Kiri and


Wake Up!

January 25th, 2023 (by Steve)

It’s funny how two words can invoke different feelings at different times of the year. “Wake Up!” in January immediately leads to thoughts of “must I?”, yet on a sunny bank holiday weekend last August, the response was altogether more positive. For this was the theme of Greenbelt 2022.

As with our previous visit to Greenbelt as parents, I deliberately set myself low expectations and instead prayed that God would guide me to meet with people He wanted me to meet, and to end up at sessions on the programme that were suitable. But first, to get there. We thought we might need to draw lots to decide who would be left behind, but there was surprisingly more space than expected once the top box, boot and footwells were filled. As with our adventure earlier that month, we headed up the M5, M42… but this time onto the M6 (a bit like the M6 toll, but with one difference… 12 quid!). We parked up, were given our wristbands (our kids had “under 18” in large letters on theirs – I presume in case they tried to go to the bar?) and headed to a huddle of tents in a hollow to camp with friends.

The first evening was all about settling in – introducing the kids to portaloos, reheating some food from our freezer at home for our tea, then heading into the main festival area full of new lights and sounds for the wee ones. By the time we returned to our tents (via the tent of Milk and Honey where we picked up milk and… eggs), our youngest was nearly asleep on my shoulders, so we tucked them up into bed. As I sat cross legged doing the washing up with an amazing view, someone from our neighbouring huddle popped over to ask if we had some washing up liquid. Turned out to be someone I went to Kenya with 20 years ago, who was also camping there with her family! We had a quick chat, then as the light faded we sat in the camp with friends, munching on chocolate buttons.

Our eldest took the title of the festival a bit too literally at 6am the next morning, culminating in shouting “why should I shush?”. Sorry other campers. We got the coffee on the brew as early as we could, queued for the loos, then whilst the grown ups in our party headed off to listen to Caroline Lucas, I headed to the kids tent for “Godly play” which was retelling the creation story. As part of that the kids were asked “which was your favourite day… or the most important day”. My youngest said “the final day, where there is nothing”, which was represented by a plain white board. And then when we did a creative activity afterwards, they chose to paint a rainbow, as white light is made up of “everything – all of the colours”. First profound thought of the festival for me. Nothing is everything.

After some more coffee, we put our heads together and came up with a bit of a plan. The kids wanted to do archery and tomahawk throwing. Children and sharp flying objects; bring it on… what’s the worst that could happen? We went to the main lawn to try to find the archery, but it had changed venue, so we stopped for a spot of lunch overlooking the lawn. There were several people playing football and one hit me as someone scored a goal (I’m brave, I didn’t cry!). After they apologised they decided “we need to move our goal”. Second profound thought of the festival – what goals do I need to move, where success for me could harm someone else?

At risk of getting lost in a mire of deep thought, we went to find some axes and arrows. We were the only ones there, so Kiri threw a few axes (proper sharp ones), our youngest threw a few axes (foam ones with velcro), and I did a bit of archery with our eldest. We saw a squirrel (also known as “dinner”) as I had bow and arrow in hand, but I focused on the static target rather on success which could harm something else.

I’d managed to make it through to the afternoon of the first whole day without engaging in a single talk. Whilst Kiri headed off to listen to Nadia Bolz Weber (in a very small venue), I took the kids to see an immense bubble show where huge, iridescent balloons just called to be popped, however there were very clear rules set in place with a rope between us and the show – the “beauty zone” was the other side of the rope, but if the bubbles came over to our side, they were fair game in the “kill zone”.

And then I had a bit of time for me – I decided to go to a guided meditation session. The venue was the other side of the earth – literally – as there was a huge earth suspended over one of the paths. Looking around there was a certain demographic at that session and I wasn’t it! As I lay down amongst spiders and nettley grass in the Shelter venue, my last thought as I drifted off to sleep was “it’s a bit bizarre that they’re playing weird animal noises, but as I’ve never done a guided meditation before, I’ll roll with it”. Turned out it was just a kid making dinosaur noises outside! As I came round from my sleep, I pondered on how much I was getting from the festival when totally ignoring the programming – it was telling me to “Wake Up!”, and here I was falling asleep!

Sausages for tea back at the tent went down very well and my parents in law popped by with freshly frozen icepacks from Fifi. It was a clearer, colder night that the previous one, but with a lovely sunset whilst washing up. With the kids down it was eventually wine, chocolate and crib time with the distant sound of Kae Tempest in the background on the main stage. We played until we could see the cards no longer, then headed to bed.

Communion on the Sunday has historically been one of the creative high points of Greenbelt and this year didn’t disappoint. The focus was the climate crisis and between the giant globes that were bouncing around the crowd, a disturbing and chilling re-imagination of “all things bright and beautiful”, Harry Baker’s “Impossible” and potentially radioactively charged, bright purple Ka drink to accompany the bread we broke together it was a thought-provoking feast for senses, mind and body.

After communion, I had a last minute change of plan and spontaneously decided to go to a conversation about capitalism and work in the “Rebel Rouser” venue, set in some woodland. The sound check where they encouraged speakers to get really close to the mic as it was set up for punk music set the tone, as a PhD student and economist explored some of the concepts of where power, boundaries and exploitation are perceived to lie in the chain of “work”. There were some interesting soundbites to chew on:

  • “the availability of cheap labour (even in the UK in small sweat shops) is a barrier to automation”
  • “colonisation of creativity” (in reference to things like the TFL quotes at tube stations that started off as a creative idea, now being corporately managed)
  • “what is the effect of a never satisfied desire for growth and profit in a finite world?”

However, the thing that I felt was lacking was balance. What I love about Greenbelt is that you normally hear both (or many) sides of a story; this felt quite one-sided in its proposed solutions of “changing the owners” and “unionising”. What was topical back in August is even more so now, as we face the most strike action in the country since the 1970s… but a breadth of opinion would have been appreciated. I’ll admit I left early to join the kids and Kiri who were building shelters on the edge of the woodland.

Having taken out a small mortgage to pay for icecreams for the kids, we settle down for a session at the main stage with Martyn Joseph. He opened the set with his anthem of hope “Here come the young” before apologising that the rest of his songs were so miserable that they would make Leonard Cohen sound like Julie Andrews. I have to disagree – the topics they touched upon were raw and real, but not miserable. This glass is half full, this half is heartbreakingly beautiful. And the purpose of power is to give it away. These are songs that reveal an alternative way to live. I think the dragonfly (often symbolic of new life) circling around over our heads might have agreed.

Those deep thoughts had returned, so once again we sought out axes. Having been on a spoon carving course a few weeks earlier where we used carving axes, here we were throwing them. Kiri and I love axes… is that normal? The axe throwing was right next to (parallel, not perpendicular for obvious reasons) the motorhome field, where we were reunited with Fifi and treated to dinner. The topic of conversation was about potential post-Fifi options. Whilst possibly not that tactful to talk about within earshot of Fifi, it was exciting to hear my parents in law talking about maybe going down the route of an electric campervan next.

We headed back to our tent via Milk and Honey where we bought milk and… bacon (one day we’ll get the correct shopping list) and once we’d done the evening jobs, I settled down with Harry Baker’s book, revisiting “Impossible”. As the light dropped, our circle of camping chairs grew until we had a lovely crowd, with the main topic of conversation turning to food van recommendations; something we hadn’t sampled by this stage. We listened intently, and were amazed at the feelings that raw tomatoes can invoke in others. Eye opening!

I’d like to say I was woken by my alarm the next morning (it being a Monday), but our oldest was already awake by then. Cream off the top of the milk in coffee and a bacon sarnie made the early start acceptable, and then there were decisions – do I go to listen to Richard Dawkins, or a conversation with the authors of Young, Woke and Christian? Dawkins won, so as Kiri headed to the “Ta dah” and “Make and Create” marquees with the kids, I settled down to listen to a conversation between Giles Fraser and Richard Dawkins.

I guess the key topic covered was that of truth. There was plenty of exploration of topics around science and religion and actually how there is collaboration on issues of mutual importance like the climate crisis, but Dawkins was keen to stress that it’s also important to talk about fundamental questions we disagree on too, which is where he came onto truth. He stated that scientific truth is the only truth, but acknowledged that this won’t have the answer to moral questions. Fraser suggested that his definition of truth may be too narrow, asking “is it true that torture is wrong?”. Dawkins responded that they share the same sentiment, but wouldn’t he use “truth” in that context – it’s neither true nor false, but a matter of moral assessment and law; it could be justified in some circumstances.

Fraser then challenged Dawkins on a statement he had made in 2021 on how it is immoral to birth someone with downs syndrome, and gave him a chance to retract the statement. Dawkins did not, and requested to move on, saying that it was an unfortunate choice of words that had been taken out of context. Then he said that even if it were not in the best interests of humanity, hypothetically he would rather focus on a truth, than a lie that would be good for the world. And he gave what I perceived to be a telling response when Fraser suggested that the God Dawkins doesn’t believe in is the conservative, fundamentalist cartoon of God, rather than a rich, nuanced, theologically-complex God. His response firstly was “The American audience I write for is much bigger than the British audience”… followed by “I can’t get to grips with what your God is, if it’s not the fundamental God.”

Then just as the conversation turned towards spirituality and Dawkins said how important it is, but how difficult a word to understand it is, the time was up… but not before a member of the l’Arche community (where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together) invited Dawkins to share a meal with them.

The afternoon activities were much less thought-provoking, but equally enjoyable. After lunch with the kids, we all headed back to the main stage for an hour with Harry and Chris – poetry, music, deep love, joy and authenticity (as well as a moment where they expressed their excitement at being a support act for “Dicky Dawks”). We had a bit of a wander, having a game of giant draughts, and then headed off to see some good old fashioned (but not dated) magic and circus skills courtesy of Tommy Trilby.

As a treat that afternoon we had tea from the various food vans around site, between us managing to sample pizza, halloumi fries, onion bhajis and macaroni cheese. Once replete, we headed back to the tents to grab the kids’ stuff which we took to Fifi, giving them a final evening of adventure whilst Kiri and I could have a bit of a date night. We chose to go to the Hope and Anchor – an alcohol-free bar, where each evening there was a mystery guest. This final evening it was the authors of Young, Woke and Christian chatting about the chapters that each of them had written. They also played a round of “Cards against Mundanity” – a means of bringing structure to promote honest, open conversation against topics where participants will likely disagree. Kind of what Greenbelt is all about.

We stayed for most of it, but we had an appointment with a beer and some music at the main stage. With a pint of Piggin Saint freshly pulled from the Jesus Arms, we enjoyed a fantastic show put on by Wildwood Kin; a family folk trio from Dartmoor. Tight, inventive vocal harmonies and solid, creative rhythm sections are two things that musically float our boats and we certainly weren’t disappointed. Add in the “honest bants” (which were at one point described as “pleasantly awkward”) and lack of slickness and it was the perfect combination. It felt like we were sharing the corner of a rustic country pub with them rather than a large stage at a festival. What contrast there had been on that one stage in one day!

And then suddenly it was all over; the final morning we returned our empty milk bottles to Milk and Honey (having never managed to see the honey), packed up the car and returned to life and reality. Did the festival wake us up? I’m not sure, but as with every Greenbelt we’ve attended to date, it certainly gave us plenty of food for thought to carry back into our everyday routine.

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