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.

Hope, despair, passwords, and racism: It’s the news from Britain

You know all those passwords that The People Who Know These Things tell you never to write down but that you write down anyway because those same people also tell you to use a different one for every damn thing and who can remember all that mess? Well, an Irish drug dealer lost £46 million in bitcoins in spite of writing down the code for his stash. But because it’s a dangerous world out there–something any upstanding drug dealer should be aware of–he hid the code in the cap of his fishing rod case. 

I mean, of course you shouldn’t write it down, but what could be safer than that?

Nothing until he got busted with some two thousand euros worth of pot in his car, got sentenced to five years in jail, and somehow in the middle of all this didn’t think to ask anyone to save his fishing rod case because it had great sentimental value. So his landlord cleared his house out and had everything hauled to the dump. Which sent it to either Germany or China, where it was incinerated. 

Not all that £46 million came from drugs. He bought the bitcoins when they were worth £5. Then they went up to £7,500. Each.

He had other accounts, and the Irish state confiscated them, but without the code they haven’t been able to claim this one. And there’s a lesson in there, although I’m not sure what it is or who’s supposed to learn it.

And yes, I do know that Ireland’s not Britain. We share a stretch of water, though, as the Irish know all too well. And anyway, I cheat.

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Entirely relevant photo, although it won’t be clear why yet. This is Moose, a snub-nosed dog who snores when he’s awake. Keep reading. It’ll all make sense eventually.

After that, we need a feel-good story: In February, a book-lover responded to the suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack by contacting the Big Green Bookshop–an independent with an online presence–and offering to buy two copies of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, a memoir about coping with depression, for people who needed them.

The store’s owner already ran a buy-a-stranger-a-book club and tweeted the offer, saying he’d “try to cover any others that are requested.” He got thousands of requests, along with donations ranging from £1 to over £100. In mid-February, the donations had mounted up to £6,000 and he’d sent out 600 books. 

“This book has made such a difference,” he said. “Lots of people have said it saved their lives. And this is not just about people getting the book, it’s about how they’re getting it.”

Okay, I can’t help myself: If you want to donate to the buy-a-stranger-a-book club, here’s the link.

A branch of Blackwell’s Bookshop is doing something similar.

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And a feel-sexy story: A hormone in chocolate could (note the get-out-of-jail-free quality of that word) boost men’s sex drive. How? By making women smell or look more attractive to them. 

Smell or look? Either/or, not both/and? Sorry, I don’t make the rules. 

Would it make men look or smell more attractive to either men who are attracted to men or to women who are attracted to men? 

Sorry, that wasn’t part of the study.

Would it make women look or smell more attractive to women who are etc.? 

Not part of the study. The trial involved straight men. I’m going to take a wild and irresponsible guess and say that’s where the money is when you’re developing drugs for a low sex drive. Or else the folks running it lack imagination.

The hormone’s called kisspeptin. Results are not guaranteed, but if it doesn’t work at least you got to eat some chocolate.

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I’m not sure how this one will make you feel. I’m not even sure how it makes me feel. Depression is at war with amusement. Who’d’ve thought you could feel both at once? 

After Dominic Cummings–our prime minister’s brain–called for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for jobs in his office, someone who calls himself a super forecaster was hired. Andrew Sabisky became a contractor working on “specific projects,” although last time I checked no one would say what those projects were. So at least we know they didn’t just send him into an office and say, “Work on everything, why don’t you?”

So far so ho-hum. Then someone dug out what our little forecaster had to say about life, the universe, and everything. It turns out that before he started working on specific projects he published work arguing that people who look like him are smarter, thanks to their genes, than people who don’t, and that people from backgrounds like his are more conscientious and agreeable (those aren’t my adjectives) than people who–gasp, wheeze–depend on long-term government support. He favors enforced birth control, starting at puberty. I’m not clear who that’s supposed to be enforced on, but I expect he’d make exceptions for people like him since they produce children who turn out to be so very much like him. 

I’m loading the dice here, but only slightly. By way of unloading them: Nowhere did he mention his own looks (he looks like a bar of soap, and if I were a better person I wouldn’t hold that against him) or his background. And when he wrote about intelligence, he wasn’t talking about every variation of people who don’t look like him, only people of African origin. He based his argument on a study that’s been discredited for systematically excluding high-IQ people of African origin from its study group. Amazingly enough, its sample group had low IQs.

And that’s without going to get into what IQ actually measures and how much more complicated the genetics of intelligence are than, say, the short and tall pea plants that Mendel measured.

Sabisky also believes in the existence of race, although scientists have given up on the concept of human races. It just doesn’t work. 

So once all that became public, all hell broke loose and Sabisky resigned. I’m not the only person who’s noticed that our little super forecaster hadn’t seen any of this coming.

Last I checked, it wasn’t clear who’d hired Sabisky, how far anyone had looked into his background before hiring him, whether he had a security clearance, or whether either our prime minister or his brain agrees with his views.

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The Sabisky fiasco, however, did set journalists digging into Dominic Cummings’ writings and they found a blog post (watch what you write on your blogs, people) that argues in favor of selecting embryos for intelligence. 

Does he plan to give the embryos itty bitty prenatal intelligence tests? Well, no. He figures that first someone will figure out what genes control intelligence (so far, what they know is that at a minimum it’s complicated and that it’s probably more complicated than that) and second that embryos can be screened for those genes and third that the best ones can be selected. The rest, presumably, will get tossed into the garbage can of history and the human race will get smarter and smarter. Unless this works out the way breeding dogs for specific qualities has, in which case the human race will get stranger and stranger and have shorter and shorter noses and snore a lot. 

We have two shih tzus (see above for one of them). That’s where I did my research.

David Curtis, editor-in-chief of Annals of Human Genetics, said Cummings “fundamentally misunderstands key concepts in genetics. . . . He seems to have got his ideas from a physicist rather than . . . genetics researchers.” 

“Got”? That’s British for “gotten.”

Richard Ashcroft, a professor of bioethics, called it “cargo cult science.”

If you don’t recognize the phrase cargo cult, it’s not a compliment.

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For reasons I can’t explain, the only story that could possibly follow that is one about tattoos: The actor Orlando Bloom got his son’s name–Flynn–tattooed on his arm in morse code. Then he put it on Instagram, because if it’s not on Instagram it didn’t happen.

If your arm isn’t on Instagram, you don’t have an arm.

Someone pointed out that the tattoo spelled Frynn. 

The tattooist corrected the spelling and added Bloom’s former dog’s name as a bonus. 

Former dog? That’s what the article said. Presumably, it (or he, or she) got a promotion and is now a cat. Whatever it currently is, the creature’s name was and still is Sidi. 

And with that out of the way, what else can we do but review the tattoos of other people who’ve publicly screwed them up? Ariana Grande tried to get lyrics from one of her songs tattooed on her arm in Japanese. It ended up saying “small charcoal grill.” The BBC interviewed a tattooist who admitted to having tattooed “serenitiy” on someone’s face. If you’re not a skilled proofreader, there’s an extra i tucked away in there, probably riding the cheekbone. The person the face belongs to is unnamed, but since it’s on his face I’d still call that public. 

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A daredevil died trying to prove the earth is flat. “Mad” Mike Hughes aimed a home-made rocket straight up, hoping to get 5,000 feet above the earth. Exactly what he planned to do once he was up there I don’t know–presumably it wasn’t go into orbit–but something went wrong and the whole thing came back down. 

I’d love to know how he figured the sun rises and sets and all the rest of that stuff in the sky moves around. Maybe we have to go back to the earth being at the center of the universe. 

Anyway, I think we can all agree that he proved gravity works.

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The excavation of a cave in Kurdistan shows that Neanderthals buried their dead–possibly with flowers, although that last part is still controversial. The burial is some 70,000 years old and the flower pollen was found in the soil by the body, along with mineralized plant remains. 

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And finally, some good news from a place with precious little of it: The Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos was built for 3,000 people and now holds 20,000. The toilets are overflowing, bags of rubbish lie uncollected, and people are trapped there by the Greek government’s refusal to move refugees to the mainland and by other E.U. countries’ refusal to accept any serious number of refugees. The water supply is uncertain and cold. People live in tents and spend hours waiting for food. Nights are cold.

And yet: A refugee named Zekria started a library and a school there. 

Zekria used to teach law in Kabul, and when the schools that charities run had no room for his kids, he started his own school. Before long, he had more students than he could handle and built up a team. They turn no one away, even if it means that some classes are huge. 

They have three classrooms, thirty teachers, and a thousand students. Classes include English, Greek, German, French, guitar, and art. 

The library is next door. Most of the books have been donated by aid workers.

Moria is better known for fires, violence, rape, murder, and desperate overcrowding. The world’s turned its back on the people trapped there, and Zekria’s asylum application has been turned down more than once. Presumably because he’s not the sort of person you’d want in your country.

And yet.

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.