(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.