Madness of Crowds: Folk revivalists

The latest Madness of Crowds column is here:

Broadstairs, the Isle of Thanet, a frowsty sort of an evening in early August, with shadows forming within shadows down the high street – a run of chip shops, chain stores and charity shops that steepens into a ski jump, which threatens to tip you off the dirty-white crescent of cliff surrounding Viking Bay. The consensus following a wholesome chicken dinner was that we should promenade and observe the morris dancers parading through the town; after all, who but a callow sophisticate could fail to appreciate this ancient rite, with its pagan roots buried deep in the loam of old Albion?

A few morris-dancing community support officers were gathered in the gloaming. They pranced, they twirled, they jingled their bells and they clacked their truncheons under the appreciative eyes of beery onlookers, whose faces were eerily leeched of colour by the up-light from their 3G phones. And then, lo, here was the parade! Side after side of morris dancers, some perfectly traditional in white shirts, straw hats and knee breeches, but others altogether mutant: there were Star Wars morris dancers with masks; there were beribboned morris dancers, their garments reminiscent of the straw robes of New Guinea’s tribal warriors; there were even punk morris dancers who pogo-ed down the road.

In recent years, I’ve been spending more and more time on the south coast and it seems to me that a curious cultural convulsion is gripping this landscape of boredom and bungalows, Tesco car parks and shingle beaches; for, just as the once-discrete towns of Shoreham, Hove, Brighton, Lewes, Eastbourne, Bexhill, Hastings, Folkestone, Dover, Deal, Ramsgate and Margate have become joined together into a continuous, urbanised littoral, so there has been this atavistic upsurge of hey-nonny-no-ing, anti-Catholicism and fertility cults.

In Lewes last autumn, we witnessed the parade of the Sussex bonfire societies, groups of largely middle-aged male and female urbanites, dressed up as anything from Darth Vader to pogoing punks. Accompanied by drummers and didgeridoo players and dragging barrels of burning tar along the road, the various societies have a tribal air to them. The same tribes were out again in May to celebrate the Jack in the Green festival – another weird exercise in new paganism, in which a leafy bloke prances through the old town, followed by the anointing of a tree boll with water, or some such flummery. Then they were at it again in Broadstairs, as Folk Week climaxed in an ejaculation of inauthenticity.

All these festivals, parades and bonfire ceremonials are modern inventions. The Lewes Guy Fawkes carry-on began as recently as the late 19th century, when it was formulated by a local antiquarian. The Jack in the Green ballyhoo was revived only in the early 1980s, while the entire jiggling edifice of morris dancing was only re-erected in the early decades of the 20th century by folklorists such as Cecil Sharp.

So complete was the deracination wrought by industrialisation during the 19th century that the folklorists often had to be a bit creative when it came to “discovering” old songs and traditions, and it is this spirit of fakery that we find in the contemporary face-painters and drum-bangers. Indeed, it’s arguable that it’s precisely because we’re in a period of equally profound cultural loss that the volk are impelled to such pretend continuities. Still, good luck to ’em, I say – it’s a jolly spectacle and they don’t seem to take themselves too seriously. Besides, I don’t imagine that any one of them labours under the delusion that he or she is parading along a folkway grooved into the greensward as deeply as a medieval holloway. To suggest such a thing would be as facetious as imagining that all those wallahs gathered together in the abbey for this coronation or that jubilee believe they’re participating in a ceremonial unchanged since time out of mind, rather than a bit of mummery got up by Walter Scott to boost the flagging popularity of the Hanoverian dynasty.

Oops, I’m being ironic again. But then irony – unlike cod paganism – is the real living tradition of our isles, while all the Viking boat burnings, summer solstice gatherings and assorted saturnalias are nought but another exercise in that very fine human madness: nostalgia for an age that never really existed.