Monday, 24 October 2011

Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids

We've lately seen something of an enthusiasm amongst artists for vernacular culture and tradition. The results have been exciting, with the creation of new works going alongside a very broad championing of the folk arts. From his background as Art Director in the fashion world Simon Costin has sought to build a Museum of British Folklore. Grayson Perry is exploring the world of vernacular artefacts. Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane curated the Folk Archive. Whatever their artistic impulses and interpretations, all of these projects have addressed actual folk practice and its artefacts.
They have also, refreshingly, looked at folk practice in a broad way, encompassing existing traditions, revivals and adaptations, and newly developed customs. (In this respect they are building on the work of Doc Rowe, as they acknowledge). More needs to be said about the nuances and differences between these registers of vernacular practice, of course, but they all need documenting and considering as folklore.
Sara Hannant's beautiful new book Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids: A Journey through the English Ritual Year (Merrell Publishing) belongs with this same trend. She documents a selection of events across the year, from the Allendale Tar Barrel Parade (1 January) to The (Insert Name Here) Mummers (28 December). For each event a short explanatory text introduces some of Hannant's vibrant and evocative photographs.
It is primarily a photographic book - a snapshot of some parts of the ritual year that have caught Hannant's eye and lens - and it is gorgeous. There are particularly striking shots of processions at night and/or involving fire. You can see some of the pictures in a portfolio on her website (and an exhibition has just opened at the Horniman Museum if you're around south London over the next year), but the Hinton St George Punkie Night procession (below) gives some idea of her best. (For me the outstanding shot is of a burning Lewes bonfire effigy of David Cameron and Nick Clegg). She also captures well the informal solemnity of such seasonal events: members of the Druid Order processing down Primrose Hill at the Autumn Equinox, or a break for a bag of chips at the kerbside during the Sowerby Bridge Rush-Bearing Festival. The qualities are combined in a great shot of the Britannia Coconut Dancers dancing round Bacup in falling snow (further down the page). It's serious, ridiculous and intense, and Hannant has a sympathetic eye for the people who participate in or watch these customs.
She has focused her attention on England in order to 'explore notions of national identity' (p.10). It is unclear whether this actually gets beyond documenting what seasonal customs are currently practised in England (although that in itself would be valuable), but it certainly throws up some interesting questions for future researchers.
What is interesting about the book is its combination of the old, the new, and the thought-to-be-old. Here, certainly, are the older 'star attractions' of the English seasonal year (Padstow, Lewes, Bacup, Abbots Bromley), but Hannant also does a very good job with more recently established and civic events. She notes the involvement of local folklore enthusiasts in the revival or invention of some traditions, many of which have existed in their current form for only 30-40 years. Here, alongside May Day customs and morris dancing, are civic carnivals and trade association events like the Pearly Kings Harvest Festival. There are also some striking sequences on recently established events like the Hastings and Deptford Jacks-in-the-Green.
These pictures point to one of the book's more intriguing features. Hannant is interested in questions of the beliefs embodied in seasonal customs. Some of these are fairly recent developments within Anglican tradition: Painswick's 'Clypping', for example, for all its claims of age, owes much to the Victorian antiquarianism of enthusiastic Church of England pastors. Hannant has documented further many of the emergent traditions around what we might loosely call neo-pagan beliefs. She is particularly good at covering the range of events around specific dates like 31 October (Ottery St Mary's tar barrels, the Antrobus Soulcakers' Play and Glastonbury Samhain events).
To some extent she has thus documented a new ritual year, one which has arisen only in the last two decades, although an ancient heritage is claimed for it. Her text does not deal with this in any great depth, although she is largely sympathetic to its practitioners (and has made much use of Ronald Hutton in her background reading, so her sympathy is well-informed). It may be up to others to tease out the relationship between these events (and between them and their supposed forebears), but that is not really the point of Hannant's glorious book. It would, of course, be nice to hear more about the background to events like the London Beltane revival (and there may be an error in the location here), but the novelty of documenting it so well still justifies its presentation in this way here.
It is a mark of the book's quality that it does point directions for such future consideration, but that should be taken as a bonus to its other, rather more evident, qualities. The book is an attractive celebration of a wide range of seasonal observation. It deserves to be seen widely and enjoyed. It should trigger further interest in seasonal events, drawing attention both to their existence and - hopefully - to their implications and meanings.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post a lot thanks. Really useful and interesting resources that I didn't know about. And I'm definitely putting that book on my wish list.