What can I possibly say about Greenbelt that does it justice? That even begins to explain just how great I feel after four days of such… such beauty?
Words just aren’t enough.
Returning last year after a sixteen year gap was like a return home (I wrote about it here) and this year was a continuation of that. This year’s festival was every bit as good as 2012, and I’ve come to the conclusion that while I do have a ‘church home’ here in Stevenage (here, in case you’re wondering – though be aware that the website is horribly out of date), my ‘spiritual home’ really does seem to be Greenbelt Festival.
The (very) few of you who’ve followed this blog from its earliest days will know that it used to be about my spiritual life – or rather my lack of it. Well Greenbelt is the place where I feel revitalised, energised, alive in a way that I don’t get elsewhere. If only I could somehow define what is about the festival that does that. Many others far more eloquent than me have written reviews this year – I’ll post some links at the bottom – but from me I’m afraid you just get vague ramblings.
Once again being there with a six year old means a very different experience than the Greenbelts of my younger years (1988-1996), as lot of our time is devoted to the ‘family’ part of the programme. Hours on end spent in the ever busy “Make and Take” tent being creative with craft, daily shows from Childrens’ theatre companies and the like.
Blunderbus Theatre Company production of “How to Catch a Star”
It’s a great programme and my son loves it. Oh, we did go to one awful session called “Cupcake Worship”, aimed at children 3-6 year-olds, which consisted of going round a series of tables, making and decorating cup cakes, accompanied by dreadful music and somehow connected to a theme about children living in need. I didn’t really follow the connection, so I don’t imagine any of the children did. (Though my son does tell me he ‘enjoyed’ it, so it’s not all bad.)
We got along to only two actual talks this year, Martyn Joseph’s “Why I write: a theology of the guitar as cheap therapist” which was great, and John Bell’s “P is for Power” which was all interesting stuff but nothing that’s going to change my life. (His other talk, “Reading the Bible is bad for your faith” looked more interesting but it clashed with something else.) I queued unsuccessfully for Vicky Beeching’s “Being real in a Virtual World”, so have downloaded that one and am partway through listening. It’s good so far. There are quite a few others I would download, including Mohamed Ansar’s “What have the Muslims ever done for us” and Mark Oakley’s “Same sex marriage and the people of god“, but £3.50 a time is enough of a barrier to mean I’ll give them a miss. The range of speakers and subjects is simply mind-boggling. Whilst Greenbelt is still very much a Christian Festival (as witnessed by the extensive worship programme), it’s not a closed shop. Thought provoking sessions from Muslims, Jews, Atheists, and others are as much a part of the programme as any other. That’s always been the way with Greenbelt. It’s got them into some hot water at times (there was a witch on the panel of a debate one time in the 1990s, which many saw as a step too far) but it’s that open, inclusive nature of the festival that makes it unique. What’s the broadest, most wide-ranging definition of “Christian” you can think of? Go a bit wider, and you’ve got Greenbelt.
Musically, after first hearing comedy folksters Folk On last year I was really looking forward to them opening the festival on mainstage and they didn’t disappoint. Just great fun. This year I’ve actually gone as far as downloading the album from iTunes (though you can listen to it on Spotify here if you prefer). The Boxettes were an incredible female acappella group featuring the current world champion female beatboxer. Not the sort of thing I’d normally choose to listen to, but astonishing to hear what sounded like a full band then discovering it was all coming from five voices. I caught a fun band called the Brooms of Destruction on the Roots stage. (The equivalent of the old Fringe ‘Bandstand’ for any old Greenbelters out there). From Mainstage I also caught a bit of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, some Courtney Pine (neither my cup of tea) and the first number from Monday’s headline act Duke Special. I’d never heard of him before but liked what I heard and that’s who I’m listening to on Spotify as I type. (And I’m still liking it. In fact, I’d recommend a listen.)
There can be no denying, though, that the musical highlight for me was the return to Greenbelt of Fat and Frantic.
I first saw Fat and Frantic at my very first Greenbelt back in 1988, and quickly became a fan, seeing them whenever I got the chance. They were Greenbelt regulars from 1985-1992, so I saw them every year there, but also went out of my way to catch them whenever they played the Town and Country Club or the Marquee in London. I also went all the way over to Bath for the live recording of an album in the Moles Club. By a long way the band I’ve seen live more than any other, so I was sad when they called a day with their farewell gig in the Greenbelt big top on 1992. I’d heard that they’d done one or two ‘reunion’ gigs since then, and a short tour in 2011, but hadn’t managed to catch any of them. Their return to Greenbelt Mainstage was victorious, back on form with their own branch of musical lunacy and plenty of quips about getting older. There were an awful lot of us forty-somethings in the crowd who clearly knew all the words. And as if the lunchtime mainstage set wasn’t enough, they also did a tea-time set in a smaller marquee which was quite possibly even more fun. Such great memories. Thanks, guys, for coming back to help celebrate the 40th Greenbelt.
I got along to a bit more directly ‘spiritual’ content this year. Last year it was pretty much only the big mainstage communion service, but this year as well as that (which, incidentally, I felt much more engaged with than last year), I went to a contemplative thing called “presence” which was led by a mellow trance DJ, and spent an hour sitting quietly in the “chapel” – a quiet space with no agenda. (And, no, I wasn’t just there to charge my phone!)
Oh, and there’s one other ‘spiritual’ thing I did while I was there: If you read my thoughts last year, you’ll have seen I promised I’d read Dave Tomlinson’s book, “How to be a Bad Christian“. I finally bought it about three weeks ago, and I finished it at Greenbelt, It is utterly brilliant, and I would recommend it to anyone. Ties in very well with the ethos of Greenbelt. Read it.
You know what? I’ve just read back what I’ve written, and none of this really does anything to explain the atmosphere of the whole festival and why it makes me feel the way it does. As I said at the beginning, others have written so much more eloquently about what it is that sets Greenbelt apart and makes it like no other festival, so I’ll recommend a few other write-ups for those of you who are interested.
Someone else has described Greenbelt as simply “The most welcoming place on earth”. Seems about right to me.
A few other reviews:
This one from Jonty Langley on Huffington Post is actually from 2011, but it probably best sums up how Greenbelt is a festival like no other:
Greenbelt: Britain’s Greatest Festival
And here’s his equally eloquent review of this year’s festival is on the Baptist Times website.
Greenbelt: where everything and nothing changes
This is from Mike Peatman, who includes a pretty good summary of what Greenbelt is all about:
This from my friend Andy Goodliff:
Best Things About Greenbelt 2013 (and a few disappointments)
This from relatively new greenbelter Madhat:
Greenbelt 2013 – Life begins …
And possibly the most thorough and all-encompassing review (no, I haven’t read it all!) from the Church Times:
Greenbelt 2013: life begins
Here’s a couple more great reviews I’ve found since I published this.
This guy loves Greenbelt so much he comes all the way from New Zealand:
Where faith arts and justice meet: Greenbelt, my review.
Particular like his summary description of Greenbelt as “… the best, most diverse, engaging, ecumenical, Christian gathering event I have ever been to.”
This chap was part of a large group from the United Church of Canada who came over to Greenbelt on what they called a pilgrimage:
Greenbelt: Pilgrimage Happened