Peter Ormerod reviews the third day of the Greenbelt Festival at Boughton House, Kettering
Yes, people were happy. Yes, there was clapping. Yes, to some, there would therefore have been parts of Sunday morning’s huge communion service that might just count as ‘happy clappy’. Yes, all right. Go on then. I’ll give you that one.
But wait: it was great. Like so much of this festival - in fact, like any decent church service - it was unafraid to explore human difficulties, and while it endeavoured to embrace pretty much the full diversity of faith and church traditions that are drawn to Greenbelt, the result wasn’t as messy or as beige as it might have been. Led by the Rt Rev Libby Lane, who recently became the first female bishop in the Church of England, along with Bishop Pushpa Lalitha from India and members of monastic communities in Britain, it seemed to do a good job of including all and alienating few or none, while maintaining a richness of meaning, the emphasis being on caring for our world. There was an earthiness that averted airiness and some refreshing rearrangements of well-known hymns and songs. It was less trendy vicar with acoustic guitar, and more innovative jazz stylings with appealing glockenspiel and piccolo adornments. Warm and lovely, yes, but still powerful.
Then a first for the weekend: proper rain. One of the particular pleasures of this site is the ubiquitous carpet of grass, which lies in contrast to the concrete and asphalt on which chunks of the festival sat in its Cheltenham incarnation. But while the verdant lawns make Greenbelt greener than ever, the rain has a habit of turning them brown. Some planned outdoor activities and performances were sadly washed out, with rivulets forming outside many of the marquees.
Not that pesky water would be allowed to intrude upon people’s enjoyment or involvement too much. A session of Quaker worship in the aptly named Shelter venue was packed; being new to the practice myself, I found it helpful and gently moving experience. Any onlookers would have just seen a tent full of people sitting and saying nothing and doing nothing, but there was plenty going on; it’s just that it was happening in people’s hearts and minds and souls (if you believe in such a thing). A few spoke when they felt moved to; all listened attentively and sympathetically, the ending of the session signalled by handshakes. Even with radio station’s tent blaring out across the path, the sense of peace was palpable.
With the weather remaining unwelcoming, the Shelter seemed the place to stay, and I’m glad I did. The next session was about the Bogside Artists, a group of world-renowned mural painters whose huge and profound works can be found adorning the sides of buildings in Derry’s Bogside. They deal unflinchingly and insightfully with the Troubles: an army officer battering down a door, a child standing defiant in the face of an armoured vehicle, and so on. But what’s striking is the sense of hope: in one of the most powerful images, a girl stands next to paintings of female prisoners, while pointing towards another mural, symbolising peace. It’s gutsy, startling and endlessly thought-provoking stuff, the artists themselves having few airs about them, despite their global renown; they are proudly from the community they represent through their art. While the Northern Irish art establishment apparently shuns them, believing such memories should be left in the dead past, the Bogside Artists - three middle-aged men scarred by conflict - are far more wise, convinced that the only way to an authentic hope is by a full and searching exploration of the past.
Time for reflection. The Northumbria Community describes itself as “a diverse, worldwide, Christian Community, committed to a new way for living,” drawing on the traditions of Celtic Christianity - the oldest form of the faith in these islands. Their evening worship may have been infused with chant and song and poetry, but was far from drippy or cloying; there was a mellifluousness to proceedings, a sense of profundity and a slow but resonant pulse. Their way is an antidote to the busyness of life, but not in a manner that’s cloistered or remote; rather, it’s open and engaged.
And as with any good festival, what goes on beyond and between the acts and events is just as important as the scheduled programme. So the evening was spent in the Jesus Arms (yes, you may wince at the name, but Greenbelt is quite knowing about things like that; there’s also a wine bar called the Blue Nun), with great cider and even better friends. After all, a festival celebrating togetherness would be pointless if enjoyed in solitude, right?
* See www.greenbelt.org.uk for more