Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Never mind the pancakes

Yesterday was Shroves Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent. For us in England, it generally means PANCAKE DAY!, whilst for many other countries its Carneval (literally- 'goodbye to meat'); both traditions emphasise the giving up of good food in advance of a time of fasting in the run-up to Easter. However, even within England there are many other traditions connected to the Shrove Tuesday, for example, the playing of Shrove Tuesday football matches was once common. These aren't 'soccer' matches, with equal numbers on each team and pitch. These are full-on, crowd-participation melees played over a large area, sometimes an entire parish. Many of these football traditions declined when the 1835 Highways Act forbade the playing of ball games on the road. However, they still exist in some towns, including Ashbourne Derbyshire. Here are some pictures of yesterday's match from BBC Radio Derby

Monday, 16 February 2009

Steam dreams

I’ve been pondering stream trains recently. Driving home a few weeks ago we were surprised to see a large crowd of people standing on the railway bridge near us, which goes over the main east coast line. It turned out that they there to watch Tornado, the first new steam train to have been built in Britain for fifty years. Apparently the station was packed, as was the station up at Darlington where it was heading. Then yesterday morning I took Isobel to the National Railway Museum, which is handily just down the road from us. Although we were there at 10.30, within an hour the museum (which is big) was absolutely heaving with families and children. Isobel loved it, which as she comes from a railway family on her mum’s side is presumably genetic.

It got me thinking about the popularity of steam trains in the UK though. As well as the excellent railway museum in York, it now has an outpost in Shildon (Co. Durham), and in the last couple of years a major new museum has opened up in the railway town of Swindon. If anything, stream trains are becoming more popular than ever, which I find fascinating. In the past, the stereotypical steam fan was a weighty fifty-year-old man (almost always a man) who remembered the last days of steam himself and still hankered to be an engine driver. Now the core audience appears to be children; neither they nor their parents are able to remember the glory days of steam, yet we’re still obsessed with it. Obviously, for many of us adults, there is an element of faux-nostalgia for a time and society we don’t remember and probably never existed anyway. It’s no surprise that one of the biggest themes running through the merchandising in the railway museum shop is that of old railway posters, with their imagery of seaside holidays and bucolic countryside. Steam trains evoke a world of Brief Encounter, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Night Mail, the Railway Children and Ivor the Engine, a pre-lapsarian England before Dr Beeching wielded his axe. However, whilst for adults the thought of steam engines might set off this nostalgic riffing, it can’t be true for the children, who presumably just love the steam engines for being big, noisy, smelly and steamy (what’s not to like?).

However, when I’ve travelled abroad I’ve not come across much evidence for the cult of the steam engine in the same way it exists over here. Why is it such a British phenomenon?

Monday, 9 February 2009

More on morris...

Interesting article in Saturday's Guardian about Mary Neal who is one of the unsung heroines of the folklore revival in the early 20th century, but who made the mistake of getting on the wrong side of Cecil Sharp. Mary Neal was an socialist, suffragette and social worker who used dance as way of encouraging and helping factory girls in London. Her approach to dancing emphasised the fact that dance was a developing tradition and that forms and performance styles could change and evolve over time. This contrasted with Sharp's highly formalised approach to folk dance which focused on developing a fixed canon of repertoire and was dogmatic about performance style. They fell out and the subsequent hagiography of Sharp more or less wrote Neal out of the story. This is now being remedied though and the EFSDS held their first Mary Neal day on Saturday.

Neal is also interesting for her involvement in the Kibbo Kift, an early version of the Woodcraft Folk (kind of lefty version of the Scout movement), which also involved individuals like Rolf Gardiner (who I've blogged about before) whose subsequent career had a distinct right-wing trajectory. The Kibbo Kift also utilised a range of interesting imagery including Anglo-Saxon / Viking ideas and concepts drawn from a 1930s concetpion of Native American life. I hope to come back to this at some point.

NB: the photo is of morris dancing at Stonehenge in the 1950s taken by RJC Atkinson (the photo is from the excellent English Heritage Viewfinder website)