The other day, Wild Thing and I were talking with friends about the Gloucester Cheese Roll. Unlike an egg roll, which in Britain is an egg on a roll and not (as it is in the U.S.) Chinese veggies and sometimes meat or seafood deep-fried inside a wrapper, this is not cheese on a roll but an event where people chase a wheel of cheese down a very steep hill. (The event is also called the Cheese Rolling and the Cheese Race, but let’s stick with the more confusing name, please.)
In Britain, what Americans call an egg roll is called a spring roll. In the U.S., a spring roll is an unfried egg roll and in case you need to know, I like them better. That’s all as irrelevant as it is confusing, which is why I include it.
For endless images not of an egg roll but of the cheese roll follow this link.
But back to the event: The winner of the race gets to keep the cheese. The ambulances at the bottom get to carry selected losers to the emergency room, which in Britain is called Accident and Emergency.
That business about the ambulances? That’s not a joke.
“Why,” I asked (and you may need to be reminded at this point that I was sitting around with Wild Thing and our friends), “do people do this?”
“Boredom,” D. said.
Both friends, irrelevantly, have names that begin with D.
“Think of it as a Saturday night in February in a small-town Minnesota bar,” Wild Thing said. “A couple of people go outside and punch each other, then they come back inside and everybody keeps drinking.”
I never lived in small-town Minnesota, but Wild Thing did, so I’m going to have to take her word for this. I do understand boredom, but my way of dealing with it doesn’t usually involve hospitals. So I told D. and D. about our village’s earring fishing contest, which is an ordinary enough fishing contest except the contestants have to use an earring as a lure. It’s been running for a few years. I told them about the Boscastle raft race, in which the teams build rafts but can’t use anything nautical. Last year was its first year. My favorite entry lost. In fact, it sank. It was a picnic table on beer kegs, with a parasol that blew off either before the race started or right after. If I remember correctly, the raft was paddled with skateboards. Still, no ambulances were harmed in the making of either the race or the fishing contest (although the contest didn’t amuse the fish particularly), so I have less trouble understanding them.
From what I’ve seen on the internet, the official cheese roll ended a few years ago, when it couldn’t get insurance, and it’s now organized by an informal (and presumably un-suable) group. The mention of insurance reminded D. (well, one of them) of the flaming tar barrel race in Ottery St. Mary, which went on safely for years, even though people were racing around with, yes, flaming tar barrels, until some idiot tossed an aerosol can into one, and the can did what aerosol cans do when exposed to flaming tar: It blew up. No one—as far as I know—was hurt, but I’m willing to bet a lot of people were scared shitless.
The race continues. I don’t know what they do about insurance. Or aerosol cans and idiots.
The events we talked about fall into two categories: new and ancient. Many of the ancient ones seem to reach back to pre-Christian times and then piggyback themselves onto more recent holidays—May Day; Guy Fawkes Day. You can see the echoes of spring fertility celebrations, of the fall equinox. The tar barrel race is in the fall and you get fire, and days growing shorter. It’s insane, but I do see a connection. The cheese roll, though? It’s in the spring and I may be missing something, but it doesn’t strike me as an obvious way to celebrate the earth’s fertility.
What does it say about a culture that it creates these wonderful, lunatic events? I don’t have a clue, but I do know that they’re not commercial inventions, and they’re not the synthetic creations of a bunch of people nostalgic for the good olde days when knights were bolde and old crones knew the use of every weed that grew in the hedges. They’re created by real people, in place after place. Sort of like weeds, since I just mentioned them. No one plants them; they just grow. If you want folk culture, you could do worse than look here. And I can’t help imagining that they all start in the pub. Go back to Wild Thing’s February small-town Minnesota bar. Boredom plus beer. What could be more powerful? But instead of a simple brawl, these are elaborate events that demand months of planning. Commit-tees. Meetings. Ambulances. Delayed gratification, if you like. Which may be a good thing and may not be. If what you really want is the adrenaline of a fight, you probably fall on the not side. You end up starting a war. Or running through the streets with a flaming tar barrel. Or getting someone else to do it while you stand on the sidelines with a starter’s pistol, you clever devil.
In the interests of learning more about my new home, I hope to get to this year’s cheese roll, and to report back. If all goes well, we’ll discuss the tar barrel race. I make no promises.
The cheese roll is in May and I’m keeping my eye on the calendar.