This year, we were thrilled to welcome Jack Monroe to Greenbelt. Jack falls into the you-need-to-ask-four-or-five-years-in-a-row category of festival contributor. Along with the likes of Billy Bragg. But our hope is that now that Jack has said yes once, and been with us, then it might not take so many years of asking next time round!
Anyway, here’s the story …
We did the deal to bring Jack to Greenbelt 2017 quite early on in the year. The agents were really helpful and things seemed to be going very smoothly. But that was from our end. Out there, in the full glare of the media spotlight, Jack was wrestling with Katie Hopkins in court. And it wasn’t pretty.
As a result of the case understandably swallowing them whole, we weren’t hearing back from Jack at all. We wanted to confirm details – talks titles, whether Jack would sit on panels, what accommodation was needed. And so on. But we were getting no answers. It was clear that Jack was overwhelmed with what was going on. And we were anxious that the toll the case was taking might well scupper Jack coming to Greenbelt after all.
And then, after weeks of waiting, and after our pitching a suggested talk title and blurb to Jack, a response came. Rather than go with our generic talk title suggestion, Jack came back with the idea of calling their talk “I was hungry and thirsty …”. Our hearts leapt. Not only was it game on, but Jack was clearly engaging wholeheartedly with the festival context too, choosing a title that would sit well with our core community. Added to which, Jack said a panel would be OK, too. Even one with the formidable Peter Oborne already booked in!
In the end, Jack came to us for a whole day on the most gloriously sunny August Bank Holiday we can ever remember. Jack’s main talk in the Glade Big Top was packed to capacity and saw them abandon their notes and speak from the heart about their journey with and through poverty and their commitment to fighting for all those left behind in Britain today. Pausing to sing a Jackie Oates song at one point, Jack drew to a close and received the first of their standing ovations – before opening up for questions. A session in which the miraculous happened.
One of the questioners, with a voice on the verge of cracking, explained how she suffered with chronic agoraphobia and that this was the first time she’d ventured into the Glade Big Top as she couldn’t cope with its size and the numbers of people in it. But she wanted to come and thank Jack for writing so openly and honestly about transitioning and how this vulnerability and candour had been such a help to her. “Ever since I read your stuff, Jack, on your transition journey, I’ve wanted to hug you,” said the faltering voice. With that, Jack was leaping down from the Glade stage and galloping along the pit barrier. Clambering up onto the steel divide, Jack reached over and the two embraced for minutes while the tent erupted in tears and applause.
And we realised we were witnessing one of ‘those’ Greenbelt moments. When a form of healing and ministry was taking place that would perhaps ordinarily not be recognised in our usual constructs of how God and the church work. Where a tent of thousands of supportive Greenbelters were there for Jack as Jack was there for them – to celebrate and honour Jack as a person and as a ‘witness’. Where Jack could use phrases like “speaking truth to power” and a tent full of people could see and understand Jack as a prophet calling for justice. When, asked by a Greenbelter what we could pray for them, Jack replied “Peace, pray peace for me.” (Confessing how they lived in fear and anxiety most of the time.)
The simple human kindness that Jack encountered at their local foodbank was what had transformed their life’s journey and experience, they said. And Jack, in turn, was transforming the experience of thousands of Greenbelters with a fiercesome and yet trembling commitment to do justice in the face of oppression. It was deeply moving and humbling.
Later, after a book-signing which drew the biggest queues of the weekend, Jack contributed to our ‘Fake News’ Hot House panel and once again demonstrated great eloquence and generosity. After an exchange with Peter Oborne which got pretty feisty (leaving us anxious that the ‘Hot House’ was actually living up to its billing at last!), we emailed Peter to check he was OK and hadn’t felt ambushed too badly. He responded that he’d loved his time at Greenbelt and in particular his encounter with Jack who he’d found to be “excellent”.
Few of those who were there to hear Jack at Greenbelt this year will ever forget the experience. And the fact that they came and gave so generously after their year fighting with Katie Hopkins in the courts is all the more wonderful. As the final questioner in the Glade Big Top said: “We love you far more than Katie Hopkins can ever hate you, Jack.”
You can order and download Jack’s set-piece talk here and the panel they sat on later in the day on Fake News here. Or you can order all the recorded talks from this year’s festival in one bundle here.
This blog was written by Greenbelt’s Creative Director, Paul Northup.