Monday, 22 September 2008

Blame it on the Boogie

I have seen a medicine
That's able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With spritely fire and motion.
William Shakespeare (All's Well that Ends Well. Act II, Scene I)

THE AUTUMNAL EQUINOX is today, at exactly 15:43 GMT, and I suppose, if the rain were to ease up, I should head for the nearest stone circle, barrow or oak tree and do a dance. As it is British Summer Time, I must remember it would be about quarter to five that I should get jigging. The folks in Salt Lake City, many wearing funny knickers, should step outside their car dealerships at quarter to ten this morning, their time. If you are in Honolulu, in a grass skirt, knackered from entertaining tourists from the Mainland all night, a quick run around a palm tree at sunrise will suffice. If you happen to be in the Bourbon Street Pub in Key West, which will have opened 45 minutes ago, take off your t-shirts and give your best rendition of I Will Survive just before noon.

As the rain is pissing down in Northumberland, unusually, I am going to be reading this afternoon: An Utterly Impartial History of Britain or 2000 Years of Upper Class Twits in Charge by John O'Farrell. He's the author of a number of amusing studies, including Global Village Idiot and I Blame the Scapegoats. Put him on your reading list.

For a week or so, I have been reading the Impartial History, which began with Julius Caesar having a hell of a time getting four good seats together on the cross-channel ferry back in 55 BC when he invaded the British Isles. It is a big book, factual for all the humour. A critic says of it: As entertaining as a witch burning, and a lot more laughs.

At two o'clock this morning, I reached 1401 AD; Henry IV has just decided that it would not be a particularly bad thing to incinerate the Lollards in town squares as heretics. The Lollards, originally followers of John Wycliffe, who had translated the Bible into what passed as everyday English in 1382, believed that the average bloke might learn to be pious from the scriptures, not just from the priests. In other words, that piety might be developed at home, around the hearth with your family, in your vernacular, rather than struggled with at a church where someone mumbled Latin. Clearly, a revolutionary idea.
Henry IV, as we all know from our Shakespeare, meaning it must be so, fell ill with insomnia, became insane, and his face was covered in ghastly pustules, which could happen to any of us. The clincher, however, was the poor, old-at-forty-five, King waking to find his son, the future Henry V, trying on the crown that he'd left on his spare pillow. Seems that torching the Lollards resulted in some bad Karma for the King. We should take note! If you must take your symbol of office to bed, then wear it, or someone will nick it. Uneasy lies the head that doesn't wear a crown.

It's riveting stuff for me. I studied English history generally, in Bermuda, but my high school course was centred on the first Hanoverian monarchs (Georges I, II and III) and, particularly, the American War of Independence, as we call it. O'Farrell suggests that the American Revolution might well have arisen from disputes over standards of British dentistry. I'm enjoying catching up on Boudicca, the Black Death, Stephen and Matilda, Piers Gaveston fondling the crown jewels and Edward II taking a red-hot poker up the bum, and so on.

What a history we have here! I'm sure that my ancestors must have known just a little of what was going on. A friend's cousin's brother-in-law took part in that Peasants' Revolt of 1381 when my great-grandad Eldridge was shovelling pig-shit for his master. I have never, for a moment, considered myself the heir to any sort of baronial title, much less a descendant of some mighty prince of the realm. I know one old queen in Bermuda who has linked himself back to the Plantagenet kings somehow. I'm never impressed when he tells the story. He's a twat, and a shame the Black Death missed his family's no doubt fabulous palace back in 1348.

Amble by the Sea, also known as The Friendliest Port, is historic in its own way. Amble has been ambling along for around 2,000 years, and there are lumps and bumps in the landscape, columns, walls and castles, coins in the fields, and ghost ships sunk in the Coquet Estuary, and the memories of the older folks who've managed to live here despite the winters, all testifying to things past.

Sometimes a bit of history comes to town. Last Saturday afternoon a troupe of Morris Dancers from Yorkshire (that's a northern English county well to the south of us) turned up in the Town Square. I had seen a little note about this in the window of the Bread Bin Bakery, a few doors down from my flat, and decided that if the sun was shining at one o'clock, I'd go and have a look. I've seen Morris Dancing on the telly, and in movies, it's quaint these days. I'm sure the young people think it's just naff. It does appeal to the tourists, I have no doubt, and I fancied some tourist-watching.

So far as I know, I've never seen Morris Dancers live. They were certainly naff when I was a student! I was too busy applying Clearasil to my face, combing my hair forward and wearing flowered shirts and ties from Carnaby Street to watch silly people in top hats, dressed in funny clothes, with bells strapped to their legs, and waving hankies about as they did in Nether Wallop before Noe's Floude.

I hitched Cailean up in his new multi-coloured harness and leash at quarter-to-one as, miracle, the sun was out on Saturday. It was not only sunny, but quite warm. We made our way down to the Square, with the usual stops to meet & greet and pick up the newspapers. At the Square the dancing had commenced. There were eight dancers, two alternates, a fellow playing some sort of squeeze box, and a girl who might have been ten or eleven who was clearly dealing with some developmental handicap. The girl was keeping watch over an upturned top hat with some coins in it placed on the cobbles at the entrance to the Square. The little girl, chubby, her bare bottom hanging out of her white, baggy sweat-pants, stared into some other dimension, her mouth wide open with amazement. I spent the late 1960s like that.

The dancers, all male, were dressed in white tunics and trousers with criss-crossed blue and maroon bands over their chests and backs, and grey top hats with matching blue and maroon ribbons, brown belts—some with mobile phones attached—did not match black shoes, bells were strapped below the dancers' knees. Most of the men were bearded, grey bearded. There was only one young chap, tall, fair-skinned, red-haired, dark glasses, too young to produce even a rudimentary whisker. Most of the group wore sunglasses, as I'm sure they did back in the Middle Ages. Tucked into the belts were white hankies, and there were duffle bags containing what turned out to be long sticks and short sticks off to one side of the designated dance-floor.

There were group dances from various villages in Yorkshire, which were not terribly unalike, one song in someone else's language, and then the leader of the pack said that young somebody—turned out to be the nice-looking lad with ginger hair—would do a solo turn. The group moved back, a tune was squeezed out enthusiastically, and the boy took to the air with his handkerchiefs. Look out, Billy Elliot, there's a new kid on the block. I'm not sure whether the dance was accurately performed, but it was well-done and rather entertaining (yes, like a witch burning) and I was most impressed that somebody of the next generation was going to take this peculiar custom forward. At least, I trust he will.
The afternoon's show ended with some stick banging and the red-head did an odd run out of the line-up, swung around the metal sundial in the centre of the Square a few times, bobbed about a bit there—in theatre, this is called chewing the scenery, I believe—then ran and leapt back into the group with a flourish. Of course, we all applauded, scaring Cailean.

The audience, no more than twenty people and my dog, was, indeed, mostly made up of tourists. There had been one teenaged boy wearing a Newcastle United FC jersey, but once the jump-up began, he hurried off into a ginnel at the south side of the Square, no lover of history, pageantry or the arts. That or he preferred a wank.

I discussed the goings-on with a lady from Essex who'd been sat near me. Cailean had taken an interest in her and had climbed onto her lap when it was offered. The lady had suggested she mind him while I took some photographs. My accent, of course, baffles people. Are you Canadian? When you have the town's cutest dog, and an odd way of speaking, you can go a long way.

So, we wondered how regional accents have managed to survive, and whether they will do so in the future, and how long history can last in Britain. And we turned our faces to the sunshine, Cailean too, just like they did back before the Renaissance, and enjoyed the warmth of it all.


Unknown said...

Enjoyed it all, except for the 'wank'.

sarah corbett morgan said...

So, I'm immediately convinced that G W Bush has a bejeweled crown in his closet he wears only at night. Surely he is too afraid to wear it during the day; Congress (or your average Joe Briefcase) might rip the thing right off his head. It must make love making with Laura a bit (more) tedious, the crown tipping this way and that. Probably has his socks on too.

I'll have to look for the book you are reading, Ross. It sounds like a good laugh. There was a book similar to that I read back in the 80s, I think: An Incomplete Education: 3,684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn't. It was a rollicking good read. I learned a lot, too. I remember Wagnerian opera being described as great, providing you enjoy sitting in the dark for four hours contemplating death. I probably would have done better in school had the subject matter been delivered in this fashion.

I loved the pictures but really didn't need them as your descriptions were on the mark. What a nice outing and I'll remember that small girl with the gawky expression for some time, as well as your assumption that you looked like that back in the 60s.

I love going on these outings of yours. I feel Cailean trotting along beside and almost hear and smell the sights.

Speaking of sights and sounds, I hear the helicopter coming back-- third day in a row-- whoop-whoop-whoop. Someone's sure to die today, mon. It's nine-friggin'-o'clock in the morning!

suz said...

bolphie! another post of sheer delight! i'm so getting that history book, it looks even better than my beloved thomas cahill's stuff.
we have morris dancers locally. on beltaine they performed on the green at shepherdstown college. i LOVE shepherdstown. it hosted the only (as far as we can tell) may day parade still being held in the US. and they're Xtra cool cuz i got to march in it, done up in greek goddess attire and carefully throwing candy to the tots wherever it wouldn't trip the dancers.
i lurves morris dancers. and maypoles. and beltaine.
:) khairete

Ross Eldridge said...

Hi Elmer:

There's a sub-text. The bored teenager in the Newcastle United Football Club shirt is a NUFC fan ... therefore he MUST be a "wanker". (The book is on the way ...)

Hi Sarah:

You are absolutely right about history being far more interesting if presented in a more readable and amusing format. Last night I reached the last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne. The heading is "Queen Anne gives her name to a chair ... Then breaks it!" Turns out Queen Anne was so enormously fat, not helped by at least 18 pregnancies (she outlived all her children for all that), that artists dreaded being asked to paint her portrait, and she was eventually buried in a square coffin as her corpse just wouldn't fit in anything else. She was the lesbian lover of her chum, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. I'm not exactly sure that "it's good to be Queen".

Anyhoo ... When someone mentions a Queen Anne chair, I'll now recall clearly that Anne would NEVER have sat on one without reducing it to kindling.

Our BORING history master at grammar school told us the Churchills got the Dukedom and quite a gift in the funds to build the vast Blenheim Palace (where Winston Churchill was eventually born) because John Churchill won the battle of Blenheim against the French in 1704. You know, it might be that Sarah had more than a little influence!

Hi Suz:

I gather different villages had different Morris Dancers, and they did local dances. The ones that visited us did sing a strange song that they told us nobody would understand (and we didn't). I had no idea they sang. I've not seen live Maypole Dancing (or any pole dancing) either. But I remember a friend of my grandparents (who would be 100 by now had she not popped her clogs) did a routine where she pretended to be a very camp gay boy outing himself to his horrified parents. The routine ends with the boy singing: "Oh, don't cry, Mother, for I'm to be Queen of the May!"

Sweeties chucked by the Greek Goddess to the kids ... "Have a hemlock humbug, little darlings ..."

Did you see the news story ... Some bright sparks have decided that Stonehenge was actually a sort of Accident & Emergency Hospital. How did they figure that out? Long lines of skeletons, people clearly died waiting to see a doctor, much like the present National Health Service!

"I'm sorry, Mr Beltaine, you WILL have to see a physician from beyond the edge of the world. Dr Parampreet Singh's office is over by the Blue Stones. Please stop belly-aching!"
"But, my belly is aching, dammit!"
"Check the Pagan ... he's in pain, he says, and still he jokes."

Pun on Check, of course!

That's the update ...