As I get older – which I gather many other people are also doing – I become ever more interested in popular and, even more so, unpopular folk traditions. Tomorrow is a belter of a day in the folk weirdness calendar: May Day. It’s like a clarion call for every nut job in the land to emerge, dress up like a character from Camberwick Green and drink themselves into even more incoherence than when they got up. But I do love it.
Today, 30th April, is big enough in its own right. It heralds both Walpurgisnacht in Germany – apparently, party time for airborne witches – and here in the UK, May Eve, the night upon which Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set. Yes, today. Summer in April is something only The Bard or possibly Grant Shapps would try to get away with (what is it about Conservative Party chairmen and Walter Mitty-esque relationships with reality? I think the clue may be in the question).
England – and it’s this part of the UK that I write from – has quite a set of insane folk traditions lined up for 1st May. Here’s a quick run-down of some of my favourites:
- Weighing the mayor (High Wycombe, Bucks)
- Corby pole fair – people are put in stocks and only released after paying a ransom (Corby, Northants)
- Pretend dancing bears – a boy puts a sack over his head and pretends to be a dancing bear, complete with pole (Blackburn, Lancs)
- Ducking Day – shoving people’s heads into buckets of water if they don’t have a branch of whitethorn or elm on their clothes when approached (Devon and Cornwall)
- Mass punch-ups (for example at Wrekin Wakes, Shropshire)
- Horse decorations (especially in the north west)
- Jack-in-the-Green – a wicker-adorned character put on by chimney sweeps, as a way of collecting money to see them through the lean summer months (London)
- May Goslings – a kind of second April Fool’s Day (Cumbria, Lancs and elsewhere)
The source for all this knowledge I seem to have, but don’t really, is a hefty tome by leading English folklorist Steve Roud called The English Year. It’s a big old £30 book, but worth every penny. Here’s Nicolas Lezard’s review in the Guardian from a few years ago – he loves it too: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jan/26/history3.
Jolly amusing stuff. But there’s deeper meaning in it too. The folk traditions Roud describes are little chinks of light into two things: some of the older history of how life was lived in towns and villages centuries ago; and how people in more recent times have felt about their past, often yearning for a simpler, pre-modern idyll that almost certainly never existed.
As regards the latter, I’m referring to Eric Hobsbawm’s apercu that much ‘tradition’ is not as old as it appears. His famous book The Invention of Tradition is probably a wise companion piece to anyone reading The English Year. http://www.cambridge.org/gb/academic/subjects/history/regional-and-world-history-general-interest/invention-tradition-2.
A huge amount of what we imagine to come from the deep past is in fact a product of the rather camp imaginings of some Victorian antiquarian or other. They were grasping, it seems, to keep onto a simpler and more colourful past that, in the age of industrialisation, seemed to be slipping away. Scottish clan tartans and Gaelic football (the latter dates only to the 1880s) are but two striking examples.
Thomas Hardy, writing in the late Victorian era, often featured in his novels a transition from a romanticised pre-industrial, pre-railway Wessex to something more modern, corrupt and urban – the Wessex Hardy lived in when he was writing. Books like The Woodlanders, Tess of the D’Urbervilles or even Jude The Obscure are melancholy paeans to a lost past; a past that was becoming more exotic to readers with every passing year. Hardy was perhaps more devoted to the truth than most. Many Victorians heavily remixed the past they were seeking to honour. Because, ultimately, a tradition is something that lives in the present. And in the present, it is natural to cobble together your best guess at the past – and even improve it where it’s not really what you’re looking for – through half-remembered bits and pieces. You can fill in the rest. It’s that act of creativity which is perhaps the most interesting thing about folk “traditions”.
All this creatively inaccurate remembering is just as relevant today, as many of us who work in the world of brand communications will recognise. We live in a time where the retro and the contemporary are almost indistinguishable. The recent recession brought a deluge of nostalgia branding – those Hovis ads came back, we got lots of 1940s typography on our hession carrier bags and so on. It’s still going on. Even Football Focus now shows the club badges on the screen in the background in monochrome. At times of difficulty, we like to be reminded of simpler times, when things just worked and quality was quality. We become averse to the mess and waste we associate with today. It was ever thus.
When it comes to invented tradition in the world of branding though, you can’t beat the sheer gumption of the ads of Werther’s Originals in the 1990s. This product simply didn’t exist in the UK when I was a child in the 70s and 80s; but appeared in the 90s with a fully formed back-story. The ads featuring an old man enjoying them with his grandson. He is thrown into a nostalgic reverie, as if he’s recalling having enjoyed them as a child watching Buster Keaton matinees at the picture house. Unless he spent his childhood in Westphalia in Germany, where Werther’s does have a history, this is pretty unlikely. Werther’s Originals were every bit as 90s as Brett Anderson singing Animal Nitrate at the Brits, looking like a girl.
But since when did we let the truth get in the way of a good story?