Rebecca Stott, Duke Special & More at Greenbelt 2018

After five years away, we finally made it back to Greenbelt, a progressive Christian summer arts festival held on the grounds of Boughton House, on the Bank Holiday. The festival is a mixture of talks, music, performances and more, and given how much we’d paid and how far we’d traveled just for the one day, we tried to pack in as much as possible.


We started the day with “Beyond Forgiveness,” a presentation by Jo Berry and Pat Magee. Berry’s father, a Tory MP, was killed when the IRA bombed the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984. Magee spent 14 years in prison for his role in the bombing. When he got out of jail, he met Berry at her request and they talked and listened to each other for several hours. For the first time, Magee said, he could see her father as a real person and realized that the IRA had been just as guilty of dehumanizing and misrepresenting people as the English were. Berry, too, felt that “I’d met my enemy and seen his humanity.” The two have now shared a stage more than 200 times, speaking about the value of empathy in healing broken relationships while also addressing imbalances of power that lead to violence.

To my surprise, cookery displays and musical comedy seemed to be the order of the day. A model kitchen is a new addition to the festival, giving celebrity chefs hour-long sessions to demonstrate a particular dish. Jack Monroe, promoting her new book Cooking on a Bootstrap, cooked a sausage lasagna. She made us all laugh with her idea of “the inverse sausage fallacy” – the cheaper a sausage is, the better it tastes because of all the salt, sugar and spices added to cheaper bits of meat. She started writing recipes when she was a single mother on the dole, and so she encouraged audience members to donate nice things you would like to eat, as well as everyday hygiene products, to food banks. For a “What Vegans Eat” session, Brett Cobley (aka EpiVegan) made a pea and asparagus risotto and answered questions about protein sources, egg replacements, plant milks and harder-to-find ingredients.


Uproarious musical comedy came in the form of Harry & Chris, who made up impromptu raps about New Year’s Day, the Teletubbies and phobias, and Flo & Joan, who sang about divorce statistics, unnecessary inventions for women, and sex robots (the show was fairly crude and came with an 18+ warning). The overall musical highlight of the day was Duke Special, a Greenbelt favorite we’ve seen play quite a number of times now. His pop combines his smooth Belfast tenor with music hall and Big Band stylings, and his songs are often drawn from poetry and 1920s–40s songbooks. His latest project, Hallow, is a beautiful set of Michael Longley poems set to music. He played “Another Wren” and “Emily Dickinson” from that album, various covers (including two bizarre ditties by Ivor Cutler), and crowd favorites “Last Night I Nearly Died,” “Freewheel” and “Our Love Goes Deeper than This.” We also sampled performances by Martyn Joseph, Wallis Bird and CC Smugglers.

Duke Special was a good bridge between music and literature. From the literature program I also saw Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg speak on “Things My Dog Has Taught Me about Being a Better Human,” the title of his recent book. (His dog Mitzpah had a special dispensation to join him on stage; no animals are allowed on site otherwise!) The rabbi spoke about lessons in listening, attention, trust and seizing the moment. Mitzi and his previous dog Safi have also given him a connection with the rest of creation. Although he lives in the London suburbs and has an inner-city synagogue, they have accompanied him on long walks in Scotland and Germany. Wittenberg was a warm and witty speaker and I very much liked the sound of his book. It could make a good follow-up to The Power of Dog.

My other festival highlight was Rebecca Stott, in conversation with Radio 4 presenter Malcolm Doney. I read her Costa Prize-winning memoir In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult in April and it’s been one of my stand-out reads of the year so far. The book conveys a huge amount of information about the Exclusive Brethren and Stott’s family history but never loses sight of what is most important: what it was like to be in a cult and have your life defined by its rules and its paranoia about the outside world. Stott remembers 6 a.m. Sunday communion services and her constant terror of being left behind in the Rapture.

Rebecca Stott reading from In the Days of Rain.

Unfortunately, the talk didn’t add much to my experience of reading her book. The interviewer, catering to those who haven’t read the book yet, led her through her whole story bit by bit, and because I’d read it fairly recently it was all familiar. However, Stott spoke wonderfully and was full of wry compassion for her younger self. I was most interested to hear about the book’s aftermath: she’s received 300 letters from ex-Brethren that her daughter is transcribing to send to a Brethren Church archive in Manchester. When asked during a Q&A where she sees cult tendencies today, she mentioned Trump supporters!

Whereas I read In the Days of Rain from the library, I happen to own two Stott books I haven’t read yet, so I cheekily brought along my paperback of Ghostwalk for signing. She was intrigued to see the older cover design and told me she thinks the prose style in her debut novel is much richer than in Rain, and she hopes I’ll like it. I thanked her for the talk, told her how much I’d enjoyed her memoir, and recommended her two books vaguely about cults: Educated by Tara Westover, which she already knew well, having done some events with Westover, and The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, which was new to her (my blog tour review is coming up on Monday). I caught myself using the word “brilliant” three times in speaking about Stott’s work and these other books – nuance and vocabulary alike clearly go out the window when nervously speaking to admired authors!

Some readers of this blog would have been delighted by the event I rushed to straight after Stott’s talk: Jon McGregor giving readings from Reservoir 13, with Sigur Rós-esque backing and interlude music from Haiku Salut. I heard about the police reconstruction with actors from Manchester, and collecting bilberries on the heath in August. Unfortunately, I found it just as dull read aloud as I did when I tried the book last year, and I left early.

During bits of down time I pulled out a Katherine Mansfield story collection I found in a charity shop last week and read “Bank Holiday” and “The Garden Party.” The former is a very short piece whose carnival atmosphere rises to a note of indeterminate striving:

“And up, up the hill come the people, with ticklers and golliwogs, and roses and feathers. Up, up they thrust into the light and heat, shouting, laughing, squealing, as though they were being pushed by something, far below, and by the sun, far ahead of them – drawn up into the full, bright, dazzling radiance to…what?”

It was my first time reading the famous “The Garden Party,” which likewise moves from a blithe holiday mood into something weightier. The Sheridans are making preparations for a lavish garden party dripping with flowers and food. Daughter Laura is dismayed when news comes that a man from the cottages has been thrown from his horse and killed, and thinks they should cancel the event. Everyone tells her not to be silly; of course it will go on as planned. The story ends when, after visiting his widow to hand over leftover party food, she unwittingly sees the man’s body and experiences an epiphany about the simultaneous beauty and terror of life. “Don’t cry,” her brother says. “Was it awful?” “No,” she replies. “It was simply marvellous.” Mansfield is especially good at first and last paragraphs. I’ll read more by her someday.


How did you all spend your Bank Holiday? / How do you plan to spend Labor Day?

Did any reading get done?

24 responses

  1. Sounds like fun! I’ve just been dipping back into Mansfield and she’s so good…


    1. I can’t believe I’d never read her before. What I also can’t believe is that she published three story collections before dying at age 34 — the age I am now! What other stories would you recommend?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Frankly, they’re all good. I’ve just been reading a new selection from Alma Classics and I’m astonished all over again at how good her writing was. If I recall correctly, “In A German Pension” came first, based on her experiences in a boarding house in Germany. I don’t think it matters where you go with Mansfield, as all of her writing is so good in my view. There’s a nice Persephone collection which tempts me regularly too, even though I have everything already in other collections…. =:o


  2. That sounds like a delightful bank holiday weekend! I finished Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley, which I liked very much; read Elefant by Martin Suter, which is cute and cheery, if not exactly high art; and completed The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, which is also quite wonderful and which I will be thinking about for some time. This was in between celebrations for my housemate’s birthday (lots of cake, lots of pub), so quite pleased with myself for managing three books!


    1. Awesome! I’ve been holding out on The Mars Room because I couldn’t finish her previous novel, but if it advances to the Booker shortlist I might give it a go. We also went to a spectacular 60th birthday dinner for my husband’s boss and spent a very rainy Sunday working. A good mix of stuff.


      1. I didn’t love The Flamethrowers either, but I was really convinced by The Mars Room. It’s got a strong chance of advancing to the shortlist, I think.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like an interesting festival! I’ll likely get no reading done over Labor Day weekend, as we’re having guests and a crab feast, since we are in MD and that’s always in order over the summer. Looking forward to less hectic fall days when I can read some of your recommendations!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Enjoy the holiday weekend! I haven’t been to a crab feast since my senior year at Hood. In all honesty I find it a lot of work for not very much food 😉


  4. I did some running and two lots of volunteering on Saturday then delivered cheese to friends in town and had a read on the bus; we went to my parents-in-law on Sunday and I read on the bus, and I worked yesterday but made time for a coffee out with my husband. Quite a lot of reading: I’m nearly done with my current weird Virago then just two books to go for 20BooksOfSummer!


    1. “Delivered cheese” — I feel like that requires an explanation! I’ve got to write up my last couple #20Books reads for a final post on Saturday.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, yes – I order a very low-fat but tasty cheddar from a website and if you order £x worth it’s free shipping and you get economies of scale ordering multiple sets of the same cheese. So I order for five of us, two live very nearby and collect from my house and this time I took the other two’s in to town to pass to them.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Sounds fantastic Rebecca – I like Duke Special a lot and the Resevoir 13 event sounds excellent.


    1. This time it was just him and a piano on the stage, and he did a lot of poems set to music and covers, which I think the mainstage audience didn’t engage with as much as they would his whole-band stuff. Definitely check out Hallow, his album of Michael Longley poems, if you don’t already know it.


  6. Sounds like a wonderful festival! The Beyond Forgiveness talk sounds like it was meaningful.

    I read The Garden Party and Other Stories about ten years ago and really liked the collection. She was enormously talented. I’d say she’s worth a reread since it’s been so long.

    We don’t really do anything special for Labor Day because, while my son and I are both off, my husband is working – Boooooo. But I do intend to get some reading in whenever I can. My son has to read for at least 20 minutes a day for school homework so I always sit down and read while he’s reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was very impressed that Jo Berry was not just able to meet with her father’s killer one time, but to form a real relationship. Those kinds of talks are what this festival is particularly good for.

      I will definitely need to read some more by Mansfield. I’ve put this collection aside for now, but I’ll see if I can pick it up again next month as I focus on short stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Rebecca, you wrote about this festival so vividly – that I feel as if I was out walking among the crowd – what a rich experience, as per your usual, in great depth. I’m intrigued by the “poetry” reference…that of performers Duke Special, specifically “Hallow” and the M. Longley work – and because of what you’ve written here – I will look for that. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will try to add some more photos my husband took to illustrate the day.

      The Duke Special album is unlikely to be available in America except by import. I hope you’ll be able to find it, or at least listen online.


  8. Glad you enjoyed the event overall. Though I do know what you mean about the kind of event which is mostly about the book whereas I, too, crave something more, about process or history or something.

    Mansfield is terrific with endings. I love how they just happen, and yet they are so “right” somehow. She is the first author whose stories I read straight through over a longer period of time (a summer) and I am definitely due to go back to them. (But, first, more Gallant!)

    We did not have a long weekend this past weekend, but we do have one next weekend. But I don’t know about reading over those days – I seem to have better luck fitting books into weekdays lately!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ll have to educate me: what holiday do you have in Canada next week? I know how weekends and holidays can fill up with other things. Unless I’m traveling for them (I get a lot of reading done on long car or train rides), you’re right, I’m more likely to read lots on my weekdays. Perhaps I’ll finish the Mansfield volume in September. I have a vague plan to get to lots of short fiction, though I’d always pick a novel over a story collection.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s Labour Day on Monday and then, typically, school starts the next day for elementary/primary and secondary/high school (in Ontario). So far it’s looking like a busy Saturday, which sometimes ends up meaning that the other days become busy via overflow. But I do have a library pick-up in there somewhere. Those new fall books are already trickling in! I love reading on the train, but I often get distracted by staring out the window too. I love watching the landscape spool past.


    2. Oh, okay, I didn’t realize you have Labour Day too. Good to know 🙂

      I like reading in any moving vehicle. Luckily I haven’t gotten carsick since I was a child.


  9. We spent the weekend at Greenbelt and came away as always entertained, enervated and inspired. Personal highlights were Carol Ann Duffy on the first evening, the St Martin in the Fields sacred music performance in the colonnades of Boughton House, a provocative and powerful piece of agitprop from Pussy Riot…and Jon McGregor and Haiku Salut, although I speak as a lover of McGregor and of Reservoir 13 in particular. My wife and younger daughter attended the Rebecca Stott session as they had been reading In the Days of Rain. I’m looking forward to reading it myself now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment! I would have liked to see Carol Ann Duffy, but we could only afford (money- and time-wise) the one day, so chose Monday as having the most that we wanted to see and do. I loved McGregor’s So Many Ways to Begin (I led the Greenbelt Big Read discussion on it some years back), but, alas, couldn’t get on with Reservoir 13. In the Days of Rain is a wonderful book. I hope you will enjoy it.


  10. […] acts plus a compere and was headlined by Flo & Joan, a musical sister act we’d seen before at Greenbelt 2018. Beforehand, we had excellent pizzas at Franco Manca. Oxford felt busy, but we wore masks to queue […]


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