Everything’s Gone Greenbelt

No, I hadn’t forgotten about my blog – I suppose that, just lately, I haven’t found that much to blog about.  However, I’ve got plenty to blog about right now as I’ve just come back from this year’s Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham.  The festival, which has been running since the early 1970s, was held over the August Bank Holiday weekend and attracted around 20,000 visitors.  It’s primarily a Christian arts festival, although there’s more than enough there to engage devout atheists such as myself.

I spent much of my time at this year’s festival watching the literary events at the Hub.  These were coordinated by my good friend (and fellow blogger, tweeter and all things online in generally) Ben Whitehouse.  The star attraction on the literature programme was Jasper Fforde, who during his talk read an extract from his forthcoming new novel (neither a Thursday Next nor a Nursery Crime affair; I won’t say any more than that for now).  He also participated in a book group discussion on Henry David Thoreau’s seminal 19th-century book Walden (man goes back to nature and gets in touch with his spiritual side), a discussion that veered off into issues of non-violence and, somewhat more unexpectedly, the Muppets.  Ben’s fellow Birmingham blogger Jon Bounds gave three talks: one in celebration of the non-shit aspects of his home city; another on a psychogeographic study based on a ride on the Number 11 bus that goes all round the edge of Birmingham; and a third on the internet, memes and goatse (don’t ask, just google it and then wish you hadn’t).

There were also discussions on sacred spaces and utopias, whether it’s okay for Doctor Who and other TV shows to scare children (obviously it is, within reason) – oh, and yours truly gave a little talk on his experiences as a quiz show contestant.  Here’s a shot of me in action (as taken by Mr Bounds):

Countdown talk

As you can see I was in full flow.  Obviously.  After Ben interviewed me about my quiz show experiences, I then fielded some (rather tough) questions from the audience.  Great fun, although I was rather nervous beforehand – going on TV and answering random general knowledge questions, having to talk to an audience is quite another.

I did go beyond the literature at Greenbelt.  There was a good music line-up, the highlights being Royksopp on Saturday night and Duke Special on Sunday night (his appearance on stage caused the only significant rainfall of the festival to magically cease).  Stan’s Cafe brought their Rice Show to the festival, albeit on a smaller scale than last year.  Ikon delivered Pyrotheology, a typically provocative piece of performance whose essential message was to burn down the established Church and set up your own (and to do it yourself – audience members were each given a match as they left afterwards).  On the interactive front, there was self-portrait painting, a mobile confessional, graffiti, dance classes – and speed dating.  The speed dating was this year open to LGBT festival-goers for the first time, although only a handful went to the event.  This I suspect was at least partly due to the fact that it clashed with one of the talks given by this year’s big name attendee: Bishop Gene Robinson.  His talks not surprisingly centred around issues of religion, spirituality and sexuality and he sought to put people’s minds at ease about the apparent conflicts between being gay (or indeed openly sexual) and following scripture.  Mind you, he was unlikely to meet with too much resistance with the generally nice, liberal Greenbelt crowd (the threatened protests of Anglican Mainstream thankfully failed to materialise).  Giving the same talks to less tolerant “Christians”, say in the Southern States of the US, might have been rather a different matter.

So Greenbelt had lots going on.  It also – as it always does – had a theme, and this year it was Standing in the Long Now: pausing in the midst of life’s mad rush to take stock of what is around us, and appreciate its permanence (and, if we aren’t careful, impermanence).  So although I did and saw a great deal over the festival’s four days, I was also careful to make sure I took stock, and stand in my own Long Now, whether in wandering the grounds, sitting and contemplating whilst everyone else attended the Sunday morning service, or drinking tea and chatting with my friend Nick (who attended for the first time this year).  Like I said at the beginning, Greenbelt’s status as a predominantly Christian festival shouldn’t preclude those who are of other religious persuasions, or none at all.  Its thought-provoking discussions and rich selection of arts events make it an important (yet also often overlooked) staple on the festival calendar.  With the summer all but over (some might say it never really started) and the nights noticeably drawing in, it feels like now will be a particularly good time for us all to start standing in our own Long Nows and considering where we fit in and where we, and the world around us, might be headed.



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