Quaint American customs: beer sliding

Since I wrote relatively recently about dwile flonking—a British game that depends (with a small loophole involving ginger beer) on the participants being drunk enough to think it makes sense—it’s only fair to follow it up by writing about the great American sport of beer sliding.

But let’s back up a bit. I went into this thinking I knew at least vaguely what my topic was, but a quick check of the online world showed me the stunning breadth of my ignorance, because I discovered that gelande quaffing is also called beer sliding, and is also American.

Unlike true beer sliding, gelande quaffing is an organized competition in which one person slides a beer down a board and the other person catches it in midair and pours it down his (in this video, although I can’t say how representative it is) throat. Or one person slides the glass, the other person flips the end of the board, arching the beer upward, and the third person catches it and drinks it. Or one person sits on another person’s shoulders and both of them catch a beer. This all seems to happen outside in the snow and some of them are shirtless.

Don’t ask me. When it’s cold, I tend to put clothes on, but then what do I know?

Before we jump to the text below the video, I might as well tell you that it embedded itself, which will save you from seeing yet another of my irrelevant flowers or foggy landscapes. It’s as bizarre as it is relevant, so I’ll leave it.

What’s a gelande? A jump—persumably on skis—usually over an obstacle, or so St. Google informs me.

The game originated among skiers, which is one of any number of reasons I hadn’t heard of it.

Don’t you just feel acres better informed now?

None of that was what I was looking for, though. Gelande quaffing has rules and teams and someone sets dates when it’s going to happen. It’s organized. The beer stays in the glasses until it’s poured down the throats. It comes out of the tradition of bartenders sliding beer down the bar—if, in fact, that really is a tradition instead of just something they do on TV when they can film sixteen takes before it all works out right and where someone who isn’t the bartender has to clean up the first fifteen.

What I was searching for is what happens, at least in Minnesota, after too many beers have been poured down too many throats and some genius decides to pour a bunch of it on the floor so people can launch themselves gut-down and headfirst along it to see how far they can slide.

Yes, folks, that’s what I learned to call beer sliding. And no, I’m not recommending it, all I’m doing is reporting on a quaint American custom. Or a Minnesota custom. I don’t know which it is. Wild Thing and I were in Minnesota and had long since stopped drinking when we heard of it. That’s all I can say reliably.

It does make me wonder what happens when someone gets hurt. You know, when you slam your head at full speed into the wall or ram a splinter two inches into your belly and end up in the emergency room trying to explain how it happened. Do you sue the bar for negligence or yourself for stupidity? As usual, I don’t know. If I had to guess, I’d say both. In a single lawsuit so that you don’t tie the courts up any more than necessary.

Anyway, beer sliding lacks the—. Um. What are we going to call this? Charm? Quaint insanity? Let’s just call it the whatsit. Beer sliding lacks the whatsit of a British tradition like dwile flonking, which is ancient, or even the Birdman Competition, which isn’t.

As a friend said when I sent her a picture of swans paddling majestically through a flooded British town center, “Even your disasters are picturesque.”

Beer sliding is not picturesque. But it is—. Um. Here we go again. I’m having trouble with adjectives today.

It’s American, that’s what it is. Mind you, I’m not sure what “being American” means. I once led a classroomful of college students into a discussion about that without any of us coming to conclusion. It was surprising how little we understood the meaning of something we all took for granted. Any discussion of what it means gets onto touchy–and very interesting–ground very quickly, and I’d welcome comments from anyone who wants to tromp into the middle of it.

But whatever being American means, beer sliding is American.

Parliament and the Queen’s Speech

Let’s talk about the queen and Parliament. Why? Because it’ll give us an excuse to visit all sorts of traditional English lunacy.

Sorry, pageantry.

The queen appears in Parliament once a year, to deliver the Queen’s Speech, which gets so many capital letters that even I’ll use them, and I’m an aggressively lower-case kind of person. In fact, I’m capitalizing Parliament under protest. I have no idea why I’ve given in on that, but I do draw a line on capping the queen herself. Forget it. She’s lower case like the rest of us.

But back to our topic. The Queen’s Speech is Important. (Sorry—I had a cap left over and needed to get rid of it.) Why’s it so important? It’s one of those if-you-have-to-ask-you-won’t-understand things. Traditions like this make their own reasons, and this one dates back to the sixteenth century, although the current version dates back to 1852, when Parliament reopened after a fire.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Trebarwith Strand

But let’s start with the older stuff: From there, we’ll gradually slide into the newer part–and we won’t any of us know when it happened.

To begin with, an MP (that’s a member of parliament) has to go to the Palace as a hostage to guarantee that Parliament will give the queen back when the hoopla’s over. (The BBC calls it ceremony. I was tempted to go with uproar. You can take your pick.) It’s not that relations between the Palace and the Parliament are that tense. They haven’t been for centuries, but why abandon a perfectly good bit of tradition just because it’s gotten old and silly? If we’re going to set standards like that, the whole country will collapse.

Then the cellars in Parliament have to be searched to make sure no one’s going to blow the place up, because someone did try roughly four centuries ago. His name was Guy Fawkes, and I assume the plot was real, although I should do some research and write about it one of these days. For now, though, if anyone knows enough to weigh in, please do.

While we’re waiting for that, though, we’ll turn to ITV to tell us a bit more.

“It was the State Opening of Parliament that Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters had in their sights in 1605. If they had succeeded they would have wiped out virtually every layer of British authority in one fell swoop. To avoid any repeat of the Plot, the cellars of the Houses of Parliament are still searched every year by the Yeomen of the Guard – the Queen’s traditional bodyguard – in advance of the State Opening. The search is only ceremonial – real life anti-terror measures take place separately and somewhat more rigorously.”

But they’re less picturesque, so forget about them.

During their search, the Yeomen of the Guard carry lanterns, which—I’m no explosives expert but I can take a guess here—aren’t the best thing to combine with the gunpowder they’re looking for. Maybe that has something to do with how sure they are that they won’t find any. Especially since (at least as I understand it) the floors they’re tapping no longer have hollow spaces underneath them because the cellars have been filled in.

You have to love this country.

Once Parliament is declared safe—or possibly before, since no one expects it not to be, except for the fact that the building’s falling apart and has become a fire trap—the queen “is escorted by the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment and street liners guard the whole route and present arms as the royal party passes.

“The Regalia – the Imperial State Crown, the Cap of Maintenance and Sword of State travel in their own carriage, ahead of the monarch, escorted by Members of the Royal Household.”

If you feel like you’ve dropped into a Harry Potter novel, you’re not the only one.

Okay, now we’ve gotten her to the front door. Or not the front door, the Sovereign’s Entrance, which for all I know is the back door. Remember, things got a little tense for a while between her predecessors and Parliament.

“The Queen is met at the Palace of Westminster’s Sovereign’s Entrance by the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain, who, as Keeper of the Royal Palace, wears scarlet court dress and has hanging at his hip, the golden key to the Palace.

“As the Queen moves up the Sovereign’s Staircase to the Robing Chamber she passes between two lines of dismounted Household Cavalry soldiers in full dress with drawn swords.”

So now we’ve seen her inside and she’s surrounded by people with a golden key and great costumes, although, sadly, no horses.

Is gold too soft to make a useful key? I’d have thought so, but none of this has any bearing on real life. It’s pageantry, so keys don’t have to open doors and cellars that no longer exist still have to be searched.

In the next bit, we run into a problem The queen can’t enter the House of Commons. No king or queen has since 1642, when Charles I barged in and tried to arrest five MPs and kind of, um, lost his head. The Commons may not still be pissed off about it, but no one’s forgotten it either.

It’s okay, though, because if the queen can’t enter the Commons, her messenger can, so Black Rod, runs over for her and the door is ceremonially slammed in his face to demonstrate the Commons’ independence from the crown.

Now I could be wrong, but participating in this tightly choreographed, queen-centered uproar doesn’t strike me as a demonstration of independence, but then—as people often remind me when something British makes as little sense to me as all this does—I’m not British.

Anyway, Black Rod’s full title is the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, and he carries—yes—a black rod and wears fabulous, if outdated, clothes. He uses the rod to knock three times on the door that was just slammed in his face, and when he’s let in, he bows left and right while delivering a set invitation. (“The Queen commands this Honourable House…”)

Yup, commands. I guess that’s what passes for an invitation when you hang out with royalty. So much for independence from the crown. And yes, I’m sure someone will explain that the independence is political, or different, or specific, or all of the above, and I’m sure they’ll be right in a way. But I’m not British–or I am, but I’m also not. Either way, if you want to me to stop by for a cup of tea, keep an eye on how you word the invitation, would you? I don’t do well with commands.

The MPs are then led over to the House of Lords by the Sergeant-at-Arms, who’s spelled Serjeant and is carrying a mace.

Keep that mace in mind, because we’ll come back to it.

For the next stage of the ceremony, let’s turn back to the BBC. The link is above.

“MPs . . .follow Black Rod and the Commons Speaker to the Lords chamber, standing at the opposite end to the Throne, known as the Bar of the House, to listen to the speech.

“The speech itself is carried into the Chamber by the Lord Chancellor in a satchel. He hands the speech to the Sovereign and takes possession of it again once it has been delivered.

“Until a few years ago, the Speech was written on a rare form of calf’s skin known as vellum. It is now written on high-quality parchment paper.”

Do either of them feed through a computer printer? Or even a typewriter? Does the speech have to be written with a quill?

However it’s done, the queen doesn’t write her speech; all she does is read it out, and it’s basically a list of legislation the government hopes to pass in the next year—or occasionally two years—so it’s written for her by the government. Her government, as she (or the writer) puts it, as in, “My government will…”

And if she doesn’t like what the speech says? Tough. She reads it anyway. The queen’s supposed to be politically neutral. To my American sensibilities, the speech is a strange mix of the monarchical and the powerless, but it’s considered so important that when a government decides to skip a Queen’s Speech, say because they have a heavy agenda to implement and it will take two years instead of one, everyone takes notice.

This year–she gave the speech in June–she may have been signaling her opinion of the speech’s content. She traveled from the Palace in a car, not the traditional carriage (which looks like the one Cinderella’s godmother conjured up), and the procession to the Lords chamber was missing the usual heralds. Everybody in charge of anything was quick to point out that it all meant nothing—it was just a matter of logistics. And no one believes them.

But it’s harder to explain away what she wore: what ITV news called a day dress, along with a hat whose decorations looked a lot like the European Union flag. The hat ended up drawing more comment than the content of her speech. The going theory is that she’s not happy about Brexit.

‘What power? The power to deliver a speech she may not like although we can’t be sure because she’s not allowed to say.

What does she normally wear? Oh, lord. You really should go look at the photo, but I’ll do my best:

First off, a crown—the imperial state crown that’s already been mentioned. I’m probably supposed to cap that, but I just can’t face one more capital letter. I’d guess she has a crown to match every pair of shoes, but what do I know? She also wears the parliamentary robe, which is long and red and looks like it’s lined with ermine, although I wouldn’t know ermine if it bit me, which once it’s dead it’s not likely to do, so take that as a poetic way of saying it looks expensive. The lords in the House of Lords have ermine robes. At least those who aren’t vegetarians do. The vegetarians wear robes made from parsnips or something else that would easily pass for ermine if you were in the dark and very, very drunk. Which is probably what gave rise to the saying “Drunk as a lord.” It was originally “Drunk as a vegetarian lord who got into the parsnip wine,” but time scraped off the excess verbiage.

Where were we? I was trying to establish that I don’t know much about ermine but that I do have a reason for bringing it into the discussion.

Don’t you just learn a lot here?

This might be a good time to admit that I’m not entirely sure which piece of information comes from what source or exactly which piece of symbolism is displayed when. I’ve done so much cut and paste in trying to make a coherent narrative that I could easily mistake a parsnip for an ermine. But honestly, does it matter? We’ve seen so many symbols carted back and forth that we can be forgiven if we mix a few up. It’s not like we’re going to recreate the whole pageant at home, is it?

So let’s go back to that mace the House of Commons owns. Because, like every other symbol in this mess, it’s Important. It symbolizes the royal authority by which Parliament meets, as well as the authority of the House of Commons’ Speaker.

And, no doubt, its independence.

According to the BBC, “On each day that the House is sitting the mace is carried to the chamber at the head of the Speaker’s procession by the Serjeant at Arms.

“It is placed on the table of the House, except when the House is in committee, when it rests on two brackets underneath the table.

“Interfering with the mace constitutes gross disorderly conduct and is a contempt of the House,” and MPs can be suspended for it.

Several times since 1930, MPs have gotten mad enough to interfere with the mace. In fact, I chose 1930 because that’s when a Labour MP grabbed it and tried to storm out of the chamber. Was he going to take it home? Install it in his office? Toss it in the Thames? Sadly, we’ll never know because someone wrestled it away from him at the door.

In 1988, an MP was angry enough that he broke the thing—at which point you’d expect all business in the country to grind to a halt but it doesn’t seem to have.

You have to take a symbol seriously to focus your anger on it that way. It is, remember, an inanimate object. As such, it has even fewer political opinions than the queen. And in case you think such contempt of a governmental symbol would come entirely from the left, it doesn’t—it seems to be equally distributed between left and right, although I admit I haven’t made a spreadsheet.

You can read more about the incidents here. I’m particularly fond of the Conservative who lost it when a Labour MP sang the Labour Party anthem at him during a debate about the shipping and—as it’s spelled here—aerospace industries. If you’d like to stage that at home, the anthem follows the tune of “O Tannenbaum” (also known “O Christmas Tree”) and the first lines are “The workers’ flag is deepest red / It’s shrouded oft our martyred dead.”

It’s not the cheeriest set of lyrics I know, but labor history’s blood-drenched enough to justify it.

I don’t know the first lines of the debate about shipping. You’ll have to improvise.

British beer and summer festivals

An ad insert in the Saturday paper last month claimed to be a guide to “the best beer, food and good times in the UK this summer.” Mostly, though, it was a guide to beer, but if you drink enough of the stuff you’ll probably decide you had a good time. Even if you don’t remember it.

Anyway, the insert had a lot about beer and a little about food (some of it cooked in beer), but it threw in a few festivals—where beer’s sold—so no one had to feel like they were reading Alcoholics Weekly.

And it all came with a generous side of pretension.

Irrelevant photo: a blackberry bush–or bramble–in flower if not in perfect focus.

Because I blog, though, I read the thing instead of tossing it in the recycling the way I would have in my saner days. I only do these things for you, and I hope you appreciate it.

So what did I learn? That you should pour your beer at a 45-degree angle, just the way you’d pour champagne.

Sorry, you didn’t know how to pour champagne? What kind of barbarians am I hanging out with?

I learned that beer should be served in “glassware that maximises its notes and taste.”

How can you tell if it maximizes them? This will vary with the alcohol content of your brew, but as a general rule, if your beer hits a pure A above middle C you’ve maximized too many notes and it’s time to go home.

Let someone else drive, will you?

I learned that beer has fewer calories than red wine. And possibly than white wine, although it only gave statistics for red.

It also has fewer calories than the entire contents of a restaurant refrigerator, but the supplement didn’t brag about that.

The statistics were for 4% beer, although the beers whose alcohol content was mentioned ran as high as 4.7%. How much of a difference does that make? I have no idea. But do you want my advice? Of course you don’t. Do I care? Of course I do, but I won’t hear from you till long after my fingers have stopped typing so what you might have said is kind of irrelevant, isn’t it?

So here’s the advice: If you’re counting calories, drink water. And don’t eat the entire contents of the restaurant refrigerator.

Since I just did something particularly British, I should take a moment to point it out. Embedding a question your listener can’t answer (“isn’t it?”) into a statement (“what you might have said is kind of irrelevant,”) is a very British way to put a sentence together. I’m not sure what it tells us about the culture, but even after eleven years in this country it still throws me. Someone could be explaining physics, or how to count time when you’re mangling a jazz standard—two topics about which I’m deeply ignorant, although I mangle all too well—and at the most intricate and baffling point in the explanation they’ll ask for confirmation of it all by saying, “isn’t it?” or something along those lines.

And I’ll nod. It’s automatic. Or worse, I’ll say yes, although for all I know they made the whole thing up. How could I tell? Especially since the British count musical time in breves and crotchets and hemidemisemiquavers and I learned (barely) to (not quite) count them in whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes.

I don’t think that eighth note doesn’t take us down as far as the hemidemisemiquaver, but when I was (not quite) learning this stuff, notes any smaller than an eighth scared me into catatonia. I’d look at all those marks on the page and see a particularly intricate and intimidating form of no information at all. So I’ll stop with the eighth note.

The hemidemisemiquaver really does exist, even if it sounds like something Dr. Seuss made up. I’m not sure how much time one takes up, but little enough that if I thought about it too long it would scare me much more than any eighth note ever did, so let’s move on.

I still haven’t figured out what the British do when they’re tossed a question like, “That’s a hemidemisemiquaver, isn’t it?” Do they agree, even if they don’t know? Do they ignore the question mark and wait for the speaker to go on, since it’s not really a question? For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve managed not to notice.

But we were talking about beer. Which is essential to British culture, so forget the fripperies. Let’s get back to the core of our conversation.

How do I know beer’s essential to British culture? (That’s not an isn’t-it? question, it’s a lazy way of structuring a piece of writing and lazy writing crosses cultures comfortably.) I know because the guide says so: “Eccentricity,” it says in a desperate effort to charm, “is an essential part of Britishness; as much a part of our national identity as beer drinking, apologizing too frequently and making a cup of tea at the first sign of trouble.”

We’ll skip the apologies and the tea in this post and instead work our way toward exploring that eccentricity, because almost as essential to British culture as beer are summer festivals, and the guide lists a handful. Most—and I’m sure this is coincidence—are beer festivals, but when they’re not, it helpfully tells you where to look for a beer if you attend.

“Make a date with beer,” it says.

A date? Damn. When I drank the stuff, it didn’t insist on a date. If you were at least minimally solvent, you could just wander into the nearest liquor store and pick some up. You didn’t have to bring it flowers or even wear clean clothes. But beer’s gone upscale. It took a course on improving its self-esteem. So make a date. Wash your clothes. Take a shower. People can tell.

The guide says food and beer festivals “aren’t just fun—they can be highly educational too.” One festival is described as “upmarket camping” and includes a bar on wheels (if you can’t catch it, go to bed; you’ve had enough) and a stargazing session led by an astronomer—presumably sober and not in an acute state of despair over what it takes a highly educated professional to make a living these days, but I don’t really know. People who couldn’t catch the bar can lie on their backs and be educated until they pass out.

But I promised we’d come back to that business about eccentricity, didn’t I?

Sleaford, Lincolnshire (actually the nearby and smaller Swaton, where as far as I can figure it out the festival takes place), held the World Egg Throwing Championships on June 25 this year. It was mentioned in the beer supplement, but we’re going to abandon the supplement at this point and go to primary sources.

In one contest, the goal is to hit a target—probably a real person but I can’t swear to that. With an egg, of course. In another, contestants toss an egg back and forth , moving further and further apart until the inevitable happens. In a third, they pass an egg down a line as quickly as possible.

But the best contest is Russian Egg Roulette, where each contestant gets a tray of six eggs and breaks them, one at a time, against his or her forehead. Five of them are hardboiled. One’s raw. I’m guessing that if you pick that one, you lose.

The event is also—helpfully—be a beer festival.

George Clooney declined an invitation to attend, although I can’t think why. He was invited after organizers read that he had an egg-flinging machine at home to discourage paparazzi.

The article I read didn’t say who has to clean up the eggs George flings. I’m guessing it’s not him.

Stories I found online show the competition going back to 2010, so I wouldn’t say this qualifies as a traditional British festival. If you’re thinking about entering next year, a small change in your google search will call up a set of links about the physics of egg throwing, which might or might not be useful, depending on your ability to understand them.

Another recently invented competition is the World Bog Snorkelling Championship, which is held in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, and is now in its thirty-second year. Contestants swim two lengths of a 60-meter (or 55-meter, depending on who you want to believe) trench that runs through a peat bog. They can’t use any conventional swimming stroke but they can use a snorkel and (as far as I can figure out) must dress in some sort of ridiculous costume. I don’t know how they decide who wins, or if anyone cares.

The pictures are great. It seems to be held in August, so there’s still time if you want to enter.

Moving on, Bognor Regis holds the Birdman Competition in which people jump off the end of a pier and either try to fly or just have a good time dropping into the water. (Beer may also be involved here. I couldn’t possibly comment.) . My favorite contestant was the guy dressed as a box of popcorn.

Disappointingly, some of the contestants actually did manage to glide. I do know that birds, in general, fly, and that flying’s probably the goal here, but given the choice I’ll still root for the box of popcorn plunging feet-first into the sea.

I watched the videos with the sound off. If they say anything truly obnoxious, I didn’t catch it. You’re on your own.

Our final festival is a traditional one, dating back to the ninth century. Or the sixteenth, depending on who you want to believe. This is a truly inspired event: The Dog Inn, in Ludham Bridge, Norfolk, hosts a dwile flonking competition.

The official website says:

“Dwile Flonking is normally played by two teams dressed as country ‘yokels’ (or any other fancy dress including team T-Shirts/uniform etc). One team joins hands to form a ring which circles round, leaping into the air as they do so (Girting). A. member of the other team goes into the middle of the circle and puts a beer-soaked dwile on the end of a stick (Driveller). He spins round and has to project (Flonk) the dwile off the driveller with the object of hitting one of the players circling round him. He scores points for his team according to which part of the body he hits. When all the players in one team have flonked, they then form a circle and girt, while the other team takes turns to flonk. The team with the most points at the end being the winners.

“So the point is to flonk your dwile off the driveller and hit a girter.”

If you break the rules, the referee calls a foul flonk.

The original rules required the flonker to drink a pot of beer—somewhere between half a pint and a pint of the stuff. But in these milder times we live in, flonkers have the choice of drinking the beer or pouring it over their heads and drinking an equal amount of ginger beer.

And—just to prove a claim I made in some much earlier post which I’m not going to go looking for, that the British sing when drunk—there’s a song involved: “As the teams, enter the playing area, and after the game, they: may feel like singing the flonking song “Here we’em be t’gether”. The first verse plus the chorus is normally sung at the start of the game, the full song may be sung at the end (if they have enough breath left).”

And no, I’m not slandering them when I say they’re drunk, I’m just taking their word for it. One of the verses goes:

Now the game it do end and down go the sun,
And one team ha’ lorst and the other ha’ won.
But nobody knows of the score on the board,
Cos they’re flat on their backs and as drunk as a Lord!

Championships are listed in Coventry and Nottingham as well as Ludham Bridge, and I find a reference to dwiling in Suffolk as well. Wikipedia (at the moment) calls it a traditional English game and quotes a source that says, “’The rules of the game are impenetrable and the result is always contested.”

I believe both statements, even if someone’s gone through and changed them by now.

A quick introduction to morris dancing

Morris dancing is—.

Oh, hell, I haven’t finished the first sentence and already I’m in trouble.

Morris dancing divides people. You love it or you hate it, and if you hate it you go out of your way to make fun of it. It’s one of those things people in Britain compare to Marmite, a brownish paste that’s made in Britain (6,000 tons of the stuff a year, filing some 50 million jars) and that you can spread on toast and eat if you like it or run from, screaming, if you don’t. No one’s neutral about Marmite.

No one’s neutral about morris dancing either, but morris dancers turn out at fairs and festivals with their bells and sticks and streamers and flowers, and they dance as happily as if they knew for a fact that everyone loved them. You can’t help admiring them for that.

Or I can’t anyway. And I want to present this as neutrally as possible–especially since I’m not in love with morris dancing but people I like are.

Rare sighting: a relevant photo here at Notes. These are morris dancers at the Royal Cornwall Show. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Morris dancing is an English tradition. And a Cornish one. I add that because some people consider Cornwall English and others very emphatically don’t.

How traditional is traditional? I’m not the only person who can’t answer that. The Morris Ring writes, “The earliest confirmation of a performance of morris dancing in England dates from London on 19 May 1448, when ‘Moryssh daunsers were paid 7s (35p) for their services.’ ” The S is shillings. The P is pence. Your guess is as good as mine what that bought back then. They may have been highly valued and they may not have been.

A Wikipedia entry dates Cornish morris dancing back to 1466, but it doesn’t give a citation.

In the Elizabethan era (that’s 1533 to 1603), it was already considered ancient.

According to RattlejagMorris, its origins are lost, but there’s no evidence to associate it with pagan festivals, as some people do. “Very little is known about the dances per se, though there seem to have been two types: a solo dance, and a dance in a circle around a ‘maiden’ (who could have been a man in women’s clothing) for whose favours the dancers compete.

“By the early sixteenth century morris dancing had become a fixture of Church festivals. In mediaeval and Renaissance England, the churches brewed and sold ales, including wassail. These ales were sold for many occasions, both seasonal and sacramental—there were christening ales, bride’s ales, clerk, wake and Whitsun ales—and were an important means of fund-raising for churches.”

Which isn’t immediately relevant but it’s interesting, so I left it in. And all that drinking seems to have given it a raucous reputation.

Later in the century, it became associated with May Day and village festivals and fetes.

By the nineteenth century, it had gone into decline, but some villages managed to keep it alive. When it was revived toward the end of the century, it was used as part of an effort to build up the mythology of Merrie Englande. In the early twentieth century, its fortunes rose with an increased interest in folk music and dance, and women as well as men began to take part.

Some morris dancers black their faces. The first time I saw this, I assumed it was part of the racist minstrel show tradition of white entertainers pretending to be black, which started in the U.S. but took hold (and still casts its long a creepy shadow) in Britain as well. I couldn’t think of any better way to react than to pretend they didn’t exist (I know: great moments in political activism), but Wild Thing went over to a dancer and asked about it.

She–or maybe it was he; I don’t remember–told us (and I’m paraphrasing heavily) that It came out of the time when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans suppressed Whitsun ales, morris dancing, and anything else where people might be in danger of having fun. Besides, morris dancing had a whiff of pagan carrying-on about it. The dances continued in either secret or semi-secret, but the dancers blacked their faces to disguise themselves.

However, other explanations also circulate.

Border Morris page on Wikipedia says (or said when I checked), “During the hard winters of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, out of work labourers and builders sought to anonymously supplement their income by a bit of dancing and begging. The use of blackface as a form of disguise is established in early eighteenth century England. In 1723 it became a capital offence under the Waltham ‘Black Act’ to appear ‘in disguise, either by mask or by blackened face.’”

Another theory traces the word morris to Moorish and suggests the earliest performers were mimicking North African dancers, or a Moorish king and his retinue. And yet another theory traces the black faces to the minstrel shows. In support of this theory, morris dancing is recorded to have been referred to colloquially as “going niggering”.

Yes, I’m using the word. We’re talking about racism and we need to talk about what we’re talking about. Look it in the eye, friends, because it’s still with us.

A few songs that morris dancers use, like “Old Black Joe” come from minstrel shows, although most are far older.

My best guess is that an older tradition, or more than one of them, crossed paths with the minstrel shows until now it would be hard to tease the strands apart.

If you look, you’ll find quite a bit of public argument about whether white dancers appearing in blackface is inherently racist. No one’s asked my opinion, but here it is: Whatever its origin and however innocent its intent, it’s time to stop doing it. Even if it has to do with Cromwell or disguise for some other reason, audiences will be bringing a whole different set of associations to it, and whether you mean to or not you’ll be aligning yourselves with some really unsavory elements of our culture. Which is another way of saying that you’ll be passing them on, regardless of what’s going on in your mind.

And no, I don’t really expect anyone to listen to me. There seems to be a cast-iron conviction among a category of white people in Britain that if they don’t intend anything racist by [fill in the blank, including a few songs I hear sung, which should be left to a folk music preservation society but retired from active use], then to hell with the impact it has on other people or the world at large, it’s not racist. Because they mean well.

And some—although by no means all—of them genuinely are people of goodwill.

That sound you’re hearing? That’s a long and frustrated sigh brushing across my keyboard.

But let’s go back to morris dancing in general so we can end on a cheerier note: It never made much sense to me until G. explained that morris clubs were just drinking societies with a dancing problem. I’m not sure how many morris dancers would agree with her, but it made an odd kind of sense to me.

I can’t swear that she’s right and I’m happy to hear from anyone who wants to correct me. Or her. Or anyone else.

On any subject.

British traditions: May Day in Oxford

May Day swept past weeks ago, but that won’t stop us here at Notes. We’re not so small-minded that we’ll be bothered by a little thing like the calendar. I learned about the Oxford May Day celebrations from a newspaper photo and caption, and the clipping just rose to the top of the swamp I call my computer table. So let’s slip back in time.

Oxford celebrates May Day in traditional style, and Britain takes its traditions seriously. At 6 a.m., the Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin; don’t ask; no answer will make sense of it anyway) College choir sings “Hymnus Eucharisticus” from the Great Tower as the sun comes up.

A quick reality check before we go on, though: The sun came up at 5:36 that day. I just looked it up. But who am I to argue with tradition?

Marginally relevant photo: This is a flower–a lupine if you want to be specific. May Day has to do with the coming of summer, when flowers bloom. I know, it was a stretch, but we got there.

According to one source, the choir has been doing this for 500 years. Presumably not with the same singers. According to another source, the song was composed in the 17th century. I just counted on my fingers and that would make it 400 and some years old (probably—we can’t trust my fingers when they’re counting stuff), but if tradition says it’s 500 years old and the sun’s just coming up, okay, it’s 500 years and the sun just rose. See its little red dome poking over the horizon?

Yes, England is a cloudy country. That’s why it can have a 500-year-old tradition and in all that time never notice that it’s mis-timed the sunrise.

After the song, the bells ring out for twenty minutes and everyone goes deaf.

Sorry, that’s “approximately twenty minutes” and everyone goes deaf. I don’t want to misrepresent this.

After that, there’s morris dancing on the streets, breakfast in cafes and pubs all over the city, and if I’m reading this right, a whole shitload of drinking, which starts the night before and continues until everyone falls over. Or (see below) jumps into the river.

Oh, and there’s some deeply traditional samba dancing.

Samba was introduced to Britain in the 1980s by, among others, the passionate anti-apartheid activist Steve Kitson. Since then, Britons have been dancing it so intensely that by now it’s been going on for 500 years.

Magdalen (pronounced—oh, one way or another; I’ll get to that in a minute) Bridge is closed to traffic from 3 a.m. till 9 a.m., but it’s open to pedestrians. In the 1980s, people started jumping off it into the river Cherwell, and in 2005 some 40 people were hurt, including one who was left paralyzed. The river can be low at that time of year. The city works madly to discourage jumpers. Some of whom have been drinking for 500 years by then.

I’m going to be deeply discouraged if someone convinces me that the song really is 500 years old and that the sun rose at 6. In the west.

Now, about Magdalen Bridge. The college is pronounced maudlin. Magdalen Street is pronounced magdalen. Magdalen Road is pronounced maudlin. The bridge? I don’t know. My best guess is that the M, G, D. L, and N are silent.

I’ll write about morris dancing in a separate post. Stay tuned.

Bell ringers’ injuries

In last week’s post, I mentioned that York Minster had fired its volunteer bell ringers. It was a small part of the post, but the comments it provoked have been fascinating. So first—because, admit it, you don’t actually read every golden word I publish, although I can’t think what else you have to do with your lives—let me draw your attention to a few of the comments.

John Evans wrote a first-hand explanation of bell ringing, and that was followed by several other comments that are also worth reading, for both the mechanics and the politics of it all. I won’t give you a separate link since they’re all grouped together.

John also sent a link to a bell ringers’ publication. What could I do but follow it? I was rewarded with a statement from the York bell ringers, setting out their side of the story. John did say bell ringers are a tight-knit group, and this seemed like proof.

Who knew bell ringing was so interesting?

Irrelevant photo: Blackberries in October. Folklore holds that you shouldn't eat them after October 11 because the devil spits on them. Or in some versions of the tale, he pees on them. Yum.

Irrelevant photo: Blackberries in October. Folklore holds that you shouldn’t eat them after October 11 because the devil spits on them. Or in a different version of the tale, he pees on them. In yet another version, the date is October 10–Old Michaelmas Day (the date changed when the calendar was reformed, back in way-back-when, hence the word old). It’s also called Devil Spits Day. Yum yum yum.

Then on Google+, which I’ve never understood but manage to use very marginally, Anita wondered about the sort of injuries bell ringers might get. Since York Minster cited health and safety concerns as a reason for firing the bell ringers, the question made sense, although I had cheerily assumed that since the bells are on one end of the rope and the ringers are on the other, everything was pretty much foolproof. But Anita’s question sent me to the internet, the source of all things informative and bizarre.

It turns out that if you punch bell ringers and injuries into your friendly local search engine—well, actually I don’t know what’ll come up on yours, since search engines gear themselves not only to what country you live in but also to what they think you want to hear, thereby confirming every reckless and ridiculous belief you may hold, political or otherwise.

So instead of talking about what you’ll find, let me tell you what appeared on my search engine. And let me state for the record that as far as I know I haven’t demonstrated any beliefs, rational or otherwise, about bell ringing and injuries in any places where search engines would pick them up, so we can pretend that what I found is completely free of prejudice.

I mean, yes, I’ve voiced a reckless and ill-informed opinion or two, but not in a search engine.

But no one’s entirely out of sight anywhere these days, are they? And whatever you believe about that, a search engine can help you confirm it.

Anyway. PubMed reports that “Seventy nine injuries [among bell ringers] were identified both from review and by advertisement in Ringing World. The incidence of injury among 221 ringers identified by postal questionnaire was 1.8% a year.” It concluded that “Although sonerous, bell ringing can be dangerous and occasionally even fatal. Doctors should be aware of the dangers to which campanologists expose themselves.”

And medical researchers should be aware of the danger of not using a proofreader, because that should be sonorous. And seventy nine should be hyphenated. Take your questions about injuries to these people, but don’t ask them about spelling.

That incidence of injuries is probably why the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers takes the trouble to explain which bell ringers have liability coverage where and under whose insurance. I’d explain it to you, but I became comatose early in the first paragraph and only survived because one of my faithful dogs brought me back to consciousness by insisting on being fed.

After I fed the dogs (the other one got interested when he heard the sounds of chow being dished out), I found an article about a group of bell ringers in Somerset who had to run for it after a bell broke loose and crashed through two floors of the bell tower. They’d noticed that one bell—the big one, which John Evans tells me is called the tenor bell—was hard to ring, so they gave its rope a good hard yank.

Which turned out not to be a great idea. Remember that, everybody.

It’s not a great piece of journalism, but the picture of the bell stuck in the ceiling beams is impressive.

Next up was an article about a bell ringing captain who fell off a bell frame while trying to fix a frayed bell rope. She had to be winched to safety. After that came one about a bell ringer who caught her trousers—if you’re American, that’s pants; if you’re British it’s also pants, but not literally—in the rope and ended up dangling three feet off the floor with a broken collar bone. She had to be lowered through a trap door.

I know this stuff isn’t funny, but having typed up accident after injury after warning, I can’t help wanting to giggle. It’s like watching cartoons. Tee hee, look what happens next.

Sorry, everybody. I’ll get a few of my worst instincts back under control and go on.

That bit about the trousers needs an explanation if you’re American. Or possibly if you’re any other sort of not-British. In the U.S., pants are what you wear over your underpants. In other words, they’re outerpants. In Britain, pants are underpants and you wear them under trousers, which are what you call your outerpants if anyone actually used the word outerpants. But if you want to say something’s lousy, you can say it’s pants. So getting your trousers caught in the bell rope? Yeah, that’s pants.

It’s probably funnier without the explanation. .

D. and D. just informed me that women’s pants are called knickers. Usually. If I live in this country a hundred years, I’ll never get it all sorted out.

But enough fun. We have work to do. I also found a site about safer places of worship. It covers bell ringing, bouncy castles, cyber cafes, and face painting, along with a bunch of other stuff. Religion’s a dangerous business. No wonder people kill each other over it.

And that exhausted my limited patience. I did look up face painting injuries, but most of what I found explained how to paint injuries onto a face, not how to prevent them. Maybe it’s all more hazardous when a church gets involved.

Now, before we pick up our toys and go home, kids, let’s ask ourselves what we learned today.

No, that’s a good guess, but it’s not that pants are funny. It’s that bell ringing’s dangerous. Don’t try it at home.

*

And finally, an update on the York bell ringers’ firing. A recent article reports that the lead bell ringer was suspended from his job as a teacher after claims of indecent assault. The police initially said no charges would be filed but later applied for a sexual risk order. The application was dismissed last December. The minster banned him from its bell tower in July. The bell ringers weren’t happy about it, and from there on everything just escalated.

I have no idea what did or did not happen, but everybody involved seems to have lawyers.

Great British traditions: the boot sale

 

Let’s play a word association game: I say “great British traditions” and you say what? Tea on the lawn? The queen? Baffling parliamentary traditions? Heads on a pike outside the city walls? Chasing a cheese down a hill? Running a race carrying a flaming barrel of tar?

I’ve written about a good part of that and dutifully stuck in the links because that’s what bloggers do. I’d be banned from the internet if I didn’t. I’d But forget them all. They’re trivial. We’re talking serious British tradition today. We’re talking about the great British boot sale.

The first time Wild Thing and I visited Britain, we rented a car and drove maniacally from one end of the island to the other and then back to London along (roughly) the opposite coast until we’d made a full circuit. It’s a small country, right? We could see everything.

Irrelevant photo: primroses. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant photo: primroses. Photo by Ida Swearingen

We saw a hell of a lot less than we would have if we hadn’t tried to see so much, but it was enough to draw us back. And more importantly, to introduce us to the boot sale. Why, we asked each other as we drove past yet another Boot Sale sign, are they selling all these boots? And why only one? Who buys single boots? What happens to the other one?

Hey, we know how to ponder the deep questions life throws at us. But not necessarily to answer them, because we didn’t stop to find out what a boot sale was. We were in a hurry. We had something else on our list of things to not-entirely-see that day. So the mystery remained in place until we passed a variation on the sign, which said Car Boot Sale.

Aha. Got it. The boot is the trunk. They’re selling car trunks.

No, they’re selling stuff out of the trunks. It’s a flea market!

I love a flea market.

We still didn’t stop. We were in too much of a hurry to have fun. I mean, hell, it was a vacation.

So we’re making up for it now. On a recent (and a-typically dry) spring Sunday, Wild Thing and I went to the local boot sale, which is held in a field and raises money for the community hospital. When we first moved here, we went this boot sale regularly. It was a great place to look for things we knew we needed and find things we didn’t know we needed until we saw them. Used stuff, new stuff, hand-made craft-type stuff, who-knows-what-and-why-does-it-matter? stuff. We bought kitchen canisters, bakeware, a teapot that I broke and then its replacement, a two-seat wooden bench for the front yard. Plants. Eggs. Flapjacks, which if you’re not British I should explain aren’t pancakes but sweet, heavy oat bars that leave you licking your fingers for the next half hour because they always  leave just a little more syrup than you found last time you licked. And the syrup always escapes the paper.

No, there’s nowhere to wash. It’s a field.

This time, we weren’t looking for anything in particular, it was just a social thing. We just wanted to wander through, see what was for sale, let the dogs say hello to other dogs. Dog people always end up talking with other dog people, so we got to do a bit of greeting ourselves.

We came home with two pictures that Ida bought for their frames, a knitted doll for a toddler who’s about to become a big sister, a couple of plastic cars for the toy box, and some little china cottages, which are the real reason I’m writing this.

The cottages were displayed in a small basket on the ground and I only bent down to look through them just to kill time while Wild Thing was looking at I have no idea what. We didn’t want to get too far apart or we’d never find each other again. The place was crowded, and Wild Thing’s cell phone doesn’t like me. Any chance it gets, it blocks my number. Wild Thing swears it’s not her doing and I shouldn’t take it personally.

I turned a couple of the cottages over in my hands and noticed a typed (you remember typewriters?) label on the back of one: Shakespeare’s cottage. A poet friend in the U.S., J., had asked not long before if I could find her a Shakespeare tee shirt, since we are endlessly commemorating the 400th anniversary of his death. (He seems to have taken a very long time to die.) I’d just ordered her one, and here I was looking at a tiny replica of his cottage.

Or what claimed to be a replica. How would I know what his cottage looked like? When I looked further, I saw two other cottages that were identical and weren’t labeled Shakespeare’s cottage or anything else, but I was willing to be convinced. I mean, somebody had typed that out and pasted it to one of the cottages. How could it not be true?

So I asked how much it was.

The woman selling it said I couldn’t buy just the one. It was the whole lot (twelve or so) or nothing.

Fine, then: nothing. I put Shakespeare’s cottage back in the basket and we moved on. But I kept thinking about the damned thing. Because J. wants a Shakespeare tee shirt. And because the cottages had a dollhouse quality that meant I couldn’t keep my mind off them.

Wild Thing and I used to build dollhouses for the kids in our lives, and every adult who came to the house when we had a partly finished standing around, no matter who they were, no matter how tough they were or unlikely they were, ended up moving the furniture around. They couldn’t help themselves.

And I couldn’t help myself. As we wandered around the rest of the boot sale, I argued with myself about the cottages: They’re collectibles, I told myself, meaning the seller would want too much for them. That’s not really Shakespeare’s cottage. At least not unless he was very, very small and could fit through a molded china door. J. will think it’s silly and then feel like she has to keep it because it’s a present.

Just as we were leaving, I lost the argument, as I’d known I would, and went back. How much did the seller want for them?

Five pounds.

I could probably have bargained, but having lost the battle with myself I wasn’t about to fight with her. I handed over my money and tried to give her back the basket.

Nope, I had to take the basket too.

I tell you, that woman drove a hard bargain.

I left with the cottages, the basket, and the tissue paper lining the basket, and we ran into another great British tradition: generosity in traffic. I know I lured you in with the promise of one tradition, but I can drive a hard bargain myself. Today if you read about one tradition, you get another for free.

Pushy New Yorker that I will always be at heart, British drivers amaze me, even after ten years in the country. Wild Thing and I were in a kind of feeder line, hoping to edge into the line of cars that were inching their way to the exit, and somebody held back and made a space we could pull into. As I’d known someone would but even so I was breathless with gratitude, because anytime I try to pull into traffic some tiny voice in my head starts a drone: This is going to take forever. It’s going to take longer than forever. We’ll die here and our skeletons will turn to dust before the traffic thins out. But someone always makes space. Such generosity. Such public-spiritedness. Such a sense of cooperation.

I was basking in all that good feeling when someone ahead of us made a space for a car that was waiting in the next feeder line and I snapped back into New York (or maybe that’s American; I’ve lost track) mode: You mean this applies to everyone here? We’ll never get out. Even the memory of our skeletons will turn to dust…

Well, yes, it does apply to everyone. If you’ll read the small print, right there at the end of page two…

Okay, I was ashamed of myself. So much so that I let someone in ahead of me.

I told Wild Thing I was going all British on her.

“You didn’t let the car behind them in,” she said.

“Fuck no,” I said. “I’m not that British.”

And there, my friends, we leave our ongoing saga, The Britishization of Wild Thing and Ellen. They have encountered two great British traditions and managed to not to embarrass themselves on the public stage, even if one of them reverted to type, swore roughly as much as usual, and on top of that snuck a case of spare Z’s past customs and planted one of them right here in this paragraph, where a Brit would use an S.

Great British traditions: the queen’s tweeter and runners in fancy dress

Madge, as my friend R. calls her royal Madge-esty, was recently looking for someone to handle her Twitter account.

You didn’t think the queen would do her own tweeting, did you? Those royal fingers have to be protected so she can cut ribbons.

If you check @britishmonarchy, as I just forced myself to do, you’ll find that the official MonarTweeter doesn’t try to impersonate the queen, because that would get into a whole tangle of decisions about whether to have her say I or one, as in “One has finished one’s breakfast and is off to a busy day of cutting ribbons.” Which might be too long for a tweet but I can’t be bothered counting. And more to the point, it would quite probably violate some law about impersonating a monarch. But anyway, the job of the MonarTweeter is to speak on her behalf.

I’d quote a few tweets but they’re really, really boring.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Ruin in the Firth of Forth, by Ida Swearingen. Don't you just love saying "Firth of Forth"?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: An island in the Firth of Forth. Don’t you just love saying “Firth of Forth”? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

The same person will also be—or by now quite possibly is—in charge of her Facebook page and her YouTube channel, which are probably just as fascinating as the Twitter account. And will get paid between £45,000 and £50,000 per year. One of the requirements of the job is that you have to stay awake through all the dreary stuff you try to graft some excitement onto. And you not only have to keep a straight face about it all, you may even have to look reverent. Or at least preserve some small pocket of reverence deep inside.

I apologize for how slow I’ve been in getting this onto the blog. I know you’d have loved to apply. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have recommended using me as a reference. They wanted to hire someone who could “liaise with a broad spectrum of stakeholders” and I foam at the mouth when I’m around people who think stakeholder is a part of actual human speech. (As I type that I can’t help picturing a scene from a vampire movie. I’m the person holding the stake. Did you bring the hammer?)

And as long as we’re on the topic of British traditions, I can’t leave you without talking about the—. Umm. Is this a tradition? A habit? A thing?

Yes. The British thing about running races in costume—or fancy dress, as they call it here. A recent news article—.

Or, well, no. This isn’t really news. It’s the filler newspapers run to keep their readers from going suicidal over the real news. And it seems to work, because I’ve noticed lately that I’m still alive.

We all need stuff like this, and lately we need a lot of it.

So here, if you’ll be so kind as to follow the link, we have photos of people who’ve run races dressed as the Gingerbread Man, a dinosaur, a lobster, and Spiderman. Tragically, the print edition’s picture of a man dressed as a water faucet (or in British, a water tap) is missing from the online edition. But weep not, because by way of compensation you can follow this link and see a runner dressed as—or more accurately, in—a telephone booth, another one carrying a refrigerator, and some others dressed as a hippo, a telephone, and a large bird, possibly a parrot but I’m no expert. And yet another wearing a cardboard fig(I think)leaf and a bad wig. And not much else.

I don’t know what the temperature was when that last one was taken, but this country doesn’t over-indulge in warm weather. Let’s hope the running warmed him up.

Don’t you just love how ancient tradition survives in this modern world?

Great British traditions: the Atherstone ball game

The 817th Atherstone ball game was held last Shrove Tuesday. That’s Pancake Day, or the day before Lent starts. If you need more information on the significance of the date, your friendly local Jewish atheist is here to provide it, so do ask. The game runs for two hours and the winner is the person holding the ball when it ends.

Most of the sources I’ve checked agree that there’s only one rule, but they disagree about what it is. One says the only rule is that there are no rules, then it says the only rule is that the ball can’t be taken out of town. Which violates my sense of what no rules means, but hey, I’m a foreigner here, so what do I know? Maybe no is one of those words our two countries use differently.

And not to quibble or anything, but if the only rule is that there are no rules except for the one about not taking the ball out of town, isn’t that two rules? Rule 1. there are no rules. Rule 2. don’t take the ball out of town. Does that mean we use only differently as well?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses. It's spring. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses. It’s spring. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Another source says the only rule is that the players aren’t allowed to kill each other. That does seem sensible, but I suspect it’s not organic to the game and that the police are just being spoilsports. The town council backs my first source—the one that says the only rule is that the ball can’t be taken out of town—which supports my theory.

Yet another source, having repeated that there are no rules, says that the ball’s decorated with ribbons that can be exchanged for money by the people who snatch them. Sounds like a rule to me, folks, but maybe I have an expansive idea of what rule means. It also says the ball can be deflated or hidden after 4:30. (The game ends at 5). That also sounds like a rule. And it sounds like a hard trick to pull off. Getting the ball far enough away from the crowd so you can do anything other than fight for your life? Not likely.

The town prepares for the game by boarding up the shop windows and diverting traffic. I’d recommend locking up the guns and knives myself, but again, I’m a foreigner, and an American at that. You’d want to keep that in mind if you consider my advice seriously.

This is not a game for small people. In any number of the pictures I’ve seen, at least one person, and it’s never anybody my size, has somehow landed on top of the crowd and someone else is looking panicked, is on the ground, or is grabbing someone else, either to keep from getting trampled or to pull them down so they can be trampled. Or all of the above. And in one an elderly person is standing serenely in the middle of all this as if he (or possibly she–it’s a small photo and I’m not 600% sure) were alone on the cliffs and looking out to sea, while the man beside him or her is having his head shoved and his hat knocked off.

You gotta love this country.

I could give you a dozen links, but let’s limit it to one, a clip from BBC Midlands.

“Isn’t it a bit dangerous?” the BBC interviewer asks I have no idea who.

“Not really,” I have no idea who answers and goes on to back that up with a couple of totally irrelevant statements. So, right, not dangerous at all, but I won’t be taking my short, not-young self into the middle of the melee next year, thanks.

If you have nothing better to do (and if you’ve read this far I’m going to have to assume that you don’t), you can find all the photos you want by googling Atherstone ball game, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Oh, hell, here, I’ll do it for you.

The Soulbury Stone: ancient tradition meets four-wheel drive

The British are proud of their traditions, even when they haven’t a clue where they came from or what (if anything) they commemorate. It’s one of the things I love about the country—that mix of deep history and complete insanity. For today’s example, students, turn your textbook to page—. Sorry, I’m dating myself. Click your magic tablets to (and you can take your pick here): the Guardian, the BBC, or the Leighton Buzzard Observer, which doesn’t necessarily have the best article but does have the best name. Don’t you wish you wrote for the Leighton Buzzard?

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor.

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor.

It seems that at some dim point in history, the village of Soulbury built its main road around a stone. A big ol’ stone—the kind of stone that defeated two tanks during World War II, when someone decided that the only way to beat Hitler was to get that stone out of the middle of the road. Hitler did eventually lose the war, but the tanks lost the battle. Local wisdom says that the Soulbury Stone always wins.

But let me backtrack. When I said they build the road around it, I don’t mean that they detoured around it. I mean that the thing’s sticking up right in the middle of the road. Judging from the photos, it’s the height of an average person’s thigh. You’ll notice I avoided saying where it would come up to on the imaginary person’s thigh. A thigh’s a longish bit of anatomy. So this is a rough estimate but close enough to let you understand that the stone’s not the sort of thing your average village leaves in the middle of the road. Or that your average driver looks at and thinks, I don’t need to detour around that.

At one point, a lamppost stood beside it, but that’s gone now—maybe the tanks got it—so it’s just the stone these days, sticking out of the pavement all on its own.

I should stop here and tell you a bit about Soulbury. The population, according to Wikipedia, is 736. In 1891, it was 510, so yes, it’s been growing madly. Most references to it are on genealogical sites and its main claim to fame seems to be the stone. Once I ran through nine or ten entries about either the stone or somebody else’s ancestors, I was suddenly looking at listings about Sri Lanka and Tamil separatism. I should probably have followed the links to see if there really was some connection but I preferred to think it was a random collision of electronic bitzies.

Don’t you just love Google?

What brought the stone to national attention was an incident—or an alleged incident—involving a four-by-four and the Immovable Object, after which the county council decided the stone was an obstruction and needed to be removed.

Mind you, they weren’t going to crush it to smithereens. They understand the power of village tradition. All they were proposing was to move it to the village green. To which the village said, reasonably enough, “Obstruction? Whaddaya mean obstruction?”

Sorry, wrong accent. I can’t  help myself.

One resident threatened to chain himself to it, although it you look at the pictures you’ll be hard pressed to figure out how. My friends, I’ve done civil disobedience. Never in that particular form, but I think I’m safe in saying that a roundish stone isn’t something you can chain yourself to.

A move is afoot to have it declared an ancient monument, not because anybody’s Neolithic ancestor erected it—it was left there by a glacier— but because it would protect the stone. And, well, just because, as the kids used to say where I grew up when they had to explain something that couldn’t be explained, which usually meant some rule that originated with the grownups.

According the the Guardian article, “Even local people can’t quite put a finger on why they value [the stone] so highly. Debbie Olié, who lives at the bottom of Chapel Hill, appreciates that it’s a handy way to direct people looking for her turnoff. Jacqui Butler, who lives in the large, early-18th century house in front of the stone, says her teenage son likes to stand on it every Thursday evening waiting for the fish and chip van. Janet Joosten, who lives a few doors along the main road and is a member of a druid society, believes the stone has ‘particular energies’.

“Some people think it was a mounting block for horses. There is a legend that Oliver Cromwell stood on top of it while his troops were ransacking the village church (though villagers are happy to admit the sourcing on that may be sketchy). Some cite a legend that the stone rolls down the low hill every night at midnight only to reappear each morning, though sceptics scoff at such superstition and say it only happens every Halloween.”

Right.

Local belief also holds that only an eighth of the stone is visible aboveground. If that’s true (and how would anyone know?), it would explain why no one moved it a few hundred, or thousand, years ago, before anyone got sentimental about the thing.

In the name of safety, the stone is now surrounded by orange traffic cones. Last I heard, the fight was still going on.

And people thought I was making things up on April Fool’s Day. With a country like this, who needs April Fool’s Day?