Monthly Archives: January 2014

Custom transcribed: Australia Day and Lincoln’s Great Australian Breakfast

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This is my first post for the new category; custom transcribed from foreign shores to England.

Picture the scene! The sun pouring down, people throng the beach, celebrating and tucking into their breakfast….that’s what might be going on at Port Lincoln, Australia…however a few thousand miles away….surprisingly in Lincoln, Australia Day is celebrated too! Its a long way from the beach and Skegness would be a bit too bracing at this time of year! Understandably, the celebration has moved to indoors.  This is perhaps a contrived custom transcribed from southern climes. Across the country, Aussies have celebrated this day, whether they are in bedsits in Earl’s court, Bush House or beyond, certainly since the 1950s.

Tie me banger oo down sport!

I spoke to my wife, who is Australian and said don’t forget your passport…I think she was thinking we were going somewhere exotic! Although when I said to her she wouldn’t need a suitcase that problem was ironed out I feel. On arrival signs, perhaps some of the weirdest I seen, pronounced:

“Australian Breakfast this way!”

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Passport control. Checking the passport!

Lining up at the start, Australian nationals produce their passports for their free breakfast and the number duly written down. There appeared to be a number of natives in the room according to the numbers written down. However, you would not recognise them for upon entering one is assailed by this cliché fest…didgeridoos, cork hats, cuddly Kangaroos. The band plays a melody of Australian favourites Waltzing Matilda etc. Sadly, we had missed the start which begun with the chords of ‘Advance Australia fair’, the National Anthem. I wonder if the audience joined in?

Of course those Australian’s in the room are more than aware that our attempt to emulate a typical Aussie breakfast would be wide on the mark. Where was the ham and eggs? Where was the melba toast? Where was the VB, Castlemaine XXX, stubbies, Bar B Q, perhaps?

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The Mayor spills the beans..well almost!

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Sadly they couldn’t afford Rolf Harris….! The rest of the joke is yours!

Day to remember or Forget?

The establishment of a nationwide Australia Day did not really begin until 1934, although the day, remembering the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788, was first noted in 1808. Now a public holiday, it is not without controversy. The day is understandably called Invasion Day by the country’s indigenous population, often as a ‘Day of Mourning’ for the loss of their culture. Other indigenous people have more positively called it Survival Day..that they are still there! I’m not sure when the Lincoln locals tuck into their bacon and eggs surrounded by these cheery Australianisms that this aspect has even been thought about. It might shock them perhaps if they did.

Lincs across the sea!

The establishment of the Australia Day breakfast was in 1991. Maureen Sutton in her Lincolnshire calendar (1996) notes:

“In 1991 the Mayor of Lincoln for that year visited Port Lincoln…During his visit he was invited by the Australian Mayor to celebrate Australia Day…with the local tradition of a beach breakfast, served to the people by the Mayor. Those who attend in period costume qualify for a free breakfast. Lincoln’s Mayor was most impressed by every aspect of this tradition, so when he returned to the English Lincoln he decided to have his own Australian Breakfast.”

Throw another prawn on the barby

The meal, an English breakfast was served by cork hat wearing officials, one being the city’s mayor and local ‘celebrities’, although there aren’t many in Lincoln, on that matter the panto likes to help! Sadly there was not much for the Vegetarian…do they not exist in Lincoln or Australia? Speaking to a number of regulars they were dismayed that as there was not a live link up to Australia, although Sutton (1996) says there is in the form of a telephone call between the Mayors. I agreed, I think it would have made it more relevant and with today’s technology much easier and could be on a big screen via Skype or such like! Sutton (1996) also notes that upwards to 1600 people were served breakfast….this might explain why we were quickly ushered out….but a bit of shame considering it did not give us that long to soak in the atmosphere (so bring a fold up chair if you do!) but understandable as they want to get as many to raise as much as they do.

As we left the Australian Shop based in the picturesque town of Stamford is ready to snare a homesick aussie in need of a TimTam or Cherry Ripe. It’s a great little frivolous event and one that the citizens appear to have taken to heart. I would be nice to see Lincoln’s Australia Day breakfast becoming an event that all the diaspora of that country could come together recognise the day and get involved. Now that would raise some money…and empty much of London’s rental accommodation as well!!

Sadly, this could be a lost custom because as I was writing this it was clear that for various reasons, one lack of interest, the 2014 event was cancelled as the venue was apparently also not available. So even more reason to get involved you Aussies and make sure next years a bonza one!

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– images copyright Pixyled Publications

 
Another chance to wear those novelty gift hats you bought
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Custom contrived: The Bankside Twelfth Night Wassail

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Wassailing appears to be all the rage in folk circles with revivals occurring all over. I had planned to discuss another custom for January, but after travelling back from Australia for Christmas and as I was in London, I decided to see this event and became so entranced by it that I felt I needed to extol its virtues.

Appropriately for someone coming from overseas, Bankside is a sort a microcosm of the modern day Britain. Old terraces share their boundaries with a resurrected Elizabethan Theatre, The Globe, whilst the shell of a monstrous power station holds a bizarre collection of art nearby. All lay along a mighty river. Quintessentially Britain in a nutshell. So it seems appropriate to establish a folk custom here which distils a number into one event!

Roaring success!

Mark Rylance, artistic director of the Globe was apparently the inspiration for this enterprise. A group, The Lions Part, being a spin of the Original Shakespeare Company based at the Globe, established the event in 1994 and it has gone from strength to strength since. For many there, this may be the first and only encounter with British folk customs and so the Lions Part have a large responsibility placed upon their shoulders. I did feel considering the enormous numbers watching the Mummer’s play, that someone should have been leafleting for mummers play countrywide…Like this? Why not try a Plough Monday play?

Despite the contrived nature of the custom, this is a custom which works…many because of the enthusiasm and professionalism of the performers but also because it is a curious amalgam of great British customs…a Green Man, Wassailing, Mummer’s Play, Molly dancing, Father Christmas, Twelfth Night cakes and the Lord and Lady of Misrule and even a tree dressing. Nothing was missed to make this smorgasbord of customs.

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A Holly Man for all seasons

The arrival of the Holly Man despite the modern panorama before us still has an ancient evocative appeal. Rowed by an old Thames Cutter, his image comes closer to view. To a number of people watching on the embankment, this must have been a very bizarre sight and not one they thought they may have encountered as they checked out Tate Modern! On the steps awaited Beelzebub carrying two flaming torches, a stag and a white bear (based on the Polar bear of the medieval Tower).

The Holly Man is a fine if possibly rather uncomfortable sight! Impressively covered head to toe in a variety of holly, ivy and yew, his face painted green with tendrils and leaves applied overall very otherworldly. Potentially the Holly Man looks very scary indeed but fortunately David Ridley who play him, spends a lot of time smiling.

The Holly Man is a curious character in folklore, identified by Robert Graves in The White Goddess as the Holly King who represented one half of the year being at his strongest at the Midwinter period and weakest naturally at Midsummer, when the Oak King ruled.  Whilst as an archetype it is an obvious model, there is no evidence that such a figure existed in England, although he is clearly popular with Neopagans.

And it Wassail from him and Wassail from me!

“Wassail” cried the crowd in unison! They had been here before I feel. Holding a wooden bowl filled with alcohol a scrib sheet was unfurled for the crowd and the first Wassail was read:

“Blow wind. Blow boat well, Ride well on the tide, Every beam and every sail, Bear the crew bravely home each sailing day.”

The group then moved through the massed crowds like rock stars at a concert to the steps of the Globe theatre. Here the doctor unfurled the second sheet and the crowd shouted:

“Blow wind. Globe bear well, Spring well in playing, Every lath and timber, Bear the tongues of poets, Next New Year’s summer.”

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The group then moved with their swarming crowd to an arena nearby for their mummer’s play. The characters of this play ranged from those still in circulation in the ‘modern’ mummers – St. George, Turkish Knight, Father Christmas, Beelzebub and the Doctor. To this they added Prudence, Gill Finney, Cleverlegs and Twelfth Bake, some of which have an authentic Elizabethan flavour.

The play, which was certainly longer than your average Mummer’s performance had all the usual ingredients, conflict between St. George and Turkish Knight, his death and resurrection at the hand of the Doctor with various add on scenes. The play was without doubt the slickest and best mummer’s play I had seen. That is no slight upon the many extremely enjoyable amateur performances, but of course, when professionals are involved like the theatre the result can be excellent. The best performance was by Justin Brett who played Beelzebub, he easily embodied the mischief and devilish nature of the character….very much like a court jester, and indeed he reminded me of Timothy Claypole of BBC TV classic show Rentaghost.  He was very amusing and played the crowd excellently during a section where he cried out for topics from 2013 to create rhymes…although I worried I had gone through a time worm hole when someone shouted ‘Olympics’. Certainly amongst the topics such as flooding, a rhyme about the death of Margaret Thatcher was well pitched to the clientele of Southwark and ‘arty’ establishment who were not exactly big supporters of the Iron Lady…it engendered the biggest laughs let us say!

Mind you Peas and Beans

After the Mummer’s play, cakes are distributed for the crowning of the King Bean and Queen Pea. Twelfth Night is an event that now has only become synonymous with taking the decorations down, (see a forthcoming February post for comment on this), but from medieval times to early 1800s it was a time to celebrate often with feasts and fun. Often the day would be associated with a Lord of Misrule character that would overturn the usual master and servant relationship. As time went on, many of the traditions associated with it died out…the cake lasting the longest before being brought back to Christmas Day itself. Yet despite its apparent demise it is interesting to see that you can’t keep an old custom down!

Cakes were duly given out…although I was missed…and the Holly Man held their twig crowns awaiting the discovery of the King and Queen. Poet Herrick noted the “King of the Bean” in the 17th century:

“Now, now the mirth comes,
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here;
Besides we must know,
The pea also,
Must revel as queen in the court here. Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not,
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here, Which known, let us make,
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink,
To the base from the brink,
A health to the king and the queen here.”

 This custom appears to have been popular in Tudor times having been imported from France or Spain, the finder of the bean would be the King and the pea the Queen As a custom it died out in the 1700s I believe and so again it was great to see the group revive it. However, this year there was some problem finding the pea I believe, someone must have swallowed it unbeknownst and so someone volunteered to be the King Bean. So the King and Queen, both women. After this we travelled to the George Inn, Southwark. The curious assemble of onlookers, now becoming entranced by the whole spectacle gladly held hands and made their way to the watering hole in a giant unbroken daisy chain. Once at the pub, the Holly Man with his Bean and Pea royalty read their third Wassail.

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“Wassail to this old building, Long may she stand, Every barrel and every brew, Cheer the company bravely, Every drinking day!”

Here a miniature tree was also wassailed

“Here’s to this little apple tree, Long may it bear fruit, Every barrel, every brew, Cheer the company bravely, every drinking day.”

The group promised storytelling and dancing. I stayed for the dancing, Molly dancing from East Anglia, just to collect the folk collage.

What is curious is that the Bankside Twelfth Night, despite its twenty year vintage has soon become a focus for modern pagans. Like a modern day fertility symbol, there appeared to be no shortage of young women wishing to pose with the Holly Man, again underlining our need in this modern world for a fertility symbol. Perhaps for many here the surrealist day they might experience…especially for me with my day starting with a cup of tea with Noel Gallagher sitting beside me in Tate Modern. Rock stars. Modern Art. Holly Man…it’s difficult to work out what is more surreal!

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Find out when it’s on:

Calendar Customs link http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/bankside-twelth-night-celebrations/

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Custom demised: Jack of Hilton and his curious tenure

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Jack (2)

In the Ashmolean museum in Oxford is a very strange effigy called Jack of Hilton. It was once the property of the manor of Essington between Wolverhampton and Walsall was subject to a strange feudal service custom from the neighbouring Lord of Hilton. An account by topographer Plot (1686) describes it as:

“a hollow brass image, about a foot high, representing a man kneeling in an indecorous posture. …..There were two apertures, one very small at the mouth, another about two-thirds of an inch in diameter at the back..”

Why the holes? Well the structure is what is called an Æolipile, named after Aeolus the Greek God of air and wind, for such a device would spin when heated due to the force of pressure by water. In a way it was the precursor of the engine. An account of one describes it as:

“an instrument consisting of a hollow metallic ball, with a slender neck or pipe, arising from it. This being filled with water, and thus exposed to the fire, produces a vehement blast of wind.”

Jack of Hilton would hold more than four pints of water, of which the Plot notes:

“which when set to a strong fire, evaporates after the same manner as in an Aeolipile, and vents itself at the smaller hole at the mouth in a constant blast, blowing the fire so strongly that it is very audible, and makes a sensible impression on that part of the fire where the blast lights, as I found by experience”

Plot (1686) adds:

“Now the custom was this. An obligation lay upon the lord of the adjacent manor of Essington, every New-Year’s Day, to bring a goose to Hilton, and drive it three times round the hall fire, which Jack of Hilton was all the time blowing by the discharge of his steam. He was then to carry the bird into the kitchen and deliver it to the cook; and when it was dressed, he was further to carry it in a dish to the table of his lord paramount, the lord of Hilton, receiving in return a dish of meat for his own mess.”

Whatever this custom was about is unclear, and it is certainly unique in the country. It is possible that the figure is quite ancient although the museum dates it to 1300. An author in the Mirror of the 18th century notes:

“Besides Jack of Hilton, which had been an ancient Saxon, image, or idol, Mr. Weber shows, that Pluster, a celebrated German idol, is also of the Aeolipile kind, and in virtue thereof, could do noble feats: being filled with a fluid, and then set on the fire, it would be covered with sweat, and as the heat increased, would at length burst out into flames….Some late authors have discovered the extraordinary use to which the frauds of the heathen priesthood applied the Aeolipile, viz. the working of sham miracles.”

So perhaps the custom has very ancient origins. Sadly no-one appears to have investigated. Similarly I question why he is so positioned if the steam only leaves his mouth at force and no where else!