Greenbelt: Literature and film

31 August 2012

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 made".

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 impersonation.

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 Read.

A small band of humans are stranded on a sunless planet, descendants of a pair of astronauts whose vehicle crashed six generations ago.

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 memory.

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 humble hedgehog.

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.

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