Saturday, 21 November 2009

One man's morris

On the 26th December 1899, Cecil Sharp, a forty year old composer, was dining with his wife at the home of his mother-in-law, Mrs Dora Priestley Birch, in Headington, Oxford. At some point during the day, a rag-tag group of men betook themselves Mrs. Birch's home to perform a traditional dance. The leader of this group, William "Merry" Kimber, a bricklayer by trade, was hoping to make a bit of extra cash during a slack period in the building trade. Kimber and his men were morris dancers. Sharp had never seen anything like them before, so he asked Kimber and his fellow dancers to return and perform the following day so that he could make a proper record of the tunes to which they had danced. This event marked the start of Sharp's interest in, and his attempts to, keep the tradition of morris dancing alive; a tradition that would almost certainly have died without his intervention.

So, why am I telling you this? Because I have recently decided to do my bit to ensure that morris dancing doesn't fade forever into the mists of history...I've joined a morris dancing side. Long Man Morris, to be precise.

Long Man Morris were formed in 1978 to perpetuate the traditions of Cotswold morris. Most of the dances they perform were collected by Cecil Sharp from Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire. Warwickshire and Northamptonshire in the early years of the 20th century. Within those counties, village morris sides had their own traditions and styles of dancing; thus, the morris dancers of Adderbury would have performed different dances to those in Bampton, Brackley or Upton upon Severn. Long Man have also started their own form of dance (which they call the Wilmington tradition), some of which I'm currently attempting to learn!

To the uninitiated, morris dancing looks like a load of old men waving hankies or sticks around. But to dismiss it as such is to do it a grave disservice. Each morris "side" has a repertoire of dances, each dance having its own accompanying tune, its particular footwork, its pattern of dance (heading up, heading down, back to back, hay), and any number of peculiarities to confuse or confound the novice dancer (ie me!) A dancer of many years standing recently told me, "You wait till your first dance in public. There'll be lots of people watching you. Most will be watching you wave your hankies; they're the public. A few will be watching your feet; they're the off-duty morris dancers." And it's getting the feet right that's currently occupying my efforts at our Friday night practice sessions, a two-hour workout that leaves me exhausted, with aching knees and a terrible thirst that can only be slaked by a pint of Harveys best bitter.

Although I'm not yet proficient enough to "dance out" with the side, I trundled off to Hailsham last night to watch Long Man dance. They were accompanied by a couple of "Border" style sides; Hunter's Moon and Old Star Morris. Take a look at Hunter's Moon here. They are an extraordinary bunch of people, with blacked up faces, tattered coats, and an exuberant dance style that is quite fascinating. Towards the end of the evening, Mrs. H made a rather interesting observation. She said, "Just about all of the audience have gone home. They're just dancing for themselves." And she was right. Morris dancing isn't about putting on a display for the public (although this does help to raise a fair bit of cash for local charities), but it's rather about a bunch of like-minded people getting together to keep a tradition alive. At least, that's how it appears to this particular novice.

In his novel Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy introduces his readers to a group of mummers; purveyors of simple, traditional plays acted out on village greens from time immemorial. He notes that genuine mummers can be distinguished from modern revivalists in that the former perform their plays with a sense of gloomy obligation, whereas the latter will appear to be enthusiastic. Under Hardy's rule (if it can be applied to morris dancers), I'm afraid you'd have to mark us down as revivalists!

It isn't a speedy process, becoming a morris dancer. One of the most recent recruits took around three years to become a "full" member of the side, and he probably didn't have two left feet like me. It seems to be a matter of constant practice and repetition, until the moves become second nature and you suddenly realise that you're keeping up with everyone else. When this is going to happen to me is anyone's guess!

At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, traditional Chinese folk dances were much in evidence, both during the opening and at presentation and award ceremonies. There are, apparently, no plans to feature morris dancing, or any other traditional form of English, Scottish or Welsh dance into the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London. Cecil Sharp, where art thou?

Saturday, 7 November 2009

A flaming good time

Question. Where can you see, all in one place, Vikings, smugglers, Siamese dancers, a samba band, and a bunch of Zulu warriors? Disneyland? Wrong, I’m afraid. What if you add a torchlit procession complete with fiery crosses, the burning of a Pope, some blazing tar barrels and a dyslexic pirate? The set of some British low-budget cult film? Wrong again. In italics. All these curious characters and props can be seen every year at the bonfire night celebrations in Lewes, the county town of East Sussex. And it was to Lewes, despite the exhortations of the local law enforcement agencies that ‘outsiders’ should stay away, that my family and I, and several thousand other curious visitors betook ourselves on November the fifth.

When, on the 5th November 1605, the ‘Popish Plot’ to kill King James and his parliament was discovered, the day was declared to be ‘a holiday for ever in thankfulness to God for the deliverance and detestation of the Papists’. Officially, the day was celebrated with a church service of thanksgiving, but in the seventeenth century and earlier it was traditional to mark significant events with the lighting of bonfires, so it is quite likely that an ad-hoc bonfire party was held in Lewes, as well as many other towns and villages, on the 5th of November 1606. Now, you have to bear in mind that, in the absence of councils, police, health and safety officers and a whole host of EU regulations, these celebrations were nothing like the well-ordered, all-ticket affairs we have now, and were probably more like drunken riots. Little wonder, then, that Oliver Cromwell sought to ban these and all other similar ‘celebrations’ when he came to power.

When Charles the Second ascended the throne, Cromwell’s ban was rescinded, and bonfire celebrations in Lewes resumed and continued haphazardly until the 1820s, when semi-organised groups of ‘Bonfire Boys’ lit fires and set off fireworks, but these were still riotous affairs. In 1838 a magistrate who remonstrated with the boys was unceremoniously chucked into the River Ouse, and in 1847 a contingent of a hundred Metropolitan Police officers were drafted in to prevent disorder, the riot act was read and a good number of police officers were injured in the ensuing fight with the ‘boys’.

It was clear that this sort of thing couldn’t carry on. And so it was that, in 1853, the Cliffe and Town (now Lewes Borough) Bonfire Societies were established. Other societies were established later, and the night took on a rather more orderly air. On the night of the fifth, these societies, whose members wear amazing and elaborate costumes, march through the town carrying flaming torches (and fiery crosses in memory of Lewes’ Protestant martyrs), throwing firecrackers around, and throwing blazing tar barrels into the Ouse. The Cliffe Society displays flaming banners, proclaiming ‘No Popery’ (I’m amazed some over-zealous individual hasn’t tried to ban this!) and ‘We Wunt be Druv’, reflecting the determination of Sussex people not to be pushed around by the self-appointed or over-zealous individuals aforesaid. According to one very nice lady to whom I spoke, there is intense rivalry between the societies. I’m afraid I put my ‘London head’ on at this point, suspecting all manner of incidents such as drive-by shootings, kidnaps and knee-cappings. I suspect, however, that a little good-natured ribbing about the merits of their respective societies is as far as it goes! And here's a small aside...I managed to spot, and greet, a fellow Twitter user (@_Flik_) who was part of the South Street procession. Who says social networking is a waste of time?

One of the high points of the evening is the burning of effigies. Of course, Guido Fawkes and Pope Paul the Fifth are regulars. But each year the societies also choose a number of ’hate’ figures who are also consigned to the flames. This year, they torched a very realistic effigy of former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and some other politician, sailing in a gravy boat with a pig for company. The banking fraternity, symbolised by a massive Fat Cat, was given similar treatment.

I have to say that Bonfire was a most amazing night out. It’s the type of festival I thought had been legislated out of existence years ago, but, thankfully, it has survived. Despite the presence of all those flaming torches, bonfires and fireworks, there were (as far as I’m aware) no major incidents or injuries. I saw no violence, no disorder, and the police were at their unobtrusive best in letting everyone get on with enjoying themselves. I’m pretty sure the worst casualties were (like me) just a little over-zealous with the local brew.

What I’m going to say now is likely to upset both police and council…don’t listen to their pleas for you to stay away! If you find yourself anywhere near Lewes on the next November the fifth, do yourself a favour and trundle along to the Bonfire celebrations. I guarantee you an amazing experience. I’ll be there, so tap me on the shoulder and I’ll buy you a pint of Harvey’s Bonfire Boy. Maybe even two pints.

Oh, I nearly forgot about the dyslexic pirate. He had a carrot on his shoulder...