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.


I, Daniel Blake –

Little gang of us saw ‘I, Daniel Blake’ tonight. A great film! Brave story telling only enhanced by some understated performances and direction. No surprise the film put Ian Duncan Smith – the architect of five-years welfare reform – on the defensive. Here’s a measured indictment of UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) benefits system since the crash, austerity and the political decision to clobber all the ‘skivers’ and ‘shirkers’ with £15 billion cuts to the welfare budget. The film affirms what we all know – the skivers and shirkers are an insignificant number, while most of us want to work, a place to call home and some feeling of self-worth. “When you loose your self-respect, you’re done for”, says Daniel Blake.

Social security can function as a vital safety net supporting people through crisis. The DWP system in the film is appalling for its absence of humanity. On its launch, IDS did a Gove and refuted all the ‘experts’ and army of researchers credited at the end of the film – immediately betraying a profound lack of insight about his own system!

The film is shot through with compassion. The food bank scene is one of many celebrating the generosity, kindness and the tender response of a bunch of people, getting organised to help others. And at the end there’s a quiet plea from Blake for authorities (organisations, charities) and systems to engage fully with, and affirm the reality and complexity of our humanity. “I’m not a ‘client’, I’m not a ‘customer’, I’m not a ‘service user’! I’m a person!”

Lots more to say. But, go see! It’s a BBC Film, so will hopefully soon pop up on iPlayer for months. Essential viewing!

Christmas Star

My blog for the Chatsworth Road Advent Stars thing.

An advent star for when the sky clears and it’s an inky blackness. Lost in space, without a prayer, courage fades; the campaign fails, the cause has gone.

When hope is lost and you’re uncertain where to go.

Christmas recalls an improbable story of astrologers guided to a Palestinian baby in a country under military occupation. For those of faith, the story finds God in solidarity with humanity, in a stable, sharing the view with farmyard animals, and a teenage mum.

It’s a great tale.

Amongst many things, the legacy is a movement of all kinds of people living for justice, mercy and peace.

Another story last week, this time of east Londoners travelling to Calais. Taking food and clothing to refugees and asylum seekers searching for sanctuary on European soil, many from countries battered and bombed.

And those bearing gifts return speaking of extraordinary welcome, and astonishing hospitality.

Sitting with lives that un-expectantly burn bright, under a makeshift tarpaulin in the rain.

So, here’s to moments shared, that challenge and illuminate in wilderness days.

To flickers of grace and mercy extended to each other when we least expect it.

To flames of solidarity with the refugee and those on the margins, a commitment to justice and right living that take us beyond charity.

Here’s to some modest visions and great adventures this week. You never know where it might lead.

Minotaurs, Rope and Resistance

Last night to the final National Coalition on Independent Action gathering and some sobering insight into the current state of the voluntary sector.

In case you didn’t know it, your favourite charities are mainly in trouble – particularly your small, local, on the doorstep variety.

According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations around half of all voluntary organisations have an income of less than £10k. A further third flourish on less than £100k annually. While these small, nimble little charities make up most of the ‘voluntary sector’ they only total 5% of its income.

Between 2010 and 2013, these organisations lost nearly 25 per cent and 20 per cent of their statutory income respectively. Whether small or large, most voluntary organisations will depend on local authority funding – cut by 37% – with more cuts to come.

“The idea of doing another 50 page tender just does me in…”

Lots of stories last night on the forensic attack being made to the voluntary sector.

From the temptations of impossible funding arrangements charities must navigate, the contracts and the compromises along the way – the rational that has to be carefully explained. To the impact of signing the contract – creaming off ‘core costs’, leaving little to actually ‘deliver’ the service.

Or the erosion of independence, the loss of empathy with disadvantaged voices.

Or the self-editing and silencing of ‘truth spoken to power’.

Or the loss of advocacy and defending people’s rights.

Lots of stories.

“What do we want charities to do? Are they established to salve our consciousness – or to solve problems?”

These are challenging times for community groups. Many signing contracts, reducing them to ‘service organisations’ delivering services. Despite this their work may go way beyond service delivery. These are organisations that deliver social capital, build resilience in broken neighbourhoods, speak out about those most disadvantaged, nurture participation amongst those written off, provide forum for dissenting voices, facilitating development and all kinds of unfashionable things.

We now clearly need an alternative delivery system, a way to fund this essential work that nurtures a distinctive, independent voluntary sector.

“We’ve a horrible five years coming for the voluntary sector. It’s crucial we set aside differences – we need to work together…”

If the voluntary sector has been squeezed into an impossible corner – accept funding conditions or shut – then the silence from organisations established to support them has been deafening. Only now are NCVO, ACEVO, NAVCA and others beginning to put their head above the parapet, and speak up about change – even as government prepares to cuts there funding. Maybe it’s too late.

As the voluntary sector has been under attack NCIA has been a foghorn blaring away since 2008, a candid call for an independent voluntary sector.

The call now is to get stuck in.

Just like Jason and the Minatour – we need to delve into this maze and confront the monster. To go in and challenge the beast – whilst like Jason, remaining attached to the rope. The rope anchors us to our values, connects us to our mission, to what we’re for, what we’re set up to do; to what matters, and what will lead us home.

Completing a report for a grassroots charity the other month (represented at the event last night) I was asked in the final edit meeting to remove any reference to ‘advocacy’. “It’s too political. It will upset funders.” I wasn’t surprised.

The truth is – this is all very difficult. The people I know involved in this work – from national charities, regional organisations, to small local groups – are confronting these situations daily and having to make all kinds of impossible choices. Some of them conflicting with core principles and what matters. And so the distinctiveness of our sector is diluted.

We can talk tough. What ever we might say, we’re all scared.

We all self-edit. We all want to protect our agenda. In doing so we risk cutting the rope and losing touch with what matters.

One alternative is finding others – finding solidarity. Resisting the changes with others, because we’re reminded our work, our cause is too important. NCIA or any of it’s associates is a good place to start.

Running Away With It

London Marathon today on the day the Sunday Times published its annual ‘Rich List’.

Crowds of runners pelted past Canada Water (renamed for the day following a sponsorship deal with a bottled water company)  as we learn the collective wealth of Britain’s richest 1,000 people now stands at a staggering £547.126 billion. Astonishingly, despite the world economy suffering a decade-long recession this figure has more than doubled since a total of just under £250bn was recorded in 2005.

Alongside this we’ve had a decade that has seen food banks become an essential component in a new, skinnier, meaner welfare state, a hike in fees for further education and an explosion in house prices and rent costs. Zero hour contracts proliferate; we’ve seen a mushrooming of part time jobs and a spike in the numbers of people calling themselves ‘self-employed’ – earning on average around £10k annually.

It’s 2015. By any standards we are becoming a more unequal society. It beggars belief.

Watching the pack of runners go past, the cheering crowds are awash with banners (‘Keep Going Jayne!’), inflatable sticks, oversized spongy hands and and all manner of things to wave. It’s a fantastic atmosphere. People are shouting out all manner of encouragement. Then Simon – in our gang – bellows out through his loud haler “Don’t forget – it’s not a race, it’s a marathon!”

I like that advice. ‘Marathon’ seems to be more about bettering yourself, beating your own time, self-improvement and somehow completing in one piece. Rather than simply competing and racing against others.

A good society sees life is more ‘marathon’ than ‘race’ – about improving myself and finding solidarity and camaraderie with other runners and the crowd. It’s less about a race that involves stepping over others.

More inequality means the richest disappearing off into the distant, racing off and loosing touch with those they started out with – not good for the rest of us. They forget about those left behind.

Libraries of research tell us inequality is bad – an unequal society breeds division, extremist reactions, higher crime and poor health – not good for civilisation. So, if we need better, sharper regulation to ensure more equality, it’s disappointing with an election around the corner, all political parties avoid this stuff.

In the race for No 10, we need to be speaking up, using a loud haler and calling for small incremental changes that create more economic and financial equality. That’s the prize! After all – life is not a race, it’s longer and tougher, like a marathon!

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.