It’s a wonderful event. Quite insane.
May 2, 2018 3:41 AM   Subscribe

 
I attended a small village school in Cheshire (north west England) about 35 years ago. Every April the normal lessons would stop and we'd spend weeks preparing for May Day, the main time being spent learning hugely elaborate maypole dance routines. We'd go round and round while older children played along on recorders. If you've ever seen The Wicker Man then you'll have the general idea.

We were never given any context for what we were doing. There was no wider teaching on the symbolism or the ancient religious elements. Which is a shame, because it wasn't until I was older that I even knew this was a strange thing that didn't happen at every school, or had any idea what it was all about.

We moved when I was still small so I never graduated to the music or any of the other, non-pole based, elements. But I do remember being absolutely entranced by the complicated patterns the maypole ribbons could produce and the sense of achievement and awe when everyone unravelled them correctly and didn't end up in a big knot.

I can distinctly remember thinking it was the most impressive accomplishment of my life when we performed it correctly on May Day. Especially as I was in the midst of a chickenpox fever. I think the only illness that'd have justified not taking part would have been death.
posted by samworm at 5:09 AM on May 2, 2018 [24 favorites]


there may have been some kind of portal beneath your small village school
posted by thelonius at 5:56 AM on May 2, 2018 [12 favorites]


Couple days ago attended the May Day celebration in High Park (Toronto). In addition to it being inscrutable -- though the sword dancing women were hott -- it was also for some bizarre reason -- though being held in the largest park in the city of Toronto -- put on in a small paved area through which ran a major automobile route, so in addition to it being a very earnest break-of-dawn Beltane ritual it was also like a pick-up street hockey game because every few minutes someone would shout CAR and the whole thing would roll back and let someone through.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:58 AM on May 2, 2018 [9 favorites]


samworm, my kids' primary school here in Notts has a maypole and they rehearse for the dance every year. I think it's still a thing in many villages around the country, although it's definitely seen a major decline.
posted by pipeski at 6:10 AM on May 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


I keep meaning to go to South Queensferry to see the Burryman but I always forget when it happens. 3 years ago a few of us walked out along the coast from Edinburgh one sunny afternoon and arrived just in time to realise it had happened earlier that day.

I love these kinds of things. I was in a pub in Greenwich 4 years ago on the morning of the 1st of May. It was full of jangling Morris men enjoying some refreshment having just seen in the dawn on Blackheath.
posted by gnuhavenpier at 6:27 AM on May 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


I think part of what makes The Wicker Man so creepy is knowing how high the tolerance/fondness still is in the UK for inexplicable ritual gatherings.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 6:33 AM on May 2, 2018 [9 favorites]


/rolls in on a cheesewheel wearing an obby oss costume.

I am well into this!
posted by Artw at 6:34 AM on May 2, 2018 [8 favorites]


When Mr. Blobby hit the scenes in 1993, he didn't come out of nowhere.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:39 AM on May 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure what's going on here (well apart from powerful powerful magic) but I'm delighted / terrified
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:44 AM on May 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


Am from Queensferry. (I sat beside Mr Nicol there in English classes for 2 years) Am considering making Burrryman costume for Renaissance Faire japes this in New Jersey this summer, but am totally not going to do a real outfit. Considering something with pompoms or pingpong balls attached to a set of cheap joggers/hoodie balaclava routine. Not sure the rest of the assembled knights and hardcore reenactors will get it but it'll definitely look weird.
posted by aesop at 6:46 AM on May 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


I found out about the Burry Man on a trip to South Queensferry many years ago. I'd visited to mainly take a look at the bridges but had a look around the very small museum I discovered that was there. Half the museum was about the bridges themselves but there was a section on the Burry Man with photos from over the years. I always kept meaning to ask Iain Banks about it at a books signing (as I knew he lived in North Queens ferry) but kept forgetting. Now of course I never will.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:49 AM on May 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


Greetings from South Queensferry! The Burryman is in hiding until sufficient stocks of burs - and drams of whisky - are available. (Also - you have just missed Edinburgh's Beltane celebration).

I find it interesting to see how many old pagan practices have persisted round here - after a time period where they were messing with anything of the kind - or even looking like you might be somebody who did - could be fatal. For example, the village of Torryburn - just over the Firth of Forth from us - had a "Witch Pricker" - not some jolly figure of celebration but rather a church minister who would point out people in his congregation as witches. They could then be sleep deprived until they hallucinated and confessed - and imprisoned or burnt. Over 3,000 such people in Scotland were accused of witchcraft by means like these. The reality of some aspects of our local history makes The Wicker Man look like a walk in the park.
posted by rongorongo at 7:10 AM on May 2, 2018 [6 favorites]


Am from Queensferry. (I sat beside Mr Nicol there in English classes for 2 years) Am considering making Burrryman costume for Renaissance Faire japes this in New Jersey this summer, but am totally not going to do a real outfit.

Am afraid the bastards have put his I's out!
posted by pracowity at 7:19 AM on May 2, 2018


Thank you so much for this post! I had just been feeling sad that we were unable to celebrate Beltane in any meaningful way this year, but reading about the pagan goings on of others is nearly as good.

So much less weird than real life, these days, too. Maybe that's the secret: keep the utterly dark irrationality of people locked up in relatively harmless ritual, lest it leak out!
posted by gilrain at 7:23 AM on May 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


Maybe that's the secret: keep the utterly dark irrationality of people locked up in relatively harmless ritual, lest it leak out!

We call this process "grade school."
posted by delfin at 7:29 AM on May 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


Hot Fuzz is basically a documentary.
posted by Artw at 7:30 AM on May 2, 2018 [14 favorites]


samworm I also went to school in Cheshire and May Day was a HUGE thing - I remember having a May Day dress was listed in the school uniform requirements. And it was a bit odd, because this was a Church of England school with a headteacher who took that very seriously and would come down like a ton of bricks on, e.g., using the concept of magic in a school play, but May Day was sacrosanct. (I am however impressed that your school's dancers got the maypole dance right - mine messed it up almost every year to some degree and once actually brought the maypole down.)

My great-great-aunt Maggie's earliest memory was watching the May Day dances, somewhere around the 1890s/1900s. Doubt they were much different.
posted by Catseye at 7:35 AM on May 2, 2018 [3 favorites]


Someone my dad knew went to Hallaton Bottle Kicking, not to take part but just to watch. Next time he saw him he has his arm in plaster.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:45 AM on May 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


Burry man should run for Prime Minister and then attend all diplomatic functions in full Burry Man regalia.

I would vote for this in a heartbeat. Try your weird handshake shit with BURRY MAN mr. Trump! I dare ye!
posted by some loser at 7:53 AM on May 2, 2018 [3 favorites]


there may have been some kind of portal beneath your small village school
A PORTAL TO ALBION

Tha Haxley Hood eh? That looks like fun :7\
i always knew there's something weird about men Yorkshiremen, sorry
posted by glasseyes at 7:56 AM on May 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


With the rise of Wicker Man-style eldritch folk culture and the rise of vaguely disturbing ethno-nationalist and populist currents, I wonder how long until there is a reformed Kibbo Kift movement in Brexitland.
posted by acb at 8:11 AM on May 2, 2018


Always a bad sign when a movement has a shirt colour.
posted by Artw at 8:14 AM on May 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


posted by fearfulsymmetry

You are Wordshore, and I claim my five pounds.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:38 AM on May 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


No gurning competition?

I miss Wordshore.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:25 AM on May 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


With the rise of Wicker Man-style eldritch folk culture and the rise of vaguely disturbing ethno-nationalist and populist currents

I've been on a folk magic tear for the past year or so and am hyper aware that "folk" is becoming a pretty charged term again in occult circles thanks to the nazis wormed around the base of the Norse pagan movement. As I'm doing this research mainly to look for inspiration for my art, I have to thread the needle between not using a symbol that has been co-opted by assholes and not appropriating symbols outside my generic northern european background.

Finding stuff like this is a big help, thanks!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:28 AM on May 2, 2018 [3 favorites]


Roboco is bleeding - have you seen the work of Kahn and Selesnick? Very folk-ways oriented artwork and as far as I know decent chaps too.
posted by aesop at 9:54 AM on May 2, 2018 [3 favorites]


Oh, for the days when “folk” was just what indie buzzbands from Brooklyn called themselves to differentiate themselves from the overexposed/played-out angular/electro/new-wave/garage-rock bands of the previous wave.
posted by acb at 9:56 AM on May 2, 2018


What I'm getting from these is that people in the British Isles are really, really, really bored. But unlike my bored friends and I when we were teens, the Brits have no problem roping everyone in the town into a game of lets-play-baseball-but-with-flaming-tennis-balls. I'm surprised that Morris dancers didn't make this list. Too mainstream, I guess? I remember reading about them for the first time in a Discworld and being fascinated with this weird ritual. Then again, I'm from Philly and we have the Mummers, so maybe I can't talk.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:01 AM on May 2, 2018


Morris dancing is well-known, and the stereotypes of it are unflattering. These days, the average morris side is comprised mostly of older blokes whose physiques bear testimony to the lifelong love of real ale that correlates with a love of English folk dancing, whereas, in the centuries past when such dances were a more vital part of culture, the dancers were young men from the local village, and the whole enterprise crackled with a frisson of sex and danger.

According to the book Electric Eden (which covers the history of England's visionary/folk traditions, from the coining of the term “folk music” in the late 19th century, to debates about the politics of folk music in the febrile 1920s and 30s, to the likes of Kate Bush in the 80s), there was an attempt to revive morris dancing in the folk boom of the late 60s/early 70s; it wasn't successful, and subsequent hipster-folk fads have steered well clear of it.
posted by acb at 10:12 AM on May 2, 2018 [4 favorites]


keep the utterly dark irrationality of people locked up in relatively harmless ritual, lest it leak out!

Back when I were a lass and doing an anthropology degree, I was fascinated by rituals, and especially the carnival-style ones. The running knowledge* was that this was exactly what these wild times were for -- you got to be different, reverse the rules and run wild and get it out of your system all at once, so society could continue to keep going the rest of the year. The Mummers in Philly are a really good example of this. There's gender fuckery, celebrating in the streets, wearing bright clothes and playing special music. (There's also a shit-ton of Problematic/Gross stuff too.)

Also I'm a little sorry I didn't see anything for the Mari Llwyd, my current Fave Weird Thing, but that's fairly specifically Welsh, so maybe that's why?

Anyway -- I love this, on so many levels. (Including the aesthetic, and yeah...trying to thread the needle between folk magic and all the type of paganism without winding up in Racist/Folkish land is, um. A thing.)

* I haven't really kept up with anthro stuff, other than being aware it's probably moved beyond my very post-modern training, so current theories may vary.
posted by kalimac at 10:17 AM on May 2, 2018 [3 favorites]


Roboco is bleeding - have you seen the work of Kahn and Selesnick? Very folk-ways oriented artwork and as far as I know decent chaps too.

oh fuck that's my jam right there
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:21 AM on May 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


Morris dancing is/was mainstream enough they were making jokey adverts 30 odd years ago and it turned in up in many a sitcom and other comedy shows

The last morris dancers I saw were of the 'nu' sort, ie they had women dancers as well as men. And they were a bit rubbish. They also cut short one of their displays because it was 'too hot', which seemed pathetically wimpy to me.

I remember way back in the day talking to an old folkie about morris dancers, real morris dancers. Who would do dances at half a dozen pubs on a Sunday, in the season. And get a free gallon or so of rough scrumpy at each one. In hushed reverent tones he told me: 'No one, not students, not rugby players, not Hells Angels... not even folk singers drinks more than a Morris Man.'
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:40 AM on May 2, 2018 [6 favorites]


We have a thriving Morris dance club in our town; seems like they're always going to competitions somewhere. It's a good mix of younger and older men.

The men's chorus got to do Morris dancing in the production of Camelot I was in last summer. Looked like so much fun all us girls were jealous.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:50 AM on May 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


Morris dancing is all right, but what about the other morris dance? (See also.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:39 AM on May 2, 2018 [3 favorites]


:jingles bells pointedly: My wife and I are both members of a local Morris side - not your Cotswold straw-hats-and-hankies variety, but rags-and-thwacky-sticks-and-blue-painted-faces - and it is grand fun, thankyousomuch. Mixed gender, a wide range of ages, and members are everything from C of E to Jewish. They're a good lot.

I don't mind the affectionate piss-taking - it's a pretty daft hobby - but it is a thriving scene, and there's much more to it than the stereotype of beer-guzzling beardies in bells. If you ever go along to (or stumble across and then can't run away fast enough from) a UK dance-out involving several sides, you'll see that different groups have evolved very distinctive approaches and styles - seeing the mix of the traditional and modern is terrific.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 2:05 PM on May 2, 2018 [9 favorites]


It was Beltane yesterday so I did my annual ritual of watching The Wicker Man, which has turned out to have also been the annual ritual of my biological mother, folklorist and scholar of pagan religion Patricia Monaghan, who was married to Illuminatus co-author Robert Shea, and it turns out my biological father was likely from London, so I feel like this stuff is deep in my blood.

I spend a while in Bath when I was a boy, and will be returning this weekend, for the first time in 40 years. I lived right on Little Solsbury Hill, the one that is suspected to have been the site of a King Arthur battle, the one from the Peter Gabriel song, which he lived by as well -- we were neighbors, and my mother was friends with his then-wife. I wound up doing weird stuff, like playing a Moor in the local St. George festival, a photo that will never be shared as it is me cluelessly in blackface, which was then common enough in England that they had a whole blackface television show called the Black and White Minstrel Show. I watched Punch and Judy off the high street, and swam in a pool fed by the legendary local baths, which had their own pagan god, Sulis, and where they found stones inscribed with curses, mostly asking revenge against thieves.

It's a short distance from Stonehenge, which I will visit next week, of course, even though I can no longer go up to it, as I once could.

I am looking forward to it. I have in the past 25 years published some horror literature, and have really pursued it in earnest this year, largely Americanized folk horror, with five of my stories already slated for publication and a screenplay I wrote that is like the Wicker Man with mountain men in Utah currently the finalist in a screenwriting competition.

I feel like it will recharge me. If I had more time I would travel around more. There's so much more. There are the straw bears, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers, the sort of regional cairns and megaliths that inspired the sorts of shows that scared the crap out of me when I was young, like Children of the Stones and the Stone Tapes.

Also, I somehow have made it to 50 looking like I am a decade younger, but for my gay hair. I need to take the waters again so I can live another 50. I hope to travel back regularly, because there are so many horrors I have not yet seen.
posted by maxsparber at 2:35 PM on May 2, 2018 [10 favorites]


really, really, really bored.
If you were to substitute the word 'drunk' for the word 'bored' I think you'd be nearer the mark. One of the pictures to that article sums it up nicely: the second round of the bottle kicking gets under way in 2017. Favorite picture and a gateway into understanding how to Brit.

And just cos I know men are weird doesn't mean I don't like em. I miss Wordshore too and all.
posted by glasseyes at 8:00 PM on May 2, 2018


I'm so glad I watched some Morris dancing just now! I've had this earwormand lyrics stuck in my head for almost a week, and I'm actually grateful to be able to replace it with an accordion tune.

Morris dancing with sticks, or nothing. You can keep the silly hankies.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:47 PM on May 2, 2018 [2 favorites]




To me, there is an interesting strand of work being done on re-booting some of these festivals for a modern age - and using their particular location as a strong point. For example - back in 1988 - Angus Farquhar, once a member of industrial music group Test Dept helped put together the (above mentioned) Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh. He collaborated with with academics who specialised in folklore to found an event which shared the same hilltop destination, and association with fire, as did the traditional ceremonies - but the event also involved putting together complex percussion, choreography, costume design, events management, fund raising and so on. The event has developed its own organisation structure and its composition changes a little each year - while maintaining the core elements.

Farquhar's arts group NVA has since gone on to create a number of other events that are also embedded in the Scottish environment. For example:
The Storr took place at night from 1 August – 17 September 2005 at The Storr, a rocky hill in Trotternish on the Isle of Skye. Audience members were bussed to the site from bases in Portree and Staffin and kitted out with head torches and walking sticks. They were then led up to the base of the Old Man of Storr, a natural rock formation....
posted by rongorongo at 11:27 PM on May 2, 2018 [3 favorites]


If you were to substitute the word 'drunk' for the word 'bored' I think you'd be nearer the mark

Tangentally, I realised a while ago that a lot of British culinary preferences (the “heart attack on a plate” full-English breakfast, the profusion of fried chicken/kebab shops, deep-fried anything in Scotland, and so on) can be explained by assuming that Britons spend a large part of their lives hungover.
posted by acb at 2:30 AM on May 3, 2018


The Burryman featuring Duncan Grahl

Really great song, about the burryman wandering around the town.
posted by djstig at 4:54 AM on May 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


I suspect most odd festivals can trace their origins to boredom alleviated by an extended trip to the pub. For example - also in South Queensferry:
Ach, let’s jump in the Forth on New Year’s Day, maybe it’ll clear the hangovers!said Kilcullen, according to Loony Dook organiser David Steel. Kerr agreed by saying “If you will, I will,” and soon other friends and locals decided to join in too.Kerr then coined the name “Loony Dook” and a new tradition was born.
posted by rongorongo at 6:52 AM on May 3, 2018 [2 favorites]




I miss Wordshore too and all.

Wait what happened to Wordshore?

posted by schadenfrau at 7:39 PM on May 3, 2018


maxsparber, we were neighbours! My parents live right at the foot of Little Solsbury, and I spent much of my teens taking part in arcane folk rituals up there (well, drinking cider round bonfires).

As the other half of Morfyl Ffyrnig, yep, here to shatter your Morris stereotypes! In my experience, the majority of Morris people are actually weird hippy-goth types, very inclusive and generally left-wingish. The beer-drinking thing is true though.
Also, the correct traditional response to encountering a group of Morris dancers in the wild is to shout, "Which one's Morris?" The Morris dancers will point as one to the most obviously feminine member of the group, the ritual is then complete, and you are protected from unexpected Morris dancers until next May Day.
posted by BlueNorther at 6:41 AM on May 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


maxsparber, we were neighbours! My parents live right at the foot of Little Solsbury, and I spent much of my teens taking part in arcane folk rituals up there (well, drinking cider round bonfires).

Wow! I just got back yesterday and loved visiting the town again. Took a long ramble around Swainswick with my girlfriend, who was just stunned at to how beautiful the Cotswolds are.

Also, I think the trip may have made me go full pagan, even though I am Jewish and an atheist.
posted by maxsparber at 2:55 PM on May 11, 2018 [3 favorites]


You remember... THE OLD WAYS.
posted by Artw at 2:57 PM on May 11, 2018 [1 favorite]


schadenfrau, I saw a reference to Wordshore taking some time off from Metafilter?
posted by tavella at 1:03 PM on May 12, 2018


schadenfrau, I saw a reference to Wordshore taking some time off from Metafilter?

He is outside, in rural England.
posted by Wordshore at 9:44 AM on May 13, 2018 [1 favorite]


Just to expand on that, before I disappear off into the weird English landscape again for the summer. The film 'Arcadia' from last year keeps popping up on the radar. It consists of documentary clips over the last century or so from the BFI archive. The trailer (contains a few disturbing fragments) and a clip from the film, and a few more frames: [1] [2]. It looks ... pleasantly unconventional. A few people I know who have seen it - it's been on infuriatingly event-only release - have said it's trippy, disturbing, pagan, contains (to some) a surprisingly large amount of nudity, "frankly terrifying", and "the closest you can get to being stoned without smoking anything". A few reviews, which differ wildly:

- The skinny
- Borderlines
- itpworld
- lippy
- Glasgow Film

Have a good summer (northern hemisphere)/winter (southern hemisphere).
posted by Wordshore at 4:43 AM on May 15, 2018 [5 favorites]


"Arcadia" sounds interesting!
Since we are talking about the depiction of strange British festivals in film - and since we have mentioned the idea of "Hot Fuzz" being maybe a documentary - a mention to how The Wicker Man (which Hot Fuzz writers cite as an inspiration) was also directly inspired by a number of contemporary folk events. For example, the song "Sumer Is Icumen In" which the crowd sings at the Edward Woodward barbecue time - has long been sung by people like this.
posted by rongorongo at 1:17 AM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


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