Pussy Riot takes up residence at Greenbelt 2018

31 August 2018

Festival also features Windrush-themed communion service

Jacinta Oaten

Pussy Riot perform at Greenbelt

Pussy Riot perform at Greenbelt

THIS was the Pussy Riot Greenbelt. Despite the presence of hundreds of other speakers, artists, and performers, the Pussy Riot stamp was firmly on the festival, thanks especially to the presence of one of the key members of the Russian protest collective, Maria Alyokhina.

Alyokhina was one of the two women sent to a labour camp for 21 months after five members of the collective spent 40 seconds protesting in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in Moscow, in 2012 (News, 10 August 2012).

Her presence helped to mesh together the three strands of the festival: art, faith, and justice. The group acted as artists-in-residence at Greenbelt, now in its 45th year, and its fifth at Boughton House, Northamptonshire. There were interviews, debates, readings, and signings.

The key event was a production of Riot Days, a screen presentation of the cathedral protest and the ensuing trial and sentencing. It could have been an illustrated church talk — were it not for the driving cacophonous punk music, the shouted slogans, the knitted masks, the aggressive dancing, the water-throwing, and the simulated masturbation (only to make a political point).

Church TimesRiot Days by Pussy Riot

A calmer version was given by Alexander Cheparukin, interviewed on Monday. He is one of the top Russian festival directors, whose offers of work have begun to dry up since he co-ordinated international efforts to secure the release of Alyokhina and her fellow cathedral protester Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. (A third member of the collective was released on probation after a few weeks.)

He spoke of the part that Paul McCartney had played in securing the women’s release. An hour after Cheparukin wrote to McCartney’s press secretary, a letter from the musician arrived. Later, he hand-wrote a letter to the judges at Alyokhina’s appeal. “McCartney was bigger than all the presidents . . . loved by Putin.”

Cheparukin described a Russia that was becoming more autocratic under President Putin, but which was “right now not a totalitarian state”. Alyokhina is subject to a travel ban, but has still managed to leave Russia five times. He did not know what the authorities thought of Riot Days — “probably nothing. They only notice people who anger them.”

As a sign of the state’s wariness, or wisdom, the Pussy Riot pitch invasion during the World Cup Final in July, involving the husband of Tolokonnikova, brought sentences of only 15 days’ imprisonment.

At an outdoor festival, the weather is the most important aspect for participants, and probably the least interesting to those reading about it afterwards — unless it is particularly dramatic, like the tempest that closed down Bestival earlier in the summer.

Without dwelling on it, then, Greenbelt was mainly dry on Friday, Saturday, and Monday, bar a few short showers, and the sun shone a fair bit. It rained on Sunday. This meant that the Sunday-morning communion service, designed to address the us-and-them response to black people in the UK and globally, mirrored this division: half the congregation were in the tent, and the other half were out in the rain, worshipping under umbrellas.

jonathon watkinsjonathon watkins

For those camping, the most notable thing was the cold. Performing on the Friday evening, the country trio from the United States, I’m With Her, said that they welcomed the first sensations of autumn. Their instruments not so much. The campers sided with the instruments.

On the occasions when the sun was not obliging, there was plenty to warm Greenbelters, however. The main communion took as its theme the arrival of the Windrush immigrants, and people wondered beforehand whether this could be carried off with a congregation that was almost exclusively white.

It could — thanks largely to the energy of a mixed-race choir, the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir, led by Clarence Hunte. After a Pathé newsreel of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, actors playing a 1948 immigrant, Averill Wauchope, and the former 18th-century slave captain John Newton, discussed the life of black people in the UK, who “still encounter a mountain of unconscious prejudice”. This led into the singing of the confession, “Fix me, Jesus”, a spiritual.

The prayers were led by refugees in a camp in Borno State, Nigeria, filmed the week before. The homily came from the Revd Winnie Varghese, an Episcopalian priest from Trinity, Wall Street, New York. How was it, she asked, that people missed a chief characteristic of the Early Church: its diversity?

As for the Empire Windrush, it was as if the Holy Spirit had become the name of a ship: “Like a rush of wind they came.”

She spoke gently to the congregation as beneficiaries of an empire in which her parents and grandparents in Kerala had been subjects. “When we inherit power, people might not want to stand next to us: we might not be safe.”

The mood, none the less, was carnivalesque; there was plenty of singing and dancing (or bobbing of umbrellas for the less fortunate).

 

AMONG the many other highlights: Michael Eavis, on lessons learnt running the Glastonbury Festival (his Methodist minister had persuaded him to accept Greenbelt’s invitation); the Revd Kate Bottley, on a large-scale kitchen set, demonstrating how to make “Salad drawer soup” while running through a stream of anecdotes about appearing on Celebrity Masterchef and sleeping with Debbie McGee; John Bell, on the entrenched racism of British immigration policies; Lynne Segal, on the possibility of joyful radicalism in a dark time in politics; a two-and-a-half-hour book-signing queue for Vicky Beeching; Anthony Reddie, on the view that God has set the British (and particularly the English) apart; and Florence Schechter, on why the world needs a vagina museum.

philip kingProfessor Anthony Reddie

Also, Lynne Segal, on how activism still ha the capacity to generate joy in a bleak political landscape; Jonathan Bartley, of the Green Party, on the evils, and futility, of tactical voting; Eve Poole, on combating insidious consumerism (Comment, 17 August); Jennie Hogan, on illness and coming out on the other side; David Carter, on all the changes needed in the education system — including the need to stop making all these changes; Anna Kessel, on the slow progress that women are making towards equality in the sporting world; John Richards, on the key component in most predatory males; and Dawn Foster, on the broken housing system — not that it could be called a system.

 

THE programme for children and young people gets ever more varied. Over the weekend, they could zip in and out of venues such as Make and Create and Learn and Do, next to the lawn in front of Boughton House (which hosted a programme of sports for kids, as well as circus-skills workshops).

Little ones played under the trees on sit-on cars and in Wendy houses; and the picket-fenced play-tent area had toys galore and comfy sofas for tired parents.

On Sunday, when the heavens opened, the tented venues proved a refuge for soggy families. Make and Create’s all-day crafts included art collectives Tiny Wild Fox, who invited children to create adventure-related crafts, such as telescopes; and Sew Far Sew Good, whose box of recycled haberdashery proved a trove of creative inspiration. Popular, too, was the chance to make paper from a boggy mix of grass and leaves from Boughton’s lawns.

Learn and Do hosted everything from world music workshops and beatboxing to Bollywood dancing. The ever-popular talent show for children, Family Twist (the host, Paul Cookson, gave a big thumbs up to the Church Times), as ever, saw notable young performers emerge — particularly in the shape of budding poets and a musician. . . Were they future Greenbelt stars?

The young people were also treated to a secret gig with Sasha (Maria), of Pussy Riot, along with Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires. This was real punk rock. Masha, displaying a prominent crucifix, gave out stage moves like Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. It was moving when they covered two Aretha Franklin songs.

 

OTHER musical highlights included Ozomatli, I’m With Her, The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, and Grace Petrie; the deserved elevation to the main stage for Harry Baker and Chris Read; We Are Scientists; and, after the eucharist, the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir. The Canopy stage hosted a collection of old Greenbelters proving that they could still make music, besides promising new talent such as Matthew David Morris. Other star performances came from Dream Nails, Zach Said, Xylaroo, Polly Gibbons, and Jake Morley.

Church TimesChalkboard dreams

There were moving readings by Carol Ann Duffy, Tyrone Lewis, Zena Kazeme, Erin Bolens, and Toby Campion; Malcolm Doney and Martin Wroe; acrobatic displays by Nikki and JD, Alula Cyr; funny and touching performances by Lucy Jane Parkinson, Yomi Sode, and Bryony Kimmings; comedy from Flo and Joan, Mae Martin, Tony Law, and Bourgeois and Maurice.

 

IN THE interstices of the programme, Greenbelters (not all of them, but a surprising number) found the time to take part in a 5k run; tour the park slowly being restored under the Boughton park and garden manager, David Callum (just 68 miles of avenues left to revive); attempt various handicrafts; take part in worship that ranged from an Igorot prayer vigil to the now familiar Goth eucharist; eat Goan fish curry; try acting, stand-up, circus skills, and beatboxing; pick up cooking tips from a radical lesbian, a vegan blogger, and a Suffolk cleric and his wife; stand under an interactive sound-and-light display hung between two trees; fling a partner around at a ceilidh; and, for the thousand or so people who just happened to be in the vicinity of the Jesus Arms beer tent at the right time on Monday, sing hymns while raising a pint.

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