Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mayday Mayhem

Mayday celebrations are always associated with maypoles, maypole dancing, and flower garlands, and the quiet Essex market town of Saffron Walden is no exception. But Saffron Walden was unusual as in the evening this gentle and picturesque tradition gave way to a riotous celebration.

This was the “game” called “Pig in the gutter” (known locally as “piggetty-gutter”) probably a relic of older May Day games, and dancing round the may pole. It consisted of the inhabitants of Castle Street and other nearby roads congregating at a given spot and time, joining hands and then forming a long line, rushing off through the streets, “yelling and shouting like a troop of wild Indians”.

Castle Street at that time was a crowded working-class street in which the poorest people of the town lived, crammed into tiny houses grouped around small squares. There are contemporary reports of some families so poor that parents and children slept on straw. But poverty could not break their spirit, and once a year, on Mayday, they overturned the “respectable” rules of small town life.

Writing in 1911, Frank Emson described the people gathering in the evening. “Headed by a merry old soul, ‘Royal Moll’, they danced round the town hand in hand about 200 strong. When a “Moll” saw a chance to suround a few persons she would lead on her tribe and hem them in, not letting them go until them had paid toll. The leaders were dressed in colours and adorned with flowers, and the townspeople turned out to see the fun.”

The colourful biography of Saffron Walden’s socialist mayor, Stanley Wilson, relates how: “On the evening of May Day after the garlands had faded and the Morris Dancers had finished their dances and jigs they adjourned to the ‘Eight Bells’ for their annual feast of beer bread and cheese. The town Bandsmen went to ‘The Hoops’ inn.”

Then about one hundred and fifty men and boys in their “beribboned smocks and Sunday best clothes and top hats would assemble at the top of Castle Street, borrow a very long rope from Bill Beans, the twine and ropemaker, and all line up holding the rope in the gutter down the street.”

Led by several men playing home-made wooden whistles (made from hazel with a pea in it) and beating pails, saucepans and frying pans, they ran through the town entering every public house by the front door and out at the back door, each having a mouthful of free beer in each pub.

As crowds ran down Castle Street, High Street, Gold Street to the Market Place, they would encircle and catch as many people as possible on their way. The price of release was a coin dropped into an old tin can which went towards more beer. “Those with no money were kicked up the backside and allowed to join on the end of the human snake. Boys loved to join the gang and to drink strong beer - an initiation into manhood” wrote Stanley.

Both Wilson and Emson stress that the “greatest good humour prevailed” throughout the evening. But they were writing about a tradition suppressed in the middle of the 19th century, within living memory of the bread riots of 1795 and the Swing revolt in local villages in 1830. The “respectable” and wealthier members of the local community were just too frightened to allow Mayday mayhem to continue - in case it became a more serious challenge to social order.

[Thanks to the anonymous librarians of nearly one hundred years ago, for preserving some yellowing newspaper cuttings in the local library, and to the late Stanley Wilson for recording the local folk memory of these events.]

EU threat to Freedom of Information

Statewatch has an important but alarming report on proposals to restrict access to EU documents:


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dockers and Detectives

Catching up on the fast moving world of publishing, I've been meaning to mention the 2008 reprint of Ken Worpole's pioneering book Dockers and Detectives, by Nottingham based Five Leaves. Ken has written several books on social history and architecture, but Dockers and Detectives, was his widely and rightly praised, first publication which explored the long neglected work of working class writers in Britain. Dockers and Detectives contains five long linked chapters on literature and politics, American influences on popular fiction, popular literature during WWII, the novels of working class writers from Liverpool, and the novels of the Jewish East End of London.

Five Leaves is one of the most innovative alternative publishers, with a programme that shames many much larger operations, supporting the Lowdham Book Festival in Nottinghamshire, and with a mouthwatering back-list. Check out their list of new crime express series, and new publishing programme of books for young adults.


Stuff 1968! - What About 1962?

A history of Amsterdam's "Provo" movement has been sorely lacking for many years so author Richard Kempton and publisher Autonomedia are to be congratulated on the recent publication of Provo: Amsterdam's Anarchist Revolt.
From the publisher's blurb:

"Provo staged political and cultural interventions into the symbolic and everyday spaces of Holland from 1962–1967. In this first book-length English-language study of their history, Richard Kempton narrates the rise and fall of Provo from early Dutch “happenings” staged in 1962 to the “Death of Provo” in 1967. He chronicles Robert Jasper Grootveld’s anarchist anti-cancer campaign, the riots against Princess Beatrix’s marriage to an ex-Nazi, and the famous White Bicycle program. He also comments on parallel contemporary and near-contemporary movements (including Dada and Situationism), Amsterdam’s previous anarchist traditions, the spread of Provo through Holland and the development of the Kabouter party, and ends by offering an existentialist critique of Provo and other anarchist movements of the 1960s."

Shelf Doubt: the Intimate History of Bookshops

Boyd Tonkin explores the bookshop as portrayed in literature in this readable and neatly crafted essay:

"Few writers respect the intimate history of bookshops. Their presence, or absence; their plenitude, or poverty, feeds a stream of feeling that runs through the lives of people who read, and who write. They nourish and withold. They gratify and disappoint. They reward curiosity with serendipity. Responses to their opening and closures, their makeovers and takeovers, compile an index of emotions stretching from agony to zealotry.

Yet authors often feel compelled to foul the nests that nurture them. In novel after novel, from George Gissing to Vikram Seth, bookshops and their staff shrink into sketchy cartoon shapes. Alarmingly often, they feature as boringly unwholesome temples of dullness and delusion. Why should this be so?"

Just one of many contributions to New Writing 15 - the British Council's annual anthology of the finest contemporary writing in fiction, non-fiction and poetry, selected by Bernadine Evaristo and Maggie Gee. Published by Granta, but with many contributions now available as downloads, including Boyd Tonkin's essay, and an extract from Alasdair Gray's novel The Posthumous Papers of John Tunnock, and a piece by Julian Barnes: 'The Case of Inspector Campbells's Red Hair'. The downloads, including "Shelf Doubt', are available at: