you may be right. They’re just the sort of nutters who might do something daft like that.
Of course, it is nutty stuff, but is it any nuttier than many things that are accepted as mainstream? Is it any nuttier than miraculous medals and statues and grottoes and holy wells and rag trees and all the other stuff of popular spirituality in the church? Is it any nuttier than folk stories from thousands of years ago being used as the basis for governing a country?
Gentle people in Glastonbury do not accumulate assets worth billions, nor do they seek to control women’s health, nor do they presume to speak to the world about human reproduction, nor do they cover up corruption, nor do they hide child abusers. Frank Barrett is, of course, right. Glastonbury is in the land of Nonsense, and is perhaps its capital; it is the embodiment of daftness, but, if one wants real nutters, then politics and the church are the places where one finds real danger.