Sunday, 20 February 2011

Ale and Fare Well

It occurred to me today that it's rather a long time since I last wrote anything in this humble blog. Let me assure you that I haven't been entirely idle. I'm getting to grips with the part-time job; working twenty hours a week gives me a good reason for getting out of bed in the morning, and helps keep my brain active. I've also started working on a new Middenshire-based project - Old Thuck's Book of Middenshire Days - detailing the history, customs, folklore and people of the long-vanished shire in the style of Chambers' Book of Days. I've written some new material and have jotted down a few ideas for later, and hope to get the thing finished some time this year.

The dancing continues. I've learnt a number of stick dances and can execute them with a fair degree of proficiency. And so, a couple of weeks ago, it was decided that it was time to start me on some hanky dances. Hanky dances, dear reader, are the morris equivalent of flying a helicopter. Whilst listening to the music and counting your dance steps, you need at the same time to be moving your arms and hands in a manner determined by the 'tradition' you are dancing. So, you might be moving your right foot whilst flourishing right hanky, using both hankies to describe a circle in front of you, sidestepping to the left or right whilst flicking out with the hanky...the variations are many. And last night I had the chance to see how much I had absorbed.

The Kennet Morris Men, who hail from Reading in Berkshire, extended an invitation to Long Man to join them at their Kennet Ale. In morris-speak, an 'Ale' is a gathering of morris sides to dance, sing, enjoy a meal together and (let's not deny it) drink small quantities of beer. I and three vastly more experienced dancers than I took them up on their kind invitation, and last night saw us in Bracknell with Kennet, Bathampton Morris from Somerset, Victory Morris from Portsmouth, and Icknield Way Morris from Oxfordshire. There was an interesting start to the evening. It's apparently traditional for the Kennet men to serve pickles to their guests on arrival by way of an aperitif. Last night, as well as offering pickled onions and eggs, they presented us with some rather less common items, including garlic and brussels sprouts. Never being one to shrink from a challenge, I partook of a pickled sprout, and found it piquant, tasty and rather moreish. I might have a bash at making some myself.

The pickles being polished off and tankards filled, the dancing started. It never ceases to amaze me how many talented people are involved with The Morris; not just dancers, many of whom are much older than me and considerably lighter on their feet; but also the musicians. Violinists, concertina, melodica and banjo players and a smattering of accordionists deftly played their way through a plethora of traditional morris tunes. Now, it's a rule at the Ale that, if you turn up, you have to display one of your side's dances. And this presented us with a bit of a problem. Most morris dances are performed by either six or eight men, and our own dances, unique to Long Man and called the Wilmington Tradition, all require eight men. 'Chris,' said our Foreman (morris-speak for dance master), 'what's the last dance you did on Friday?' I thought for a moment. 'Alfriston Tye,' I said truthfully, and added 'but that was the first and only time I've danced it.' The Foreman smiled. 'Alfriston Tye it is, then!'

Thus it was that I performed a brand new (to me) hanky dance, hastily adapted to cater for four dancers instead of eight, in front of an audience of dancers with a combined experience of around a thousand years. And it worked.

After much massed dancing, we sat down to a meal, washed down with copious amounts of beer. Then, the plates being cleared away and cheese and biscuits produced, a representative of each morris side sang a traditional song to the assembled company. This was the prelude to the night's main sing-along. The tables were moved, our chairs were placed in a wide circle, and the floor was given to any man who chose to rise to his feet and sing. It was traditional fare - mostly sea-shanties, which seemed curious as we were so far from the sea - but this didn't matter. The port was passed round, and then round again and again as we joined in the choruses of these old songs. And it didn't matter if you didn't know them; you joined in with gusto and no-one minded.

Under normal circumstances, a male only function with (seemingly) an endless supply of alcohol would be a recipe for disaster. At the very least, one could expect raised voices, anti-social behaviour, possibly even violence. But this was nothing of the sort. There was no swearing, no voices raised in anger, no smashing of glasses or incivility of any kind. Just a group of men, happy with each others' company and brought together by a shared love of traditional dance. I can't remember when I enjoyed such a convivial evening among a group of people I'd never met before.

The scout hut in which our bash had been held also served as our hotel for the night. As might be expected, there were a few bleary eyes the next morning and an atmosphere that could, perhaps, be described as 'subdued'. But those of us who had met as strangers parted as friends.

And will I go again next year, if I'm invited? Let me see...