Greenbelt glamping

I was on the stage at Greenbelt last Saturday night. It was the Hothouse debate: Is gender bendable or fixed forever? An intergenerational conversation hoping to dismantle the potential otherness of trans experience on a personal level; exploring how church communities can better welcome trans people; and wondering how trans experience might be more fully integrated into the church’s conversations on human sexuality, so obsessed with same sex relationships.

This isn’t the magnum opus, which will be published in Quaker Voices in November. Some day, I may get paid for writing.

Being an Artist, with a bright yellow Artist wristband, I put up my tent in the Artists’ Glamping. At the bottom end of the field there were pre-erected tents each with rugs, two beds with sheets rather than sleeping bags, and a lamp on a table. Clare and I went over to peek in then got embarrassed when we could not zip up the door again. There was a fence around, three slightly pleasanter portaloos, and a gateway-marquee with tables, chairs, mirrors, hairdryers and tongs, and women checking the wristbands. They did not know to let me in at first, but I phoned the programme manager who said it was OK. Then two volunteers, topless in the sun, helped me put my tent up. It has two rooms and I took a clothes rail. One of them assured me that young people are completely accepting of trans- it had come up, because I said what my talk was, but I wish it did not need saying.

Clare is with Stand-up Christology, which shows comedians and theologians talking of the same issues, and was in a panel discussion to push religion, politics and comedy to the absolute limits. She had her own tent too, but a “two person” one. As the sun bore down on Friday we sat in the coffee tent by the urn and the fridge, in the small amount of shade, chatting. A woman came round and said next year they might have some shaded space like that for socialising. Then I went off to help put up the Quaker stall in the groups fair. I tied balloons to string to make a frond across the top of the opening.

Paul, professor of engineering geology, apologised for his tent being so close to mine, put up by his teenage son, who sat in the entrance absorbed in video on his phone. He was doing a talk in the Grove on “what the Bible teaches about the role of soil in our lives”. That makes sense- he had an Evangelical feel, that careful precise intellectual understanding. “What information do you want your audience to take away?” he asked, and I felt a fool- er, dunno- only later I put it into words. It’s not information but feeling. I wanted them to see my humanity. He understood- he is not a robot- but his first way of being is in concepts and intellectual expression.

Music appreciation

Is classical music better than popular music?

Bach’s cello suites were almost forgotten when the teenage Pablo Casals found the score in a second hand music shop in the 1880s. I heard them as a teenager, when my father played a recording: I could not bear to listen to them. The repeating patterns put me into confused boredom. I begged him to turn it off, and he refused: he inculcated in me the idea that high culture might not be immediately accessible, but was worth the effort of engaging, and because of his effort I enjoy the Bartok string quartets. Who could not, after similar effort to understand their ways of communicating? Their range of emotion and animal energy is mesmerising.

It took a genius to recognise and communicate the wonder of those cello suites, and now millions know them. Here is Yo Yo Ma at the Proms- I paused the concert to write this post. Learning the Sonata in C Minor (Pathétique) was worth the time, more than a month, that it took me, and playing it in my teens helped me access emotional states I could access no other way. I cannot play it now.

This is a class issue. I am cultured and educated, and I like Opera, Greek tragedy, and classical music. I met a woman in the railway station waiting room who was going to the Duran Duran reunion concert. She had been to the opera, and enjoyed it, but felt more comfortable with Duran Duran. I loved the City of London Chamber Orchestra concert, it was in no sense me doing the conventional thing, and I needed to pay attention. It involved effort.

The only full set I heard at Greenbelt was Kiran Ahluwalia. The programme reinforces that this is Culture: rooted in Sufi mysticism, transcending her training in traditional ghazal. What I saw was a glorious stage presence supported by technically skilled yet mostly self-effacing musicians. She was utterly girly-feminine singing of ankle-bells- you must walk with modesty, or you will get envious glances and condemning remarks- dancing round the stage, communicating her delight instantly to me. There was a long Tabla solo, which I am sure connoisseurs would appreciate, though I only noticed it was fast. I loved her.

For so long I have held myself apart, and one of the ways we as a family held ourselves apart was a strong active disapproval of popular music, which has reduced my enjoyment and inhibited my communicating with other people. Better to see the value in it. Like this:

That was the song which showed me that a pop song could be made around one brilliant line- who is she, what is her situation? Does she delude herself?- and a great deal of padding. Now, I could expatiate on the contrast between the rigid structure of the beat, simple harmony, bubble-gum pop vocal style, and the yearning in it. Very British to have emotion so held. Yet I do not need much, this week, to move me to tears.

Bouguereau, the Birth of Venus


roll up screenWe got into the tent on Thursday, before almost everyone, and had a choice of where we would have our stall. We chose to have it by the main entrance: the first thing you would see would be us. We had thousands of leaflets in lots of boxes, far more than we could possibly need, which filled all the space below the table and were heavy to shift. At the end, we took most of them back.

We had two roll-up screens, like the one illustrated, about 7′ high. We put them up, to see what they would look like and get an idea of where to place them. At that moment, a freak gust of wind blew in, blowing them over, twisting the bases and bending the feet. They still work but don’t look as good.

I said this to Andrew, whose instant response was “Why were they erected?” Well, for good reason which you insult me by doubting. I don’t answer to you. “To see what they looked like and where they should go,” I said.

I awoke at 5am, and this became intensely important to me. We must move the stand, or the wind could be a constant problem. I needed to agree this with the organisers, then I needed help to shift all those boxes. I could not bear to speak to Andrew about this, either to get him to see that it was necessary and possible- he would not trust my judgment, and would question pointlessly. I spoke to Jess, and we had a few people shifting the stuff later that morning.

I had not known it was a freak gust of wind at the time, but there was no wind remotely like it, at the entrance or at the back where we ended up- by the open fire exit.

It did mean that I often took a short-cut marked “authorised persons only”. I do so love being an “authorised person”!

So much Wangst, resulting in faffing! Everything would have been fine without all the worry and Action.

Andrew had produced information packs for all our volunteers including a rubber wristband inscribed “Live adventurously”. (This is the best slogan from Advices and Queries: A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength is equally Wise, but less memorable.) His screed began, “After you’ve attached your wristband please take a moment to read the following information”. My instant response was, I’m not wearing that! I am quite happy to wear it until I am instructed to. DON’T FUCKING TELL ME WHAT TO DO!! The same envelope held an A5 sheet of “Conversation hints”, including that one might ask, “What’s your name?” or “Where are you from?” DON’T FUCKING PATRONISE ME!! I was particularly irritated that he should produce these without consulting us: we were organising our volunteers, after all. Our response was to bury the information packs below other useless, heavy stuff. I brought one home, so I could quote it in complaints to you. He included the false information that we could shower daily without queueing, whereas the queues were up to 90 minutes.

It was alright in the end. Most of the worry had no effect whatsoever apart from increasing the work. This may be a useful lesson.


At Greenbelt, I met an angel. That is the only way I have to describe her.

She is ordained as an Anglican priest, and is without a parish, working as a prison chaplain. She is a channel for the love of God to the men in her care. We agreed how there is spiritual reality, but the words we use to describe it often just get in the way: the church quarrels and faffs about the precise words used, but the things described circle but do not touch the spiritual reality beyond. So we shed our illusions, and see reality for ourselves, and might be able to share our experience with others who have had them too; but it is so difficult with those yet to have them.

The other prison chaplain gives clear guidance, which a man who has suffered a chaotic lifestyle may value. One of their parishioners became a Born-Again Christian, clear that the Bible might be known and give a clear understanding of God’s will for human living. One of the easiest ways of reaching a state of mindfulness or presence is to be submerged in beauty- Heaven in a wild flower, as Blake saw. However there is little immediately recognisable beauty in a prison. You may see beauty in a rusting table-leg, but it helps to see it in a tree first.

She gave him a copy of Brian Cox’s book Wonders of the Universe. Then she saw him again, and he had got it: he had seen the beauty in that book. Writing, now, I am aware that my words give a facile, misleading account of the experience. She was sharing with me one of her delights, one of her successes, in a job where she must have great dollops of yuck; slow progress or apparent sterile stasis for damaged men. I believe this man has a more complex understanding of how reality is, beyond the certainties of the conservative Evangelical. I have the advantage of having looked into her face as she told of it.

I felt her love as she told me, and showed my love to her. We hugged. Before, I had given her Advices and Queries, and declaimed from it.

I was outside the tent around 11.30 when a thick cloud, moving fast across the sky, which had been between us and the moon suddenly wasn’t, leaving a patch of clearness. It was as if the light had suddenly been switched on. I saw Terry clearly, and his clear shadow.

Luca Giordano, Youth tempted by the Vices

The bishop

Bishops seem to like to talk to me. As is my duty, I am walking back to the field, quite exhausted, wishing I was a simpler life-form in a simpler world- though nothing has it easy. I want to mitigate my misery. It is not exactly a state of Presence I desire: I want, rather, to be Open to the beauty around me and forget my feelings. Block them out.

At the point where you see the water stretching far ahead, I catch the eye of the bishop. I might have looked needy, or interesting- I don’t know why we stopped. I note his purple shirt. “You’re a bishop,” I say, and he admits it.

I tell him I loved his stall. Just before we opened, I had a shoulder and hand massage there. All weekend, he has not been able to have a shoulder massage: always, when he has wanted one, someone else has come to the stall. I thought he should have pulled rank.

I’m with the Quakers. I crack my Gilbert and Sullivan joke: Bow, Bow, to the Area Meeting Clerk. He does not like people showing undue respect. There is very little ring-kissing, thank God, but some people seem to like bowing and scraping to The Bishop. I suppose they are associating with The Bishop, and to make themselves more important in this they must big him up. He does not like hierarchy.

Particularly he hates the order of precedence. Debrett’s would tell you that, I think. He thinks some people are sad enough to be able to tell you.

Bishops process into church in a particular order. First come the foreign bishops: so according to the order of precedence, they are all more junior than the most junior English bishop. The Archbishop of Cape Town processes in before the most junior Suffragan- which may, at one time, have been John Holbrook. Then after the most senior Suffragan comes the most junior diocesan bishop: so a man who has been Suffragan for ten years might be followed by the man who got the job he wanted, heaping burning coals upon his head.

He does not know why the Bishop brings up the rear in the procession. I think it has something to do with ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ This cheers him slightly.

I have had some wonderful conversations on the stall. I met a woman of 23 who had in the past idolised her pastor, but now was questioning: she judged the pastor, and judged for herself. I thought that meant she was meeting her development milestones. John Holbrook thought she might be a little backward- though I was not at that mature stage aged 23. I wanted a guide, not equality.

I loved this encounter with him. I am so glad that we were open to stopping. Greenbelt has opened me, opened us.

Luca Giordano, Diana and Endymion

Worship at Greenbelt

Mpho Tutu“Though we are many, we are one body”- I remain Christian because of its claim to unite us. Of course Christians can be fissiparous, and there are other movements which unite people; but our claim is true, sometimes. If more than six thousand people worshipped together at the Eucharist on Sunday morning, then it was the largest congregation with whom I have ever worshipped. Perhaps it was ten thousand.

Worship was to start at 10.30, but I heard hymns from my tent from about 9.30, and was in place near the stage just after ten. Unable to distribute so much bread and wine after consecration- it would have taken an age- we had our Communion Kit bags, to share between 15-20 people, containing a naan bread and a small bottle of cab sav. We sat around in the sun. I was keen to appear groomed and feminine despite the rigours of camping, so wore a dress. I started chatting to Maria, who had just returned from six months in Kenya with the Church Missionary Society. It had felt like the Will of God leading her. She had been unhappy in her work, and a series of synchronicities put her in touch with her former vicar, now testing vocations in the CMS. It was wonderful, and now she was awake to the possibility of further leadings.

We had four female celebrants on the stage, including Desmond Tutu’s daughter Mpho Tutu, who blessed us in Khosa. Singing in such a crowd was great fun, uniting us. I looked up at the beauty of the trees, and the variety of humanity.

Quaker worship went well. I was a little embarrassed to hand out bits of card reading You are warmly invited to join our Quaker Meeting for Worship at The Mount 6pm – 6.30pm Saturday 23 August, but people were happy to take them. We had about a hundred worshippers. The (Anglican) Society of St Francis, who worshipped before us, finished about 5.20, said we were next, and cleared up promptly. We put out our Advices and Queries booklets, several of which were taken away. I hope that next year we will have a stall.

I felt less embarrassed after meeting a woman handing out flyers for the Guild of Health‘s Service of Healing, Justice and Peace. I got chatting. The Guild is mostly Anglican, involving real doctors as well as alternative practitioners. S practises Reiki, and I said something about why I don’t, now, though I have done. I channel Qi to open my chakras- how eclectic- she said I could use the Jesus Prayer to open my chakras. I went to their worship, and after written prayers people were invited to the table, either to receive healing hands or place a candle on a world map on a place needing healing. The female vicar turned to the man who had come to sit beside her, beaming compassionately, and put out her hands for a few seconds. People were queueing for this! I fled.

Politics at Greenbelt

File:Annibale Carracci - The Penitent Magdalen in a Landscape (detail) - WGA04421.jpgOver dinner, I got chatting to three American women, for whom our 6pm was lunchtime, and they had not been to bed yet, and still had their talk to do. Regina (not i as in hide, but in heed) is born again, was helped to turn her life around by Thistle Farms, and is now their resident manager. They take in survivors of street prostitution, addiction and trafficking. On average, these women are first raped between the ages of 7 and 11. She misgendered me, referring to me as “he”. It’s OK.

So I went to their talk. Becca Stevens, who founded the organisation twenty years ago, celebrated at the Eucharist and talked of starting the organisation, giving women housing with no strings, for free, for a year, with group therapy, and their skin and body care products. There, I got chatting to the woman who does circus skills training.

Owen Jones is good with words. He reversed the barb “Politics of Envy”- the Politics of Envy is getting private sector workers, who have had their pensions taken away, envying and resenting File:Colijn de Coter - The Mourning Mary Magdalene - Google Art Project.jpgpublic sector workers who have better pensions rather than resenting those who have taken them; getting people on the minimum wage resenting benefit claimants, rather than those who pay starvation wages; benefit claimants resenting immigrants, who both “take our jobs” and “take our benefits”. Getting us unproductively angry with each other, and therefore cowed, rather than productively angry with-

He was less good on solutions, though. Workers who organise sometimes win. UK Uncut drew attention to the scandal of multinationals avoiding tax. Ernst and Young, vast accountancy firm, takes part in drafting the tax regulations which it then helps clients avoid. Its chief executive is a lovely guy who funds valuable charitable work- jobs for ex-prisoners, etc- but would be better paying fair taxes rather than doling charity.

I did not bump into Mpho Tutu in the Contributors’ tent, but did meet someone who worked with her, getting her to taxis, hotels and platforms. This was hard work, because she would give her full attention to anyone who spoke to her. I heard her speak, with a video of her father telling how he had flown to Nigeria, and been so proud that both pilots were black. Then they hit turbulence, and his fearful thought was who would save all these poor blacks, with no white man in the cockpit? So we take oppression into ourselves.

I missed the end of the “Atheists- the origin of the species” talk, which began on how the term originated: with different kinds of Christians accusing others of atheism for holding or not holding specific doctrines. I had to go to meet the Quakers. Late at night, I passed the Main Stage on my way out, and felt my ribcage vibrate in sympathy with the sub-woofers; but the band was uninspiring. Sinead O’Connor was alright, though.

First impressions

metmuseum El Greco The miracle of Christ healing the Blind rightI was unimpressed with my first contact with Greenbelt. Last year it was in Cheltenham, and as the clerk I had an email from Cheltenham Quakers enthusiastically saying how wonderful it was, and how well their meeting for worship at Greenbelt had gone. AM agreed that I could propose worship to them, after I bubbled over at AM.

That was February, and I could not propose worship then. I had to wait until March, and get a response in May. The form I completed referred to Greenbelt 2013, and the woman I emailed did not always email back. I had no idea what the venue would be like- would there be any buildings, or would it all be under canvas? Would there be any chairs? They asked about health and safety issues- don’t think so, but I am not an expert.

A month before, I had a new contact at Greenbelt, and we found our worship was not mentioned on their programme on the website. Initially we were promised ten tickets for the full weekend, but at the last minute told that as we were only contributing on one day, we could only have tickets for that day. I complained, and was told we could have tickets for the whole festival. But we were frightened of them, and this showed in our fear we would not get in- we had no ticket to show. We ended up with five weekend tickets and seven day tickets- we have more than ten? No problem.

metmuseum El Greco The miracle of Christ healing the Blind leftPeter drove me there, and we queued for ages in the car. We diverted to the box office, and when I said I was a contributor they were welcoming. I got my tent up. I wanted to take Peter to the Contributors’ hospitality tent but Security stopped me. So we went to a caff selling tea and bacon rolls, and sat under canvas beside a tots’ climbing frame. Two people joined us, and we started chatting about Christianity and Creationism. Peter left, and with my braw silver Contributor’s wristband I went into the Festival.

I walk on a plastic path through a wood. Less than five minutes’ walk from my tent, I enter the Festival ground, with the main stage and some food stalls on my right. The Mount, where we worship, is over to the left, but I have to go round a square lake. On my way I find inflatable sofas, with a large sign saying “We’re here to listen”- I chat to two Spiritual Directors, cuddly middle-aged women. They hope to hear joys at least as much as sorrows: they are not counsellors. You say what is going on in your life, and they ask “Where is God in that?”

Across a bouncy pontoon bridge then up a steep ramp to The Mount, which is square, a wee bit away from the rest of the Festival. A man had a T shirt inscribed “Hug me” so I asked and had a hug. There is a canopy, providing a roof but no walls, and outside it is perhaps fifty yards square and flat. It is a new feature, put up only four years ago. I was thinking this could be beautifully atmospheric for worship, when a loud BRAAANGGG of an electric guitar sounded from the Main Stage.

I am open, receptive, excited.


Metmuseum St John on Patmos, Hans Baldung Grien, detailGreenbelt is a festival on the August bank holiday each year. Fifteen thousand people gathered, many of us camping, round a group of venues in marquees and canopies. My idea of Heaven. In the venues there was a mix of serious talks, music, and comedy.

How Christian is it? K thought it in great part post-Christian, with social and environmental concern. But then she told me that two years ago at Greenbelt she had the painful realisation that she does not believe Christianity any more, yet still loves to come here. Someone else, a Methodist, found it insufferably Anglican, but independently of us there were Quaker speakers. There were hoodies on sale with the tag “Jesus is my Superhero” and the reference Romans 5:6– not my theology, or mode of expression- but I only saw one being worn.

That hoodie seriously tempted me, though, because of the cold. “Coldest night in August on record” said someone- I doubt that– but we shared stories of lying awake, cold and miserable. Someone said someone else had frost on their tent one morning. Instead, I got a soft wool blanket which would double as a shawl. The rain came down on Monday, and the ground became muddy quickly, but before then we had only a few short showers. Then on Monday morning I woke at 3am too hot, because I had wrapped myself so well, Metmuseum St John on Patmos, Hans Baldung Grienand lay groggily wondering whether I should risk taking any off. My tent kept rain out and stood the wind, but I found that except in the most propitious conditions- dry, sunny, no wind- I could not erect it or take it down alone. So I asked a passer-by, who helped gladly. K stayed in a B&B: all the hotels locally are booked up.

On Saturday I wandered down towards the showers, past stalls selling jewellery and pottery, music books and more clothes. “Come in out of the rain!” said a man. OK. I love this hand thrown bowl, £150, but it is quite out of my range. We chatted for a bit. Also there was a stall selling stuff for circus skills. They had been doing work with the young people. I had chatted at one talk with the wife, who is thinking of retiring. Their arthritis is playing up. They can pass the firm on. I got a pretty glass pendant.

Then as the rain stopped, I had my best musical experience of the festival: Hannah Scott on the Roots stage. It is open mic, and the pottery-seller commented that many of them could not even tune their guitars properly- it is hard, in the open air, hot in a tent, etc- but someone had pulled out and she stepped in there though she was paid to play at the Canopy. Not realising this, I heard the quality and stopped to listen. Twenty of us sat in the sun under the trees, with this beautiful music, just a voice and one guitar.

Christianity and Wisdom

Metmuseum Reliquary of Mary MagdalenLeviticus 20! say the homophobes, and many gay people say “Fuck You” to that by leaving Christianity. Why would anyone stay? Because Christianity is Ours, at least as much as theirs, and they will not take it from us. And it is a handy store of human wisdom.

Susan is a wise woman. I watched her at our Greenbelt Quaker meeting with R, a pretty slip of a thing aged around 14. Perhaps R commented that we normally have flowers in the centre. I noticed when she brought something from the lawn grass of The Mount, to place on our banner; then trot off, and find a daisy, to replace it. R took pleasure in her contribution; Susan, physically old but able to enter the joys sorrows and conundrums of all ages, delighted in R’s pleasure, and their pleasure delighted me.

One woman ministered that we should not be waiting under the Master’s table for crumbs to fall, when there is a place at it with our name on it. I thought that rather good as a bon mot, though when I retailed it someone said she had heard it elsewhere this weekend. We all got the allusion, and possibly many atheists would too, so pervasive are our stories.

Considering my own progression into Wisdom, I wonder how I am doing. How much, really, should I have learned by 48? Passing by a tent I heard The Scargill community on bodies. Ours is a physical religion, with a God who so delighted in human bodies that God lived in one. (Or All, I would say). Our bodies are wonderful, and a gift. The Spiritual and the future matter, but not to the exclusion of the Now and the physical. I saw my body was beautiful when I transitioned, and that all bodies are beautiful at a Quaker weekend shortly after. You might say that the emphasis on humans as spiritual, rational beings rather than as animals with animal responses and needs is a Christian failing; I would discern its root in the Enlightenment; but my Christianity has the answer. All of the human is beautiful and valuable.

I left the tent in the cold night, got a cup of tea and sat outside at a table. I opened conversation with the woman there- so much easier at Greenbelt than on, say, the London Underground. She could accept the truth of that, that all human beings are beautiful (a truth one can find in strands of feminism and psychotherapy as well as Christianity) about others, but not about herself. I told her how beautiful her eyes were.

Different ideas in Christianity have value at different times. I find the American Evangelical insistence on Original Sin, and the Remnant who are saved, divisive and destructive, but in a genuinely embattled persecuted community it could give strength and hope. I disliked at the Eucharist singing of heaven after death- Heaven must be here, an idea beloved of more Christians than just Quakers- but for slaves, tired of living and scared of dying, it could give a way out of despair. Such hope might let them see ways to improve their lives which despairing people could not see.