‘Tis the festive season of advent calendars and countdowns to Christmas. To mark the occasion, what better way than to have a completely non-festive A-Z of Medway songs.
In my desperate attempt to bring as much of Christmas as I can into an alphabetically themed list of Medway published in the days leading up to the Big 25, let me tell you a tale. It’s about Boxing Day.
I’m not from Medway originally. I’m not even from Kent. I grew up in Gloucester, a place made famous for its cheese (doubly so, in fact), for its cathedral’s use as the set for many a corridor and quadrangle scene in the earlier Harry Potter films. And, of course, rather famous for our own mass murderers, the delightful Mr. and Mrs. West.
Everyone hates (or, at least, has special dispensation to hate) their home town. And I’m no particular exception. If you’ve ever visited the place, you’ll no doubt tell me how utterly wrong I am. “It’s simply wonderful,” you might say. “The countryside, the docks, that beautiful cathedral.”
And yes, it has all of that. But it’s also got a lot of concrete. In the 1960s, developers seem to have got rather jealous of the fact that Hitler completely destroyed the beautiful city of Coventry, leaving town planners to start from scratch with a mass of substandard architecture. “Why couldn’t he have bombed our beautiful city?” they asked themselves. “Then we could have started from scratch with our own substandard architecture.”
And, innovative bunch that they were, they decided to do what the Fuhrer had failed to do themselves. Not bomb it exactly. But certainly knock it down.
The result was that where the city centre would have once had the appeal of Rochester’s High Street, complete with its higgledy-piggledy rows of historical buildings – and something of a soul, it now resembles something like the rather less photogenic Sittingbourne, albeit with a beautiful cathedral seemingly dumped somewhere over to the left for no particular reason.
It was outside this cathedral that I spent every single interminably dull Boxing Day standing in a circle on the car park’s tarmac, watching the same old mummers’ play in which various apparently comic characters fought each other badly with swords until one of them got knocked out, only for a doctor to arrive, produce a ping-pong ball from his bag and proclaim that said ping-pong ball-cum-tablet could cure – all together now – “the itch, the pitch, the palsy and the gout, pains within and pains without – AND PAINSWICK OVER THE HILL” – a joke you can only properly get if you know about, well, Painswick Hill.
The mummers’ play (never to be performed outside of the gates of the city, heaven forefend!) would be sandwiched between performances by various sides of Morris dancers, some clad in white and waving handkerchiefs, the omnipresent bells jingling at their feet as they danced, others in tanned leather waistcoats bashing sticks together for no reason I could ever quite gather.
This was accompanied by Santa Claus passing over-rich Christmas cake around the gathered throng, a man hiding his identity beneath a giant plastic horse’s head which he then used to headbut those who had come to watch, and another man hitting members of the audience with an inflated pig’s bladder.
It’s what we did for fun in Gloucester.
Eventually, my friend Peter and I took to leaving our respective parents to it while we took a walk around the cloisters, alternatively complaining about how rubbish the whole thing was while quoting extensively from the script of the mummers’ play. Ironically of course.
It was probably something to do with my name.
For someone who was regularly dubbed “Morris Minor” and “Morris Dancer” at school the prospect of having to see Morris dancing or – worse still – be seen seeing Morris dancing was not something I was particularly impressed with.
And then, with a few detours via Lancaster, back to Gloucester and then over to Sevenoaks and then Dartford, I eventually arrived in the Medway Towns where, among other things, I discovered they had a whole three day long festival devoted to the art of the sodding Morris dancer.
I still don’t entirely get Morris dancing. I imagine that’s the problem most of its detractors have. Of all artistic performers, the Morris dancer is probably the least understood. But I don’t quite have the same negative feelings as I did when I was growing up in a city far, far west of where I now live.
The cooling of my distaste has, in large part, been down to the existence of Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris. They do Morris dancing. But they do it in a more interesting way. They’re covered, head to foot in black, for a start and they seem to have a bit more of an attitude – and a bit spirit – than I’ve generally seen with other Morris dancers.
Part of their allure is that they wear their allusions to pre-Christian traditions on their jet black sleeves, looking to explore a past that extends beyond the rise and fall of kings and queens, of politics and organised religion. ‘We quite consciously work with ideas of shamanism,’ one of the Wolf’s Heads, Philip Kane told The Independent back in 2008. ‘It’s a form of ritual theatre, a magical space embracing both dancers and audience.’
The fact that Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris do things differently should make it of no surprise that in 2011, they released a CD, Unearthed, filled with the music to which they dance.
‘Jump at the Sun’, by John Kirkpatrick, appears as the finale to the album. And it’s a belter of a tune; gleefully chaotic, it seems impossible that anyone – let alone any group of people – could play so fast.
Violins and squeeze boxes race against each other in a furious display of spirit and skill which provide an insight into what the soundtrack of a Keystone Cops movie might have sounded like if it was performed by a bunch of Goth clad folk musicians.
- Find out more about Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris on their website.
- Further reading: Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris: Unearthed album review.
- For more on Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris – and a whole bunch of other folky goings on in Medway, read my book Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway.