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.

Golliwogs: in public and in private memory

In response to my post on comparative racism, leannenz left a comment that made me realize I’d left something important out of the post—a part of my thinking that was clear enough to me but invisible to anyone else. So I’m bringing the issue out of the comments zone and into a post of its own.

Leannenz wrote that she grew up “in the age of Enid Blyton, Noddy, Big Ears and Golly. I had the book Little Black Sambo read to me as a child. Nowadays there is a lot of talk of Noddy and Big Ears being in a homosexual relationship and the racist facet to Golly.

“I look at them now as part of history. They were what they were back in the day, a child’s toy, a child’s book but the thank goodness we have made progress and they are now no longer the accepted norm. Thank goodness people are willing to say they are derogatory and demeaning and don’t have a place in the modern classroom. I would say, let people remember a childhood toy with fondness BUT I would like to think that now people would realise these dolls originated from the colonial era of class system that put people down and would chose not to make or purchase them although I suspect they are still out there.”

I understand that some people have fond memories of golliwogs as childhood toys, and those feelings are their own and no business of mine or anybody else’s. It’s when people assume that their feelings and memories justify the public use of golliwogs that I object.

No more than a few weeks ago, a charity shop in a nearby town decided to celebrate the town’s jazz festival with a window display that included some golliwogs. Somebody objected on a town chat site and was jumped all over by multiple people who use the site—and defended by others. I don’t read the page so I don’t know the numbers, but it sounded like only a few people defended him and a lot of people attacked.

It got ugly quickly, as these things do online.

I was in town just after I heard about it, so I stopped by the store to voice an opinion. They must have already gotten an earful, because the woman I talked to started answering me before I’d gotten to the end of my sentence. It wasn’t her decision. The manager would have to decide. And so on.

They took the display down and wrote on the chat site that the person who put it up had meant no offense. Which I’m sure is true. It was an act of pure cluelessness.

The person who initially raised the question ended the discussion by saying to the people who’d attacked him, “You may not understand this, but your children will.” Which strikes me as a moment of pure grace, under the circumstances.

Thanks to leannenz for her comment, and to the many other people who left thoughtful comments.

Comparative racism part 2: What’s it like in Britain?

After writing a guest post about American racism I don’t seem to be ready to leave the topic. My mind keeps circling back to something I’ve avoided writing about until now: British racism.

Why am I avoiding this? Tact? Nah. I have the occasional moment of tact, but as a rule I’m not paralyzed by it. That it’s a hard topic to be funny about? In part, but I hope to manage a bright spot here and there. Ignorance? Well, yeah, there is that. I’ve lived in the U.K. for nine years. That doesn’t make me an expert. It’s a huge, sprawling topic. Plus I live in an absurdly white part of the country. Although my friends and family are a multi-hued (and multi-many other thinged) group, my friends in this country, for the most part, are not.

But still, I listen. I hear things.

Beyond irrelevant photo: grasses after an autumn rain

Beyond irrelevant photo: grasses after an autumn rain

Before I go on, though, I need to explain something. I appreciate it that a lot of people say things like “he used the N-word” in order to avoid using a deeply offensive word. I’m about to use the word, though—not because I think it’s okay, but because I’m writing about people who do, and to dance around the word itself is to dance around the racism it embodies. You know the phrase she wouldn’t say shit if she had a mouthful? Well, we’ve got a mouthful here, and I am going to say shit.

Since I moved to the U.K., I’ve been in a couple of situations where people used the word nigger, not as I’m using it here, to discuss racism, but as a way of talking about black people, and I’ve argued with them about it. If you don’t say something, you become complicit. Besides, I’m not constructed for shutting up about things that matter to me.

Argued makes the interactions sound more reasoned than they were. What I’ve found myself saying is variations on You can’t say that in front of me. Because screw the reasoned argument, people already know why I’m objecting and why explain it one more time? What might make some difference is putting as high an emotional price as I can on using the word.

I won’t argue that it’s the best way to respond, but it’s the one I can manage.

So why am I talking particularly about Britain? It’s not that no one uses the word in the U.S., although I can’t remember the last time anybody in the U.S. crossed that particular line with me. I didn’t live in such a white area, and I’d guess that makes a difference. Or maybe it needs to be explained some other way. I’m not sure. But I’d be surprised if, in a similar situation, anyone in the U.S. would react the way people do here, and if I’m wrong, tell me, because I’m interested. What happens here is that people regularly respond by saying things like, “I like the word,” or, “I don’t mean anything offensive by it,”  which seems to say that nobody should be offended and presumably the argument can then turn to what’s wrong with people who are offended when they shouldn’t be.

Insert a brief incoherent shriek here if you would. I don’t know how to spell one convincingly or I’d insert it myself.

I’ve heard the same argument made about golliwogs—Little Black Sambo-like dolls that make my flesh crawl. I never saw one until I came to Britain, but they have a history here and I’ve met any number of whites who tell they had golliwogs when they were kids and they loved their golliwogs; to them, the dolls aren’t racist. Never mind that they’re caricatures right out of the 1920s-style School of Shameless Racism.

A few of these comments have come from people who are clueless and/or racist, but more of them come from people of genuine goodwill—people who’d be horrified to be thought of as racist. And yet the compass that tells them what’s racist resides inside themselves, not out in the world, among the people most affected by it.

Admittedly, to at least some extent we all have to trust our instincts. But we also have to listen to people who are closer to the front lines on this. Being part of the group in question give you an intense apprenticeship in tuning yourself to racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, anti-WhatHaveYouIsm. And those of us who aren’t part of the group? We might want to listen. And think about what we hear. Because if we’ve lived in a society full of anti-WhatHaveYouIsm, we can’t help but be affected by it. We breathe it in. The spores settle in our lungs and they want to multiply. Hearing from the outside world is a sort of antibiotic. And I’m going to bail out of that metaphor before it goes out of control. I only passed high school biology because the teacher wasn’t what you’d call rigorous.

That’s far from a full report on the differences between American and British racism. (Did I really need to say that?) But it’s an aspect that fascinates and baffles me. I’ll be interested to hear what you can add.