Master of Arts
14 February 2006 - Orator: Professor David Punter
Michael Eavis is a truly remarkable man. It is perhaps appropriate that at the end of this brief oration I shall suggest that he is eminently worthy of an honorary degree, for it is with the name of his farm, Worthy Farm, that he is so intimately associated. This is principally because, with generosity, commitment and an unbelievable amount of hard work, Mr Eavis has made Worthy Farm home to the Glastonbury Festival, which many, many people would refer to as the pre-eminent music festival in Britain.
Yet when I say this, of course, I am not speaking of classical music; perhaps what Mr Eavis has done is to offer a home to a music which speaks to and on behalf of the young, although I am by no means sure that that would be the accurate way of characterising festival-goers down the years, some of whom are by now, I greatly fear, reaching an age of seriousness which, as we see on our television screens in each successive year, by no means prevents them from having a good time. Perhaps Mr Eavis’s genius lies in the fact that no Glastonbury Festival is the same as the one before; as the process, and even the terminology, of popular music has changed, so has the Festival, with a sure guiding hand at the helm, ever astute to recognise changing tastes, ever concerned to offer a unique hospitality to his audience. That audience has, of course, never been an easy one to accommodate or indeed at times to control; but Michael Eavis has been undeterred by these difficulties and although, as of course many know, we face a break in the sequence in 2006, we are assured that the Glastonbury Festivals will continue thereafter and no doubt rise to greater heights of enjoyment and musical satisfaction – and in any case, these five-yearly breaks are in full accordance with the needs of agriculture and festival staff alike.
Let me quote from an interview which Michael Eavis recently gave to the BBC: ‘Mainly I’m a music man, first and foremost. I always have been, right from when I was a kid. Music is my first love really’. And from an earlier article: ‘It was … on one sunny autumn day that I experienced putting on my own show for the first time, with a handful of pop and folk stars … and a lorry-load of makeshift scaffolding for a stage. Little did we realise that we had begun something that has stayed with us for a quarter of a century so far’. From an audience of 1,500 in 1970, we now see a Festival attracting upwards (sometimes annoyingly upwards) of 150,000; now the festival is in a position to make donations totalling some hundreds of thousands of pounds to causes including Greenpeace, Oxfam, Water Aid and others.
We have to remember, as Mr Eavis has himself said, that raising money for the kinds of causes he supports, which have also included the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, in the Tory heartland of the shires is, whatever one’s politics, an extraordinary achievement. But then Mr Eavis is, as I have said, an extraordinary man. Born in 1935, he was educated at the Wells Cathedral School. He left there at the age of 15 to join the Union Castle Shipping Line as a trainee midshipman, spending four years on ships between Britain, Kenya and South Africa. He was only 19 when his father died of cancer and he inherited what has been described as 150 acres of land, 60 cows and an overdraft. Above all, one needs to remember that since this time Mr Eavis has always been a farmer, a point to which I will return in a moment.
There are those who might suppose – from some distance – that the man who could originate and run the Glastonbury Festival might be some kind of latter-day hippie, but we have sound evidence that this is extremely wide of the mark. For Mr Eavis is, above all, a man of belief and a hard worker, and one who admires hard work in others. His son Patrick has said of him, ‘I think he believes in Christian moral values which he thinks everyone should live by. He’s anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-drugs. … When he walked down Bath High Street and there were lots of people sitting around drinking, his reaction was: why aren’t they out there trying to make a living?’
Regrettably, I’m not sure Bath has changed for the better, but Michael Eavis himself has said: ‘I’m a bit of a Puritan, but I do enjoy myself immensely. I have a hell of a good time. I’ve got the best life anyone could possibly have. … This whole festival thing is better than alcohol, better than drugs. It’s marvellous’.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, it may appear that Michael Eavis is a man of contradictions. It is perhaps not entirely clear that the majority of the people – of all ages and generations – who have benefited from the hospitality of Worthy Farm over the years would necessarily subscribe to his own ethos of hard work, commitment and generosity. Yet this is a man who, if I might venture into the complicated field of agricultural metaphor, has ploughed his own furrow. He has, of course, in a sense inherited some of the ancient glamour of Glastonbury; but he has given it a new twist, re-invented it as his own. He has clear beliefs, and he continues to stand by them. That those beliefs should involve giving a great amount of pleasure to a great number of people should be a cause of celebration for us all. If nothing else, and for those for whom the music is not to their taste, it shows us, in this era of subsidies and set-aside, what can be done with a farm if one has the necessary stamina and imagination.
But when I say that, I do not mean for a moment to ‘set aside’ Mr Eavis’s achievements precisely as a farmer. There is, for example, the crucial issue of Worthy Farm’s happy cows. ‘Could it be the music, magic crystals or simply the spirit of peace and love?’ asked a Guardian reporter a little while ago. ‘Despite their lush green grass being trampled by 150,000 festival-goers each year, Glastonbury’s cows are breeding like rabbits’. Perhaps that metaphor is a little harsh on rabbits, and yes, this may be the fabled fertility of the Vale of Avalon; but perhaps there is more to it than that. Mr Eavis has himself commented, ‘Worthy Farm is a very romantic place to be and even the cows appreciate the beauty of the fields and the valley’. He added, on a more personal note, ‘The Eavis family have been very fertile. We’ve produced a lot of children. My grandfather had about 10, my father had five and we’ve got eight children. The farm is a very fertile place. There’s some magic going on here’.
Well, magic there may well be in Mr Eavis’s life, and we would hope that that magic will continue; but accompanying it there has been an enormous amount of hard work. It is said, Vice-Chancellor, that King Arthur is buried in the Vale of Avalon. It is said that in AD63 Joseph of Arimathea arrived there to spread the word of Christianity. It is said that Jesus will make his second coming on the top of Glastonbury Tor. In fact, to be perfectly honest, there are things said in Glastonbury, by magpie hedgewitches among others, and no doubt with a nod to Avalon’s fertility in certain types of mushroom, which might make a cow look surprised.
But although Michael Eavis is an inheritor of this site of ancient festivals and curious speculations, he is not one to, as it were, let the grass grow under his feet, however lush it might be. On the contrary, he is a hard-working entrepreneur who has done a great deal of good for his locality and region, at the same time as being a true visionary with a sense of how culture and music evolve; a hero to fans and performers alike; a beacon to those in life who are tempted to say, ‘This is too difficult’, or ‘Let us not put our nose above the parapet’.
Micheal Eavis is not one to say either of those things; on the contrary, he is one to say that opposition and complication make life more enjoyable, more rich and rewarding. This is a man who has done, and who continues to do, something remarkable, something which gives pleasure to so many, and something which suggests that different communities need in the end to resolve their differences and live in that ultimate musical condition, a condition of harmony.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Michael Eavis as eminently worthy of the degree of Master of Arts honoris causa.