Strange British Festivals: The World Custard Pie Championship

To prove that the pandemic is nothing to mess around with, the 2020 World Custard Pie Championship–like so many other non-essential events–was canceled.

But was the contest truly non-essential or was that just the decision of some self-serving, soulless sort with a scrub brush for a brain? Did they consider its obvious cultural, political, and academic importance? 

Ah, well, let’s not be too hard on self-serving, soulless scrub brushes. It’s been a rough year for everyone.

And it doesn’t matter anymore, because barring a major step backward in the U.K.–that’s pandemically speaking, of course–the competition will take place in 2021, so let’s learn what we can about the details, quick before it’s too late to enter. 

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, I think. In fact, I’m reasonably sure. Of course it’s a camellia. What else would it be? A snowmobile?

The World Custard Pie Championships fits nicely into the category of strange traditional festivals that England (or maybe that’s Britain) is so good at, even though this particular tradition is no older than fifty or so years. That makes it modern, at least by British history standards, but it’s a good enough imitation to fool my filing system. 

And if someone would help me sort out whether these festivals are a particularly British thing or a particularly English one, I’d be grateful. I’m sure it would help me understand the country better. Are people this strange in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland?

 

Origins, rules, & important stuff

The origins of most truly traditional traditions have been lost by now, but since this one’s a newcomer–a nontraditional tradition–we can document it: Coxheath, Kent, needed to raise money for a village hall and came up with the idea of inventing a tradition. Or at least that’s my interpretation. I’m reasonably sure no one put it that way when they were sitting around the pub figuring out what to do.

The pub’s also my interpretation. I’m convinced that these traditions all started in the pub. Even before pubs were invented.

How does the championship raise money? It costs £60 for a team to compete and £40 to set up a stall. Unless you’re selling food and drink, in which case that’ll be £80, thanks. If a town can keep its festival going for a few years and get itself some publicity, it’ll raise enough to buy a bucket of paint or three. 

By now the custard festival’s had enough publicity for teams to fly in from around the world. Or so the website says. They manage not to say how many teams have flown in. Two’s enough to justify a plural.

The rules are simple. Each team’s made up of four people and they line up and throw pies at someone–I assume it’s another team. Using their left hands. I’ll go out on a twig and guess that if you’re left handed you throw with your right. If you’re ambidextrous, you’re disqualified. If you’re amphibious, you can throw from under water, but it won’t be an advantage–at least not in terms of scoring. You’ll be a hit with the crowd, though.

Scoring? Your points depend on where your pie hits your opponent–six points for a pie in the face, three if it hits from the shoulder up, and one for any other body part. 

If you miss three times, you lose a point. 

The judges’ decisions are final. 

Throwing pies at the judges when you don’t like their decision is frowned upon, but they don’t say that for fear of putting the idea in some suggestible person’s empty little head. And yes, having to throw with your nondominant arm is a perfect excuse for not being good at it.

Unlike dwile flonking, you don’t have to be drunk to do this, but this being England (or should I say, “This being Britain”?), you’re more than welcome to show up dressed in something silly. Or as they put it in British, in fancy dress. Don’t wear anything you’re attached to, though, because by the end of the day everyone’s wearing custard.

And now the bad news: They don’t use real custard–it’s not the right consistency–and the formula for whatever they do use is a closely guarded secret. Presumably, neighboring towns are just dying to poach the festival and that’s all that stops them. The only ingredients they’ll admit to are flour and water. The Calendar Customs website recommends not eating whatever it is.

The contest’s usually held in May or June, but this year, with the number of vaccinated people going up and the number of Covid cases (“so far,” she said nervously) staying low, it’s been rescheduled for September 21. 

They’re expecting 2,000 pies to be thrown. The day begins around noon with a wet sponge competition for kids, who as any fool knows can’t be trusted with pies.

*

Some time ago Autolycus suggested that I might want to write about another great British tradition, rhubarb thrashing, and I did try, but I couldn’t find enough information to go on. Besides, it’s a perfectly sensible game where two people stand inside trash cans and whack at each other with rhubarb  sticks, and where’s the laugh in that?

Why more isn’t written about it remains a mystery. It’s one of those rare subjects where Lord Google offered me no more than a single page of links, most of which were to a kids’ program, the BBC’s mysteriously named Blue Peter, which decided many and many a year ago that this was what the kiddies needed to know.

Those kiddies have now grown into adults. If you want to know what’s wrong with the world, look no further.

I am, as always, grateful for people’s topic suggestions, even when I don’t end up writing about them. Some–like rhubarb thrashing–just don’t lead anywhere, but you never know. Some are glorious.

A quick history of town criers

The pandemic dictated that this year’s Town Crier Championships had to be held in silence, so this might be a reasonable time to stop and ask about town criers’ history in England.  

 

The Normans. Doesn’t everything trace back to the Normans?

In England, we can trace town criers at least back to 1066, when the Normans invaded the country and put themselves in charge, adding an overlay of the Old French they spoke to the Old English that everyone else did.

While they were at it, they also took over the land, the government, and anything that was left after that was parceled out.

The reason I mention their language, though, is that roughly a thousand years later town criers still start their cries with “Oyez, oyez,” which is French for “Listen up, you peasants.” 

Okay, it’s French for “Hear ye, hear ye,” which is English for “Listen up, you peasants.” And it’s pronounced, “Oh yay,” for whatever that information may be worth. 

Whatever they say after that, they’re supposed to end with “God save the queen.” Or king. Or whatever. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses.

The reason we can trace town criers back to the Norman invasion is that two of them were woven into the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the tale of the invasion in–um, yeah–tapestry. You can pick out the town criers because they’re carrying hand bells, which they rang to gather people around them. Because, loud as they were, a bell was even louder. 

They were sometimes called bellmen. 

Even today, town criers open their cries by ringing a hand bell, although historically some used drums or horns. 

But in spite of their Frenchified call,  it wasn’t the Normans who introduced the town criers–at least not according to the website maintained by the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which says the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxons carrying King Harold’s news about the Norman invasion to the populace.

Harold? He’s the guy who not long after sending out news of an invasion lost the battle, the war, and his life. 

If the loyal company is right and the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxon, then the tradition predated the Normans.

And who am I to question a loyal company? 

Well, I’m the person who stumbled into the Windsor and Maidenhead Town Crier site, which also mentions the tapestry but says its town criers came into the country with the Normans. 

That’s the trouble with drawing your history from visual art. A lot of interpretation is involved.

A third site ducks the issue by saying the town criers’ position was formalized after the Norman invasion. 

So we’re going to be cagey about this. Go eat a cookie or something and I’ll move us along while you’re distracted.

 

The town crier’s role

With the medieval period we can pick up more verifiable information about town criers. At a time when most people were illiterate, word of mouth was the social media of its day. Also the newspaper, the radio station, and the TV set. As Historic UK explains,  “most folk were illiterate and could not read.” 

Well, holy shit. As if being illiterate wasn’t bad enough, they couldn’t read either. Talk about multiple handicaps.

So the town crier would ring their bell or blow their horn or pound their drum, gather people around, and bellow out the news, proclamations, bylaws, thou-shalt-nots, thou-shalts, and whatever else the person pulling their strings felt was important. 

They had strings? Who pulled them? 

I haven’t found a direct answer, so I’m patching this together as best I can. Sprinkle a bit of salt over it, would you? 

The string puller(s) would probably have varied with the period we’re talking about. At at least some times and in some places, town criers were paid by the proclamation. Some sites talk about a city or town having a town crier, which makes it sound less like a casual job, and one site talks about town criers proclaiming ads. You know, “Oyez, oyez. Lidl is selling three lettuces for the price of two, but hurry or they’ll all be gone. God save the salad dressing.” 

But local government would also have come into the picture, wanting its announcements cried out, wanting the reason for a hanging made public, passing on announcements it received from the king or queen, which gives me a nifty excuse to mention that town criers were considered to be speaking in the name of the monarch, so attacking one was an act of treason.

Generally, once the crier had read out a proclamation, they’d nail it to the door post of the town pub. (Come on, where else are you going to gather the citizenry?) That gives us the word post in the sense of news and communication. 

Okay, they also made their proclamations at markets and town squares and anyplace else people could be counted on to gather. But an inn? If people gathered and listened, they might well step inside, buy a beer, and talk over what they’d heard. And a smart landlord might well offer the town crier a free beer after a well-placed announcement, although that’s the purest of speculation.

One site says town criers also patrolled the streets at night, looking for troublemakers (who else would be out after dark?) and making sure fires were damped down after the curfew bell rang. 

The origin of the word curfew lies in the Old French for covering a fire: cuvrir and feu. Fire was a constant threat in medieval towns. Having an old busybody with a bell making sure everyone really did cover theirs would be annoying but also useful. It’s believed (which is to say, it’s not exactly known) that one reason more people didn’t die in the Great Fire of London is that town criers warned people about the fire. It’s also believed that many more people died in the fire than were ever counted, so if you’ve still got some salt left, use a bit more of it here, because a good part of what I’ve found on the topic was written by nonhistorians. And speaking as a nonhistorian myself, we screw up more often than we like to admit.

Towns did organize unpaid overnight patrols (you’ll find a bit about that here), and the watchmen were sometimes called bellmen, but all men were expected to volunteer or to pay someone else to take their shift. They could all have been town criers, in spite of sometimes being called bellmen. I’m going to crawl out on a thin branch and say that some nonhistorian got fooled by the word bellman being used for two different jobs.

So who got to be a town crier? Someone with a loud voice who could sound authoritative. And someone who could read, because proclamations would come in written form and needed to be read out accurately. 

Town criers haven’t, historically, all been men. Some were husband-and-wife teams, and some were women. The Northwich 1790s records mention a woman who’d been carrying out the role “audably and laudably” for more than twenty years.

The collective noun for a group of town criers–of course you need to know this–is a bellow of criers. 

As literacy spread, town criers became less important, and where they continued, more decorative. These days, if you find them at all you’ll find them dressing in three-cornered hats (or other gloriously outdated headgear) and all the clothes that go with them. They’re most likely to show up to open local events or at contests.

 

And that brings us back to the silent championships

And so we return to this year’s silent championships: If the contestants couldn’t make a noise, what were they judged on?

Organizer Carole Williams said it was “a return to the bare bones of crying. . . .It’s a real skill to write a cry that sticks to the theme, that enlightens people, and doesn’t bore the audience. And it all has to be done in 140 words.”

That makes it sound like a shouted tweet, doesn’t it?

Williams, by the way is a crier from Bishops Stortford, which I include that because place names don’t get any more English than that, and a member of the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which I include because it hosts the competition and because organization names don’t get any more English than that. Even if you make them up.

Normally, the contest is judged on sustained volume and clarity, on diction and inflection, and on content, but this year’s entries had to be recorded and since not everyone could be expected to get their hands–or their cries–on good recording equipment, the organization decided to make sure everyone had an even chance.

The contest raised money for a mental health organization called–appropriately enough–Shout. 

*

Thanks to Bear Humphreys at Scribblans for sending me a link to the silent crier championships. 

Dwile flonking: another strange English tradition

If you ask the BBC about dwile flonking (and who doesn’t at some point?), you’ll find them asking a question of their own: 

Does dwile flonking really date back to the Suffolk harvests of 400 years ago or is it just a good excuse for getting drunk and celebrating Christmas in August?

They don’t answer the question and neither can I, but in my relentlessly shallow exploration of the topic I did find some faint linguistic evidence either that the game has a long history or that whoever invented it did their homework. Dwile comes from the Dutch word dweil, meaning floor cloth. Or it seems to, anyway. The word was probably introduced to England by Flemish weavers during the Middle Ages. Or, as Wikiwhatsia says (at the moment–it could change at any time), dwile is Dutch for a mop and the word worked its way into the Norfolk dialect. 

Irrelevant photo: The fields after a frost.

I try to avoid using Wikiwhatsia as a reference, but for dwile flonking? Why not? It’s right in the spirit of the game. It also says that flonk is “probably a corruption of flong, an old past tense of fling.”

Who knows. It might even be true. And when no one’s looking, sheep could just possibly type. If they had typewriters. 

The BBC agrees that flonk could be an archaic past tense of fling. If you squint hard. Meanwhile, Etymology Online gives us as a Middle English past tense flang with the past participle flungen. Which is no help at all but likely to be more reliable than anything else in the past few paragraphs. 

What is reliable is that Flonk is also a brand of ale, but that’s got to be recent than the rest of that mess. 

If you feel the need to watch dwiles being flonked (and if the pandemic ever ends), period costume is encouraged. I expect that’s in the spirit of imitation authenticity, although I’m not sure there’s any agreement on what period we’re talking about, so either pull one out of a hat (then wear the hat) or check out one of the videos on YouTube and do whatever you think best. After a few beers, no one will care and neither will you. 

Preliminaries

To play (did I say that dwile flonking’s a  sport?), you need two teams. Then you toss a sugar beet (which the BBC misspelled, she said without in the least betraying how smug she felt about catching that) to decide which team flonks first.

Then you choose a dull-witted person to serve as referee. That’s the jobanowl. He or she starts the game by shouting, “Here y’go t’gither!”

But wait. Before the match can start (and quite possibly before the jobanowl calls out his or her line), the teams have to sing “Here we ‘em be together.” It was written by Amos Thirkle, who was adopted as the patron saint of dwile flonking.

And why shouldn’t he be? Without even progressing past the letter A, I found patron saints of abdominal pains (Erasmus), for protection against mice (three, in fact: Gertrude, Servatus, and Ulric, and they were listed as “Against mice, protection against,” which is a double negative, but saints may be above grammatical quibbling) and of pain in the arms (Amalburga). 

You can make me the patron saint of pain in the ass if you like. Informally. Thirkle isn’t listed with the Church-approved saints either. 

I also found Amand, the patron said of bartenders, bar keepers, and bar staff in general. He’ll be busy during the match, and after. 

Rules

Here’s where it gets complicated and where I damn near decided to write about toadstools, or anything else that might turn out be less peculiar. But you can’t grasp the basic insanity of the game without slogging through the rules, so let us slog:

The team that isn’t flonking holds hands and dances in a circle (that’s called girting) while one person from the other team (that’s the flonker) stands in the middle with a driveller–a 2- to 3-foot pole made of hazel or yew. On the end of the driveller is the beer-soaked dwile. 

Remember the dwile? The floor rag/mop?

The flonker turns in the opposite direction from the girders and flonks the dwile at the opposing team, trying to hit someone. If the dwile hits a girter’s head, that’s three points. If it hits the body, it’s two points. A leg shot’s worth one.

If it misses, it’s called a swadger and the flonker takes a pot of ale and  has to drink it all while the girters form a line and pass the dwile from hand to hand, chanting, “pot, pot, pot.”

The pot? It’s what’s known as a gazunder–a chamber pot, called that because it goes under (goezunder–blame English spelling if you can’t make sense of the joke there) the bed. 

Well, what do you drink your ale out of?

When everyone’s had a chance to flonk, the game’s over and the points get counted up.

Teams lose a point for every person who’s sober at the end of the game. 

Dwile flonking is not recommended for people who go to AA meetings.

Want photos? Of course you do. These are from Beccles

And from Coventry, where the opposing team didn’t show up,

And more generally, from the BBC Suffolk, which describes the game as an adult version of All Fall Down.

And of course, you’ll want a video. YouTube is happy to oblige.

So now that you have this information, what do you do with it?

Well, once we get past the pandemic (nothing to it) you could always organize a dwile flonking competition where you live. Failing that, you could go down to the bar or pub and throw a beer-soaked rag at someone, then tell them they just participated in the ancient ritual of dwile flonking. 

One of two things will happen:

  1. They’ll stop in their tracks, wondering why they seem to have a beer-soaked rag on their heads when just a moment before they didn’t have a beer-soaked rag on their heads. (You’re not dancing around, so let’s assume you get a three-point hit. And you’ll have thrown the rag in the normal way, which will improve your aim. No magic two- to three-foot magic dwile flonking wands in the bar. ) If you’re in England when you do this, the other person will think, Dwile flonking. Of course. Because even if they’ve never heard of it–which is likely–England understands mysterious celebrations. Cheese rolling. Flaming tar barrels. Why not dwile flonking? Or,
  2. They’ll hit you so hard you’ll fall off your bar stool. 

Life’s a gamble. 

*

Endless thanks to Autolycus for suggesting that I write about this. I do worry about him. He also mentioned something about rhubarb thrashing. I’m saving that. It’s good to have something–however bizarre–to look forward to in these dark times.

Turning the Devil’s Stone: One of Those Strange English Traditions

Every November 5, when the rest of England is lighting bonfires and pretending to burn a long-dead Catholic rebel, at 8 p.m. the bellringers of Shebbear, in Devon, go to the village green and turn the Devil’s Stone. 

Because that’s what you do in Shebbear on November 5 if you’re a bellringer.

But first they ring a discordant peal of bells and listen to the minister either tell the tale of the Devil’s Stone or say a short prayer, depending on who you want to believe (or possibly who the minister is that year). 

Then they turn the stone. 

Some time before all that, someone lets the morris dancers loose, although they’re not part of the ceremony. They’re–oh, think of them as the frosting instead of the cake. They’re decorative but not essential.

Irrelevant photo: We’ve forgotten what these are, but they have berries at this time of year. I’m running low of flowers.

Actually, only one website mentions morris dancers. That could be because they’ve gone invisible to everybody else. Hold a festival and the odds of morris dancers showing up are high. Hold an odd one and the odds rise to 106-odd %. After a while, people just stop seeing them.

But that’s fine. You can tell you’re deep into folklore when every source contradicts some other source. In fact, in The English Year Steve Roud says that local people also call the stone the Shebbear Stone. He could be right, but the village website calls it the Devil’s Stone and says it’s also called the Devil’s Boulder. It doesn’t mention the Shebbear Stone.

Be happy with this. Everything is as it should be in this best of all possible worlds. 

And I am the queen of Romania. **

Why do they do it?

Because if they don’t, bad things will happen. During World War I and again during World War II, when people had other things on their minds and the village’s hefty young guys were running around in other countries carrying guns, the village let the date pass without turning the stone and bad things happened.

What bad things? No one I’ve found is specific about World War I, but during World War II one source says the war news got so bad that after a few days of bad news some people flipped the stone anyway. They were late, but at least they got the job done, the Allies won the war, and the world has continued on its erratic and weary course. Thank you, Shebbear, for saving us all.

According to another explanation of the ritual, they do it to keep the devil away. Maybe that’s the same thing as keeping bad things from happening. A biblical scholar I’m not. On the Calendar Customs website, someone named Sam left a comment to say, “Your all blooming mad none of this is in the bible….. your all off your trolley.”

Sam is probably not the ritual’s target audience. 

Methodists, alcohol, and folk traditions

As far as I can tell–and remember, I’m an immigrant here, so I’m bound to (almost obliged to) get a lot of this stuff wrong–this is the only ancient festival in Britain that doesn’t involve heavy drinking, although I did find a comment involving rain diluting a spectator’s pint, so you can be assured that (a) it rains a fair percentage of the time, as it should, and (b) drinking is accepted as a peripheral activity. Still, even though the stone is between the church and the pub, and even though the pub is called the Devil’s Stone, nothing I’ve read about the event mentions it either starting or ending at the pub. The closest I’ve found is a mention of the pub selling refreshments, but it does that every day of the year, unless a pandemic gets in the way.

Carrying on like that could get a festival kicked out of the Folkloric Society.

It might be relevant that John Wesley–the founder of Methodism–came through Shebbear and that Methodists don’t drink. Or it might not be relevant. The church the bellringers belong to isn’t Methodist, it’s Church of England. 

For whatever it’s worth, though, the village had the second oldest Methodist school in the country, founded in 1829 to train boys as ministers. It’s possible that before John Wesley showed up, turning the stone involved getting pie-eyed, but that’s pure speculation. It doesn’t seem to now. 

Roud mentions a website that called this the “oldest folk custom in Europe” but he says there’s no evidence of it earlier than the twentieth century. That’s not proof that it doesn’t go back many centuries, it just says there’s no record of it. But he does speculate that it could have started as a prank by bellringers, “or even that it was the result of a drunken conversation in the pub.”

If he’s right, Shebbear can hold its head up at the next meeting of the nonexistent Folkloric Society. The pub will have elbowed its way into the tale.

If you ask Lord Google, he’ll tell you that a Folklore Society does exist, and that it’s a learned society. But since I made up the Folkloric Society, I can assure you that it’s not learned. It involves heavy drinking, some morris dancing, obscure traditions, and disagreements about almost everything.

 

Why this particular stone?

The stone is notable because it doesn’t match the local stone. Depending on who you want to believe:

  • The devil dropped it out of his pocket when he fell from Heaven to Hell.
  • The devil dropped it when he was fighting with god and it fell on him and flattened him. 
  • The devil’s imprisoned underneath it. If you actually believe in the devil, that might make you think twice about turning it, but what do I know? 
  • St. Michael dropped the stone on the devil.
  • The stone was an altar stone belonging to a pre-Christian religion.
  • The stone was quarried for the foundation stone of Hanscott Church, which is nearby, and the Devil moved it to Shebbear. Every time someone moved it back to the church, it turned up at Shebbear again.
  • The devil threw the stone and the church and missed.
  • The stone’s a glacial erratic–something the glaciers picked up in one place and dropped in another. Glaciers were known for their sense of humor. The one carrying the stone said to another glacier, “Watch this. I’m going to set this thing down right here, then we’ll check back in thousands of years. I bet those annoying little hairless creatures will be worshiping it.”

According to various edges of the internet run by people who I suspect know as much about stones  as I do, the stone is granite, the stone is quartz, and the stone is “of a composition unknown anywhere in Europe.” 

No one claims that it’s of a composition unknown anywhere on this planet and everyone agrees that it weighs about a ton. 

 

Important information

Shebbear is pronounced SHEBBeer. I mention that because with English place names you can’t take anything for granted. They’re all glacial erratics–they got picked up in one place and dropped someplace else, and there’s no explaining why they’re either pronounced or spelled the way they are.

My thanks to Bear Humphries for reminding me of the Devil’s Stone, which is more or less local to us both.

 

** Adapted–or stolen–from a poem by Dorothy Parker:

Comment

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.

The Gawthorpe Maypole Procession and World Coal Carrying Championships 

Every folkloric festival in Britain started at the pub. Even the ones that predate the invention of the pub started at the pub.

And the synthetic ones? You know, the ones that date back seven and a half years and were started by the local Let’s Lure Visitors in Here So They Can Spend Money Commission? 

Yup. Those started at the pub too. 

If we’ve established that, let’s talk about the Gawthorpe Maypole Procession and World Coal Carrying Championships, which is an odd mix of the folkloric and the synthetic and should leave us wondering whether a synthetic festival becomes folkloric if it sticks around long enough. 

In keeping with a tradition here at Notes, I’m posting this in the wrong season. Maypole celebrations have a way of happening in May, but screw it. Even in this time of pandemic, May will come around eventually. But even more than that, the contest won’t be held this year, so we can celebrate early if we want to.

Besides, ever since lockdown hit us, half the people I know can’t keep track of the days of the week, so let’s not be sticklers about the months.

Irrelevant photo: You may have already guessed that this is not a maypole. It’s not even a spring flower, it’s an autumn one, but damn, isn’t it beautiful?

If you’re ready, then, this post is for all you people who want to believe that somewhere people still dance around maypoles and life is bright and shiny and innocent. It’s for you because you’re half right. The maypole half. Bright and shiny? Not when it shares a three-day weekend with a coal-carrying race. As for innocence, I’ve never been to the event so I have no evidence one way or another. I expect it’ll all depends on how you want to define innocence. Also folkloric. But let’s dodge the difficult questions and go straight for the fluff.

The coal carrying event started in 1963, but in the traditional way: A bunch of guys were sitting around a pub, and at this point I’ll yield the stage so the event’s own web page can tell the story, with its own punctuation and dialect. If they overshot the local accent, blame them.

“At the century-old Beehive Inn . . . Reggie Sedgewick and one Amos Clapham, a local coal merchant and current president of the Maypole Committee were enjoying some well-earned liquid refreshment whilst stood at the bar lost in their own thoughts. When in bursts one Lewis Hartley in a somewhat exuberant mood. On seeing the other two he said to Reggie, ‘Ba gum lad tha’ looks buggered !’ slapping Reggie heartily on the back. Whether because of the force of the blow or because of the words that accompanied it, Reggie was just a little put out. ‘Ah’m as fit as thee’ he told Lewis, ’an’ if tha’ dun’t believe me gerra a bagga coil on thi back an ‘ah’ll get one on mine an ‘ah’ll race thee to t’ top o’ t’ wood !’ (Coil, let me explain is Yorkshire speak for coal). While Lewis digested the implications of this challenge a Mr. Fred Hirst, Secretary of the Gawthorpe Maypole Committee (and not a man to let a good idea go to waste) raised a cautioning hand. ‘Owd on a minute,’ said Fred and there was something in his voice that made them all listen. ‘ ‘Aven’t we been looking fer some’at to do on Easter Monday? If we’re gonna ‘ave a race let’s ‘ave it then. Let’s ‘ave a coil race from Barracks t’ Maypole.’ (The Barracks being the more common name given by the locals to The Royal Oak Public House.)”

If I can step in and interpret that last bit for you, what happened was that the secretary said, “Let there be a coal race,” and lo, there was a coal race. And it was good.

Also dirty.

And it still is. Men race with 50 kilo sacks of coal and women with 20 kilo sacks. If you want that in pounds, just multiply it by 2.2. I’m outta here. 

Both groups run 1,012 meters, most of it uphill. Kids, as far as I can figure out, run coalless and a shorter distance.

The rules list lots of things not to do. No coaching during the race. No assistance, no advice, no information, no cutting corners, and no general busybodying, and that’s all in red type with lots of random quotation marks, so you don’t get to tell anyone that you didn’t see the warnings.  

The event is sponsored by Eric F. Box, Funeral Directors. 

No, I can’t explain why Eric is more than one director, but maybe I should’ve mentioned his involvement earlier, by way of a health and safety warning. It’s enough to make a person wonder if, what with all that coal and hopefully a bit of coal dust to keep it company, he counts on the race bringing in a few customers.

But let’s leave Eric and his customers to work things out among themselves and move on to the maypole dance. We’ll do the general history first, then the local stuff.

Did maypole dancing start at the pub? Oh, hell yes, even if it predated the pub’s invention. It’s ancient enough to be considered pagan, it was probably linked to fertility, and it was rowdy–as fertility so often is. You can trace it back to the Celtic seasonal holiday of Beltane if you like–spring, rebirth, all that sort of thing–although the maypole was probably an Anglo-Saxon addition

Or you can trace it to the Roman holiday Floralia if you like.

Hell, you can do anything you want. You can eat your shoelaces if you like. I can’t stop you, can I? 

Assorted websites take the Floralia route, and they’re as convincing as the ones that trace it to the Celts. Me? I don’t honestly care. It was all such a long time ago that we’re left spinning theories–some better informed than others, but still educated guesses at best.

As England Christianized, the church tolerated May Day celebrations, and in medieval England laborers could often claim the day as a holiday. We can’t document that they danced around a maypole, but if we were to bet that they drank and got rowdy and then if we could somehow find out what really happened I doubt we’d lose our money. The day might or might not have involved a pole but it surely involved lots of regional variations.  

According to Gawthorpe’s website, maypole dancing dates back to the reign of Richard II (1483-1485, so you had to hurry or you’d be docked for coming late), but another website says that maypole dancing gets a mention in Chaucer and he died in 1400, meaning we can dock Richard’s pay. 

By the time Henry VIII was rampaging through his assorted marriages (1509-1547), maypole dancing had reached most of England’s rural villages (or so says the Gawthorpe website). Historic UK swears that May Day celebrations were banned in the sixteenth century, which caused riots, but other websites wait an extra century, blaming the Puritans for banning them and letting Henry off the hook. There were May Day riots one year, but they don’t seem to have been related to maypoles or bans.

The Puritans, though, were beyond question skillful disapprovers, and they disapproved of all tha rowdy, paganish carrying on, and their best to stamp out May Day.

Then the monarchy was restored and with it May Day celebrations and maypoles.

Then we skip merrily along until we come to the eighteenth century, when (to give you the flavor of the holiday) a newspaper clipping preserved the tale of some village rowdies stealing another village’s maypole. That seems to have been an accepted part of the carrying on. 

In addition to poles (your own or someone else’s), the holiday seems to have involved flowers, herbs, adults, and general uproar. Also, I’d be willing to bet, alcohol.

The first evidence of maypoles having ribbons is from 1759, and they may have wandered in from Italy. 

Then the Victorians came along and sanitized the holiday, turning it into an activity for kids and calling it an ancient tradition. Maypole dancing was taught to schoolmistresses-in-training, and they made it part of the folk revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

One website says that the crowning of the queen and the dancing were controlled by the village elite, taking the holiday away from the kind of folk tradition that grew from the ground up.

As for the Gawthorpe, the maypole business sounds painfully respectable, with local dignitaries and a four and a half mile procession involving floats and marching bands and horses. Not to mention some poor girl who gets chosen as queen and some other poor girls who don’t. I’m not sure which is worse. They should all sue. 

Can you sue an entire culture?

The maypole part of the Gawthorpe celebration dates back to 1906, when a teacher at the local school–probably one of the ones who’d been taught the reinvented tradition in teacher training–taught the kids what the website swears are intricate steps. And they probably are intricate because they have to hold ribbons and circle a pole multiple times without tying anyone to it. It takes six months to teach the steps, the website says. Cynic that I am, I can’t help thinking that’s because it takes so much time to chase down the dancers and make them stop having fun, but please don’t mistake me for anyone who knows that. For all I know, it fills every last one of them with joy. 

Give me a coal race any day.

Oh, no you won’t: A quick history of the British panto

Nothing except the curry is as British as the panto. 

I’ve made that claim about a lot of things, and it’s true of every last one of them. And I didn’t even make up the comparison, so lots of people have made the claim about lots of things.

Nothing is as unoriginal as comparing an British / English whatever to a curry.

But if I’ve destroyed my own opening thoroughly enough, let’s move on and talk about the panto. Having grown up in the US, I thought pantomime meant silent acting. You know: Marcel Marceau. That kind of thing. We call it mime for short.

But for the British–well, they grabbed the opposite end of the word, we hung onto ours and between us we broke the thing. So forget mime. What they do is panto, and it’s full of words.

How British is it? Exactly as British as the curry: In other words, it came from someplace else–in the case of the panto, Italy and from there, France–and embedded itself deeply in British culture.

Irrelevant photo: No fall–or autumn, if I’m pretending to be British–is complete without a photo of gorse and heather. They’re everywhere. They’re behind you, probably.

It started as sixteenth-century Italian Commedia dell’arte, which was traveling street theater, although the better troupes weren’t above performing in a palace if one wandered past. The shows involved music, dance, dialogue, and a heavy dose of mayhem. 

Italy wasn’t a united country at this point, and it had many very different dialects. So how did they handle dialogue when the troupes traveled? According to one source, they made a virtue of the differences. One character spoke Spanish (no, that’s not Italian or a dialect, but somehow it’s on the list). One spoke Bolognese. One spoke gibberish. And so on. What pulled it all together was the physical communication–clowning, acrobatics, dance, music. One character, Arlecchino (are-lay-KEY-no–he’s the origin of our word harlequin), had two sticks that were tied together so they’d make a loud noise and he whacked everything available with them, including the scenery and the other characters. And that, children, is the origin of our word slapstick

The women’s roles were played by women, and since the European tradition had banned women from the stage, this was radical.

The sets were basic–they had to travel–and many elements were predictable, including the characters, which were fixed types, recognizable from play to play, from troupe to troupe. A lot of them were played in masks. (The lovers–because what’s a play without lovers?–weren’t.) So forget deep characterization. What mattered were the tumbles, the slapstick, the chases, and the jokes, which were also recognizable from play to play. 

All of that, though, was scaffolding for the improvisation. The actors played off each other and the audience, so the play would never be quite the same twice. 

From Italy, the form moved to France, and from France it moved to England, and from the sixteenth century time moved to the seventeenth. In England, Commedia dell’arte collided with masques, which had started in the 14th century as musical, mimed, or spoken dramas put on in grand houses. By the seventeenth century–or so says one source–they were basically an excuse for a theme party. 

Commedia d’etc. may also have had a small collision with a medieval (or Tudor, depending on who you want to believe) Christmas tradition, the Feast of Fools, which was run by the Lord of Misrule, because before too many centuries had passed the panto became as tightly connected to Christmas as brussels sprouts (don’t ask–it won’t get us anywhere). 

In the eighteenth century, the word pantomime took hold and the form began gobbling up existing stories–Aladdin, Robinson Crusoe, Cinderella, you name it. 

By the Victorian era, the principal boy’s role was played by a woman. In the Victorian era, that would’ve been pretty racy stuff, involving ankles and legs and all sorts of body parts no one knew women had. The dame was enthusiastically overplayed by a man. If you were inclined to take anything too seriously, that would knock the idea out of your head.

Then they added some dancers and an audience, which got to yell out some stock phrases: He’s behind you. Oh, no you won’t

It’s an odd thing, but after you repeat those a few dozen times, they begin to be funny. In fact, they’ve cut loose from the panto and become free-floating punchlines in real life.  

In some stories, they got to add a pantomime horse–two people in a horse costume. Hold onto that thought.

These days–or before the pandemic, anyway–pantos were performed in grand theaters with professional or semi-professional actors and in village halls with hangdog ten-year-olds who delivered their lines as if they’d been strong-armed into taking part because they had been.

Many theaters relied on pantos for a heavy portion of their year’s income. The could reliably fill the seats.

By the time a panto ends, good has conquered evil and the lovers have been united. And where I live, until there’s been a raffle. You don’t get to leave a village event until you buy a ticket, and if you win something you want look happy with your prize, no matter how odd it is.

Why am I writing about this in September? In part because the British government’s running like a badly written panto:

“We will get control of the corona virus.” 

“Oh, no you won’t.”

“Oh, yes we will.”

“Oh, not unless you get your act together you won’t.”

But also because a bit of the panto has broken loose, abandoned the Christmas season, and become the panto horse race: pairs of people in horse costumes in a race. Ask Lord Google about it and he’ll tell you they take place (at the very least) in Colchester and in Catterick. Here’s one that was won by a cow. 

The London panto horse race seems to be the same as the Greenwich one, and it goes from pub to pub, stopping at each one. By the end, the horses are looking a little the worse for wear. Or possibly for beer. The front end of one horse was having a drinking problem that had to do with the length of a horse’s muzzle and the size of a pint glass of beer.

For the best of the videos, I couldn’t find anything outside of Twitter or Facebook, but if you enjoy pictures of people falling over, horses coming apart, and scenery being destroyed, it’s very funny. 

Go on, click the links. You know you want to.

Oh, yes you do.

The City of London: Where medieval silliness meets modern finance 

English place names strew confusion with all the restraint of a four-year-old trapped in a confetti barrel, so let’s start by sorting out what we’re talking about: The City of London isn’t the same as the city of London. Give city a small first letter and you’re talking about the place the world (sillly thing that it is) knows as London. Give it a capital letter and it’s not London but a square mile of high finance, non-resident voting, and that all-around oddity that the English do so gloriously. 

That capital-letter City calls itself the City, as if it was the only city the world ever knew. It’s also called the Square Mile because it’s not a square mile, it’s 1.2 square miles.

Follow me through the looking glass, kiddies. Let’s find out about the City of London. I’ll tell you everything I know. And much more. The sign that I’m telling you more than I know is that I quote big chunks of text from people who do know. Trust them. Ignore me.

Irrelevant photo: I have no idea what we’re looking at here, but I do know it’s a wildflower.

History

We pick up our tale in Anglo-Saxon England, at a time when London was England’s biggest city. It wasn’t the capital, but it was a center of trade and commerce. Which are the same thing but doesn’t it sound more important when I use both words? 

The city was important enough that Edward the Confessor–the almost-last of the Anglo-Saxon kings–thought it would be a good place to build a castle, not to mention a church that became known as Westminster so it wouldn’t get itself confused with the east minster, a.k.a. St. Paul’s. 

Then the Normans invaded, and even though William upended the box that was England and gave it a good hard shake, rattling everything and breaking some of it, he was careful not to break London. He granted it a charter and promised its citizens that they’d live under the same laws they’d had under Ed the almost-last Anglo-Saxon king. 

That’s important, because its special status continued under his successors and London grew to be wealthy, self-governing, self-taxing, self-judging, and surprisingly independent of the crown. It had its own militias, called the trained bands, which played a pivotal role at assorted turning points in the country’s history.

Fascinating as that is, though, it’s a tale for another post. I tried to work it into this one but it’s a rabbit hole. It was when I found a bottle labeled “Drink Me” that I realized how much trouble I was in. 

In 1100, London had a population of 18,000. By 1300, that had grown to 80,000. (That’s from the Britannica. WikiWhatsia says it was 100,000. Fair enough. Nobody was counting noses.)

Nearby Westminster had also grown, but not as much. Westminster was for the bean counters and administrators. You wouldn’t have wanted to move there. London was where the action was.

Within London, guilds formed and gained charters from the king. Their role was to defend the interests of their members, set prices and standards in their industries, settle disputes, control apprenticeships, and limit their membership (which just happened to limit competition). By 1400, the City had 100 guilds, and at least some of them were powerful beasts indeed. When a monarch needed money–and rich as they were, monarchs always needed money–the guilds could bow a few times, then finance a war or two and buy themselves and their city increased freedom from royal meddling.

Some of the guilds took to wearing livery–basically uniforms for their trades–and called themselves livery companies. Make a note of that. It’ll be on the test.

With all that history, though, there’s no piece of paper we can turn to that marks the City’s beginning. According to an article by Nicholas Shaxson in the New Statesman, “No charter constitutes [the City] as a corporate body. It grew up beside parliament and the crown, not directly subordinate to either but intertwined with both.”

 

More History

Around London, a patchwork of settlements grew up. In 1550, three-quarters of Londoners lived in the City. Among other things, this means the definition of a Londoner is getting hazy already. By 1700, only a quarter of them did. By 1800, that was down to a tenth. 

Even so, the City was crowded–enough so that at one point the Court of Common Council (that’s a fancy phrase for the City government) tried to stop houses from being subdivided into smaller, even more crowded units in a process called pestering. That doesn’t have much to do with our tale, but I had to sneak it in. It’s a very shallow rabbit hole. We’ll climb back out now.

In the seventeenth century, the crown asked the Corporation–that’s also the City government, and please don’t ask me to explain why it needs two names–to extend its jurisdiction to the new settlements. If it had said yes, London would be one city, but it refused. That’s called the great refusal of 1637 and it set up the odd, two-city structure London still has. Inside the large city that we naive fools think of as London sits the City of London, like the pit inside a peach. It left the sprawling settlements outside to solve their own problems so it could continue as it always had.

This decision eventually turned around and bit it on the ass. The guilds that had controlled competition by limiting their membership? They had no sway outside the City, and competitors were free to offer cheaper goods and services. 

Time passed, and we’ll let the Financial Times article provide a bridge to the present day: 

“Even as Parliament displaced the Crown as the fundamental unit of sovereignty and democracy displaced the Divine Right of Kings as the principle of legitimacy, the state still refused to subordinate the Corporation of London to national laws and practices. Its assets and its ancient privileges remained untouched. . . . The Corporation’s assets, its property inventory and financial portfolio remain unpublished.”

 

Government and Independence

So here we are in the modern City of London. How’s the place governed? 

The guilds have been central from the start, and they still are. The lord mayor, who heads the City of London Corporation, has to belong to one of the livery companies. And he or she has to have been a City sheriff. Both positions are elected by the senior members of the livery companies, who also elect bridge masters, auditors, and ale conners. 

Ale conners? They’re essential. They taste the ale. Also the beer. It was a fairly standard medieval position that most towns and cities have been happy to let sink into quiet obscurity. Not the City.

The livery companies also approve the candidates for alderman. 

After the livery companies have made sure the alder-candidates are acceptable, what happens? Why, the people get to vote, of course. It’s a democracy, isn’t it?

Who are the people? That’s where it gets interesting. Some 8,000 people live in the City, but almost 19,000 people vote there. And it’s all legal

How? If a business has up to nine staff members, it gets one vote. Up to fifty, it can appoint one voter for every five staff members. Above that, it gets ten voters plus one for every additional fifty. 

Anyone want to place bets on how independent those voters are?

The City has twenty-five wards, but the residents are concentrated in four of them, which limits resident impact even more.

As a City spokesperson explained,“The City is a democratic institution. All of its councillors are elected.” 

They pay people a lot of money to say things like that with a straight face.

The spokesperson also said, “As the local authority we provide public services to both 7,400 residents and 450,000 City workers. Therefore to reflect the needs of the workers who come to the City each day, businesses located in the City can appoint people to vote in our local elections.”

Okay, we now have an elected government. What’s its purpose? According to several non-radical sources, its purpose these days is to represent international finance.

An article in the New Statesman says, “By the 1980s, the City was at the centre of a great, secretive financial web cast across the globe, each of whose sections–the individual havens–trapped passing money and business from nearby jurisdictions and fed them up to the City: just as a spider catches insects. So, a complex cross-border merger involving a US multinational might, say, route a lot of the transaction through Caribbean havens, whose British firms will then send much of the heavy lifting work, and profits, up to the City. . . .

“Thus, the role of the City of London Corporation as a municipal authority is its least important attribute. This is a hugely resourced international offshore lobbying group pushing for international financial deregulation, tax-cutting and tax havenry around the world.” 

To make sense of how a city can be a tax haven when it’s inside a country that isn’t a tax haven, we have to go back to the City’s independence. Parliament (and I keep checking this because I can’t entirely believe I have it right) doesn’t have authority over the City. The City functions, basically, as an autonomous state within the U.K. International banks can do things within the City that the governments of their home countries don’t allow. Even if their home country is Britain.

According to a paper called “The City of London Corporation: The quasi-independent tax haven in the heart of London,” “Parliament has powers to make legislation affecting the City of London; however, any suggestion brought forth to the Corporation of London falls within its discretion, without liability of enactment. [No, I didn’t get that the first or third time around either. It has to do with parliament not having authority over the City.] To keep a watchful eye on all legislation passing through Parliament, and to safeguard its exclusive rights and privileges, the City of London has a permanent representative, called the City Remembrancer, who sits in Parliament beneath the Speaker’s chair to observe House of Commons proceedings. The Remembrancer is the City of London’s envoy. Should Parliament contemplate any legislation against the City’s interests, the Remembrancer is duty-bound to communicate such matters to his peers, whereupon it shall lie within the Guildhall’s purview to engage a City Sheriff to petition Parliament against any unsavoury bill.”

To explain how this happened, the New Statesman article says, “Over centuries, sovereigns and governments have sought City loans, and in exchange the City has extracted privileges and freedoms from rules and laws to which the rest of Britain must submit. The City does have a noble tradition of standing up for citizens’ freedoms against despotic sovereigns, but this has morphed into freedom for money.”

Britain being Britain, the City’s independence plays out in outdated costumes and obscure ceremonies that everyone performs as if they made sense. Again, the New Statesman:

Whenever the Queen makes a state entry to the City, she meets a red cord raised by City police [the City has its own police force; London’s police have no authority there unless they’re invited] at Temple Bar, and then engages in a col­ourful ceremony involving the lord mayor, his sword, assorted aldermen and sheriffs, and a character called the Remembrancer.” 

The surviving livery companies include the Worshipful Company of Mercers (its coat of arms looks like it was drawn by a twelve-year-old obsessed with blond-haired princesses; I looked for a unicorn but didn’t find one), the Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers, and the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.

No, I didn’t make any of that up. 

More than one government has tried to democratize the City. So far, they’ve all failed.

Strange British Customs: The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival

Can any country without a straw bear festival claim to have a culture? 

Well, possibly. I hesitate to throw whole cultures into history’s extensive trash can. Especially since, no matter how much I try, they never do stay thrown. 

But either way, let’s talk about the Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival. Because it exists. Because it takes place (when the country isn’t in lockdown) in January and this is June, and that makes it an obvious topic right now. And because I thought a quick break from the serious stuff might do us all good.

The festival started before Whittlesea’s collective memory kicked in, so no one knows how far back it goes. Britain’s full of events like that. This one involves what an 1882 newspaper called the confraternity of the plough. That sounds like an organized group but the writer was probably just trying for a cute and condescending way of talking about farm workers.

Irrelevant photo: No flower this time, just sunlight and leaves.

What does seem to be known–and remember to take everything with a teaspoon or two of salt because of that problem with collective memory–is that each year they’d pick a man or boy to be the bear. Then on Plough Monday (British spelling because what the hell it’s their holiday) they’d drag a plow (American spelling because I can only be well behaved for just so long) through town and lead the bear around, with lots of singing and dancing. 

And drinking.

We’ll get around to the Plough Monday part later. 

The newspaper article describes the straw bear dancing in front of  “the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef.” So basically, the well-to-do got entertainment and the badly-off got roaring drunk and went away with their bellies (and lungs) filled, and a good time was had by most.

Until the next morning. But there’s me spoiling the fun again.

As a counterbalance to that above-it-all description, let’s quote a book by Sybil Marshall about life in the fens in the 1890s. This isn’t specifically about the straw bear, but it’s close enough to be useful.

“Living where we did and how we did, we used to make the most of anything a bit out o’ the ordinary, and we looked for’ard from one special day to the next. Looking back on it now, I’m surprised to see how many high days and holidays there were during the year that we kept, and we certainly made the most of any that children could take part in at all. . . . The Molly Dancers ‘ould come round the fen from Ramsey and Walton all dressed up. One would have a fiddle and another a dulcimer or perhaps a concertina and play while the rest danced. This were really special for Christmas Eve, but o’ course the dancers cou’n’t be everywhere at once on one day, so they used to go about on any other special day to make up for it. They’d go from pub to pub, and when they’d finished there, they’d go to any houses or cottages where they stood a chance o’ getting anything. If we ha’n’t got any money to give ’em, at least they never went away without getting a hot drink.”

Whittlesea’s straw bear tradition lapsed in the early twentieth century, when a police inspector (speaking of spoiling the fun) decided the whole festival was a form of begging. Then it was revived in 1980, by (I’m taking a wild guess at this) either a group of guys who’d had too many beers or a group of promoters who decided it would bring the tourists in. 

Or a group of promoters who’d had too many beers. Why have two groups when one will do?

These days the festival involves a procession with the bear and a team pulling a plow (or a plough, which with all those extra vowels has got to be heavier) through the streets, and of course music, dancing, and (I’m guessing, since I haven’t been to the festival) a lot of drinking. The festival website’s FAQs includes the question, “Can I drink on the streets?” 

Answer: No. The cops are watching. Drink in the pub. Drink outside the pub but use a plastic glass. Play more or less nice.

The bear’s led around the town to dance in front of pubs, which is no mean trick because the costume weighs 5 stone.

A stone? It’s one of those insane, traditional British measures and it equals 14 pounds. Because who doesn’t like to multiply by 14? So 5 stone is–

Will you give me a minute here? I’m working on it.

It’s 70 pounds. Or 31.7515 kilos, give or take a gram. In other words, heavy enough that we should all be impressed by someone wearing it for long, never mind dancing in it. 

At the end of the festival, the bear costume is burned.

And of course, the festival includes morris dancers. Love ‘em or hate ‘me, you can’t hold a traditional festival in England without morris dancers. 

It also involves molly dancers, and I thought we’d get to take a break from anything serious, but I never do know where a topic will lead me, so buckle up, kids, ‘cause it’s about to get serious.

According to the Morris Ring website, molly dancing traditionally involved white men blacking their faces and dressing in women’s clothes. The blackface may have been to disguise themselves or it may be good old-fashioned racism. It could easily have been one twisted around the other. At this point, I doubt anyone can unpick the threads. 

The winds are blowing hard against blackface these days, and some molly dancing groups have dropped it. Others defend it on the grounds–and this is an argument I’ve never heard outside of Britain–that it isn’t (or wasn’t) meant to be racist, and so it isn’t racist. I’ve argued that through with more than one person and have yet to change a single mind.

The website of a molly dancing group called Pig Dyke explains its decision to drop blackface: They don’t want to be linked to the minstrel show tradition, where whites blacked their faces and played out a grotesque image of black people. It says, “Molly dancers in the past blacked their faces for disguise, weirdness, and loss of personal identity: we achieve that” without blackface. 

I looked through the Whittlesea website photos hoping to find that all the groups had dropped blackface. They hadn’t. If I was around to ask the dancers why they still do it, I’m sure they’d tell me it’s not racist because it was never meant to be racist. And because they’re not racists. And I’d try to convince them that their intent (or the originators’ intent–take your pick) isn’t the center around which the universe pivots–that our intent doesn’t control our impact. 

I’d leave wondering why I bothered. 

I won’t take a guess at what they’d be thinking. I don’t expect it’d be flattering. So let’s leave them to be unflattering and talk about the dressing in women’s clothes part. 

Pig Dyke connects the word molly to London’s molly houses, which were eighteenth-century gay and transvestite brothels. Whether they’re right to make that connection is anyone’s guess. There’s a strong British tradition of straight, non-transvestite men cross-dressing, and it’s widespread enough to make me think it was independent of the molly houses, although they may share a common root. But that’s guesswork. Let’s just chalk it up to another one of those collective memory blank spots.

I promised we’d get back to Plough Monday. The Molly Dancing website says it fell on ”the first Monday after Epiphany (or twelfth night) and was the first day after Christmas that farm-workers were meant to return to work, so they didn’t! Instead they decorated a plough and pushed it round the village, calling at the houses of the well-off villagers to beg for money. If the householders weren’t forthcoming with donations then they threatened to plough up the garden, or if there wasn’t a garden, the doorstep.”

That accounts for why the Morris Ring website says molly dancers ”could be destructive, drunk and disreputable.” 

These days, no one plows up gardens or doorsteps, drinking on the streets is only allowed outside the pubs, and storytelling groups gather the kids around so that they can take home something wholesome–something full of mental fiber and emotional green vegetables.

English Traditions: May Day

Any May Day celebrations that were planned this year have been canceled, so what better time could we find to look into the tradition itself, and to the festivals we can’t go to?

May Day starts, depending on who you want to believe, with either 1) the Romans celebrating Flora, the god of flowers and spring (or goddess, if you like male and female endings for your gods), or 2) the Celts, celebrating Beltane, a fire festival of–

Let’s start a new paragraph here, because this is too complicated to dangle off the end of an already convoluted sentence. In fact, it’s going to take more than one paragraph, so let’s start an extra new one. What the hell, they’re free and I don’t have to go out of the house to get them. 

Relevant photo: Any flower can pass as relevant to a post about May Day. These are, I’m reasonably sure, an ornamental cherry.

The Celts had a god named Belenus. That ending sounds suspiciously Latin, so what we know was probably filtered through the Romans, who had a habit that the Celts didn’t at that point: They wrote things down, and so we turn to them for information on people they understood at best imperfectly. The people who really knew about Belenus? They didn’t leave us a record.

Belenus, if you believe a random sampling of enthusiastic but non-authoritative online sources, was a sun god. If you believe the Brittanica, he wasn’t. He was “widely associated with pastoralism” and Beltane was celebrated on May 1 with fires where cattle were purified before being put out in the pastures for the summer. 

The holiday was also associated with fertility, as anything in the spring would be. If stuff doesn’t start growing right about now, you’re not going to make it through the winter.

I’m going to put my money on the Brittanica, which goes on to say that there’s no evidence the Celts worshiped the sun, although they used sun images a lot. Images aren’t proof of worship. Give me a piece of paper and a good chunk of boredom and I draw images of snails. I don’t worship them. The damn things eat my lettuce. They’re just something I’m able to draw.

So, we’ve got two origins, and it’s entirely probable that the two met sometime after the Romans invaded Celtic Britain and that they got along fairly well. The Romans had no objection to new gods as long as the locals agreed to nod politely to the Roman ones when they passed on the street. 

When the Anglo-Saxons came, they introduced the maypole to whatever celebrations the Celts and the Romans had negotiated.

Then, bit by bit, what’s now England was converted to Christianity, which did not nod politely to other gods when they passed on the street. It’s an exclusive religion. It allows for one god and considers all others either devils or superstitions. But when you’re trying to make converts, sometimes practicality wins out over theory, and it quietly absorbed a lot of the old ways. By way of an example, churches were often built on the sites of holy wells, keeping the sense that the spot was holy but changing the form and the content. And many of the old religious festivals continued, shedding bits of their history, power, and context as time went on, until outsiders could look at them and see them as nothing more than the superstitions of the ignorant. 

So after enough time passed, no one remembered how some of the festivals started or what they used to mean. They became just something we do on a particular date because we always have, and anyway, they’re fun. You know: quaint folk traditions. Does anyone know when and why they started chasing wheels of cheese down a heart-stoppingly steep hill in Gloucester? I doubt it was ever religious, but who’s to say? 

So May Day continued, but without the religious elements. 

By the time we get to Henry VIII (or possibly earlier, in the full-on medieval period), we’re talking not just about May Day but about May games, which spilled over into the rest of the month and somehow or other picked up a link to Robin Hood. And to morris dancing. 

You can’t do anything for long in England without morris dancing coming into it. It’s one of those mysteries that no one understands except morris dancers, and they keep trying to explain it, but the rest of us never do understand.

Then the Puritans came to power under Oliver Cromwell, and they were always ready to spoil the fun. Any fun. They shut May Day down and banned maypoles, since they were “a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness.” 

Don’t try to make too much sense of that “abused to superstition” thing. They talked like that then. Or at least they wrote as if they did. It may have been a plot to keep people so busy trying to make sense of the words that they didn’t have time for fun.

Then the monarchy was re-established and Charles II had a giant May pole set up in London. Let’s assume he wanted to prove that his was bigger than Cromwell’s. It stayed in place for 50 years.

Do I really want to make jokes about that? I still haven’t decided.

May Day made a big comeback in the Victorian era, but the Victorians didn’t want to hear about that fertility stuff, so they put kids on the end of ribbons and taught them to dance around the Maypole and look innocent. 

The Victorians reinvented a lot of traditions, with questionable accuracy. The early Maypoles may have involved flowers or kerchiefs and banners, but they also involved  drinking, less aggressively innocent dancing, and general carrying on. 

In recent decades, assorted groups of people have gone back to the early religious practices and reinvented them. If we’re desperate for something to squabble over, we can argue over how accurate they are and what it all means. The comment box is always open.

We can’t leave without acknowledging the political May Day, an entirely different holiday that falls on the same day and just to confuse things has the same name. It began in 1890, during the fight to limit the working day to eight hours, when marches and demonstrations often turned out tens–and sometimes hundreds–of thousands of people. After the Russian Revolution, it became heavily associated with the Soviet Union, although periodically it gets reclaimed by other left-wing groups. 

That’s it for the history. What events aren’t happening in Britain this year? 

Obby Oss Day in Padstow, Cornwall. This involves music, dancing, crowds, flowers, ritualized battle between the red Oss and the blue Oss, and if you know where to look (and sometimes even if you don’t) a stunning amount of alcohol. 

Sometimes that’s spelled ‘Obby ‘Oss. Your choice. There’s not a maypole in sight.

Beltane in Edinburgh.  I’m cheating on this one since it happens on the evening of April 30 and it’s in Scotland, which would be happy to remind me that it’s not England. It involves fire, drumming, and body paint. It is, I think, one of those modern recreations.  

The Jack-in-the-Green festival in Hastings. This involves costumes, a procession, poetry, music, the release of the Jack and then the slaying of the Jack to release the spirit of summer. 

And morris dancing.

The Rochester Sweeps festival in Kent. It runs for three days and doubles as a folklore festival. It involves a Jack in the Green, music, dancing, and morris dancing, which gets its own mention (that wasn’t my decision, she said defensively), separate from dancing-dancing.

The Jack in the Green part of it dates back to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, according to a local website.

Originally it was a May Day celebration where people would make garlands with flowers and greenery. The garlands became increasingly elaborate as work’s guilds would compete against each other, eventually so extravagantly that they covered the body entirely. The garlands were originally carried by milkmaids during May Day Parades – They became larger and more intricate to the point where they would balance them on their heads whilst the rest of their bodies would be adorned with silver houseware.

“The Chimney Sweep’s guild, not to be outdone by this and also to earn more coins from the watching crowds, upped their game to the point of covering their whole bodies in a framework covered in foliage and flowers. This became known as The Jack in the Green, a familiar participant in May Day Parades. The garlands are made out of a framework usually conical or pyramid in shape, covered in different types of fauna and flora.

“May Day was traditionally a holiday for the Chimney Sweeps and became known as ‘Chimney Sweeper’s day.’ . . . Jack in the Green became known as a practical joker associated with licentious and bawdy behaviour which soon became disapproved of in Victorian England.”

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that history anymore than I can vouch for the skill of the person who edited it, but with a lot of folk traditions all you have to go on is the stories that get passed down from one generation to the next. I can confirm that the internet’s awash in connections between chimney sweeps and May Day.

That’s a sampling. Calendar Customs lists more.

Hot cross buns at the Widow’s Son pub

I’m not a fan of religious holidays, but it’s Good Friday and that happens to coincide with one of those odd, localized British traditions that are always worth dropping in on. 

Every Good Friday, a sailor comes into the Widow’s Son pub in Bromley-by-Bow, in London’s East End, and adds a hot cross bun to a net of aging hot cross buns strung above the bar. 

And that’s it. 

Okay, that’s not quite it. It’s not one sailor, but a group of sailors from HMS President, which is docked nearby, and they climb on each other’s shoulders to get to the net, with the youngest being the designated bun-putter-inner. 

Or possibly smallest. It depends on who you believe.

Then that’s it. 

Irrelevant photo: heather

Or it used to be. In recent years, though, a few hours of free drinks and loud music have been added, along with a buffet that includes hot cross buns. This year, of course, all bets are off. Pubs are closed, gatherings are banned, and flour’s hard to come by. Someone will probably scan a bun and email it into the net. 

In recent years (and no, I don’t know how recent recent is), the buns are shellacked before they’re put in the net so they’ll last as long as possible.

What’s it all about? Legend has it that a widow and her son lived in the cottage where the pub now stands. The boy went to sea, and every year he came back on Good Friday and she’d made him a hot cross bun. 

One year, he didn’t return. She kept the bun and baked a new one for him every year. 

Or else, he never did come back, even that first year–he’d drowned at sea. I’ve read two versions of the tale and if I kept going I’m sure I’d find more. 

When she died, they found a net of buns hanging from the ceiling. For 80 years, the pub kept up the tradition, adding a bun a year. 

In 2015, the pub closed and the collection of buns disappeared. Or else a fire destroyed most of them fifteen years ago. Or possibly both. We’re in the land of legend, where what actually happened doesn’t weigh much. The stories, though? They’re what carry the weight.

When the pub sold, the new owners, under pressure from locals, revived the tradition.

End of story and we still haven’t reached 400 words. Surely I owe you something more, so let’s talk about hot cross buns.

According to one belief, hot cross buns baked on Good Friday will never go stale. Or moldy. That surely has something to do with the legend of the widow’s immortal buns. Another belief holds that if you hang a bun from your kitchen rafters on Good Friday it won’t go bad. The next year, you replace it with a new one. 

Back when people took this stuff seriously, they’d break up the year-old bun, mix it with water, and use it as medicine. If the patient recovered from whatever was wrong, they credited the bun. If the patient didn’t–well, medicine was like that in those days.

I haven’t read that anyone bit down on it and said, “Hey, guys, it tastes like it was baked this morning.” On the other hand, I can’t prove that they didn’t.

The bun was also supposed to protect the kitchen from evil spirits, prevent kitchen fires, and ensure that the bread you made there would be glorious.

If you took a hot cross bun to sea, it would prevent shipwrecks.

Sharing a hot cross bun ensured a strong friendship.

Writing about hot cross buns ensures that you’ll visit some very silly websites, along with some serious ones.

Legend dates hot cross buns back to a twelfth (or in one telling, eleventh) century monk. Or to the Saxons, who baked something along those lines even before they became Christians, with the cross symbolizing the four quarters of the moon. Or to the early Greek Christians, or to the ancient Greeks, who lived before there were Christians. But the first recorded mention of them comes from a sixteenth and seventeenth century text: “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns.”

In 1592, Elizabeth I banned the sale of spiced buns on any day but Good Friday. (Or possibly any day but Good Friday and Christmas. Or Good Friday, Christmas, and burials. Take your pick.) I’ve seen two explanations: One, they were too special to be eaten on any other day. Two, they smacked of popery and she wanted to set a limit on them. 

These may have been what we know as hot cross buns and may have been some other kind of spiced bun. Either way, people could–and apparently did–bake them at home to get around the law. If they were caught, though, they had to give all the buns they had on hand to the poor.

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By way of philosophical balance, Alf Dubs, a Labour member of the House of Lords, is scheduled to send out a secular Good Friday message to prisoners in British jails via the prison radio system. (Britain’s a strange and complicated place and I won’t explain why the Labour Party has members in the Lords–it’d take too long.) It’s aimed at atheist and humanist prisoners on behalf of an organization that offers them pastoral care, Humanists UK, offering hope at a time when the prisons are locked down and prisoners can’t see their families.

Dubs escaped Nazi Germany as a child, coming to Britain on one of the Kindertransports. In recent years, he’s become an advocate for refugees.

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I owe someone thanks for pointing me in the direction the Widow’s Son. I took all the information I’d need to thank him or her, put it someplace safe (since I know better than to trust my memory–effectively, I don’t have one), and have never seen it again. Whoever you are (1) forgive me and (2) remind me so I can post a link to your blog.