A weekend among friends

(Or how a sceptic faired at Greenbelt ‘09)

Suddenly two weeks before the event we were going to Greenbelt, a festival that I knew little about, apart from the name. The “we” being my wife Judith and two of my children, Jessie (13) and Rosa (11) and me.

We were camping with members of 3 other families from our village and from the moment we arrived I felt that I was going to have an astonishingly good time. I just hadn’t grasped how good it could be. The mix of thoughtful people, campaigners, music, talks and more on offer looked good before the event. It turned out to be simply inspiring.

A little context may be useful here. I am not a believer in any deity while Greenbelt is firmly in a different place. This has been a recurring theme in my life though. As an active campaigner on a variety of causes over many years I have often found myself in meetings, events and demonstrations alongside the more politically radical elements of different faiths. I have many friends who are believers and have often noted that, apart from a belief in one God or another, my views and theirs were remarkably similar.

One piece of advice I read about Greenbelt was that if you miss what you wanted to go to don’t worry as you will probably see something better anyway. On the Sunday evening I was heading from seeing Duke Special on the main stage towards an event when I decided to drop into “Last Orders” a kind of late night review show. As I arrived Miriam Jones, who is always a pleasure to listen to, was starting a short set. The next couple of hours included comedy, an inspirational talk on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Duke Special again for a couple of numbers on piano and a first glimpse of singer Karen Grace.

Musical highlights of the weekend included Foy Vance doing some astonishing things with a guitar, his voice and a looping machine, the aforementioned Miriam Jones and Duke Special gigs and Calamateur who played a memorable set in the Performance Cafe. Other good things were, in no particular order: the g-source tent which was full of campaigning, charity and organisation stalls, using twitter and social media tools organise meetings and to disseminate content, talking to large numbers of thoughtful people about issues that matter, being able to let two girls aged 11 and 13 and several of their friends have the run of the festival without having to worry for a minute about them. Add to that feeling able to leave 2 video cameras, an iPhone, a DSLR camera and lenses in a tent without fear of theft and you have something that is genuinely unusual and wonderful.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect for me was how I absorbed rather than ignored the religious elements of the event. I even went to the Taize morning service. Lying back on the floor listening to the chanting and quietly reflecting on things was delightfully relaxing and inspiring at the same time. Talks with my Baptist Minister friend Chris and others reaffirmed my affinity with radical thoughtful Christians and opened new avenues of understanding of beliefs. I am still a non-believer in any deity but my belief in the ability of people to organise society in morally sustainable ways has been strengthened hugely.

I was left wondering how on earth I had managed to miss this festival for so many years. It wasn’t deliberate avoidance, although I am sure that in my more immature moments I would have dismissed it as God-bothering nonsense. How wrong I would have been and how wrong anyone else would be to do the same. It sounds twee and trite but we really do need the values that Greenbelt represents spread far and wide. The world faces huge challenges. The theme of the festival was “Standing in the Long Now” which is in stark contrast to the instant Big Brother / X Factor view of the world that sometimes seems omnipresent. We need to take the values of Greenbelt out from the festival to challenge people to face up to the realities of life.

My advice? Whatever your faith get yourself to Greenbelt next year. Enjoy the music and other arts. Listen to some speakers, chat to some people and feel the astonishing power of the event. Then marvel at a festival with clean toilets.

Here are a few of my images from Greenbelt.

Here are lots more using the greenbelt09 tag at Flickr

Join the Conversation

14 Comments

  1. John, I’m so pleased to read this – Greenbelt has always had a huge problem with getting across to people the simple fact that it’s not a place where anyone is going to leap on you and try and convert you to anything. There’s room for debate, discussion and inspiration without any preconceptions about what the conclusions to those discussions should be. Your experience is that writ large.

    Was great to see you over the weekend too – it certainly made my weekend even better to get to hang out with you a bit in a field in Cheltenham 🙂

  2. Really glad to read this. 🙂 I’m a Greenbelt regular, and it keeps me coming back because it’s unique, and as you found, a wonderful combination of inspiring things. I’m pleased you had such a good time, and were able to give it such a positive review. As Steve says above, the ethos of the festival is to feed the mind and the soul, giving you tools to think about things for yourself. A lot of other Christian events are much more in-your-face and black and white, and I felt I outgrew that approach a long time ago.

  3. Glad you enjoyed the weekend!! It was indeed one of many highlights, your blog gives a very true and honest reflection on a great yearly event. As a someone who volunteers at GB it’s always wonderful to hear the impacts of the four day festival thank you!

    1. Thanks to you and all the volunteers who helped to make the weekend so great and run so smoothly.

      Our girls are still wearing their wristbands and we sometimes I still ask them to put their hands in the air for “wristbands please”.

  4. Hi John I enjoyed your personal review of greenbelt. I also Foy Vance is uber fab live.
    question – I was involved in a discussion group at greenbelt called serum. did you notice it, were you at all interested or did it not grab you; i’d love to know as it will be useful for how we promote it next year (the tagline on the a3 posters was spirituality discussion group for those who would not necessarily call themselves a christian” Please ignore my question if you feel it is too forward a question. Ta

    1. Hi Naz I didn’t get what Serum was and so didn’t attend which having gone back and looked later seems to have been a mistake! It would have grabbed me if I had looked a little better. If you are running anything similar next year I will be there.

      Foy Vance was terrific and this shot of him in action by drewm is pretty good as well. Foy Vance

  5. Absolutely brilliant to hear that you enjoyed Greenbelt so much and that you feel welcome and comfortable there. Don’t stop going!

  6. great that you enjoyed it. I am GB fan of many years and it always provides such a thought provoking space in my year. We didn’t make it this year and I missed it SO much!! Great review – thanks. And hope you make it next year as well.

  7. And a further update is that the family and lots more people from Haworth will be at #gb11 as well. Looking forward to it more than ever. May even get around to a reprise of this article on our return.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *