Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Greenbelt: Britain's Greatest Festival

How progressive politics, music and religion combine to make a festival where the loos are lovely and the people properly nice.


When you can honestly say you love the toilets at a festival on day three, that festival is probably something special. I love the toilets at Greenbelt. At other festivals Vietnam Vets (the grizzled kind who were at Da Nang) stagger from them with a wild look in their eyes that suggests, more than usual, that they have seen things... terrible things. At Greenbelt people skip from them singing 'Portaloo!' to the tune of an ABBA song. I swear one morning, on hearing through the plastic door some bright-eyed young camper strumming an acoustic guitar, I thought: 'well, isn't this nice?' That has to be fairly unique in the UK festival scene.

Greenbelt (at Cheltenham Racecourse over the August Bank Holiday) is more than just a festival where the campers don't steal the toilet paper or smear faeces on the walls like holidaying chimps. It's a festival where the organisers have them cleaned religiously. And the word 'religiously' is key. Because Greenbelt is a Christian festival. Mostly. Kinda. Sortof.

I'm not sure what kind of reactions the words 'Christian festival' provoke in you. I'm picturing Brando in a sweaty room in the jungle muttering: 'the horror... the horror...' And fair enough. I'm a fully paid-up, believing, says-amen-in-the-right-places Christian, and I have found myself clutching the lapels of friends, sobbing, 'you weren't there!" after some events. But Greenbelt is different.

No, really. It's different. Once a straight-up festival of Christian teaching, art and music, Greenbelt has evolved into a festival of justice, music, art, comedy, theatre, music, spirituality and good vibes that, for the last three years has featured an overarching theme of solidarity with the cause of Palestine. Over just the last few festivals it have featured Muslims leading prayers, atheists and believers putting forward their cases against the church, Peter Tatchell and Gene Robinson and on Sunday it featured Mark Thomas 'dropping the C-bomb' twice to the amusement rather than horror of the mostly Christian audience. The 700 Club at play it ain't. The most impressive thing about all of that is that none of it is unusual for Greenbelt.

2011-08-30-gungor.jpg It's a festival where Billy Bragg and Mark Thomas appear on the same bill as Jesus-loving worship acts, where the main-stage is given over on Sunday morning to a massive Communion service, where Conservative politicians debate with anarcho-hippies and large numbers of middle-aged couples feel comfortable camping among the leather-tented goths and hot-pants-and-wellies crowd. Where Gordon Gano (yes, that Gordon bloody Gano!) not only gets a main-stage slot, but helps out in a song-writing workshop. Where the wonderful Gungor can sing 'God is not a man, God is not a white man...' shortly after: 'holy holy God almighty,' without anyone storming out. Its a festival where a dubstep emcee can ask after crowdsurfing for his cap back and have it immediately and cheerfully returned. Where no fights break out in beer tent ('The Jesus Arms'), but mellow hymn-singing and philosophical debates regularly do.

What has always struck me about Greenbelt in my six years of attending has been the sheer, unadulterated niceness of the people there. The tent full of charities trying to make the world a better place (religious and secular, peace, development and aid) is a feature, not an afterthought. And Greenbelters flock to it. No-one threatens you when you try to put a tent up near theirs. Drunks don't vomit at you. Nobody pees on your wellies. Strangers smile and make conversation, with no intention of sleeping with you. It's all a bit strange, but I find these things count more since I left my 20s behind.

Of course, there's also the smattering of toolishness you'd expect at any self-consciously progressive event. One performer shared this nugget of wisdom: 'I went to Bangladesh recently, for charity work. You know, the people there are so poor, but they have such... dignity.' All this delivered with pauses to allow the audience time to recover from its blown mind. A panellist on one discussion proudly declared that he was crap at structure shortly after slapping his metaphorical working-class genitals on the table in an admirable effort to sustain stereotypes. The greatest applause, the biggest crowds are regularly reserved for those speakers likely to challenge traditional orthodoxies. All terribly healthy, but it can grate, in the way that being preached to about sustainability from posters behind the disposable cups for machine lattes might, depending on how much sleep you got in your tent.

But that's a small price to pay for a festival that features both the travelling Methodist Art collection and performance theatre troupes (dressed as troops) stopping 'Palestinians' from entering the festival grounds and kids with signs offering 'free hugs' without fear.

2011-08-30-greenbeltdoor.jpg Maybe I'm just a difficult bastard. When I go to big Christian events, I usually wish the music was more interesting, the teaching more focused on justice or at least more challenging, offering even a view I might disagree with. When I go to regular music festivals, I find myself bored by the superficiality of it all, the divorce from the majority-world reality. When I listen campaigners lecture, I generally pine for a beer, a pork stottie or the opportunity to dance.

Basically, most of the rest of the year, I wish I was at Greenbelt. The content, the opportunities to be challenged, affirmed, welcomed and angered as well as entertained and introduced to new things, the overwhelming niceness of 99% of the people you meet there, the little taster of heaven. It's enough to make me nostalgic the day after it finishes. Though, frankly, the approach to portaloos would be enough. God bless Greenbelt. Long may they prosper.