Life begins…

My home during Greenbelt. A man's got to camp in some style...
My home during Greenbelt. A man’s got to camp in some style…

This time last week, I was at Cheltenham Racecourse with a few thousand other folk, taking in (and contributing to) the 40th annual Greenbelt festival. The first one since 1995 or thereabouts that I haven’t attended as a member of the Press (although I was on reporter duty for Surefish and did do some festival coverage for them). This was my fourth year of being involved with Greenbelt as a volunteer, and I’m still learning a lot about the inner workings of this crazy festival I’ve been a devoted fan of since 1990 (as those who’ve seen the interview with me in this year’s festival programme will tell you).

In some ways, ‘#GB40’ (as it’s known on Twitter) was a smaller Greenbelt than usual. Cheltenham Racecourse is in the early stages of major renovation work and parts of it are yet to recover from the almighty flooding that made last year’s Greenbelt so ‘memorable’. As a result, the festival site was shrunk a bit. That, coupled with the fact that some of the regular traders had either gone out of business or stopped doing festivals, meant that a few regulars from previous years – Nuts Cafe, for example – weren’t around this year (it probably also explains why Higgledy Pies ran out of my favourite mash so quickly – but let’s not dwell on that).

Extra Curricular doing their 'thang' on Mainstage.
Extra Curricular doing their ‘thang’ on Mainstage.

But ‘smaller’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘of lesser quality’. And as far as the programme went, Greenbelt delivered goodies a-plenty. Both Extra Curricular and the London Community Gospel Choir were a joy to watch on Mainstage on Saturday (and as the DJ between the Mainstage bands that evening, I was privileged to see both gigs from side stage). Amadou & Miriam were great too – as were those mad folksters Folk On, the Austin Francis Connection (of whom, more later) and the ‘oldies’ who played each afternoon: the Fat Band, Fat & Frantic and Why? (I’m actually wearing my XL dark blue “Giggle, ‘cos it’s fun” T-shirt as I write this; a T-shirt that got completely soaked in cider on Sunday afternoon).

The LCGC 'bring it' on Mainstage, Saturday evening.
The LCGC ‘bring it’ on Mainstage, Saturday evening.

The line-up in the newly relocated Performance Cafe was just as great (not that I’m biased or anything) and included stellar sets from Eska, Eliza Carty, Jacob Lloyd, Daughters of Davis and a poetry showcase curated by Harry Baker.

As far as talks go, I found the short talks in GTV easier to get in to see than some of the others (I took one look at the queue for Vicky Beeching’s talk and knew I wasn’t getting in). I was able to see Sami Awad speak, and enjoyed a talk Catherine Fox gave offering an insight into the novelist’s craft – plus short talks from Andrew Howie, Sara Batts, Cieran O’Reilly, Steve Lawson, Vicky Walker, Jonty Langley and Jim Wallis.

I mentioned the AFC earlier. Their Sunday afternoon Mainstage gig was also their swansong, the band members having decided earlier in the year to disband. I interviewed founder and front man Edi Johnston for Surefish; you can hear an edited audio version of that interview – plus a few of their most popular songs – here.

The Austin Francis Connection: One Last Chat by George Luke on Mixcloud

My other jobs over the weekend included co-hosting a GTV talk show with Chine Mbubeagu, interviewing a few of the Israeli and Palestinian speakers at the festival. I also had another stint DJing at the silent disco in the Big Top on Monday night. I did record the set (mostly world music for the first two hours, plus some soul, some more Latin music, and a couple of what my rival DJ on the night described as “low blows”). The plan was to put that out on Mixcloud, but it appears that the audio file needs some work before I can do that.

Greenbelt, it was a pleasure celebrating your 40th. Life begins; let’s see what life has in store…

Tools of the DJ trade: my IDJ deck on the side of the Mainstage.
Tools of the DJ trade: my IDJ deck on the side of the Mainstage.
...and of course, one must always be prepared.
…and of course, one must always be prepared.
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Greenbelt 2012

Ten days.

It finished serving its actual purpose five days ago. But it’s still here, jostling with my watch for wrist space, now serving a higher purpose of reminding me how great the August Bank Holiday weekend was.

And it appears that I’m not the only Greenbelt punter who develops this weird emotional attachment to their festival wristband and can’t bring themselves to cut it off the moment they’re off the festival site. Friends and I have joked about it on Twitter, where some crazy “let’s see who can leave theirs on the longest” contest seems to have started. Ten days is the longest time mine’s been on for. It may come off tonight – but then again it might not. And why should it? As I said before, reminding me of how great Greenbelt was is as worthy a duty as getting me in to things on the festival site – especially now that I’ve washed away all traces of the mud I brought back…

At any minute, I expected Shrek to show up and yell at us to stay off his swamp…

Greenbelt 2012 was by far my muddiest Greenbelt. But unlike Greenbelt ’92 (which held the record until this year, and which I’ve declared my worst ever, after falling into some mud on my first night and not recovering), Greenbelt ’12 was truly awesome despite the mud. Infinitely muddier than ’92, but a much more joy-filled experience.

It was also my busiest Greenbelt. When I wasn’t interviewing performers and speakers for Surefish, I was either being filmed (for a promo video that should be out soon), DJing (which I did three times over the course of the weekend) or fretting over how well my short talk for GTV (on the topic “How to be a DJ”) would go.

The talk went well, thanks for asking. It would have gone even better from my point of view if I’d stuck to the script all throughout – but that’s me being my own harshest critic. The feedback I’ve had has all been good (especially the 12-year-old girl who found it “inspiring”; I do hope I’ve inspired a future Annie Nightingale!). The scariest part of it for me was doing the live beatmatching demo – but I nailed it first time, which was good.

Of all my DJing gigs over the course of the festival, the Friday night silent disco was by far the most surreal. For a start, you were DJing with two pairs of headphones on (you can’t do the “one ear on, one ear off” thing because there’s no sound from the speakers in the room). And of course, you immediately can’t tell who’s listening to you or to the other DJ – except for those odd occasions when the ones who are start singing along to what you’re playing. I now have a video clip on my mobile phone of a tent full of people singing “Where’s Your Head At?” after one such moment.
Silent DJs
Hard at work, Silent disco DJ-ing (Photo taken by Elaine Duigenan)

While I may not have seen all the speakers and gigs I’d wanted to (Frank Skinner and Bruce Cockburn being just two of the many I wanted to see but missed), I was able to chat to a good few of them in the Press room. It was nice meeting Richard Coles in person, having become Facebook friends with him earlier this year. Bruce Cockburn, Tony Campolo and Steve Taylor were all in fine form. Abigail Washburn offered to hold my mike for me when she noticed that my energy was beginning to sap – lovely woman she is.

Other memorable moments? Simon Parke’s talk on solitude; Hope & Social in their blue blazers, running around the Mainstage (“the Hope & Social Workout”, they called it); bumping into Chris Hale from Aradhna in the beer tent on the first night, and us subsequently chatting over pints of Crazy Goat until 1am; seeing the Proclaimers from both backstage and the front; Bobby Bovell introducing me to his dad after his gig on the Canopy Stage… and the blind guy I met at Cheltenham Spa train station on Tuesday morning, who overheard Simon Cross and I talking about the festival and joined in the convo to tell us how much he’d loved Sugarfoot’s Performance Cafe gig on Friday night.

I say it every year (well, apart from 1992): Greenbelt was excellent this year. And if a little strip of grey plastic evokes all those good memories a little longer, then that’s no bad thing. Maybe I could just leave this wristband on for another ten days…

Yeah, it’ll be fine for another 10 days, I reckon…

“All we want here is peace…”

It’s now been a week since I returned home from a my first ever trip to Israel and Palestine, and my head is still trying to make sense of everything I saw, heard and felt while I was out there.

Two Saturdays ago, a disparate bunch of arty types (and one seriously cool reverend) got into a plane headed for Tel Aviv, on a trip organised by the Greenbelt festival and the Amos Trust charity. I was in Istanbul when I received the invitation to go on this trip; prior to this, I’d tactfully steered clear of the Israel/Palestine conflict issue. When you grow up in certain Evangelical circles, you pick up on the party line very quickly… and if it’s a line you’re uncomfortable with, you kinda learn to keep that discomfort to yourself (at least that’s one way of dealing with it, though not necessarily the right one).

One Bible scripture that’s always meant a lot to me is Galatians 3:28, in which Paul says, “There is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” It’s been a source of encouragement to me as a person of colour in a society where racism is prone to raise its ugly head every so often, with its assurance that (ideally, at least) church was one place where we could all be truly equal.

However, it’s always seemed that when it came to Israel – and, dare I say it, to Palestinian people – the Evangelical response seemed to owe more to George Orwell than to Paul: “You are all one in Christ, but some are more equal than others.” I never could accept that everything Israel’s government did was right, or that all Palestinians were inherently evil, as it was always kind of suggested to me. And I really hated the way that anyone who felt any different was immediately branded “anti-Semitic”. I still reject those labels: “pro-Israel”, “pro-Palestinian”, “liberal”, “conservative” and the like. It’s sad that Western Christianity – like much of our media – can only deal with issues Harry Hill style (“I like Israel and I like Palestine. But which one is better? There’s only one way to find out…”). At the end of the day, it’s not an either-or thing for me. None of the Palestinians I met when I was there wanted to “obliterate” Israel; they simply want a peaceful life, living like regular human beings. Walls, checkpoints, appalling (in some cases, nonexistent) amenities… nobody deserves to live like that. And for Christians to condone or actively support such injustice due to dodgy theology is absurd. If I am pro-anything with regards to Israel/Palestine, then it’s pro-reconciliation and pro-justice. I resent the patronising notion that my unwillingness to be blindly Zionist is because “You believe what you see on television” – especially now that I have seen the ‘separation wall’ with my own eyes…

Banksy was here...

So, wall aside, what else did I see and what did I make of it? Well, the trip was quite full-on (there was easily a month’s worth of activities packed into seven days). What I’m grateful for the most was being able to meet both Israelis and Palestinians who are committed to seeing peace and justice prevail in the region – many of them with incredible hope-filled stories. People such as Daoud Nassar, who runs the Tent of Nations in the West Bank; Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem; Marwan and his multicoloured pet birds (“My birds all believe in nonviolence”), and Iyad our guide who showed us round everywhere (except Jerusalem, which he can’t go to on account of his being Palestinian).

There was Munther, the Jerusalem bookshop owner from whom I bought a copy of Amos Oz’s How to Cure a Fanatic and Suad Amiry’s Sharon and My Mother-in-Law. Jeff, Itay and Ruth from ICAHD, with whom we shared about a ton of pizza in a tent in Beit Arabiya, on the site where a Palestinian family’s home had been demolished. Claire, whose gift shop/guest house struggles to make a living ever since the wall was put up right in front of it. Zoughbi, who runs Wi’am, the Palestinian Conflict Transformation Centre. And there’s no way I could forget the three members of Combatants for Peace – two Palestinians and an Israeli – who spent an afternoon with us in Beit Jala, telling us about their work, and the various reasons why they now embraced non-violence as a way forward.

One thing’s for sure: I’m never going to believe the ‘Palestinian suicide bomber’ stereotype ever again (not that I actually did). It’s impossible to label an entire race of people as anti-Western Muslim fanatics when you’ve sat with them in a pub called “Cheers”, having a pint, smoking water pipes and watching Milan play Barcelona. Or when a handful of Palestinian schoolgirls have tested your volleyball-playing skills to the limit. Or when you’ve spent an evening having dinner with a granny who’s about my mum’s age, and she’s told you about all the work she’s been doing with other women for years and years. These are all human beings with everyday needs and dreams, just like any Londoner.

At the end of it all, the comments that will stay with me are our Palestinian guide’s plea to the outside world (“We’re not asking you to hate Israel, or to love them any less. All we’re asking is that you show us a little love too.”) and the Israeli lady from Combatants for Peace (“At some stage, somehow, peace will come. And we need to be ready to live in it when it does.”). That and a bloke called George, who came up to me on a busy Jerusalem street while I was recording some background noise, and introduced himself to me: “All we want here is peace. Just peace.”

We can but hope…

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.