On Boxing Day, I visited Greatham (north east England) to see the traditional mumming play which is performed every year.
I took a little video which you can see below. Dancing and singing are a big element, but as part of a script involving acting and monologues which tell a story.
In this particular play, some soldiers kill an old fool by cutting his head off, but he is bought back to life by the doctor who pours beer down his throat. The play was almost lost and forgotten, but was revived in 1967 by the Redcar Sword Dancers.
This got me thinking again about something I've been pondering for several years: What is English Culture and why doesn't the majority of the English population relate to English folk traditions, like morris dancing, folk music and mumming plays?
I lived in Glasgow for six years and, during that time, noticed how the Scottish are very connected to their own traditional cultures. All my friends who were educated in Scotland knew the core repertoire of dances when we went to ceilidhs because they had learned them in 'social dancing' classes at school. When I visited schools all over the West of Scotland region in my job delivering workshops on careers and post-16 education, I was surprised and delighted to find that many taught the Gaelic language.
There's a similar manifestation of national identity elsewhere in the British Isles: a Welsh friend of mine used a photograph of herself as a child in Welsh national dress in the programme for her final recital of her music degree, and my honorary brother-in-law often wears a kilt to parties and formal events as a symbol of his Northern Irish identity, even though he has lived in England since the age of two.
How many English universities have barn dances as part of their Freshers' Week? And when they do, are they one of the most popular events? Being English, and living in England, I find that I've never really had that connection to my folk traditions in the way that my Scottish, Welsh and Irish/Northern Irish friends have. Growing up, I was dimly aware that we had a folk culture and I think I had more exposure to it than most children in the 1990s: my mum took me to a few barn dances, I did maypole dancing for a term at school and I watched morris dances at local fairs.
Another thing I've noticed with the Scots, Welsh and Irish/Northern Irish is that compared to 'us' (I writing on behalf of the English), they're very patriotic. They take pride in their national identity whilst we often seem indifferent, even ashamed to be English. Sure, we rally round and have a collective surge of patriotism for the sporting events: the football World Cup, the Ashes, and the Six Nations rugby tournament, but we're not proud in a day-to-day way like the rest of Britain.
I have a not-very-well-researched theory on this, which you're most welcome to disagree with.
Firstly, I think our history has a significant part to play in this: beginning in Elizabeth I's reign and ending with World War II, England was the heart of the British Empire (this map shows our former colonies in pink). We ruled the world (or at least a very significant part of it). Even within Britain, we ruled the other nations (the Scots and Welsh are still upset about this). Now, in these post-modern, post-colonialist times, empires are rather embarrassing and the feelings of pride in being at the heart of a great Empire (Rule Britannnia and all that) get mixed-up with feelings of national pride, pride in being part of a group linked by a connection to a geographic place, a common heritage and a similar way of life.
There's also an unfortunate association for English folk traditions with far-right. The BNP (British National Party), in particular, play on these associations. This BBC article from 2009 discusses the use of English folk music (used without permission from the artists) on the BNP website. The BNP also tarnish the term nationalism for the rest of us and with it, sentiments such as national pride and solidarity with our fellow countrymen/women. This Demand for English Nationalism on the BNP website is an example.
I feel regretful about the English unease with national pride and our consequent failure to embrace our rich heritage. I really do want to feel patriotic and I'm jealous of my Scottish friends who have that feeling of being part of a proud, strong nation and express it through ceilidh dancing, kilt wearing, whisky drinking and the like. I think it helps to be oppressed, or at least to feel that one's nation has been oppressed in the not-too-dim-and-distant past. When yours is the nation that did the oppressing, it's harder.
It's probably unrealistic to imagine a glorious, utopian future where mumming plays are cool, but wouldn't it be great if we (I'm writing from the English perspective again) were aware of our folk culture and embraced it just a tiny bit? What's filling the hole left by national pride? The X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and the occasional sports fixture. Why should the BNP get to keep our rich folk heritage and lovely feelings of patriotism, community and pride all to itself, leaving the rest of us with the shallow rubbish they didn't think was worth hijacking?