Sunday, August 9, 2009

AA Gill turns his eloquence to a description of the Morris men

Twenty minutes from the airport is Thaxted. It crawls up a hill. Georgian and Victorian rural cottages and shops lean on each other for support. The streets are free of the cloned monopolies of building societies and mini-supermarkets. There is an overindulgence of pubs, and a church that is too grand for this market town, and beside it a windmill. It was paid for by the great post-feudal wool boom. This neat and congenial town, with its greens, a clock mender and merchants’ houses, is surrounded by a vale of gently decrepit farmland. It is everything the vile Cotswolds aspire to plagiarise. But it’s a little more than it seems. This big church is a cradle of unconventional radicalism. It had a famous vicar, Conrad Noel, who preached Christian socialism, and another, Peter Elers, one of the first openly gay vicars in the Church of England, who blessed a lesbian “marriage” in 1976 on the understanding that, if the church blessed battleships and budgerigars, it ought to find it in its heart to bless men and women in love. Gustav Holst lived here, and a couple of doors away, so did Dick Turpin.

Early on a blissful blue and bright morning, Thaxted is quiet and elegantly somnambulant. Stepping out of the long shadows, I catch sight of two men in white — unusually early cricketers perhaps — and then another man, in a coat of rags, talking to a pantomime dragon. In the distance I can hear the rhythmic timpani of sleigh bells. There are more men lifting their beer-blown faces to the sun. Men in straw hats with ribbons, men with bright waistcoats.

Thaxted’s insurgent heretical secret isn’t canonical bolshevism or buggery, it’s folklore.This glorious weekend is the annual coming together of Britain’s morris men. Not just a run- of-the-mill summer ritual line-up of hanky wavers and broomstick bashers, but the 75th anniversary of the Thaxted Morris Ring — the quango of morris dancing and mumming. This little market town is the heart of the mysterious cult of the morris. This will be the largest get-together of morris men in living memory.

The day starts with various teams going out to Essex villages and doing their jiggy business as a pub crawl before converging on Thaxted high street. We start off in Finchingfield, a village of idiotic prettiness. There’s a green, a pond with ducks, a church, cottages, burgeoning flowers, simple yokels leaning on sticks, tow-haired children in smocks delivering wholemeal bread, and an antique shop with a prominent welcoming message pointing out that this isn’t a museum, everything is for sale, and if you don’t want to buy stuff then sod off. And there’s a pub, a real pub-on-the-green called the Fox.

Inside, the moment it opens, there is a gimpy collection of morris men in stripy waistcoats and straw hats with plastic flowers, sinking the first pint like fire engines taking on supplies. They tip out onto the lawn and, after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and bad-breath backchat, a team of blokes arrange themselves in a ragged line with a fiddle, an accordion and a penny whistle, and strike up the familiar sound of summer weekends in rural Middle England. Their bright and gaudy costumes make the picture complete as they go after each other like fat, rheumatic game hens, chaffing and puffing and heavily skipping through routines that would bore an infant school. Morris dancers are one of the most riotously risible and despised groups in Britain. Yet they caper on regardless. To be a morris man is to live a regardless life. These are men apart, oblivious of or immune to the mockery and the curled lips. They keep alive an uncared-for and unwanted tradition — simply for the pleasure of a thing itself, and their own company, and bladder-deforming quantities of beer. Sir Thomas Beecham’s advice to try anything once except incest and folk dancing has wrapped the morris in a received wisdom of disdain. For most people it is the bizarre and tasteless Terpsichorean graffiti, like animated garden gnomes.

A pair get up and do a jig with each other. Nobody watches. I notice that one of them is wearing Velcro comfy-fit shoes of the sort advertised in the back of The Sunday Telegraph. Behind the dancers there is that eternal punctuation mark of English villages, the comforting war memorial that chimes the knell of passing days, the names resonant of another England; Ernest and Tom Purkiss, Portor Choat, Tom Juniper, Percy Wiffen, T O Ruggles-Brice. They seem to belong to the accordion and the tinny roundelay, the clack of wands and the beery “ya” of bucolic voices. The pub is advertising a Neil Diamond tribute evening.

In the nearby village of Cornish Hall End, the morris men mill about, unclipping their personal tankards from their elasticated belts to sink pints through Lovelace-gaping gullets before forming up in a ragged square and skipping their simple circular pattern. In the beer garden, families lounge, children run in mobs, nobody takes much notice. The Horse and Groom is having a Blues Brothers tribute evening.

The Morris Ring rules the dance. It has been based in Thaxted for all its 75 years. This year is its three-quarter century, and promises particularly splendid meetings of the nation’s dance troupes. They are all based in villages, and vary in their particulars, but like football teams, they obey the niceties. Each has a leader, a treasurer and a coach. They dance traditional dances identified by their places of origin. They also have fools who caper with bladders — theirs and pigs’. There are men on hobbyhorses, men who dress up as women, often representing Maid Marian or Queen Victoria, and sometimes they “go molly” — that is, in blackface.

There are also men who are animals — deer, dragons and horses — and it’s always men. There are no women in the Ring. Nobody knows the origins of morris dancing — the name probably comes from “Moorish”. It may have been born in North Africa or Spain, it may have come back with the crusades. There was certainly Elizabethan morris dancing. Shakespeare’s comic actor Will Kempe famously took nine days to dance from London to Norwich.

Seventy-five years is really not that old for a governing association for an ancient rural folk art. Ping pong is half a century older, and the rugby football association is nearly twice as old as the Morris Ring. What we see is a recreation — or, perhaps better, a resurrection. The great fire-and-brimstone, steam-and-grind of the industrial upheaval of the 19th century dislocated, and in many places extinguished, a whole canon of frail, delicate, English rural culture.

Factories and mines broke the legs of the Celtic and Saxon patchwork of time and magic. The mass march of the working classes from hoes to picks, moved from village greens to the satanic mills and smog of back-to-backs. But just as the morris faded to white, so a few urban middle-class musicologists and folklorists stepped out back down the rutted lanes to the extremities of green England and began to piece together the vanished life. Cecil Sharp collected thousands and thousands of folk tunes. They were used by composers such as Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Britten. The Arts and Crafts movement enthused hundreds of Hampstead socialists to get in touch with their pointy-toed roots and to look to a new medievalism of weaving and pottery, husbandry, cottage gardens and vegetarianism. They grew unironic beards and dressed their children in homespun smocks, and occasionally, like Eric Gill (no relation), they lived entirely recreated medieval lives and slept with their children. The folklore of the Morris got a worthy and self-conscious kiss of life. It got polite, and a hierarchy, and snobbery, and rules. Like the druid and bardic movements in Wales, a few proselytising enthusiasts became the bottomless butt of jokes for the metropolitan masses.

Writers such as Orwell, Waugh and Betjeman mocked the beer and beards, the lentils and earnestness of the morris. The dance became emblematic of a certain sort of Fabian —humourless and sexless, worthy socialism. But nobody really knew what the original meanings or intentions of the dance had been, and they didn’t seem to care much. It was enough that they could make it fit this Hardyesque and patronising vision of a peasant, elfin England.

Anthropologists tend to explain all rural ritual, craft and culture as “fertility”, or harvest thanksgiving. They’re the catch-all explanations for rude behaviour that doesn’t come with a manual. It seems that there may well be connections with ancient mystical characters and pre-Christian beliefs — the Green Man appears and Herne the Hunter, lord of the forest. There are animistic spirits of flowers and green things, but it never really gets let out from under the tasteful and picturesque hey nonny nonny of pub bores and country tourist posters.

At the next village pub, something quite different happens. They release the beast. In the car park by the wheelie bin, the Saddleworth Morris Men from Yorkshire arrive, trotting like pit ponies, bells on their black clogs, wearing hanging baskets of flowers and feathers on their heads, led by a meaty man with a whip. There is none of the hop, skip and whack about this troupe. They have a muscular, purposeful swagger. Their dance is physical and masculine, and beautifully aggressive under their great flowered hats. They have the gimlet-eyed, tuber-featured faces of the north, and suddenly the morris is captivating. The rhythm stamps out darker motifs and bellicose camaraderie. The patterns they make stay in the mind’s eye. You can see them weave spells.

My small boy offers a swan’s feather he found to one of the dancers, who takes off his hat to put it in. The boy’s mother asks if she can see the hat. “You mustn’t put it on,” the dancer warns like a woodland troll in a fairy story. “I don’t like to say in front of your man, but if a lass wears the hat she has to have… you know… go to bed with the morris man. That’s the rule.” Nicola thinks about it for a moment, and hands back the hat with an apologetic, maybe-next-time smile.

For all its fecund heritage and its promise of seed time and harvest, morris dancing is incontrovertibly the least sexy jigging in the world. Unlike the folk dances of the rest of Europe, with their silly dressing up and geometric patterns, or the leaping reelers of the Celtic edges of the British Isles, the morris is perversely and defiantly not the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. They not only do not dance with women, but they don’t dance for or at women. Indeed, you get the feeling they don’t really dance for anyone but themselves.

There is something admirable about this — the absence of showmanship. Nobody could accuse these men of overt displays of vanity. Their vast stomachs held in by sweaty nylon shirts like warm mozzarellas, their blotched faces, the pallor of lives lived on a slow bar stool. They exhibit the stamina and grace of shopping trolleys, with beards that loom like badly eaten Weetabix and hair that has given up under the torture of middle-aged ponytails. Morris dancing never had a golden age. It never grasped the zeitgeist. There was no morris Woodstock or summer of love. It was reborn beyond the aesthetic pale and contrarily, there is something wonderful about that, something brave and properly, collectively eccentric.

While the bien pensants snigger and change their beliefs and preferences with the season, the morris dancers skip on, knowing that every year will be like the year before, knowing they will always be the back marker of the least “now” occupations on Earth, just ahead of incest, yet continuing, convinced of their own inverted rightness, free of whim or caprice, excused riches, vanity, ambition, celebrity or cachet. And then, as if to prove the utter imperviousness to aesthetics, along come the Britannia Coco-nut Dancers of Bacup.

You’ve never heard of them, or seen them, unless you’re from north Lancashire, and even then you might have given them a wide berth. They rarely travel from their home village — this is the first time they’ve been to Thaxted, and they only came because the Saddleworth team was here to look after them. They are small, nervous men. And so they might be, for they are wearing white cotton night bonnets of the sort sported by Victorian maids, decorated with sparse ribbons. Then black polo-neck sweaters, like the Milk Tray man, with a white sash, black knee-breeches, white stockings and black clogs. As if this weren’t enough, someone at some point has said: “What this outfit really needs is a red-and-white-hooped miniskirt.” “Are you sure?” the dancers must have replied. And he was. But it doesn’t finish there. They have black faces, out of which their little bright eyes shine anxiously. On their hands are strapped single castanets. A single castanet is the definition of uselessness. The corresponding castanet is worn on the knee. To say you couldn’t make up the Coco-nutters would be to deny the evidence of your astonished eyes.

The dance begins with each Nutter cocking a hand to his ear to listen to something we human folk can’t catch. They then wag a finger at each other, and they’re off, stamping and circling, occasionally holding bent wands covered with red, white and blue rosettes that they weave into simple patterns. It’s not pretty and it’s not clever. It is, simply, awe-inspiringly, astonishingly other. Morris men from southern troupes come and watch in slack-jawed silence. Nothing in the civilised world is quite as elementally bizarre and awkwardly compelling as the Coco-nutters of Bacup. What are they for? What were they thinking of? Why do they do these strange, misbegotten, dark little incantations? It’s said that they might have originally been Barbary corsairs who worked in Cornish tin mines and travelled to Lancashire, and that the dance is about listening underground, a sign language of miners. And then there’s all the usual guff about harvest and spring and fecundity, but that doesn’t begin to describe the strangeness of this troupe from the nether folk world.

At tea time in Thaxted, the crowds stumble out of the pubs and line the main street that dips down the steep hill and escapes out into the countryside, which glints with the shimmering gilt of nostalgia, waiting for the return of haystacks and corn dollies and scarecrows. This is distant Albion in the afternoon. From the top of the hill, the morris men parade en masse with their attendant fiddlers and accordionists, drummers and whistlers, hobbyhorses, mystical animals, female impersonators and capering fools. From the bottom of the hill a corresponding group starts up. It’s like the final illustration from a compendium of nursery rhymes and cautionary tales. A scene of the day of judgment from a half-forgotten, half-recreated lexicon of English folklore and fairy stories. The vivid swag of all the bright pomp and rhythm drags you along, exorcises the ridicule and the patronage, the lifelong received metropolitan wisdom of disdain. This is a lost part of what we once were, and who we still are. The two groups meet and dance their dances, turn swords into pentangles, sticks into eaves, and hankies into hankies. They prance and skip and jig, the bells jingle, they shout and clack and cheer and canter, calling up the great lost way of being. The morris twitches like an amputated limb from a body that has been long since buried. It is the last rite of a belief that nobody can recall. The movements and the tune and nonsense, an ancient language that’s bereft of the life that formed it.

But as you watch, there is a tingle, a spasm of recognition, a lightness in the stomach, a tightness in the throat, and the faint spark of connection. A distant echo, a folk memory, of what all this once was, what we once were. In the great, Gadarene dash for progress and industry, for the brick and stone and concrete, for the iron and smoke, we broke something vital, severed a link in the chain of ourselves, and there was no going back. There is a realisation that the dislike and the mockery of the morris is not wholly rational or deserved — that if this was some other nation’s rural culture we’d watch with polite interest and inquisitive enjoyment. But because it’s so close, it comes with the buttock-clench of embarrassment, the guilt and the squirm. Like seeing photographs of ourselves in foolish fancy dress at drunken student parties, this is not who we grew up to be.

But the morris men dance on anyway, propitiating they know not what, an awkward family heirloom that doesn’t go with anything else and is all we have left of our preindustrial heritage. The dance is a kiss on the forehead of a skull that has sunk back into the earth and the dappled fields, that in turn have become the ring roads, roundabouts, runways, shopping centres and starter-home cul-de-sacs of the postmodern age. They dance anyway. No longer for us, but despite us. The sun goes down, the accordions play on, the pewter tankards slop, and at 11, the clamour and the shouting and the clapping and singing fade away, as if someone has pulled a plug, letting out all the noise. The lights of the town go out, and under the heavy, early summer moon there is the faint sound of a distant violin.

Down a winding cobbled street from the church trips the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the most evocative and strangely dramatic of all morris dances, performed for perhaps hundreds of years, conceivably for thousands. They are led by a single fiddler, dressed in a rag coat, playing a tune that is childlike and simple, but also full of sadness and an ethereal, mordant power, like the soundtrack of a dream. Behind him come men carrying antlered fallow deer heads in front of their faces. Behind them, a man-woman, a hunter and a hobbyhorse. They dance in silence, slowly. The hunt turns and turns, casting patterns in the moonlight. You feel its mossy, shadowed meaning beyond understanding. A ghost dance, a silently keening sadness. The things we misplace always bear a heavier loss than the things we choose to grasp with white knuckles. And in the darkness, quite unexpectedly, I feel tears of mourning on my cheek.



Martyn Harvey said...

Wow. Thank you for this. Almost 50 years ago a university friend asked if I might fancy having a go at morris dancing. He taught me the first step, a single. Yes that was easy. Then a double, no problem. Ok can you dance 2 doubles 2 singles put your feet together and jump ? Yes that's straight forward, he was a bit surprised ! The music sang to me I knew what my body should do and it just did it without thought or effort just a joyous celebration of body and music combining perfectly. Thank you Graham Britten you gave me a life of pleasure, achievement and hundreds of like minded friends. Cheers mate !

jacquie meredith said...

A truly brilliant piece of writing.