I seem to have an impressive track record in this weblog of going to festivals and completely neglecting to write about them (two Cropredys and one Bromyard so far), so I’m determined to break that duck with Greenbelt.
I first learnt about the festival in the early ’90s, and being a non-Greenbelt goer of that era, I knew about it through its bad publicity – the headlines that accompanied its “white witch” speaker, the headlines that accompanied the Nine O’Clock Service leading worship, the headlines that accompanied its financial crises. So I think what I was expecting was a sort of Butlin’s for wooly liberals, a lankier, less spiritual Spring Harvest, a Soul Survivor for Dodgy People.
Any of those preconceptions got blown out of the water by the first seminar of my Greenbelt, and John Bell from the Iona Community managing to rethink our view of the Third Commandment, and go beyond blasphemy in considering what ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’ might actually mean. Contemporary yet timeless, it would have fitted in a gospel hall or parish church, and all done in the space of an hour. Wonderful stuff.
And John Bell set the tone for some excellent talks over the weekend – Mike Yaconelli on the need to be real within and without our churches, and David Andrews on the need to engage, as churches and individuals, with our communities (the fact that this needed to be said being the most telling thing of all).
Being that little bit heathen, though, it was the music that tipped the scales to me coming along. And I wasn’t disappointed. The first night alone managed to eclipse three whole days of Cropredy for me – Eden Burning being a little bit lacklustre, it’s true, but then Waterson:Carthy on blistering form, showing just why they’ve managed to stay at the top of the folk scene for the best part of a century between them. And then Kate Rusby, with an accomplished, accessible set, and a warm rapport with the audience, and a deceptive ‘well-let’s-just-give-this-a-go-and-see-what-happens’ attitude to the whole thing. Justifiably, she went down a storm.
And triumphantly rounding off the whole weekend was Billy Bragg, wading somewhere in the river between socialism and trade justice, waiting for the great leap forward… ah heck, I’m descending into cliche here, and there’s no point in me saying what John Davies has already said in a far better way.
Rather more off the beaten track, easily the most curious thing I attended was a concert by Masashi Fujimoto (yes, that bloke off Banzai). He managed to completely wrongfoot me by delivering not the expected operatic arias and anecdotes about being a cult Channel 4 icon, but a series of showtunes. Gershwin and Sondheim delivered, it must be said, in quite a pronounced Japanese accent. Nevertheless, a great voice and a very enjoyable hour.
Wrongfooting the audience seemed to be a speciality of dfg. From the off we were never sure what to expect. They left the audience hanging on for punchlines that sometimes never came (those that did were invariably hilarious). Tender laments were suddenly punctuated by the rap from Turtle Power. And the close of their set, where they persuaded the audience to march for the cause of freeing – er – Nelson Mandela, went some way to justifying their otherwise hopelessly inaccurate billing as ‘situationist art terrorists’. If there’s any justice, dfg will become a Greenbelt fixture.
There were lowlights, and I should mention them. There were probably 10,000 people that enjoyed the communion on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, I was in the other 5,000, bristling against being straitjacketed into shouting my approval of a political statement (which I agreed with, at that; there are ways of mixing politics and religion, but this didn’t ring true for me). An oddly fragmented service, falling for me between several stools, I felt disconnected from the whole thing.
Communion, though, was a veritable blessing compared to the depths plumbed by Marc Catley. Words cannot express how truly dire this seminar was. (Actually, they can, but they’re all words I can’t use here). “Does Christian satire embarrass you?” asked the title. Er, well, that bit of it does thanks.
And there were some experiences that could have been better: had the Polyphonic Spree not been half an hour late coming on, and had I actually been able to see more than one-twentieth of what was going on, I might have enjoyed them more. As it was, the saving grace of that hour (and a fixture of my weekend) was a retreat to the Tiny Tea Tent: a green-powered wagon that served great tea and coffee and played the Bonzos at you – what wasn’t to like?
“What one thing will you remember in seven days’ time?” asks the Mystery Worshipper questionnaire on Ship of Fools. Well, it’s been nearly seven days since, so what do I remember? The sheer exuberance of it all, really. The joyous celebration of Christianity and culture, and the sense that those bits of sky under which God’s people live were all brought that little bit closer for a weekend.
This could become a habit, you know.