Are all stories, in some sense, only possible after the Fall? Is
the novel an expression of a world abandoned by God? On Friday,
Dr Andrew Tate, a lecturer in English and American
literature at Lancaster University, explored the idea that the
notion of a "lost Eden" haunts novelists, with a fascinating tour
of texts ranging from Milton's Paradise Lost to the
contemporary works of Margaret Atwood and Alex Garland.
"Unhappiness, in one sense, generates stories," he said.
He also considered visions of a future paradise, giving examples
of writers who have satirised the contemporary notions of a world
where all our material desires are fulfilled, and contrasting it
with the New Testament concept of a future which is not
individualistic but communal.
Another visitor from the University of Lancaster English
department was the novelist Jenn Ashworth. Her two
published novels are set in her home county of Lancashire, and she
discussed how her Mormon background - with which she has a
complicated but still-warm relationship - has influenced her ideas
of home and paradise.
The lonely female lead of her first book, A Kind of
Intimacy, finds it difficult to relate to others and is
self-deceiving. And her most recent work, to be published early
next year, considers these topics in relation to religious
identity, following the story of a young Mormon missionary
returning to Preston after an unsuccessful mission in Utah. She
read from a moving sequence in which the young man contemplates
having to reveal his religious failures to his family.
Before finishing she read from a piece of "creative
non-fiction". It dealt with her Mormon initiation, aged eight, and
her current relationship with her eight-year-old daughter. "I'm so
proud of you," her mother had fiercely informed her as she dried
her after her full-immersion baptism. She repeats the same words to
her own daughter, but at a funfair, and less fiercely. This called
to mind that other chronicler of imposed northern religion,
Jeanette Winterson, but carried more warmth.
On Friday evening, Steve Taylor, the former
lead singer of Chagall Guevera, a rock band well known to
Greenbelters, presented his new film, Blue Like Jazz.
Based on Donald Miller's best-selling memoir, the film charts
the plight of a Texan fundamentalist Christian, persuaded by his
agnostic, pot-smoking father to enrol at Reed College, Oregon, one
of the most secular, liberal colleges in the United States.
"You only believe that stuff 'cos you're afraid of hanging out
with people who don't," his father says.
Miller attempts to keep his Baptist faith in the closet, and
embarks on an intellectual and hedonistic adventure. But however
much he tries, God doesn't seem to go away.
At turns hilarious, poignant, and - for a British audience at
least - a trifle earnest, the film is, in the words of the film
critic Gareth Higgins, "the first un-crap Christian film ever
Co-ordinated by 19-year-old Harry Baker (2012
World Slam Champion and Maths undergraduate) the session started
with his endearing poem, "Dinosaur Love", complete with a T-Rex
When Sh'maya took to the stage, he performed
two poems with such passion and energy that the audience couldn't
help but get swept along.
His second, slightly more controversial, poem - on the subject
of not being "told about sex" - though tentatively awkward at first
(especially in a family-orientated venue), actually became one of
the most talked about performances of the event.
It is proof of the power of poetry when such a delicate topic
can be explored with such honesty and confidence, demanding honesty
from the audience at the same time.
Also featuring that evening was the lyrical El
Gruer; Sean Mahoney, who performed a poem
about the London riots; Zia Ahmed, who asked
questions of identity; and Bridget Minamore, who
successfully roused the women in the audience with a poem about the
place of women in society.
Performance poetry at Greenbelt is such a joy; usually a family
affair, each person takes something different away from a specific
line, verse or rhyme. Next year, even more poetry please.
Chris Beckett's latest novel is Dark
Eden, the sci-fi gem chosen as this year's Greenbelt Big
A small band of humans are stranded on a sunless planet,
descendants of a pair of astronauts whose vehicle crashed six
The members of Family are tied to a sacred circle of stones,
hoping that if they live pleasing lives the ancestors will one day
take them home, to the Earth that they idealise in their collective
But one day, a member of Family transgresses the rules and
throws the whole community into confusion. It is a shocking
rupture, but also a chance for progress.
Having recently reread the Genesis narrative of Adam and Eve,
Beckett talked about how it resonates with his novel's themes of
loss, expulsion, and coming to grips with the past. The Q&A
that followed his talk about its writing, and a reading, provided a
morning of thought-provoking questions about community formation,
the Fall, and how to relate to sacred tradition.
The ecologist Hugh Warwick's first book, A
Prickly Affair, was his charming account of his love for the
In his new book, The Beauty in the Beast, he talked
about his quest to visit the nation's nature enthusiasts: everyone
from the "otter lady", who sends him a packet of fragrant droppings
in the post, to the "robin man", who teaches him about robins'
traditional associations with both gardening and death.
Warwick believes that any creature can be a gateway to the love
of nature. Meeting a bird or animal close at hand, you gain a
precious glimpse of wildness. It's an almost mystical experience
for Warwick and his various experts. And, as the two tattoos he
showed to the audience (one hedgehog and one toad) proved, the
experience may change us.
Tom Wade's lecture title, "Give 'em hell: Films
your church leader doesn't want you to see", warned and attracted
his audience at the same time. An expert in his field, he used
humour in his presentation of various clips of offensive and
inflammatory material, while remaining considerate of the
sensitivities of the Greenbelt crowd.
Manipulating the meaning of popular films to make them appear
evil and unchristian, he searched for redeeming features in films
condemned by Christian reviewers, and demonstrated how easily films
are appropriated to support or threaten different philosophies.
After considering the value of censorship in this light, he came to
the unsurprising conclusion that everyone should take personal
responsibility for their viewing rather than allow their film
choices to be dictated by others.