GB 12 Flora by Jonathon Watkins. Freak storms fail to quench the Greenbelt spirit as thousands celebrate art, faith and justice

Celebratory, thoughtful, rooted in faith and perpetually reaching for the lapels of controversy, there is nothing on earth quite like the Greenbelt festival. This year’s event, though buffeted by storms that closed Britain's wettest summer in a century, showed the depth of the campers’ resilience and spirit.

Halfway through Saturday afternoon, lightning flashed, the skies opened and a fierce storm turned parts of the site into ankle deep mud, so that some 35 campers had to be housed for the night in temporary shelter. But unlike the Creamfields festival, which suffered flash floods on the same weekend, Greenbelt was not cancelled.

Festival Chair Andy Turner praised, “in the light of our downpour, the positive spirit of campers and Greenbelters pulling together and supporting one another.” He stressed that the reason for moving to Cheltenham racecourse was for just such weekends as this, when the many indoor venues would come into their own.

He also lauded the “terrific line-up.” Given that Greenbelt offered 40 days of programming from Friday afternoon to the end of Bank Holiday Monday, ten people could have had completely different experiences of the festival without any overlap.

GB12 Bruce by Jonathon Watkins. Friday night headliner Bruce Cockburn showed why he is a festival favourite. Like Mavis Staples, who closed last year’s event, his life and career display Greenbelt’s three strands of faith, art and justice. When he played the festival in the ‘80s – a set that became a live CD – he played with a two-man rhythm section, but this set showed that he needs no one with him. Cockburn’s guitar playing is as exceptional as his songs, and while it seemed simpler in style to earlier years, it showed plenty of rhythm. A deft and restrained use of pedals enhanced the already golden sound of his strings.

He began his set with a selection of strong tracks from across his career, such as “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” before moving into songs from the current Small Source of Comfort, including “Iris of the World” and the compulsory ”Call Me Rose.”

Cockburn was relaxed with the crowd, enjoying banter, but ferocious at times in his music. Even though they were familiar, it was still chilling to hear his words in the eco-anthem “When a Tree falls” as he half-spoke:
“Through thinning ozone, waves fall on wrinkled earth
Gravity, light, ancient refuse of stars, Speak of a drowning
But this, this is something other.
Busy monster eats dark holes in the spirit world
Where wild things have to go to disappear, forever”

He was as forceful on guitar as he pounded it for an unusually powerful “Put it in your Heart.”

The crowd sang along in praise of "Lord of the Starfields" for the encore. The next day, he played a short set after a question and answer session.

Before an impressive closing set from Nitin Sawhney, The Proclaimers showed why they have been invited back several times. They played their beautifully-constructed three-minute story songs impeccably and it was a joy to see families dancing together, including very young children.

A further day of rain on Monday failed to deter a large crowd from attending the mainstage folk marathon, which included the clear-voiced Karine Polwart, Seth Lakeman, and the stellar ten-piece line-up of The Imagined Village. Responding to the challenge, the eleven-piece Bellowhead's exhilarating party set closed the festival.

There was a full programme in the Performance Café, which sadly was affected by the floods, as only Greenbelters with Wellingtons could reach the venue and its floor was floating at times. However, the indoor Underground venue was dropped this year in favour of the outdoor Canopy, which meant that bands became visible as people passed the centre of the site. The muscular talk-rock of Listener and the entrancing shoegaze of Sweden’s Emmanu El, who followed them, were two that stopped passers-by.

Martyn Joseph’s The Rising show featured several singer-songwriters on stage at once. Monday's set with the bubbly Abigail Washburn, Karine Polwart, Luke Sital-Singh and Willy Porter was a remarkable collection.

The talks programme was as full as ever, with some 90 speakers, headed up by names like Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo, John Polkinghorne and Tom Wright. Film director Steve Taylor caught Campolo and said that he was still inspired by the talk, even though he had heard an earlier version many years before.

GB12 Tom Wright by Jonathan WatkinsJohn Polkinghorne also impressed with his talk on science and theology that touched on Tom Wright's area as it explored how life can continue after death. Wright himself was hugely popular, his listeners pouring into the venue late in the previous event in order to secure their places as he spoke of the centrality in the gospels of the theme that Jesus is King.

In view of the weather, this year’s Saving Paradise theme was apposite. Noting that climate change had certainly begun to affect the summer weather, Festival Director Paul Northup stressed, “We have had a lot of programming around ecological issues. The Chief Exec. of the World Wildlife Fund, David Nussbaum, spoke here this weekend. We have a whole venue, called Eden, which has been programmed around the interplay between justice, activism and spirituality in the way that it relates to the Earth and the way we live on it.”

One of Greenbelt’s many strengths is to pitch competing viewpoints in front of the same audience. Among the panels and debates, the former canon chancellor of St. Paul’s Giles Fraser and journalist Andrew Carey discussed our response to the Death of Christendom. Fraser claimed that Christendom meant, "We became chaplains to the State and lost the radicalism of Jesus." Carey was concerned that "Instead of Christendom, we have secularism," and so have been "allied to coercive laws."

Both acknowledged that disestablishment was unlikely to occur fully, simply because there were too few votes to be gained in exchange for the enormous work involved in jumping the many necessary constitutional hurdles. But in a response to Carey's comment that it is already happening "in death by a thousand cuts," a passionate Fraser exclaimed, "If... the Church being more like the Church leads to a fight, bring it on!"

Both agreed on the necessary response: whatever happens at a national level, churches must love their communities.

The east-west fusion band Aradhna played every day, starting with an emotional and meditative worship set in the Soul Space venue and climaxing with a more performance-styled set, backed by film, to a large crowd in the massive Centaur hall. They were one of the most visible elements of a hugely varied worship programme that also included a site-wide procession and an early morning set by the impressive Rend Collective Experiment.

Sunday saw two events at mainstage. The BBC, who broadcast Radio 4’s Any Questions from the festival, also based their Morning Service very early in the morning. Despite their estimates of only “about 30” turning up through the mud, 150 took part.

It was later, with everything closed for the central event of the weekend, that the main communion service took place, where the attendance was in the thousands.  Compared with the excellent services of the last two years, it seemed to struggle. It was themed around fire, water, earth and air and came close at times to New Age parody, complete with "Lord of the Dance," sung to a sprightly Ceilidh backing. Including Mike Scott’s “Bring ‘em All In” was a popular move and went some way to redeem it.

Performing and Visual Arts
Funded by Trust Greenbelt, the festival's grant-making arm, The God Particle filled the Big Top. The time-travelling play followed conversations between new vicar Rev. Gilbert Selwyn and Dr. Bex Kenworthy of the Institute of Advanced Quantum Mechanics. It explored the parallels between science and faith and asked questions of how open our minds are to what we don’t understand. Sony Award-winning writer James Cary has written a typically fast-paced piece, laced with romantic intrigue, in which the protagonists share the same stormy love-hate relationship as their fields of interest.

The main attraction in a stronger-than-usual visual arts exhibition was the bright and highly personal Resurrection by senior Royal Academician Anthony Green. Around the walls hung panels based on the huge three-dimensional pictorial sculpture, which teemed with detail.

Si Smith’s series of 22 small works on Job were also highly engaging. The (mainly) triptych-based Rage, Despair and Hope series was strong on emotion and detail.

Film and comedy
This year’s programme was as strong as it was wide-ranging. Alongside major releases, such as The Artist, Tree of Life, Rango and Silent Running, smaller independent films were screened, often with Q and A sessions afterwards.

GB12 Steve Taylor by Jonathon WatkinsGreenbelt favourite Steve Taylor, who had previously appeared as a solo performer and with Chagall Guevara, presented his film adaptation of Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. It proved to be a finely-judged, artistically astute and spiritually sensitive work that engaged hearts and minds in equal measure.

Blending film and comedy, James Cary joined comedian Paul Kerensa in commentating on Nuns on the Run.

Facing some sycophantic interviewing that seemed keener to draw him back next year than to investigate his tangle of contradictions, high profile comedian and presenter Frank Skinner admitted to fearing that Greenbelt was populated by people "wearing fish stickers and with a faraway look in their eyes". He need not have worried, as he was on home ground. "I am a Christian," he proudly announced, adding with tongue-in-cheek wariness, "but I'm still afraid of Christians!" The crowd was highly appreciative as he described his initial impressions: surprise at thousands of Christians taking over a racecourse. "I feel you've been turning a den of thieves into my father's house. Jesus would be putting tables up here!"

As a festival, there was plenty that slithered away from any category: the silent disco, Egyptian belly dancing, swing dance lessons and life drawing. Of course, the list of events could go on. There was so much more – 35 days of programming more, to be precise.

Derek Walker
Photos by Jonathon Watkins (PhotoGlow)

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