Try everything once, except incest and Morris dancing

Britain's heritage - blacking up

Britain's heritage - weirdos blacking up

The incident is burned in my memory decades later; hurrying into the noisy classroom following dinner-break as I sat down next to my mate. Being a bit of a scally and in the knowledge I was the only boy in class not wearing long trousers (thanks Mum – seven-years-old and still in shorts) the little bastard pinched my leg. Due to the hubbub I was unaware of Miss Puddefoot’s presence in the room and let out a loud and prolonged scream – the sort you might holler in the recently vacated playground. She was a young teacher; kind and difficult to get on the wrong side of. Nonetheless, she stood up from whatever she was doing behind her desk and glared at me. No preamble, no telling off.  “Go!” she commanded, “And stand outside the class.”

This was possibly the worst moment in my life up until then. As a well-behaved and rather diffident boy used to coming top of the form I wasn’t at all accustomed to discipline in school. However, the punishment meted out by teacher was far from my mind. Worse, much worse than her admonishment was the reaction of the class – they were in fits at my ridiculous scream and hysterics I’d been caught. I trooped out of this hell and to the relative sanctuary of the corridor to the mocking of 30 or so compatriots.  Face burning red and with my heart attempting to pump its way through a Bri-Nylon shirt I had just enough self-respect remaining to save the tears for outside.

Some might find the incident amusing – I don’t and never have. All my life the very worst thing, worse than pain, worse even than death is embarrassment. Although an emotional response, I consider it a symptom of my own innate humanity this aversion applies not just to my own discomfort but anybody’s. I loathe the works of Woody Allen, am barely able to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm and incredulous at the praise bestowed upon The Office. John Cleese may well have considered the writing of Fawlty Towers to have been good therapy for himself but for me it was the reverse.

As a rule, comedians in Working Man’s Clubs made a living embarrassing members of the audience while the alternative lot set about themselves. But when it comes people capable of humiliating everybody in sight you struggle to find a group more demeaned and demeaning than Morris dancers.

I’ve only met one person in my life who indulged in Morris. He and I both worked for a crisis-counselling charity and it was my misfortune to share a duty with him one Monday night. I must confess I didn’t think much of the chap even before he decided (much against any indication I might have given) to show me his “dance” technique. Out came a not-too-clean hanky as he pranced around the small room oblivious either to the impending need of the callers or my disgust.

Dressing up as a horse and poking your equine nose into ladies’ shopping bags is not “hilarious”, but “twattish”. Wearing a pair of cut-off cricket trousers, worn-out dress-shirt and white nylon football socks cannot under any terms represent “heritage”. And if this really is a fertility ritual, why are so many of the participants so old? Even leaving aside rumours of far-right memberships and allegiances I find it difficult to accept any group with even an ounce of nous would be proclaiming their right to black-up in the 21st Century.

But that’s rather the point isn’t it? Morris dancers have no self-awareness. With the exception of buskers  – who do it for money – I cannot think of another group so ready to foist their hobby on an unwilling public. You may not like football but at least we retire to an out-of-the-way pitch to indulge. Fishing, the most popular leisure activity in the country, is all but exclusively maintained away from the public gaze. Even trainspotting – the most reviled pastime – will usually take place tucked away at the end of a station platform. Not so Morris men who exhibit an almost fascistic lack of concern for right of access to civic spaces.

As anecdotal evidence I give you an example from my past which also demonstrates my belief nothing in life makes us as angry as others behaving in a manner we forbid ourselves: On my way to rugby training one evening a bit of a hold up in the main square led to me dipping down a side street in order get to the club on time. Having the same idea, a couple of other cars followed behind me only for us all to screech to a halt as we reached the pub at the bottom. For outside the Rose and Crown a bunch of social misfits complete with fancy dress, bells and sticks had commandeered the byway and were exercising their “right” to ponce about in the middle. It was reminiscent of a scene from The League of Gentlemen – only more sinister.

Already late and not in the best of moods I was furious their pastime was denying mine. At the front of a now lengthening queue there was no opportunity to back the car up even if we weren’t in a one-way street, so I revved the engine as something of indication to the assembled extras from Royston Vasey I really would rather like to get about my business. Instead of the anticipated polite parting of the ways and a wave of a hanky I received dark looks and an increase in the tempo of the “dance”.

A quick toot on the horn fared no better so I started inching forward only for the occupants of the road to do the same. The stand-off broke as the bumper of my car feathered the bells of one recalcitrant only for him to plunge to the floor via my bonnet in a dive well worthy of a yellow card for simulation. Fortunately his friends finally got the message as I dropped the clutch and belted towards them.

Watching (and hearing) them scatter was almost as amusing as the look on the Desk Sergeant’s face when I visited The Nick post-rugby to report them – apparently they had already rung me in. Rather reasonably I thought, I pointed out had it been myself and a load of mates organising a political protest without prior warning and blocking the public highway our feet would barely have touched. I never heard any more from the local constabulary – but am willing to bet the bloke who pinched my leg now plays the accordion.

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About Terry Land

West Ham supporter, freelance journalist, photographer, gardener and in possession of pink/green political values. Wedded to the idea health and happiness are best enhanced by the consumption of industrial quantities of curry and chocolate...

Posted on March 25, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Mr Squeezebox

    Morris dancing is a part of our heritage that is understood by the few who participate in it, as you would know if you had researched it before passing an opinion on it.

    Remember: never touch another mans knocking stick.

  2. Actually I have often thought that they have it right, act the fool for a bit, which is definitely part of our heritage, and then drink decent beer (sometime given free) into the evening, the only reason i could ever find for sometimes wishing to play cricket when younger.

    The blacking in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with race other than certain maritime villages mostly in the South West which were the subject of Moorish pirates and thus residents lampooned their lifelong oppressors for mutual support in a similar fashion to the way we did Hitler in the last war. People throughout the world have similar rituals. In Ilfracombe they burn an effigy of their Irish pirate foe who plagued them for years and there are Viking rituals along the east coast too.

    Otherwise the blacking is related to evil spirits, work related, mining for example, or disguise from employers/powers that be and could just as easily, in most cases, have been any colour you like had they been as easy to obtain as simple blacking agents. Historical context has to be shown over modern usually inaccurate prejudices.

    Many black people have whited themselves up for a wide range of reasons (some similar) and why not in my opinion, I certainly wouldn’t dream of taking them personally and certainly I dont feel its healthy to discriminate against imaginary racism which purely reveals our own imagined prejudices and misunderstanding rather than real ones.

  3. Here is something interesting for you, that picture was taken in Brugge in Belguim at a festival and not in England, English Morris dancers do not “Black up”.

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