In Comes I!
Saturday 19th November
Today I took a sunny ride down to Bath to experience the raggle taggle delights of the first ‘Mummers Unconvention’ – a gathering of performers, academics, enthusiasts and support teams involved in the obscure world of ‘Mummers Plays – the possibly ancient folk street theatre traditionally performed over Yuletide by amateur locals, who wear a colourful variety of disguises (hence, guizers) to ‘keep mum’ – affording them a certain degree of anonymity, so their satirical skits can cock a snook at the lord of the manor/figure of authority, or, in modern palance – stick it to the man. Although these whimsical ritual dramas, seem far from being anarchic – harmless English fun, to some, along with Morris-dancing, to which it is joined at the ankle (by bells).
It was a beautiful sunny November day, as I rolled into town, noticing the Occupy camp set up in Queens Square. Good on them! (tis a pity they didn’t join in the Unconvention to spread their message: I can imagine a modern day Mummers’, with ‘Old Father Capitalist’; ‘the Whore of Babylon’; ‘Lord Mammon’; the ‘Universal Protester’; ‘PC Plod’; ‘Cokehead the Stockbroker’, etc – depicting the death and resurrection and death of the ailing Economy, aka ‘the Boom and Bust Show’!)
I parked up and walked to the Cross Baths, where the various teams were gathering – an outlandish array of characters: clowns and kings, damsels and knights, men with beards in drag, in a mufti uniform of eras, straddling pantomime horses, others blacked up – like dodgy extras from a League of Gentlemen skit. There was something surreal and slightly disturbing about this defiantly unPC entourage standing there in broad daylight – as though the guilty contents of forgotten dreams had erupted into the light: a cast of archetypes, stereotypes, shadow-dwellers and Id-merchants we keep a collective lid on. Yet it brought an explosion of joy and colour to the streets of Bath. As the Mummers queued up alongside BHS like bargan-hunters in the January sales, waiting for the start of the procession, they brought bemused and amused expressions to the faces shoppers and passersby. And then they were off, wending their way through the hustle and bustle of Stall Street. The home-made ‘moochers’ provided a welcome relief to the bourgeois boutiques of the High Street. This was unchic, anti-fashion. If there’s nowt so queer as folk then this was a Pride Parade of the mad, glad and ungainly! The Mummers were just what Bath needed, to stop taking itself too seriously. Yet the elegant Bath architecture provided a photogenic backdrop for this buffoonery – the presence of the Mummers transformed familiar landmarks. The golden Bath stone glowed brightly in the afternoon sun as they made their way accompanied by drum, squeezebox and pipes. It could have been a Wicker Man re-enactment society, except these folk were for real – inhabiting their roles with serious silliness: ‘Make way for the fine lady!’ called one of the Fine Lady Revellers from Banbury (home of its own Hobby Horse Festival), sweeping a path with her broom. It is rare indeed to see so many Mummers Players together – as most only perform at Yuletide, in one locale, and don’t travel around like Morris sides often do. They are fixed to their location and ‘traditional’ time of year. This was ‘the first attempt of its kind to bring together groups from all over the country and beyond, as a way to spread the word about this fascinating and vibrant drama.’ The ‘unconvention’ was convened by Ian Gilchrist – of the Widcombe Mummers (who perform on New Year’s Day in the Widcombe ‘village’ area). They were conspicuous by their absence today (as the host team) but I did bump into their hobby horse man – Rob Miller – who had made his own ‘oss’ and joined the side… Much-missed local folklore expert, druid and bonzo soul Tim Sebastian played the part of ‘the King of the Beggars of Holloway’ (an actual local character). He would have loved today, having been responsible for instigating a number of absurd traditions himself including cheese-blessing and cucumber-dancing!
Among the teams present were the wonderfully named Sompting Tiptereers, Herga, Bal de Malcasats (Spain), plus the Bristol Rag (performing the Nine Lives of Brunel), Frome Valley, Gloucestershire Morris, Suffolk Howlers, Stony Stratford, Weston (Bath), Potterne Christmas Boys, Fine Lady’s Revellers, and Langport. A Motley team was put together with any members whose full side couldn’t attend.
The surreal raggle taggle procession wended its way around the city centre – along the narrow streets – ending up at the Chapel Arts Centre, where their was a ‘Mayor’s Reception’. Local MP Don Foster played to the crowd. The bar did a roaring trade.
After this pitstop the teams spread out around the town to perform in one of four locations. I caught performances on Stall Street, Old Bond Street and in front of the Abbey. The Catalan team, Ball de Malcasats (Dance of the Bad Marriages) – a traditional street drama from Vilanova i la Geltrú, a coastal resort near Barcelona, Catalunya – were fascinating to watch. Some of their patter was translated as they went along, but there was little need: it was universal, yet at the same time also very Spanish! The comic characters were instantly recognizable – the cuckold, the buffoon, the flirtatious wife, the corrupt priest, the pontificating politician, the bullying baddy. There were very similar to the cast of the Commedia dell Arte, the Comedy of Art, of the Profession – performed in Venice, in half-masks.
During the first Bardic Festival of Bath back in 1998 I had my own Mummers Play, ‘The Head of Winter’, performed in this style by local actors. It was during this festival that I won the Bardic Chair – with my poem, ‘Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath’. This was inspired in part by the Roman ‘mummers mask’ found under Stall Street by workman and now in the Roman Baths Museum. This would have been used in the theatre once part of the city-wide temple complex that existed during the Roman occupation. I wondered what kind of play would have been performed for pilgrims – a sacred drama illuminating the mysteries of the mysterious hot springs perhaps? And this gave birth to my ‘play’ (a ritual dialogue between Bladud and Sulis) performed with my partner at the time, Emily Tavakoly.
I have been interested in this form since back in my old home town of Northampton, where I devised a piece of mummery called ‘The Storyteller’s Faerie Trial’. This never happened in the end, but it set me off on my own storyteller’s adventure – taking me to Bath, where I became Bard – and onto Stroud. More recently I wrote an ‘eco-mummers’ play called ‘Wassailing Avalon’, set in the Somerset Levels and featuring many Glastonbury ‘archetypes’. I hope one day it’ll be performed on the streets of Glastonbury! (here’s a link in case you’re tempted).
Among the most powerful performances was by the super-annuated Potterne Christmas Boys, whose collective age must be a few centuries. They simply walked on in silence – forming a circle and then a line – dramatic in front of the Abbey. Then, like Quakers, they began to speak, as though seized by spirit – introducing themselves in the traditional way. The characters were the usual misfits (Old Father Christmas; Saint George; the Turkish Knight; the Doctor; plus one called Almanac – who was a bit of a druid type). The nice touch was after the ritual combat, when Saint George slew the Turkish Knight – it was the Turkish Knight who was resurrected by the Doctor,in a fine show of humanitarianism. Then they sang a song about being ‘all wounded together’ which was quite touching. These guys you could tell were the real deal – less ‘business’ but more gravitas. Watching them really felt like a window into the past. Many of the Mummers died out literally, due to the devastation of the First World War. The living link seemed lost – and yet, it has been miraculously revived, like Saint George, and lives on ‘to fight another day’. Hip hip hooray!
All in all, a fascinating day, which very much relates to my book Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels – which features the Marshfield, Keynsham and Southstoke Mummers. Here’s to the survival of such colourful eccentricity – stopping life getting too dull or normal!
May it become an annual event. Keep Mum and carry on!