The festival brings some reality

27 August 2008

Camping makes Greenbelt a place to face the truth of God and others, says Paul Vallely

The first rule for making a festival, said the Revd Dr Maggi Dawn in the programme for Greenbelt this year, is that you have to turn up. She was quoting from a book by Walter Brueggemann about the festivals of biblical Israel to make the point that a festival is not about the stars on the stage, but the people in the crowd.

What makes Greenbelt special, she said, was not just the extraordinary melting-pot of ideas, but the encounter with the range of individuals who are living out the message of the gospel in imagin­ative ways across the country and the world.

What she did not mention was another key element of the Greenbelt experience — the fact that most of the 20,000 participants, like those attending most music festivals nowadays, spend the few days there living in tents.

The camping is the butt of much humour, of course; the English taking a singular pleasure in jokes about chemical toilets, glorious mud, and all the rest. Douglas Alexander, a Greenbelt regular of two decades standing, who is now Secretary of State for International Development, introduced himself, in a preamble to a talk about global poverty, as a “recovering Wolf Cub”.

He was, he hinted, too old now for the arthritic discomfort of hunkering down over a spluttering camping stove. Still, families being democracies, he had found himself outvoted, and the cabinet minister was in a tent like the rest of us.

Quite right, too, for camping undoubtedly adds to the spirituality of the experience, I thought as I lay awake at three in the morning, with the wild wind whipping at the tent above me. In the small hours, metaphors about the hand of God shaking, stirring, and disturbing do not seem fantastical.

By day, being at the mercy of the weather, and being forced to change plans according to whether the rain is falling or the sun shining, calls into question the illusion of control with which we delude ourselves in lives bounded by the technology we like to think enables us to shape the business of living.


There is something, too, about the process of preparing for camping that focuses us on the question of what is really essential to our exist­ence. What do we really need to live outside our usual comfort zone? Food, clothing, shelter. Even then, I always end up taking far too much stuff. By contrast, when we get to the site, we have to walk to fetch water, as millions of people do every day.

It also brings us more closely up against the reality of other people. At night, on train journeys, I often peer into the illuminated windows of the houses that flash past, and wonder idly at the joys and fears of each little self-contained world they represent. On a campsite, there is no such distan­cing. Canvas (or its modern nylon equivalent) being such a thin veil allows you, on a late-night welly-booted amble to the loo, snatches of those other people’s realities: the whispered conversations, the animated debates, the baby crying, the couple arguing.

Nor is such contact restricted to close observation. As Professor Brueggemann also points out, no one at a festival arrives empty-handed, and no one leaves with only what he or she brought. It is a time and place of sharing — of both objects and experiences — an expression of the politics of including those whom in everyday society we might leave out; an expression of our dependence on God and on each other. It is not a bad thing to do with an August Bank Holiday.

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