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Climate activism to the fore as Greenbelt Festival swelters

30 August 2019

Paul Handley, Rebecca Paveley, and Ned Remington report on last weekend’s line-up

Jonathan Watkins (www.photoglow.co.uk)

Russell Brand is interviewed by Paul Northup, the festival’s creative director, on the main stage on Sunday afternoon

Russell Brand is interviewed by Paul Northup, the festival’s creative director, on the main stage on Sunday afternoon

THE programme for this year’s Greenbelt Festival, now in its sixth year in the grounds of Boughton House, in Northamptonshire, exhorted punters to “leave plenty of time to chill”. Stewards throughout the festival reminded people to “make sure you stay hydrated”.

Spread over an English Bank Holiday, Greenbelt usually has chilliness and hydration provided unbidden, and in quantity. Four days of unbroken skies, and sweltering heat from breakfast till dusk, was virtually unprecedented — a fact not lost on the climate-change activists, who made their presence felt on the site through talks, activities, and humour (if a little pointed), amid the care that the organisers took to make the festival as environmentally friendly as possible.

Climate activism was a major focus of this year’s festival, with a dedicated venue, the Hot House. And there was a funeral procession through the site on Monday afternoon, ending with a mass “die-in” to represent the number of deaths caused by climate change.

Mike Berners-Lee, a leading expert in climate footprinting, spoke on the subject of his book, There Is No Planet B. Today, we have so much energy at our fingertips that we don’t have to be reckless to ruin the world, he said.

He offered practical suggestions on how to mend our ways, including changing diet and addressing inequality. He finished by coming up with a list of values which will help the world to move forward: treating everyone with equal respect; extending that respect to other species; and, in a world full of fake news, telling the truth.

Members of Extinction Rebellion, the activists who gridlocked parts of London and other cities earlier in the year, had a huge presence, too. Three talks over the weekend showed how faith was at the centre of their activities and ethics. They discussed their plans to hold a big event in October: a key part of it is a “bridge of faith”: a chain of people of all different faiths, to show their unity in the demand for action to safeguard the planet.

PHILIP JC KINGMichael Leunig draws one of his familiar characters while teaching about his craft

The weekend’s heat made the theme of the Sunday-morning communion — Christmas — even more bizarre than it would have been. Dedicated Greenbelters brought Christmas jumpers, but left them in their tents, relying instead on bits of tinsel. There was a nativity play, of sorts, including live camels, and the sermon was a Queen’s Speech delivered by the Revd Nadia Bolz-Weber, complete with crown.

Fittingly, her subject was the Virgin Mary, who was chosen by God not because she was full of virtue, but because she was full of grace: “The one thing you simply cannot earn”, Bolz-Weber said. Everything else in the world was about worthiness, and just trying harder. “What qualifies us for God’s grace is only our need for God’s grace. End of list.”

A diverse festival of roughly 600 events — talks, performances, services, opportunities for arts and crafts, discussions, and “other” — cannot be said to have a common theme (the organisers gave this year the catch-all title “Wit and Wisdom”). But Bolz-Weber was one of several speakers who articulated a refusal to comply with the “call-out culture” that has infected conservatives and liberals alike. “Our drug of choice at the moment is knowing who we’re better than.”

Others were Michael Leunig, whose political cartoons are exploratory rather than accusatory; and Mark Oakley, the 2019 Michael Ramsey Prizewinner, who warned his audience that feeling angry did not make someone a prophet. Prophesy was about restoration, not condemnation.

This thought was behind the warm welcome that the festival extended to LGBTQ+ people. Oakley again: “Christians must take a lead in correcting a state of affairs that they have brought about.” But it also highlighted the limits to diversity that are now apparent at Greenbelt. Any conservative Evangelicals who attend now keep their thoughts to themselves. And there was a Twitter row over a Jewish speaker who was “uninvited” after protests from other Jewish interests.


THE most talked-about event of the festival was, without doubt, Russell Brand, who was interviewed on Saturday afternoon by the festival’s creative director, Paul Northup. Brand comes at religion from a conventional angle, that of the repentant sinner, but that is where convention ends. His conversation is peppered with a surprising number of biblical quotes, but he is not an acquiescent church member.

“We’re dealing with Christ,” he said in one of several preacher-like riffs. “We’re dealing with God transcending the material world. That’s not something I would undertake in a jumper.”

And again: “ The power of God is not fragile. . . We need to access the force of God.” That was why he was not interested in a Church that was “too medieval or kumbaya-y”.

MARK KENSETT PHOTOGRAPHY LTDFrank Turner, performing on Sunday night with the Sleeping Souls, surfs over the crowd

A “real and living present connection with God” was part of his recovery from addiction, Brand said. There was a confessional element in the Twelve Step process, and he had been able to let go of his feelings of shame (he mentioned elsewhere his “frankly rather rapacious carnal desires”). He had been lucky, he said, to be “really, really famous”, because he had seen at first hand that there was nothing there. “I know where true value is to be found.”

His boisterous cheerfulness challenged the audience’s view that a repentant sinner should be a bit more, well, miserable. And being interviewed about himself was an unfair test of whether the egotism was still there. He still liked showing off, he said, “but it’s quite moderated”. There were plenty of laughs during his hour on stage.

Brand had arrived about half an hour late, having been held up in traffic. By the end, he announced that he was hungry, and food was offered from the crowd. “It’s a sort of reverse feeding of the 5000,” he observed. “I am the anti-Christ!”


BROUGHT over from Australia for the festival, Leunig has been producing cartoons, poems, and paintings for more than 40 years. His work appears almost exclusively in his home country, but enough examples have sneaked into the UK over the years to attract large crowds to his events at the festival.

His characters are simply drawn, and their observations are whimsical, and thus they touch on deep truths — sometimes funny, sometimes sad, usually hopeful. Interviewed by Malcolm and Meryl Doney, he described being hired as a political cartoonist after drawing for underground anti-war magazines.

He soon tired of pointing the finger at politicians, and began introducing a “familiar, benign element to balance the awfulness of the world”, such as a dog or a duck, often leaving his editors bewildered.

One revelation was the amount of hate mail he receives. “I’m greatly hated.” In particular, his anti-war cartoons have led to “a lifetime of hostility”. He used to read the letters, but one day approached the State Library of Victoria and asked if they wanted to start a collection of hate mail. He now simply passes it on to them, unopened.


NADIA BOLZ-WEBER attracted one of the biggest audiences of the festival to her two conversations: one with Pádraig Ó Tuama, the other with Rachel Mann. Taking the theme of her new book, Shameless, Bolz-Weber spoke of the long-lasting damage caused to people’s sex lives and relationships by the Church’s obsession with purity, and the way it infected young people with shame.

Going on to the main stage on Saturday was always going to be tricky. If anyone could pull it off, it would be the Archbishop of Canterbury. And did he? Well, most of the crowd stayed, though not all, and he had more hecklers and less rapport with his two interviewers, Christian Aid’s Chine McDonald and the writer Martin Wroe.

After the fairly standard warm-up quips (”What keeps you awake at night?” “The Church”; “What sends you to sleep in the day?” “The Church”), Archbishop Welby faced less comfortable questions.

Philip King/GreenbeltThe Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, speaks at the Greenbelt Festival, on Saturday

His dislike of the way that the Church in the developed world tried to tell the Global South what to do was more closely aligned with his audience than his answers on Brexit and same-sex bishops’ spouses. Wealthy people who ask what they can do for people in the Global South make him “want to throw up”, he said. And he condemned corrupt trade systems and a politics that “only looks after ourselves”. He also said there needed to be reform to allow more diverse candidates to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

He said that the Church was more engaged now with communities than at any time since the Second World War, but that this was not necessarily a good thing. “We have had to engage with foodbanks, debt centres, and things we’d rather not have engaged in — a sign of an unhealthy society.”

He voiced his support for climate action, but declined to state publicly his support for young people engaged in the school climate strikes, saying he needed to consult with his advisers before he did so.

And asked whether the Church needed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the abuse scandal, he said: “It is not for offenders to tell the survivors it is time we are reconciled. It is for us to say, we are humiliated, appalled, and despairing of what the Church did: when you are willing to talk about reconciliation, tell us the terms on which to do it.”

Later, Wendy Cope was performing some of her own poetry to an appreciative audience. Her works included one poem on seeing the Archbishop of Canterbury jogging (“There’s no reason at all why he shouldn’t keep fit Its commendable. You can’t help sneering a bit.”). Archbishop Welby had admitted to hating jogging, although he makes himself do it for half an hour each weekday.

A younger poet charmed his audience on Saturday night: Matt Sowerby. His A levels recently behind him, Sowerby is the National Youth Slam Poetry champion, and has crafted an account of young love amid climate activism, in which he speaks his verse in conversation with voices on a recorded soundtrack. It was both moving and very accomplished.

Jonathan Watkins (www.photoglow.co.uk)The trio Silent Uproar performing A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad)

Harry Baker, a Greenbelt regular, told the story of winning an international slam poetry festival in Paris instead of taking his first-year exams at university. His recital took in unfamiliar poetry topics: prime numbers (he is a mathematician), bullying, and falafel. Teaming up with his best friend, the musician Chris Read, he recounted more recent but less successful international ventures: their failure to win a US TV comedy-challenge show, Bring the Funny, because they were not as obviously entertaining as a group of people dressed as pirates; and their disqualification from entering the Eurovision Song Contest, because their song, apologising for the mess the UK had made of everything, was deemed too political.


THE title of Danny Dorling’s talk was “What’s so funny about Brexit?” The short answer was probably not much, unless, like Dorling, an Oxford geography don, you can celebrate what may be the destruction of the current manifestation of the Conservative Party. Otherwise, life expectancy is dropping, infant mortality is rising, and we are the only nation in Europe to be heading towards US levels of inequality and poverty. Paradoxically, he pointed out, the UK also now has the highest proportion of committed pro-Europeans in any European country.

He presented the Brexit vote as the last gasp of the old Empire, as England struggles to come to terms with the fact it is no longer a victor. Now, we have to grow up and accept that we “aren’t special, we aren’t number one in the world, and life can be much better without all that”. Coming to terms with this will require all of us to be kind to each other. “There are no winners,” he said.

There was a comparison to be made here with Sami Awad’s talk, “Beyond the Two State Solution”, on peace and justice in the Holy Land. Awad, the executive director of the Holy Land Trust, said that, before any “solution” could be put forward, there needed to be healing, repentance, and forgiveness. Only when this foundation was in place could a framework for the future be constructed.

SIMON HOLMESAudience participation at a Fischy Music show in the Ta Dah! children’s venue

Perhaps some of the warmest applause and the most appreciative laughter was reserved for Andrew Graystone, whose marker-pen solidarity with Muslims after the deadly mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, had prompted millions of messages of support from around the world. In difficult times, as now, he said, he felt called to do the tiny things, to take little risks — and he encouraged his listeners to do the same.


AFTER all this, it is important to report that Greenbelt continues to be predominantly an arts festival. Music rang out (sometimes boomed out) from several venues, including the main staqe, where a crowd-surfing Frank Turner, and an energetic Lucy Spraggan raised the temperature still further. Shout-outs for Undercover Hippy, Brass Against, Folk On, Steph Grace, Gentlemen of Few, the extraordinary duo Deadbeatz, a late-night set by Hope and Social, Hamza Akram Qawwal & Brothers, Cole Moreton in a musical presentation of his new novel, The Light Keeper; Ajam, Danni Nichols, and not forgetting the OK Chorale, the last-gasp singalong on Monday night hosted by Chris Read.

There were more craft activities geared toward adults, and more activities in general for children, who inhabited their own unofficial village under the trees, or were entertained by Fischy Music, or encouraged to perform by Paul Cookson.

SIMON HOLMESJanice Connolly, aka Barbara Nice, with an audience member at Raffle!

The popular Table venue was back, and cooks included Jack Monroe, Kate Bottley, and a couple of the musical acts: Fantastic Negrito and Folk On.

The Playhouse big top struggled in the heat, but top acts included Silent Uproar, who performed an upbeat cabaret account of a life with depression; and Thom Monckton, a mime artist who mimed an artist, to the delight of an all-age audience.

There was debate about economics, activism, the state of the Church, Israel/Palestine, and just about everything else; a Muslim strain; sacred music and art in Boughton House itself; a skateboard park and climbing wall; and countless pop-up events and performances.

But most people, encouraged (or defeated) by the weather, spent a good part of the weekend simply enjoying the shade of Bougton’s magnificent trees.

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