Remembering John Smith

Friend and regular to the festival in the 1980s and 90s, Ozzie theologian and activist John Smith has died. 

In the early 70s John ditched the Methodist minister suit and tie, grew his hair and a beard, switching to boots, leather and skins, embracing the outlaw bike scene. The rest is history. In 1972 ‘God’s Squad’ was established. As the beard grew, the leathers scuffed and outlaw bikers defected to Gods Squad, so the club established its reputation across Australia as a legitimate ‘outlaw’ gang. John embraced the rituals of the outlaw biker with a compassion and commitment, that helped grow the Squad’s credibility. Alongside friendships with outsiders John co-founded churches, organisations and social welfare programmes, penetrating Aussie media long after interest in the Squad had moved on. John brought a distinctive comment on social, cultural and ethical issues, challenging his audience to find meaning beyond consumption and materialism. 

If you made it to Greenbelt in the late 80s and early 90’s you’d have struggled to miss John. He first spoke at Greenbelt in 1986, the year of Hurricane Charlie, attending the festival with his beloved family and close friends, the Maddocks. It was John’s blend of intellect, passion and a fearless oratory that helped grow a loyal UK following – that, along with the cassette tape. I first heard about Smithy from a biker in a Stockport tower block in ‘87 who gave me a tape of his ’86 Greenbelt talks as we sipped sherry. It was a revelation. John returned to Greenbelt in ‘87 to launch his autobiography. The book and his Greenbelt talks became best-sellers. For a time U2’s Bono and Edge adopted Smithy as unofficial chaplain, and his followers grew. 

John was unusual – a genuine, old school polymath. A walk round the neighbourhood and he introduced varieties of grass, types of eucalyptus, the hidden or ignored revealed and celebrated. Ten minutes with Smith and you might cover protons and particle physics, Hamlet, Tolstoy, Lady Gaga, alongside youth homelessness, or marine conservation. Which is maybe why a generation of Greenbelt audiences loved him. His empathy with artists and passion for, and knowledge of art was infectious. John referred to art as ‘the nerve ends of the soul’ coupling his commitment to artists alongside a rage against injustice, racism, treatment of indigenous people, inequality. Though he inspired many in truth John was complex – an impossible, absurd mix of contradictions. Intense, chaotic, tactless, driven, at times heavy handed. Curious, compassionate, tender, broken. And brilliant. 

His final Greenbelt was in 2007. Track #RIP John Smith on your social media and you’ll see a legacy in tributes from performers, artists, musicians, medics, teachers, social-workers and activists. Many who trace their vocation back to Smithy and an encounter at Greenbelt. It says it all. People who joined John and ditched one life for something else all-together.

Written for the Greenbelt blog 11 March 2019.


Celebrating Social Justice!

Owen Jones popped into Greenbelt this year, did a talk, appeared on GTV and clearly took a bit of time out to soak up the vibe. He said this about the festival:

Greenbelt is an inspiring and fascinating celebration of social justice, breaking down barriers between those of faith and no faith. It’s not only good fun – it lifts the hearts of all of us who believe in a better world.”

Greenbelt as a space that brings diverse people together – faith and no faith – to inspire, challenge, provoke. In a context of diversity, it’s great to meet people who live and breathe and work for a better world.

Festival – as a source of solidarity! That makes for a great festival.

 

 

Greenbelt 2014 – It Had it All!

Here’s a brief reflection as chair of Greenbelt, following a fabulous festival at Boughton House in Northamptonshire:

Greenbelt Festival is a late summer, long weekend of art, music, performance, food, drink and ideas, provoking, affirming, challenging and inspiring. And it’s about now, after the festival, over the next few weeks that stories pop up – of someone enrolling on an art course, another joining a creative writing class, or going along to a book club. You get the picture. Another may click on that campaign petition, sign up to a cause, volunteer at the night shelter, set up a project, or remarkably – find their vocation. I know a bloke who moved into a housing estate in Weston Super Mare to live and work, after being inspired at a session on “Living in a Crap Town”*. Another year someone went home and set up a project in their city to assist refugees. There are lots of stories like this, from a festival that’s more than a festival, seeding ideas that just might change your life.

Greenbelt is a festival hand-made by hundreds of volunteers, led by a small clutch of staff. So, this August’s festival was the outcome of gazillions of emails, phone calls, car and train journeys and meetings – lots of meetings! Oh, the time that goes into choosing venues, timetabling artists, planning for stewards, positioning a Glade Stage or a Big Top.

The other weekend staff and volunteers pulled off a spectacular festival, in a gorgeous new site. Did I mention the new site? Part ‘Secret Garden’ part ‘Enchanted Forest’, with trees magically up rooting and mooching about after midnight (no, they don’t uproot and mooch about after midnight… but this would be great for one year). The move was a bold and necessary decision led by Creative Director Paul Northup, CEO Beccie D’Cunha and Operations chief Derek Hill, and backed by the board, staff and volunteers. Of course, the words ‘new’ and ‘site’ are an exciting distraction from the tough realities and challenge of rethinking and reimagining a 41-year-old festival in a new and very different location. They hide the hard work, the planning and preparation to get it all just right. It’s a huge credit to staff, contractors, volunteers and everyone involved, that their plans pulled together so well, and so much of the festival (so much!) was pitch perfect. Alongside this, we didn’t get everything right. As chair of trustees and on behalf of the board I’m very sorry about this. I’m only thankful that as issues emerged, staff and volunteers responded rapidly, where possible addressing the immediate concerns over the weekend.

Moving house, moving site – any move – can be tricky. You make plans, map out the space and decide where the furniture goes. It’s only when you’ve moved in and you’ve lived with it for a while, do you get an idea of what really works. So, this was the year of the move**. Of stepping off, jumping in, setting things up and trying things out at Boughton.

For the organisers, this year had it all – the challenges of a new site and then, on the Monday, big, fat, blobby, bank holiday rain. For many festivalgoers packing up and returning home it was astonishing to see and hear how site crew and stewards dealt with it all. Our car spent the entire festival in the long stay car park merrily letting off its alarm every two minutes. By Monday night, it was all honked out. Within a few minutes of reporting the problem to stewards, the unlikely double-act of Monty and Minion, part of the fire crew, volunteering across the weekend, emerged across a soggy field in pouring rain – all beard and jumpers. In a moment they had the motor sparking into life and the engine ticking over. It was their breathtaking warmth, kindness and generosity that stay with me. Their passionate commitment and solidarity with festivalgoers, as the rain fell and the temperature dropped was repeated across the site with stewards, fire crew and others. These are Greenbelt moments, even as you head off, leaving the site.

We could talk about the programme – the art, music, performance, food, drink and ideas and all this provokes, affirms, challenges and inspires. I’m grateful to all those who made it possible – who make Greenbelt ‘festival’, who got it to Boughton, and in less than 365 days reimagined a spectacular new festival – art, faith and justice that germinates into all sorts. Not bad. Zero to spectacular, in under a year! Here’s to the next.

*Weston Super Mare is not a crap town.
**Greenbelt is fuelled by Angels, who enable us to contemplate things like a site move. Find out more about Greenbelt Angels here.