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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, August 27, 2008
    The sheet of toilet roll folded down quarter-sized
     
    Weary, climbing the grandstand stairs on an afternoon late in Greenbelt, legs tired with endless walking through heavy festival fields, head sore through having been battered by wind, assaulted by rain, scorched by sudden sunbursts each hour of the long weekend. Exhausted and talked-out, looking for a space of quiet in a sea of people. But every corner of every stairwell in this plushly-carpeted cathedral to National Hunt racing had been colonised by groups of youngsters seated next to electric sockets as they recharged their mobiles, gaggles of girls giggling to a background hiss of phone-speaker pop.

    Dismayed that the event organisers have outlawed the free-ranging skateboarders of previous Cheltenham years and corralled them into a dull programmed area, I wanted to be onside with these young people doing their own thing - let them be, let them live - but feeling my age I also wanted some space and silence for a while and these chattering grandstand ringtone virtuosos were in my miserable way.

    In a spirit which even in my moroseness I took to be playfully generous, one girl emerged from a cluster at a turn of the stairs, to offer me something from her hand. Sensate enough to recognise this as a daft but friendly-enough gesture I took her gift. "It's a souvenir of the occasion," she told me as her little friends looked on, hiding their smiles behind their hands. They were high on Greenbelt, high on each other, high on pure life. The girl's gift to me was, in fact, a single sheet of toilet roll folded down quarter-sized. I accepted it with mock-excessive but genuine enough thanks, made them laugh, then put it in my pocket and moved on, my mood just slightly melted.

    I wanted the space partly to prepare myself for the next session on the festival programme that afternoon, which was the only 'essential' all weekend for me. But denied any space for silence anywhere on site, soon I was joining many other forty-to-sixty-somethings creaking and clicking and groaning to the floor of Centaur for the weekend's pivotal event, a musical tribute to Larry Norman, the pioneer of Jesus Rock who had been for me and so many of my peers the catalyst for our emerging faith way back in the 1970s, and who died last February.

    I knew that this would be an emotional hour for me because when I heard of his death I realised how much Larry meant to me, a musician who in his prime performed and wrote as well as Jagger and Richards and Leon Russell, a visionary wordsmith in the company of Dylan, a complex populist as forceful as Lennon. Larry's songs fed me in my youth: half-provocation and half-proclamation and one hundred percent rock, they educated me into a faith formed in Larry's image, one which must speak from and to the streets, one most alive at the edge, critical of institutions, ardently peripheral. Now I feel tired even thinking about the enthusiasm of those days, but that buoyant faith is one I wish I had again having as an adult been well and truly institutionalised, corralled into a dull programmed area.

    So the Larry tribute event proved to be emotional as various artists of quality and integrity sang the man's songs and witnessed to his uniqueness and complexity. The songs reconnected me to the youth I once was, and all that meant. And so tears came as I heard them and sang along: sad at the loss of Larry, moved by the intensity of what the occasion meant to me. When the tears began I reached into my pocket for something to wipe them from my eyes. The only thing I found there to help me with this was a single sheet of toilet roll folded down quarter-sized, which that girl had given me on the stairs.

    ABOVE RIGHT: still from Larry Norman - Song for a Small Circle of Friends on YouTube, which was played at the Greenbelt tribute event
    ABOVE LEFT: Larry performing Watch What You're Doing, live with Frank Black