Pussy Riot joins the Extinction list

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Fear not, we may currently be living through some of the most cynical, unpalatable and brazenly misguided of right wing times, but the heart of the liberal left is alive and well and beating more and more loudly. Indeed it nearly blew my eardrums out at this year’s once again excellent Byline Festival.

Nestled deep within beautiful Ashdown Forest, Byline offers a mix of music, merrymaking, dance and, above all, insightful and informed debate. The latter is, it must be said, often disturbing and challenging, but fortunately it’s even more often inspiring and, at times, positively liberating. Knowledge is power and all. Among many illuminating discussions I was particularly taken with: ‘Putin and the Subversion of Democracy’, ‘A Virtue of Disobedience: Civil Rights Today’, ‘Brexit – How Europe See us’ (gone crazy is the long and short of it), ‘Far Right Funding and Terror Networks’, and ‘Gina Miller in Conversation’.

Also highly notable was Extinction Rebellion co-founder Roger Hallam’s talk about what XR has achieved to date and what’s next. He’s a bit of an acquired taste to be honest, (one I’m not entirely sure I’ve acquired), but I’m fully onboard with XR’s aims and activities and, for feck’s sake, wake up everyone, we need even more of this sort of direct and urgent action if we are to have any chance of dragging our extraordinarily precious natural world back from the brink. Get involved!

Commendably XR was allocated a dedicated venue for the weekend, well done Byline, as was MEND, Muslim Engagement and Development. An 'even better if' for me would have been many more NGOs and charities in attendance…and certainly not more MPs – arghhh! – as one deluded punter requested. Perhaps next year?

It was a shame that there weren’t any liberal minded celebrities in attendance this year (although perhaps Gina Miller counts?), as John Cleese and Gary Lineker were among many of the highlights last year, but hey. There was though the triumphant return of the dazzlingly brilliant Pussy Riot. Unfortunately technical problems meant they came on stage well over two hours late which seriously undermined my enjoyment, not least as my girlfriend went home as the waiting was too tedious and as, mystifying and irritatingly, we were asked to leave the tent while we waited, and my daughter had to leave before the end of their act to get her 1am lift home from her mother. This was gutting as I’d been looking forward to seeing them again for months, and because at the end of their act the stage exploded with a wild celebration of Pussy Riot/XR mutual rebelliousness. Witnessing this wonder as I traipsed away from the tent, accompanying my daughter to her lift, as opposed to from our just-vacated position at the front, was the lowlight of my weekend.

Let’s not dwell on disappointments though as there was so much to celebrate at Byline. It’s very well run in the main – great venues, an excellent selection of talks and workshops, a feast of documentaries, a very interesting and well informed crowd, including many top journalists, a good selection of food and drink choices with plenty of gluten free and vegetarian and vegan options, decent DJs, an attractive and spacious camping area, exceptionally clean toilets, and, well, this year it was also particularly excellent for kids – there were loads and loads of things for them to do. A huge plus for parents.  

Byline is not solely a left-fest, it’s not dogma ridden, but it does offer a very real sense of the liberal minded community coming together for a weekend. It feels like a beacon of hope in a mad, and seemingly getting madder, world. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say in a time of unveiling Byline isn’t scared to bring the horrors that lurk under these veils out into the light. This can be scary and painful at times, but it’s necessary if we are ever going to end the madness and build a much better society and political system. Idealistic perhaps, but let’s do it!

With all the seriousness of the discussions it’s great that Byline provides the light relief of plenty of comedy. Unfortunately I didn’t find the comedy all that good, at least the acts I saw. And I love live comedy. I’d have thought Byline would be ideal for more political comedians, Mark Thomas, Russell Brand, et al, but perhaps they’re all still up in Edinburgh? Also, for me, the choice of music, while largely good, was a little hit and miss. I loved Lowkey (one of the best musical acts of the weekend without a doubt and a great speaker in the ‘A Virtue of Disobedience: Civil Rights Today’ debate), and the Priscillas were pretty good too, and Pussy Riot were brilliant of course, but there were a few too many nostalgia acts for my taste. I like to see artists that are really meaning it, thrusting - often young - performers that are full of passion and protest, and Byline is and should become even more so a perfect showcase for them.  

All said and done though Byline is a fantastic festival, I love it and I wish I’d been able to attend even more of the talks and workshops than I did. There were so many it just wasn’t possible to attend them all – you get a lot for your money. As someone said, the festival offers a goldmine of information, a level of insight and hugely well-informed and candid observations that you simply don’t get from the everyday media. It’s disorientating, exciting and most of all inspiring – I can’t wait to go again next year.

www.neildelstrother.co.uk 

Published on 09 September 2019 by Neil del Strother

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