Kiri and


Greenbelt – The Common Good

November 8th, 2017 (by Steve)

It’s a bit weird to be blogging about something over 2 months after the event, but at least it gives me chance to properly chew over the content of what I’m writing. That’s exactly what this year’s Greenbelt has required – in fact not just chewing, but swallowing and digesting too!

For those of you who haven’t come across Greenbelt before, I’d probably sum it up as a festival where faith, arts and politics meet across the August bank holiday weekend, with a cheeky bit of subversion on the side (no, not that one!). This year, the general theme was “The Common Good” and all of the talks, discussions and panels were chosen to unpick aspects of this (as well as perhaps defining “common” and “good”), alongside some cracking art of all kinds – visual, musical and performance art to name a few. The last time we had been to Greenbelt was back in 2011, where I asked my now parents in law for their daughter’s hand in marriage in exchange for a dowry of plastic cows. A lot can happen in 6 years, so it was good to be back (accompanied by said parents in law).

Oh, and we were attending with a toddler.

We’ve been learning through this parenting malarkey that life is simpler when you’re organised, so prior to the weekend we’d selected which items on the programme we’d like to go along to. Turns out that this had been at the expense of writing a proper packing list though, and it was only once we’d done the packing that we realised that having a list would have been handy, so we hastily scribbled one together at that stage, making last minute decisions about whether we should bring the parrot.

After queueing for an age to leave the M11 services, we finally arrived at Boughton House near Peterborough and realised how useful a buggy is at a festival for transporting things to a tent. Greenbelt is such a child-friendly festival where everyone looks out for one another – where else would someone chase after you to let you know you’ve dropped a couple of big bars of chocolate, eh? Once camp was set up and the festival ground open, we wandered in to find me a hat (I seem to be in a perpetual cycle of losing flat caps and struggling to find new ones that fit properly) and soak up some of the atmosphere. The atmosphere could be described in one word – Emmanuel – meaning “God with us”; a real sense of this being a special place.

If beer and chocolate is the perfect way to round off a first evening at a festival, a bacon buttie is the perfect way to start the first full day. The drizzly campsite was humming (nay, whistling actually, with all of the camping kettles on the go) with activity and there was an excited sense of anticipation in queue for the very clean portaloo. Although the anticipation probably wasn’t linked to the toilets. Hmmm.

Once in the festival ground again, our little one was most disappointed that the plastic latticed walkways weren’t floor-level trampolines, despite looking very similar to the one in our local park. Nevertheless, much jumping ensued in the hope that somehow their elasticity would increase. It certainly led to tiredness and with a toddler snoozing in the buggy I headed off to the first event I’d chosen – Salma Yaqoob exploring whether there might be a link between the rise of ISIS and the rise of far right politics. Spoiler alert – she suggests there is; with both there’s the common language of “make x great again” which, when following its natural progression will lead to someone being an oppressor at the expense of someone else being the oppressed. Her suggested antidote to this was to lay aside political and religious leanings, focus on who is being oppressed and support them. She argued that you do not dilute your identity by working with people of other faiths, as “loving your neighbour is not a compromise to core beliefs”. Whilst I unequivocally believe that we should focus on what unites rather than what divides, I couldn’t help but notice that the whole talk used a language of blame, referring to the nebulous “them” in authority as responsible for a lot of the issues, which undermined some of her credibility. Food for thought though.

Food for my stomach was also required, so we had a lovely picnic lunch accompanied by live folk (the music genre obviously – although there were plenty of living people around). Whilst the other grown ups (yes, I vaguely would categorise myself as grown up) headed off to other sessions, I took the wee one to the “play zone” where we splashed around in water play areas, found a proper trampoline and, even more excitingly, a bouncy castle. Whilst the bouncing was going on, I amused myself with a spot of folding chair spotting (because I’m cool like that) – intrigued by the properties that different people prioritise when choosing their comfort at a festival – small form factor, comfort, weight – a balance to be had.

The afternoon session that I went to was a talk by Ann Pettifor with the title “The Rise of Rentierism”. I don’t think that I had quite appreciated how little I understand of true economic and monetary theory and actually this session was a good “Economics 101” boiling it back to basics of what the monetary system actually is – a system of managing promises. In Ann’s view, austerity leads to asset price inflation, which can only give power to those who have assets (property, works of art, precious materials), therefore it leads to inequality. Inequality is at odds with “The Common Good”. She suggested that the next financial crisis won’t be a lack of money, but a shortage of assets. So what was her proposed solution to this inequality? Well in her words, “I’m old – I shouldn’t be here – I should be looking after my grandchildren. Hopefully a young person will come along and have a good idea”. Many people cleverer(!) than me devote their lives to trying to solve inequality and I felt powerless as I returned to camp for a quick corned beef hash.

The wonderful Kate Rusby provided the warm, comfortable entertainment as we lounged in the early evening light; my Father-in-law supping on a pint of “Bad Christian II”. We were glad that she didn’t sing “You belong to me” as that features on our little one’s sleep-inducing bedtime playlist and it hadn’t reached that hour yet. A bath in a large garden trug provided the requisite soporific effect though (not for me you realise) and once all was quiet in the camping cot, Kiri and I headed out for some more live music.

Whilst I sampled the “Bad Christian II”, Kiri was very pleased to find that there was a gluten free beer in the Jesus Arms – a pint of Piggin Saint, served by a lady in a dog collar. You can’t get more Greenbelt than that! The soundtrack to our evening was energetic live rock, courtesy of Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires – a group from Alabama with a message for the world of unity over division and standing up for justice. It did indeed feel like we were listening to the sound of resistance – in a world of massive change, art is always sure to respond. It led me to ponder – can music change the world on its own, or does it just provide a soundtrack for the change?

And then for something completely different. Limbic Cinema. A light projection on an ancient oak tree.

We upgraded our breakfast on Sunday to be a bacon AND egg buttie. This truly is the life. And then for one of the most powerful events of the whole of Greenbelt – everyone joining together for a communion service. Nothing speaks louder than thousands of people in silence. As part of a communion service we sometimes say “we are one body, because we all share one bread”. To be joining with thousands of other people – all expressing our belief that Jesus died for all of us, taking the punishment for all the rubbish stuff we do, then defeating death by coming back to life – that confirms that we are truly one body. Yes, we express it in different ways. OK, due to crowd that Greenbelt attracts there were parts of the body missing. But still, there’s strength when we unite. Oh, and we got seconds of communion.

With the little one still trying desperately to turn the walkway into a trampoline, after lunch we all went to listen to some feel-good entertainment provided by Harry and Chris. Their unique fusion of inclusive comedy, jazz and rap oozed pure positivity. I want to enthuse more about them, but words aren’t enough – you really have to just hear some of their stuff to appreciate their genius.

Our plan had been to go to a session about poverty after leaving my Mother-in-law to accompany the little one to the play zone, but instead we met Sam and Andy who we hadn’t seen since our wedding 5 years ago. My prayer before Greenbelt would be that I would meet the people that God wanted me to meet there and I truly believe this was an answer to prayer. Despite the fact that we hadn’t spoken for nearly 5 years we talked deeply for nearly an hour about callings, dreams, aspirations and realities. I think the setting of Greenbelt – away from the daily realities – adds fuel to our desire to live life more radically – questioning why we’re doing things a certain way – asking how we can serve others better.

I was on toddler duty whilst the others headed out to be wowed by Joanne Shaw Taylor and Newton Faulkner. The wee one was asleep and I had space to be. With fading light and limited phone battery I had time to process thoughts. No agenda. So I started doodling pictures and questions. The key phrase that I couldn’t get out of my head was “place of privilege”. Much as it strives to be an inclusive festival and offers many grants to enable many to attend who wouldn’t otherwise be able to, realistically, Greenbelt attracts a middle class, white festival-goer. All of us are therefore in a place of unearned privilege that affords us the luxury of spending our spare money on going to a festival. It’s so easy to compare ourselves to others – most often to look at those who are more successful, or richer, or with “better” lives, but I find it a really useful reminder that in any challenge I face in life, I’m starting from a place of privilege. What do I do with that though? How can I use my time, my money, the other resources that I’m a steward of for my time on earth, for the common good?

Following eggs for breakfast in the mist, we went to hear our next talk which started with lines something like “Hi, I’m Jack Monroe and I’m here to spoil your day”.

Someone who wasn’t starting from a place of privilege, yet has been campaigning for the voiceless and invisible in society. Snippets that I noted from the talk speak for themselves:

“I’m only here because of kindness. People have saved my life and sanity through kindness”

“I’m bold and strong and… crying here in front of you”

“I can’t change the world on my own, but I can change MY world”

“Know your neighbour. Learn their name. Love them”

“Stand face to face with people who don’t share your life view and talk”

That last challenge is possibly the thing from Greenbelt that has stuck with me the most in these last couple of months. It’s so easy in this world to be isolated from people who are different; who share different views. We gravitate on social media towards people who are like us, who reinforce our own world views. We need to engage outside our comfort zones, otherwise our worlds will get smaller and more disparate.

It seemed a neat segue to go from a talk by a user of food banks to a talk about reducing food waste from the Real Junk Food Project – highlighting an issue which encompasses environmental, economic and social issues. Once again I realised my ignorance of the scale of the problem in all parts of the food chain. For example, I had no idea that because of supermarket standards, farms generally produce 130% of the contracted amount of produce to ensure the contract is met… but supermarkets don’t buy that extra 30%. That’s even before we get to food wasted at the supermarket or cafĂ©, or in our cupboards, fridges and freezers. The key theme was that of rediscovering the value of food through education, making use of some of that wasted food and also adopting a mindset of nothing going to waste.

By this stage in the festival, I was beginning to think about all of the various projects around the country and around the world that are set up to meet a need. I then overheard someone saying that they were working on a project, only to find someone else working on a similar project in the same space. At best it’s duplication. At worst it’s competition. That’s one to squirrel away for the future if ever we’re involved in setting something up – to remember to focus on collaboration rather than competition.

After a supper of fish and chips in the shade and watching a game of Quidditch (as you do), I armed myself with an Apostle IPA that one of the music acts had brought to Greenbelt from the US and settled down for a panel debate on the post-truth world. This was a fascinating dialogue covering mainstream media vs. social media, news vs. opinion pieces and accuracy. Kudos has to go to Peter Oborne who willingly entered what is essentially a fairly left wing festival to communicate his views and provide some balance to the panel. Despite a few whiffs of hostility and a few divisive comments, in general there was respect in the conversation, reinforcing Jack Monroe’s message that you need to understand what your opponents are saying in order to counteract them, otherwise you just end up in an echo chamber. Deep conversations ensued back at the tent accompanied by beer and chocolate as we lost the light.

The cold (and disturbed) night was replaced by a morning of glittering dew and striking camp was a lot more pleasant than it had been back in June. Once again we loaded up the buggy with anything but our child as we made the journey back to the car and back to reality.

It’s all very well and good sitting in a field armed with a lovely beer and philosophising over matters of inequality and meeting common needs in society, but what happens when we’re parachuted back into real life? Well, it tends to get in the way and dilute some of the passion and fire I’ve felt. So, I decided to set up an action plan:

  • follow people on social media who don’t share my world views and engage with them (first part easy, second part a bit scarier)
  • find out what the needs are in my area (via census, statistics, local council etc) – plan how to meet them
  • try to connect organisations that are meeting similar needs, or could benefit each other (starting with trying to broker a collaboration between Mooncup and food banks)
  • cut down household food waste (can be tricky with a toddler)
  • work out how to use my places of privilege to change lives

Don’t agree with any / some of the stuff I’ve written? Great – let’s talk! Intrigued by Greenbelt? Come along next year!.

Leave a Reply

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.