Why Greenbelt and the Graham Greene International Festival exemplify what is best about Britain.
Some of my best friends are Nazis. Actually, that's not true. One of my Facebook friends is. Although he prefers the terms 'ethno-nationalist' and 'race-realist'.
I discovered his profoundly distasteful politics when he weighed in on a discussion about Israel's bombing of Gaza. When he denounced it, I thought: 'Good old X,' (let's call him X, partly to obscure his identity and partly as a homage to Malcolm X) 'He's a good egg.' The egg turned out not to be cracked so much as antisemitic and, in general, appallingly racist.
I've remained friends with X on Facebook, partly because I genuinely believe in dialogue and partly because, in other ways, he's a fascinating guy.
Of all the flat-out insane stuff that X posts online, the stuff that irritates me the most is about what makes Britain and other European nations great. A strength-worshipper (like most racists and economic right-wingers), he values colonialism, military victories and the predominance of the English language. He mourns the loss of empire and winces when he hears Arabic in the streets. He resents problems that are not solved by kicking ass and taking names and, sadly, his views on this are not automatically denounced like his views on ethnicity.
X is, of course, wrong. What makes Britain great is a free public health service, a quality public broadcaster and a culture that celebrates the strength of diversity, the value of kindness and the greatness to be found in supposed imperfection. What makes Britain great is that festivals like Greenbelt and the Graham Greene International Festival exist and prosper in this country.
Greenbelt is wonderful. Talk to Americans who attend Greenbelt (their number grows every year), or to their compatriots who visit as speakers or performers and they all tell you the same thing: "We wish we had this in the USA." That's because Greenbelt is a festival that manages to be Christian without being either obnoxious or dull. Among the galaxy of musicians, speakers, artists, poets, actors, campaigners, film-makers and spiritual teachers that grace Greenbelt's line-up, there are atheists, Muslims, LGBT people and what even the most liberal among us would recognise as heretics. Not a lot of religious festivals can boast that. Hell, most Christian events can't claim to have speakers on their bill who have any substantial differences of theological opinion even within one faith.
But Greenbelt has it all. Transgender Bible readings, activism on behalf of Palestine, serious theologians, committed atheists, sweary comics, tax activists and men and women of God who are guaranteed to challenge you. And just when you think it's all a bit too hippie, you gather for Communion at the main stage on Sunday morning, or join thousands on the grandstands, for a mass singing-exercise in four-part-harmony and joyful praise.
Greenbelt exists (and exists on a scale that brings tens of thousands every year) because it is in a great country, and the country is greater because of Greenbelt. The States are trying with Wild Goose Festival, but it has a way to go yet. Greenbelt is a celebration of God, human goodness and artistic bravery, its tolerance of different beliefs and encouragement to find common ground exemplifies the best of Britain's intellectual culture and spiritual heritage and we are lucky to have it.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Greenbelt is Britain's greatest festival.
The Graham Greene International Festival
It's hard to imagine a regular event on a smaller scale and with a narrower focus, compared to Greenbelt, than the Graham Greene International Festival (GGIF). It meets every year in the Berkhamsted Town Hall and in Berkhamsted School, and in the five years I have been attending it has never filled either to overflowing. It features no bands, no drum-circles and no massed choirs, yet it still manages to be one of the most exciting events available in Britain. One of the events that make Britain great.
You see, people like X (and those who share his views but lack his courage in admitting their ethnonationalism) like to talk about Britain's glorious contribution to world culture, but they consume so very little of it. Take Graham Greene, for instance. To many, the greatest novelist of the 20th Century. To my mind, the greatest novelist the world has ever known. Certainly, you could picture a right-winger paraphrasing Saul Bellow's famous quote thus: "When the Zulus produce a Greene, we will read him." So far, so supportive of the notion of British/European/Judeo-Christian/English culture and literature as superior.
But those attending the GGIF will learn (if they hadn't picked it up in his writings) of Greene's profound dislike for American imperialist foreign policy, as expressed in his private correspondence or in his travels in Asia and Latin America. They will hear of Greene speaking, towards the end of his life in Moscow, of the need for Soviet advisors in the Vatican, or of his meetings with Fidel Castro.
Worshippers of strength will hear lecturers allude to Greene's self-destructive tendencies, his infidelity and self-doubt. Hard-line religious and political zealots will find, in Britain's greatest author of the last century, a man who found value in disloyalty and beauty in the most profound of doubts.
GGIF is wonderful because of the level of original research that is presented every year, as well as the wit and enthusiasm with which it is presented. Here is a festival where there is no dumbing-down, no concessions to TOWIE 'culture'. Fans of a great author gather to learn about his life and work. And the life and work they discuss is full of materials unsuitable for bigots of the jingoist, racist or religious type.
As with Greenbelt, people come from all over the world to share in a wonderful celebration of things that those who often shout loudest about Britain's greatness couldn't possibly hope to appreciate.
GGIF: Frances McCormack