James Holloway: builder of Greenbelt’s foundations

James Holloway: builder of Greenbelt’s foundations

A Tribute to James Holloway by former festival manager and Fat Band member Martin Evans

James Holloway died at 3a.m. on Friday, the 18th October 2019 in Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, surrounded by his family. He had suffered an aneurism three weeks before that and never regained consciousness. He was 73 years of age. James’s death represents the loss of a truly great man and one of most significant figures in the history and development of Greenbelt. He was one of the trio who first brought Greenbelt into being.

The story goes like this…

Jim Polassari was the leader of the ‘Jesus Family’, a travelling Christian community who had written – and were performing across the country – an evangelistic rock musical called Lonesome Stone. Jim was a charismatic and restless character and was looking for a new project. One day, in the winter of 1973, he was in a meeting with Steve Shaw, who working on the promotion of Lonesome Stone. Jim said to Steve: “What we need next summer is a Jesus festival.”

Steve had recently joined the Jesus Family after the band he had been part of had disbanded. All the members of the band, including me, had joined ‘The Family’, having lived our lives before that in deep Suffolk.

A bit of backstory…

A year before his meeting with Jim, Steve had been hitchhiking home from Ipswich to Capel St May when he was picked up by a certain James Holloway. James picked Steve up on the A12, just after a very busy roundabout and on a steep a hill. It was not a promising place to hitch-hike, but that did not deter James from stopping. James asked Steve what he did and Steve replied that he was in a Christian band. James was a Baptist minister’s son and he knew every Christian band in East Anglia and Steve’s band was not one of them. He and Steve talked further, with Steve asking James more and more questions. James came back to our house in Capel and Steve burst through the front door, shouting: “get to my room with your Bibles; there’s a bloke here who knows the truth!” We all bundled into Steve’s room and grilled James for two hours about faith and Christianity and we felt we had come home. Back to the story…

And now back to the story…

Steve replied to Jim Polassari: “Well, I have a friend in Suffolk who has a brother who has a farm.” To which Jim replied with the immortal line: “If you got a farm, we got a festival!”

Steve then put James and Jim together. James, who was both a theologian and a qualified bricklayer, offered to build the site if Jim could find the money. Jim knew he could get the money from Kenneth Frampton of the Deo Gloria Trust, who were funding the Jesus Family. And so Greenbelt was conceived.

James built the first Greenbelt site with Rob Quin – and they went on to build the next twenty. But James wasn’t just a builder in the physical sense. He also played another crucial role in the early stages of Greenbelt. Mr. Frampton (of Deo Gloria Trust) was a good man and was putting his money into Christian communities and festivals because he had a vision to evangelise young people. And he wanted Greenbelt to have an ‘altar call‘ from the mainstage on Saturday night.

But James, Garth Hewitt and John Peck held out against this. They had an emerging vision of Christianity, the arts and social justice. And, as part of this wrestling and negotiation, James famously said: “The trouble with Christianity is that it isn’t worldly enough.”

Mr Frampton was insistent. After all, it was his money! But the Greenbelt three (James, Garth and John) argued that it was their festival and had to be true to their vision. Graciously, Mr Frampton eventually gave way – and so the arts and a commitment to social justice would always be at the heart of Greenbelt, from the very beginning.

James was a true Christian rebel. He had studied theology at Glasgow Bible Institute, where John Peck taught. They spent many hours talking through a more integrated, holistic faith that did not seem to be part of the Christian communities they had experienced.

James was not a conventional man and rarely conformed to polite etiquette. Mr. Frampton admitted to not liking him. But, to his eternal credit, he always included James in all early Greenbelt thinking.

After the conception and building of Greenbelt Festival as an event and an idea, James’s later legacy was the conceiving and then building of The Cut, now a thriving theatre, cinema, arts centre and café in Halesworth in Suffolk. After founding and directing it, James remained its patron to his death.

His other lasting achievement was – summer after summer – to produce Shakespeare and other weighty plays in outdoor public spaces like the market squares in Framingham and Ipswich, Framlingham Castle and Leiston Abbey. As part of this creative work, James once famously entered the stage on a huge, black horse as King Lear! He had the ability to inspire and include people who had never imagined they would ever act in public. He was artistically ambitious and socially inclusive.

One of his less noble (perhaps) achievements was to be the lead singer with The Fat Band for over 40 years. My role was to back James’s vocals with my own and often to prompt him, as he regularly forgot his words. (Actually, many of the songs we sang, he never learned the words for!) Personally, I cannot imagine not appearing alongside James again at a Fat Band jamboree. But I can imagine appearing alongside him singing Walking the Dog in another place.

James has left many lasting legacies. But perhaps the most important one is a close and loving family, who were there with him at the end of this life – Caroline, Tom, Lucy, Beth, Hal and Leslie.

So, here’s to James Holloway – truly one of life’s great people; a man of deep integrity and artistic flair. He will be missed, missed, missed.

Martin Evans, Vice Chair of Greenbelt 1984-88; General Manager of Greenbelt 1988-1994; and now simply a fan of Greenbelt

Click here to listen to Steve Shaw delivering the first memorial John Peck lecture at Greenbelt in 2017 to get a sense of the holistic theology that these early founders built the festival’s vision on.

To stream and download the film of the first forty years of Greenbelt Festival (with interviews with the founders, including James) – free for one month, until 1 December 2019 – click here.

James is pictured at the head of this blog performing with The Fat Band at Greenbelt 2013.