“IT’S always the things you go to on spec that turn out to be the ones you remember,” a man was heard to observe in a queue outside a Greenbelt venue this year, after raving about a talk on extra-terrestrial life.
His remark suggests that the organisers’ attempt to introduce the crowd to “silent stars” — the theme of this year’s festival — rather than household names had paid off.
Back at Boughton House, near Kettering, for a third year, the festival attracted a crowd that, though about half the number that used to assemble in Cheltenham, was in good spirits. New venues, including a dedicated interfaith space, had Greenbelters spilling out of the doors.
Interviewed during the Sunday-morning eucharist, the Archbishop of Canterbury had remarked: “The Church needs fewer meetings and more parties.”
That spirit was already abroad at the festival. On the previous evening, after an afternoon of torrential storms, campers who had survived shouted back “PARTY!” to a brass band from New Orleans.
A DEBATE on Christian ethics and “designer babies” was presided over by Neil Messer, a professor at the University of Winchester. Since 1978, about five million people have been born as the result of IVF. Most of the session was dedicated to discussions in groups, followed by feedback, the audience pondering what was positive about developments since 1978, and what gave rise to alarm. Many wanted to argue against “norms” of family structure, and Professor Messer suggested that Matthew 12:28 (”Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”) might have a subversive quality. Sadly, there was little time devoted to the contentious issue of genetic screening or changes to the human genome.
The veteran climate-change activist Bill McKibben believes that his “basic role on the planet is to just bum people out”, and spent the first part of his talk outlining just how dire things were: “staggering damage” was under way around the world. But there was good news, too: with a “tremendous focused effort”, it was possible to use the technology that engineers had devised to pull back from the brink. Individual lifestyle changes and academic argument were not the solution, he emphasised: this was a fight, not an argument, and mass demonstrations and civil disobedience were the order of the day. He had tough words for the C of E’s investors: engagement with companies was “obviously not going to work”, and it was time to take a stand and disinvest.
After studying in France, Abdelfattah Abusrour returned in 1994 to his birthplace: the Aida refugee camp in occupied Bethlehem, where he founded the Alrowwad Cultural Centre, giving young people the opportunity to use theatre and the arts as a way to tell their story. This is part of what he calls “beautiful resistance”, showing young West Bank Palestinians a way to oppose occupation which does not involve taking up arms. But it is a specifically political course of action, and Alrowwad is looking for people to act as partners and supporters rather than as aid donors with their own agendas.
The Daily Mirror was supposed to be a discussion on the day’s newspapers and headlines, but quickly degenerated into impassioned debate of flashpoint issues: Brexit and immigration. The host, Andy Turner, standing in for an unwell Cole Moreton, manfully attempted to find dissenting voices who could break the Pagoda’s cosy Lefty consensus. A few brave souls stood up to explain why they voted Leave, but the loudest cheers were for more predictable stances. The newspapers were largely forgotten as speaker after speaker claimed the microphone to pontificate. More “reflection” and less grandstanding would have ensured a more fruitful, if perhaps less lively, afternoon’s discussion.
A panel of the foster parent and adoption-charity founder Krish Kandiah, the Children’s Society lobbyist Lucy Capron, and the poet and care leaver Lemn Sissay sat down to consider the care system, in an event billed Children of the State. Sissay offered particularly thought-provoking ideas from his experience, challenging the claim that fostering in a family was always better than a care home, or that children in care had to be consulted before decisions were taken on their future. Kandiah challenged the audience to look at the numbers: if one family from each church in Britain fostered a child, the entire waiting list could be cleared overnight.
Jude Wanga, an activist born in the DRC, was given huge applause at the end of her talk on “Black British”. Her passionate account of the structural racism blighting lives in the UK gave rise to an excellent Q&A in which moving stories were heard. A young social worker with a Nigerian mother described her fears for her two “so gentle” brothers who were regularly stopped and searched by the police. One mother was close to tears as she described how a crowd had refused to let her daughter go after she was involved in a minor traffic accident. A man seized her keys and,when she tried to get them back, he cried assault. The caution she had to accept had destroyed her career. “How do you let your black children into the world without being constantly frightened?” she asked. Wanga urged people to acknowledge the existence of structural racism, to challenge anti-immigrant voices, and to investigate the Black Lives Matter movement.
“After a million dead, who would like to know more about Syria?” Nadim Nassar, the only Syrian priest in the Church of England, believes that the world no longer feels the pain of his country. Coming from the birthplace of Christianity, he is tired of being asked when he converted. Watching his country burn, he is furious at the failure of church leaders to work for peace, and deeply disappointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s support for airstrikes. Muslims would not be offended, he insisted, if Christian leaders pressed them to do more to challenge radicalism.
Anna Stacey has lived for 15 years in an intentional Christian community with a common purse. She talked about being an everyday radical, living as a ordinary person. She spoke of her initial emotional response to seeing the large number of migrants on the news and her practical response: travelling to Calais to help. She had secured an agreement with Greenbelt to offer acollection point for tents and sleeping-bags at the end of the festival.
The vicar who appears on Channel 4’s Gogglebox, Kate Bottley, brought the house down during her part-travelogue, part-theological reflection, and part-stand-up routine reappraising Judas. Retelling how she made a BBC Easter documentary on Judas, she punctuated her ruminations on his place in the gospel story, and how she reconciled her instinctive sympathy for him, with hilarious asides. “I wanted to look at someone in the Easter story who was on the edge — and I didn’t think it was fair that Judas is the only disciple who doesn’t get a marzipan ball on the Simnel cake,” she said. Who of us, she asked, would want to be solely remembered and judged on the single worst thing we have done?
As a year-long spiritual discipline, John Bell, of the Iona Community, has decided to read only chapters in the Bible which refer to women. Women in the Bible had stood up to male injustice, and yet rarely were they lauded or even remembered by the Church, he said. “But God does not allow women to be side-lined, either in the Bible or anywhere else.” From the five Egyptian midwives who defied Pharaoh’s command to murder Hebrew boys at birth, to King Saul’s concubine who shamed David into giving Saul’s dead sons a proper burial, their stories had too often been overlooked by the men who chose lectionaries and selected Bible studies.
In his interview with Bottley, the Archbishop of Canterbury showed himself to be witty, thoughtful, and, above all, frank about his own struggles to live out his calling. He spent a lot of time feeling a fraud, and God’s calling him to be Archbishop made him “seriously doubt the infallibility of God”. He spoke movingly of the difficulty of finding anything to say when faced with a catastrophe, whether it was at a mass grave after an atrocity in South Sudan, or sitting with parents in a hospice by the bedside of their dead child. Safeguarding and the inclusion of LGBTI people were two issues that kept him awake at night, and he spoke of being “constantly consumed with horror” at the way in which the Church had treated gay people. In the debate on sexuality, he could not see the road ahead, he admitted. The Church had moved from being regarded as out of touch, to “vicious”, and now “odd”. But the worldwide Church was inextricably linked together by Jesus as the family of God, he said. Division was a sin.
“Scrap the Church?”, a URC-sponsored debate chaired by Steve Tomkins, could have been subject to the usual handwringing about decline and passivity on a Sunday morning. But the panel gave witness to the value the Church had in giving people access to the forgiveness of Christ, even when it was failing in so many other areas. On balance, it was worth keeping, they unanimously agreed, but had to change to become more inclusive and genuinely engage with the teachings of Jesus.
Mark Oakley interviewed Broderick Greer, a black, gay US theologian and Episcopalian priest. Greer spoke of the period in his past when he was told, and believed, that God would love him only if he were straight. Just occasionally, though, he allowed himself “a few moments of wonder”. The theme of his talk was “Theology as survival” and he quoted the poet Lucille Clifton as a source of optimism and hope: “Every day, something has tried to kill me and has failed.”
New to Greenbelt is an interfaith programme, run with support from the Cambridge Interfaith Programme and Coexist House. On Sunday, it hosted a fascinating panel discussion — “Faithfully Feminist: Why We Stay” — led by Julie Siddiqi, joined by Rachel Godfrey, a Reform Jew who leads scriptural reasoning, and Catriona Robertson, director of the Christian Muslim Forum. The event gave rise to a frequently emotional audience discussion, during which two young women described being driven out of the Church. One 17-year-old asked for help to respond to a male youth leader who had used Bible verses to argue against her feminism. The audience, which spilled out beyond the confines of the shelter, was overwhelmingly female; but one older man, “completely fed up with the patriarchy”, asked how his generation might be of service.
A Greenbelt favourite, Abdul-Rehman Malik, was joined by two fellow Muslims, the journalist Remona Aly and a halal consultant, Abdulhamid Evans. They gave six short talks about the ways in which Islam has influenced the world. Coffee and Islam share five and a half centuries of history, and the Yemeni Sufis, who used it in their devotions, took it to Mecca, whence it spread around the Islamic world and eventually to coffee houses in London. There are extraordinary similarities between the call to prayer and the early forerunners of Blues music, and a convincing case was made that the latter had come from the 30 per cent of African-American slaves who were Muslim.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg spoke of a bundle of letters found in a linen bag in a suitcase in a wooden chest in a relative’s flat. They had sparked a journey to discover the history of his great-grandmother and her six children, all in Germany as the Nazis took control. His great-grandmother and many others in the family died in the camps, and others were saved only because they could escape to Palestine. All is recounted in his book My Dear Ones. He spoke of permissions that arrived too late, good advice not taken, and little decisions with great and terrible consequences. In answer to questions, he did see parallels between 1930s Germany and attitudes in present-day England to Brexit and refugees in Calais.
In what the chair, Chine McDonald, called “the blackest panel there has ever been at Greenbelt”, Sekai Makoni, Broderick Greer, Vanessa Kisuule, and Amaka Okafor discussed The Lemonade Effect: Beyoncé, blackness, feminism and white discomfort. They explored the importance of the pop singer Beyoncé’s recent album, and its expression of “overt black feminism” and support of the Black Lives Matter campaign. There was a consensus on the problematic nature of Beyoncé’s new quest after a decade of making sexualised music videos and performing for mainly white stadium audiences, but all welcomed her using her enormous influence in popular culture. This was a springboard for a hard-hitting discussion about white privilege and the need for white people to approach issues of race with open-heartedness rather than defensiveness, willing to acknowledge their complicity in the “thousands of micro aggressions towards black people happening daily in the UK”.
Marika Rose and Natalie Collins showed how it was possible to disagree well about Christian feminism. The speakers, from different feminist perspectives, gave a flavour of some of the subtle differences in the secular debate about biological sex versus gender, the decriminalisation of sex work, and the part played by men, before moving on to some of the specifically Christian hot potatoes, such as abortion and women in the Church. This was grounded in some disquieting and moving personal testimony about domestic abuse and oppression in church contexts.
“Unless we’ve been upset by Jesus, we’ll never fully know him,” John Bell declared, as he invited people to ditch notions of Jesus as a “passive saviour”. Christians had absorbed a defective image of Christ, he argued, from “the song of the Church” — the dearth of hymns about Jesus’s provocative ministry and the modern preference for emotional lyrics — to European art in which Christ appeared as an “emasculated pansy” who shunned all bodily contact. The real Jesus could wind people up, and desired that they should “grow up into the people God intended us to be rather than remain as spiritual dwarfs”.
Savi Hensman’s timeline of the Church’s engagement — or lack thereof — ith LGBTI people put some meat on the bones of a debate too often skeletally framed by accusations of worldliness on one side and prejudice on the other. Offering an overview of Christian writers and thinkers who had tried to influence attitudes, she argued that the story of change was not of “bishops and councils and kings”, but of Christians immersed in communities and culture. Her emphasis on the importance of personal storytelling encouraged audience members to tell their own stories, including a woman born intersex who wondered about the part that science had to play in moving the debate forward.
Mark Yaconelli began his session with an animated story about getting a mixed group of young people and theologians to play Capture the Flag in a hotel. Instead of being stuck in meetings talking about the Kingdom of God, they got a taste of the Kingdom of God through play. He captivated his audience with explorations of the power of vulnerability to enable holiness, and the need to step back from distractions and to ask God “What is your invitation to me?” in times of trial. His thoughts can be explored further in his new book of the same name as his talk: Disappointment, Doubt and other Spiritual Gifts.
Eve Poole, chair of Faith in Business at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, spoke of spending as voting. Consumers should ask themselves: would I vote for the company I am shopping with? Answering disillusioned activists, she asserted that the quickest way to change corporate behaviour was action by customers. She challenged Christians over their taboos about money, imagining a church where the congregation sat down and swapped bank statements.
In his lively, humorous, and challenging “antidote to Bible study”, Chris Meredith, an Old Testament scholar, conducted a literary analysis of some passages, questioning the received wisdom. He asked how “good” King David really was, and suggested that, while “the Lord was with David,” he did not think that the narrator was. He retranslated Genesis 1 direct from the Hebrew, and asked about the dark side of the Song of Songs.
Nadia Bolz-Webber gave a glimpse of the biography that feeds her preaching, in particular a defining period in her youth when Graves Disease had turned her literally into a “bug-eyed kid”. When she began her church in the United States, the House of Sinners and Saints, she was disappointed that it failed to draw the sort of cool people she thought might be attracted by her tattoos and her past as a stand-up comedian. She had been told that a pastor tended to attract a congregation very like him- or herself. Instead, her church filled with misfits and outcasts. It took her a couple of years to realise that it was the bug-eyed kid who was attracting people, not the cool adult.
Her advice was not to spend too much time working on your ideal self: “The self that God has a relationship with is your actual self.”
MANY of the worship options on offer over the weekend were downbeat, perhaps because a greenfield site cannot provide the electricity sockets necessary for many urban audio-visual outbursts. In contrast, the Quaker meeting for worship was not as silent as it might normally be, as sounds drifted in from other tents. But, after an introduction to this form of worship, those gathered settled down to their own thoughts as snippets of music filtered in. Ministries given were rather more Christian than might usually be the case.
The Sunday-morning eucharists at Greenbelt are like wine, in that people talk about vintages. This year, the worship was led entirely by children and so probably fell short of several Churches’ definition of a eucharist. But it was led competently and articulately by a group of eight- or nine-year-olds, and a 30-strong children’s choir. Besides presiding, the children interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury in place of a sermon. The theme of the service was humour. “Following God is so serious, sometimes God needs to tickle us.”
There were roars of laughter and approval to a long, visionary list of reconciliation: “One day, Tom will make friends with Jerry. . . One day, the Montagues will invite the Capulets over for tea. . . One day fans of Manchester United and Manchester City will stand together and cheer each other teams. . . One day Jeremy Corbyn will meet Theresa May on a train and Theresa May will offer him her seat and Jeremy Corbyn will say ‘No, thanks, I’d rather stand.’ . . . One day there will be a black James Bond or even Jamelia Bond. . .”
The congregation got into the spirit of things and were positively childish when the Archbishop of Canterbury arrived on stage without his mitre. The chant went up: “We want the hat! We want the hat!”
This gave Archbishop Welby an easy answer to the first question: “Why are you Archbishop of Canterbury?” “Because I’ve got a big hat,” at which point he whipped the mitre on his head. Who would win in a fight between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope? “Oh, the Pope easily. He is much better than me.” And he said that, when the two met for the first time a few days after each had been enthroned, they had simply laughed together for almost a minute.
Altogether, it was the right mood for a service after a day of heavy rain. (Paradoxically, the bright sunshine during the service made it harder for members of the congregation outside the marquee to see the stage.)
Given the children's leadership, the communion bags distributed among the crowd contained, together with pitta bread and a kazoo, instead of a small bottle of wine, a carton of black grape juice (“also available in strawberry and peach”). The collection buckets were filled with donations of money and Lego.
The Church is still learning how to welcome children to its adult communion services. It was good to be welcomed as adults to theirs.
ONE of the stand-out acts at the Glade Big Top were the Hot 8 Brass Band, from New Orleans. That a city so damaged in recent years can still produce music of such joy and vivacity is a testament to its cultural history. Hot 8 were upbeat from start to finish, with a range of music from their own compositions to what seemed like affectionate nods to the country hosting them in covers like “Ghost Town” by the Specials, another story of decayed urban landscapes. Their set was just what Greenbelt needed at the end of a wet Saturday.
The weekend had kicked off with Regime, a band that set the tone for the weekend politically if not musically. The force of their hip-hop expression was louder than most things that would take the stage; but issues of child labour, arms dealing, and drug abuse reminded you that you were at a festival that took its campaigning seriously.
In a talk, “After Bowie and Prince”, the entertainingly rambling Steve Lawson took the audience through a potted musical history, beginning with the first record-players, intended as much for home recording as for listening to musical celebrities. The charts were the product of corporate business, Lawson said: Prince and Bowie had had to resist the drift to boring stadium rock, and had been all the better for it.
Bob Harris, of Radio1, or The Old Grey Whistle Test, or Radio 2, depending on your vintage, spent an hour in conversation with Martyn Joseph. The pair had first met at the Dominion Theatre 25 years ago. As well as a career spent with the greats of, first, rock and, then, country music (Harris talked of “Marc” and “David” — Bolan and Bowie), Harris had also been a founder of Time Out, but had pulled out after a year. The co-founder was now worth £32 million, he said, with a hint of regret.
Ella and the Blisters could have been a highlight, and their energetic klesmer-inspired rockabilly looked seductive. But the post-11-o’clock noise restrictions rendered them a little mute, and few were drawn in from the Jesus Arms near by. This was a shame, because when you could hear them they made a decent racket.
At the Rising on Monday, Martyn Joseph talked to She Makes War and Mike Peters, formally of the Alarm. Both made fine contributions, but the most compelling component of the show was Peters’s account of setting up a bone-marrow-donor charity after he recovered from leukaemia. Anyone attending his gigs is asked for a cheek swab as they exit venues, and is added to a matching database. The programme has saved 3000 lives, and enlarged donor availability by a huge margin.
There was a pregnant moment of silence after every song performed by the husband-and-wife duo SEA + AIR. Nobody wanted to be the first to clap and shatter the peace that followed their ethereal sound. The Greek/German couple like to revive old Mediterranean songs, and they sing them in an eerie falsetto, creating “ghost pop”. Tunes that started off jaunty and catchy would suddenly fall into discordance or even passages of total silence. No one knew quite what to expect from one beat to the next, which perfectly suited the Greenbelt audience.
After the deluge on Saturday afternoon, the Easy Stride Band brought some musical sunshine to the Canopy stage with their bright reggae/soul fusion. Their opener, “Dreamer”, included the line “you’re not gonna bring me down”, and got people head-bopping and toe-tapping.
Previously at Greenbelt as Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly, Sam Duckworth returned to the Canopy in his new incarnation, Recreations. This unpin-downable musical phenomenon kept the audience engaged, offering such a diversity of songs that you were never sure what joy might come next.
Expectations for the Peter Bazely and Friends comedy session were raised with a set of classic comedy songs including “I’m a Gnu” and Morecambe and Wise’s “Bring Me Sunshine”. Edi Johnson kicked off with his new solo act of comedy songs backed by the ukulele bought for him by his children. He got everyone singing early on with his song “Rock, Paper, Scissors”, offered people a quick game of bingo, and sang about topics as diverse as conkers, dictionaries, Back to the Future, and Donald Trump’s wig.
Revive is a kind of house-church community, based in Leeds, who are in the process of writing and recording a Greenbelt Trust-funded album. Inspired by Teilhard de Chardin’s book The Hymn of the Universe, they had produced songs that were a “mash-up of God, science, nature, and the eucharist”, they explained. The group’s sound fuses jazz, folk, blues, and rock influences, complemented by tight harmonies from their four singers and a brass section. It was an engaging and hugely varied listen. The album is to be released in the next 12 months.
The teenage singer-songwriter Mahalia opened the Saturday afternoon set at the Glade Big Top with a punchy tune, “Silly Girl”, which she explained was a sort of anthem against bullying. Only 18 years old, she strummed through a handful of her own songs with a voice that was soulful, sweetly tuneful, and shot through with an attractive Caribbean lilt. Her easy-going stage demeanour belied her years, while her songs, including an ode to her 13-year-old school crush, had both confidence and passion. As thunder boomed overhead, her set was cut short when the generators were switched off for fear of a lightning strike. Undeterred, she re-emerged with most of her backing band to lead an impromptu acoustic set with just guitar and egg-shaker among the crowd, while the audience clapped and cheered her undimmed and infectious enthusiasm.
Joe Waller won over the judges on The X Factor but decided that it was best for his career to quit the show. With both acoustic and electric guitar laid over some samples from his foot pedals, he brought a surprising complexity of sound. He performed his own compositions plus some covers, including a mash-up of Passenger’s “Hearts on Fire” with a touch of “Fix You” from Coldplay.
Emily Moulton squeezed out every drop of emotion to open her set with a haunting song. Music was how she dealt with her emotions, she said; this came out clearly in her blend of percussive rhythms and ethereal singing, especially in a beautiful version of “Wade in the Water”.
A Tibetan folk singer and former Buddhist monk, Ngawang Lodup, brought an ancient sound to the festival on Monday afternoon, sometimes performing a cappella, sometimes accompanied by electric mandolin or dramnyen. His set contained traditional nomadic songs with his own contemporary Tibetan music.
GREENBELT, in its optimism, had booked several events and activities that relied on good weather. Saturday was a wash-out, but the sunshine on Sunday meant that all sorts of games could be played on the Boughton House lawn; PanGottic was able to combine juggling skills with a Heath Robinson machine; urban dwellers were able to forage in the grounds or admire the trees; and people wandered from stall to stall, learning about various mission activities or browsing the sort of clothes you would buy — and wear — only at a festival.
Bruce Stanley, a regular leader of Forest Church and other sessions at the Grove venue, invited participants to look up to the skies and explore the stars. With QI-style questions and an enthusiastic host, his session had much to offer to those interested in knowing more about what to look for in the night sky. On a night with fewer clouds (and without some noise from a few of the music venues), this might have been a perfect end to the day.
Stu McLellan introduced “The Universe in a Hazelnut” by describing his increasing use of materials from creation in his art. For most of the session there was, as he promised, “minimal wittering from me and maximum doodling and noodling from you”. Materials from nature included chalk, oak-gall ink, elderberry juice, boiled bark, blackberry juice, and other oddments. Participants young and old, skilled and amateur, were invited to work on paper as well as on decorating the logs used as seats for the venue to create beautiful patterns and pictures made in, inspired by, and created with nature.
An intrepid crowd of people set off on Saturday afternoon for a Tree Walk with Simon Callow from the Kew Gardens Millennium Seedbank. Despite the showers (and later downpours), the group learned about the lime trees of Boughton House Park, which were planted between 1690 and 1750, and continue to be planted from a nursery orchard. The benefit of Greenbelt’s green venue is delights just like this one.
Family and Art
“FOR kids as in children, not baby goats; so, if you’re a baby goat, can you stop chewing the furniture? Please turn off your mobile phone. Otherwise we’ll make you eat it, and then, when people call you, your bottom will ring.”
The compère of Comedy Club for Kids had a fabulous rapport with the children. The session began with Magic and Madness from Otiz Canalone, including a guest spot from his magician’s rabbit, which did impressions including Michael Jackson and a rabbit in a washing machine. The comedian Tiernan Douieb talked about the joys of having an unusual name, and about the ups and downs of school.
Colouring-in with Dave Walker in the Christian Aid Tent was a fun and relaxing time with a slightly competitive spirit. Keeping within the lines and being creative were equally rewarded.
Two of the artworks on site could have been twins: in the Shed venue, so called because it was a shed, Sno by Carla Chan was a shifting cloudlike video projection on a large white circle. At dusk on Saturday, Nicholas Feldmeyer inflated a large white paper balloon above a plinth on a distant lawn.
The hot ticket was a hovercraft ride on one of the ornamental lakes, courtesy of Hoveraid, a charity that provides relief and medical supplies to otherwise unreachable villages.
The Make and Create tent was buzzing during the Stonk Knots workshop. There were so many fun-looking options for young and old: sock-monkey making, knitting, creating straw rockets, and some fantastic animal masks, especially an amazing 3D rhino mask complete with sculpted tusks. One parent admitted that her 12-year-old daughter could have stayed there all weekend. There was also a three-year-old weaving a wool star around some nails.The knots-workshop instructors were helpful and friendly, and offered written instructions to take away and do more at home. The options for the knots included decorative knots made into dolls and baskets as well as knots that you might need.
Making science not just fun but wow-inducing excitement, the blue-haired Professor Pumpernickel did not dumb down the science of his experiments, but made them informative, and occasionally explosive. Early on, the Whoosh Bottle produced a united, thrilled gasp from the audience. The Professor got volunteers involved, and also engaged the whole audience in some optical illusions.
The Elephant Toothpaste reaction (potassium iodine and hydrogen sulphide) was billed as“really messy” and did not disappoint. The fire tornado machine taught the children (and many adults) about the high pressure, low pressure, and convection involved in a tornado. By repeating the experiments and the details, the Professor made the science memorable, even terms such as gyroscopic momentum. One boy was heard to say afterwards, incredulously: “I’ve had my best time at Greenbelt in a science lesson.”
HAVING written about polar exploration, Soviet economics, and Christian apologetics, Francis Spufford believes there is no obvious pattern to his books. His latest is a novel, Golden Hill, set in New York in 1746. His energetic reading of a chase scene revealed a story fired by the buccaneering spirit of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. “If you are a Christian reading it, you are likely to notice that it is a Christian writing it,” he told a rapt crowd. “It is, in fact, a sin and redemption story, because Christianity is now so settled in my imagination that that is just how I perceive the shape of the world.”
Lemn Sissay spoke with disarming honesty of how his poems have become the family he never had: “They talk to me. They have personalities of their own.” Sissay was in care until he was 18, and, despite not having access to “a poetry scene”, he knew from the age of 12 that poetry would become his life. And yet even with five books of poetry and an MBE under his belt, Sissay spoke of deep insecurity, and how, whenever putting pen to paper, a writer faced “the possibility of being crap”. Every morning, he describes the dawn in an original way in 140 characters, the length of a Twitter post. “How do you do it?” said Night. “How do you wake and shine?” “I keep it simple,” said Light. “One day at a time.”
The rapper BREIS often takes his act into inner-city secondary schools as literary workshops; but it is also deeply personal, including tunes that incorporate Yoruba words and traditional Nigerian instruments. His faith is also a subtle but ever present influence: “God gave me grace and put a smile on my face Because us humans are fragile in this human race.”
Mark Oakley’s “A Splash of Words” is an anthology of carefully chosen poems accompanied by elegant interpretations, which he modestly described as “enthusiastic” rather than “scholarly”. A Church that was ever trying to keep up with the times should be seeking resonance rather than relevance, he said. Poetry was the language of love and, therefore, the language of faith, from the Vedas to the Song of Songs, and the danger of an overly literalistic approach to these texts was a loss of the richness and ambiguity that was the heart of their prosody and power.
Valerie Bloom started with a crash course in patois, and by the end the audience were willing actors in a poem set at a Jamaican market stall, haggling over prices and yelling out “Plantain and fresh callaloo!” All this fun was pierced by the occasional serious theme: mental illness, slavery, and, in the poem “Who dem boots?”, the audience thumped the ground to create the sound of the approaching Boko Haram soldiers, coming to kidnap the 276 Chibok schoolgirls, most of whom are still missing at the hands of the terrorist army.
Rebecca de Santoigne’s book One Yellow Door about caring for her husband with dementia had generated some inflammatory headlines in national newspapers, picking up on its subtitle A memoir of love and loss, faith and infidelity. The reality of the book, she said, was more nuanced. In describing meeting a man who had enabled her to hold on to herself when everything else was falling away, she talked about “the perplexing complexity of feelings” and the paradoxes of her situation, her conscious decision-making, and the ultimate realisation that what she’d been taught about God was “a distortion”. It was a moving and challenging account of a spiritual journey away from “the accusing blood of Christ”, exchanging the “bouncy assurance of the past for something altogether less cocksure”.
A quartet of poets, assembled by Harry Baker, revelled in the size of the crowd in the main venue at Monday lunchtime. “I can’t believe you’ve all come to watch poetry,” Vanessa Kisuule exclaimed. She spoke of the usual experience of performing in a basement to a crowd of four, three of whom were the sound crew. One of her poems described the agonies of an only child of 13 who gained new siblings when her mother married again: “shitbags”. Tony Campion from Leicester described the Midlands as a middle child, who hadn’t had it hard like the older child, the North, or gone to public school, like the younger child, the South.
The Underground Clown Club presented their show Love and Rabbits. It was a flawless and clever two-part poetry performance to a captivated capacity crowd at the Canopy. Covering topics as diverse as going to the zoo to see the blue gnu, a hula-hooping elephant who wanted to learn to fly, and the gigantic tragedy of Jim, involving the recurring falling of pianos, the team composed a special poem, “Silent Stars”, just for Greenbelt. As their opening and closing poems said: “Words are damn good fun, we hope you all agree.”
Performance and comedy
THE Barely Methodical Troupe made its debut with Bromance. Seemingly effortless acrobatics exploring male interactions began with a simple handshake. Stunning hand-to-hand acrobatics and parkour were combined with a mesmeric solo dance with a giant hoop (Cyr Wheel). A nearly wordless exploration of bravado, self-doubt, and body image was brought to life by a mixed soundtrack of moody classical piano, modern street music, and a touch of a Clint Eastwood Western film soundtrack. As well as breathtaking, it was very funny.
Any concerns that Imran Yusuf might have had about the reception he would get at a Christian festival surely vanished when he opened with “As-salamu Alaykum” and, to his surprise, at least half the audience responded “Wa’alaykumu salaam”. His brand of humour, skewering the hypocrisies of Western liberals who run charity marathons rather than work for greater equality, was far more in tune with his audience than he possibly realised. His greater difficulty was in censoring the swear-words as he went along, since this was an open venue in the early evening. But that rarely limited his ability to provoke and surprise.
Those who have studied the archives of that recorder of traditional folk music Cecil Sharp will know that Little Dribblepatch held a special place in his affections. Folk On (their name derives from the Gaelic “Folquhoun”, “habitation of limited understanding”). For those who could share in the transcendental timelessness of these masters, it was a truly mystical experience. For those who could not, it was just four idiots on stage in flat caps and kerchiefs. Coming on to the programme late to cover for a band whose visas had failed to turn up, they none the less attracted one of the largest, and certainly the noisiest, audiences for their comedy set.
Café Palestina was a lively mix of music, poetry, and films about Bethlehem and Gaza from Amos Trust and Embrace the Middle East. At its heart, however, was a series of dances and songs from the Alrowwad Young People, based in Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem. Though they used no English, they communicated vividly the reality of both Palestinian music and dance, and also their people’s history of displacement and life under occupation.
Two schoolfriends, Harry Baker and Chris Read, performed their Edinburgh Fringe show: The Harry and Chris Show. Baker, a world poetry champion and quick-fire rapper, was complemented by the jazz musician Read’s smooth voice and guitar as they rattled through an eclectic mix of absurdist comedic songs, brief bursts of stand-up repartee, and more thoughtful reflections on everything from how bumblebees defy science to fly to finding joy in life during an era of terrorism and fear. The giant crowd whooped and cheered throughout, and called out suggestions for Baker’s freestyle rapping, among them “pizza”, “chicken skin”, and “intercessory prayer”.
From small beginnings in a Guildford church, Stand Up Christology, devised by Clare Truman, had people queuing outside the Big Top. A panel comprising a pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and an atheist, Tia, a student from the University of Winchester, discussed a series of blasphemous clips, including excepts from Monty Python’s Life of Brian and The Book of Mormon. The question on the table: “Too funny? Too far?” provoked a lively discussion, in which the consensus seemed to be that comedy should have a point behind it, and be aimed up at those in power rather than down at the disadvantaged.
No one in the audience for Sam Halmarack and the Miserablites knew quite what to expect — even several minutes into the set. Since the rest of the band had “failed to turn up”, he roped in members of the audience to take their places in songs of optimism in the face of adversity — or, more accurately, nonentity. Halmarack took failure to a new level, as everyone, audience included, tried to follow the directions on a “rehearsal DVD” projected on to a large screen. It was very funny and, in a curious way, redemptive.
The closing act of the festival, James Acaster, attended Greenbelt regularly in his youth, though he is now agnostic. “So there’s everything to play for,” he teased.
A key feature of his observational comedy is the connections he makes between different parts of his set: more cross-references than a study Bible. A seemingly straightforward observation about opening window blinds was suddenly related back to a previous comment about the referendum: “I only have two cords to choose from, and every morning I make the wrong decision.”
He also went off on wild flights of fancy. The simple comment that supermarkets sold honey as a loss leader developed into a long story about setting up a business selling honey to supermarkets and then buying it back from them cheaper the next day. “We only ever produced five jars of honey — one bee’s worth.” He finished by playing “Auld Lang Syne” on a Stylophone, which, for some reason, seemed a perfectly natural way to end both the set and Greenbelt 2016.