Confessions of a Morris Dancer
Introduction . . .
Most people think that Morris dancing is,… to coin an American phrase …. lame.
What follows is an account that you won’t ever find archived at Cecil Sharpe House or on the pages of Folk Roots (or Froots as it’s called now!) a story of partying, excess, sex, drugs and… folk music. It should be noted that in no way does this article reflect the views of anyone else who was ever in South Down’s Morris.
How you end up Morris dancing in the first place.
I guess it helps coming from a family that values folk music and folk traditions, like mine. It somehow prepares you for the shock; already versed as you are in the freakish world of ‘Folk’ seeing grown men dressed in 18th century workers breeches leap-frogging each other to the wheezing of a concertina comes as less of a stomach turning suprise. The next best reason to end up in a Morris side was that two friends I had met at the Art College I then attended were already in one, formed while they were both at BASVIC sixth form college; a college located in the wonderfully liberal sea side town of Brighton in East Sussex.
We three were spending most of our evenings seeing how many Bucket Bongs, Hot Knives, Chillums and Shotguns we could smoke and still remain standing, so it made sense, particularly for me, to do something more constructive with my time than helping to collapse our mutual lungs on a quarter of Black Leb a night. So I suggested going along to their next meeting, with a view to joining.
Every week these two guys travelled from Hastings in East Sussex to Lewes, the county town to practice with their Morris side at the Royal Oak public house. On enquiry I found out that they were a bunch of physically fit younger men who danced a particularly difficult ‘height emphasising’ style of Cotswold Morris. The side was called ‘South Downs’, run by a guy called Phil Everett, with Tony Dunn helping out and a well known and talented musician Roger Watson providing the music on his Melodian.
The average age of a member being not more than about 23 as opposed to the more typical ‘old bunch of fat bastards’ swilling yee olde real ale and trying desperately to put an inch or so between them and the pub car park’s tarmac I guessed that this would be something out of the norm… and indeed it was, they checked the colour of my underpants on my first visit and pronounced them to their liking… I was in! (They were red by the way)
Bongs in the back of the Van.
On joining I found out that this Morris side had quite a reputation, they were lauded amongst those that knew as one of the best sides in the country and had won the Sidmouth Ritual Dance Competition just the previous Summer season and had a truly excellent musician playing for them. They taught and toured all over the UK, dancing to crowds at some of the biggest and most highly respected festivals. In just one short season I myself had the pleasure of a premier dance in the side doing a stick dance at Bampton’s Whitsun Weekender at the invitation of Francis Shergold’s side and dancing at Towersey and Whitby Folk festivals. I met Dave Swarbrick and danced to the Oyster Band, and sat next to Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick at the Eagle in Bampton while they played. I danced Border (another style of Morris dancing) in Bishop’s Castle and Ludlow, where two Italian ladies photographed my and another dancer’s arses, and I became the very embodiment of the Turkish Knight in the Winter’s Mummers play, altogether I had a great time.
South Downs had a reputation as one of three sides in the country that fuelled themselves on Marijuana rather than drink; more than once we received scouring glances from fat bastards nursing a pint of something out of a tooled leather or pewter tankard (the folkies badge of honour, generally found attached to a belt restricting the overflowing belly that went with the beer that went with the tankard) called Olde Farter or Olde Thumper, who were taken aback at our ordering six or so pints of Orange Juice and Lemonade (We did this to keep fitter than they).
If only they could have joined in the spliff rolling frivolities in the beer gardens of most of the pubs we visited, perhaps they might have understood all the better where our motivations lay!
We had very little respect for these Tankard toting people, you could spot ’em a mile away, if they weren’t carrying their personal Tankard from pub to pub then they’d be carrying a canvas sack with a Bodhran (Celtic drum) in. This would invariably make an appearance when some good musicians that you really wanted to hear had just started playing in the corner of the pub and the Bodhran toting moron therefore thought it a good idea to get the thing out to play along, normally with all the rhythmic talent of someone with an attack of epilepsy. If you ever see someone with a Bodhran it’s generally a sign that they have little musical talent, so do everyone a favour and surreptitiously pierce the thing with a fork before he gets it out of that canvas bag. Don’t worry about being discovered in this nefarious activity though, they’ll probably assume it was ‘The Pixies’ wot did it!
Abusing Fat Bastards and taking Acid.
While at Whitby Folk Festival one of my dancing partners was becoming well known for his abusive punk like calling out of all Fat Bastards who couldn’t get more than an inch off the ground when attempting to dance. It was the afternoon that preceeded the evening where we scored some hash and smoked most of it with the tea and cake shop owners who sourced it for us as I recall and he stood mouthing off at a group of aged dancers, who no doubt cared a great deal about keeping traditional dancing alive in England, but just not quite as much as they cared for their food and alchohol intake. We narrowly avoided getting into a fight as they started to hurl the abuse back, but luckily as we dragged our dancer away they decided not to pursue the matter. Morris groupie Stuart then announced that he was leaving to go travel to a Hippie Travellers encampment outside Whitby. I found out later when he arrived at the cake and spliff rolling party we were having upstairs at Yee Olde Tea Shoppe that he had gone to score some Acid. We all took the tabs that night, but I didn’t trip, I never semed to when we were at folk festivals… unless you count the time I first met Mouse at Towersey and she brewed up a load of Mushroom Tea. Hardanger fiddle never sounded so good!
Everyone seemed to have a lot of fun that night as we partied in the local snooker hall where we’d been put up for the week. Luckily we managed to restrain Dave (name protected for scatalogically obsessed reasons) from carrying out his threat of shitting on the main table. He was obsessed with the idea of leaving a turd in the middle of the pristine green baize, he never did….. but we all knew he had it in him.
I think that was the same night I revealed to Tony via some impromptu lyrics in a humourous song that it was us that had filled his sleeping bag with raw bacon one evening back in Bampton during the Whitsun weekend. That very same night he had returned to his tent (and sleeping bag) with a conquest in tow. Lord only knows what scene ensued in the confines of his fly sheet. Strangely I think he went on to marry the lady he met on that night! I hear he got divorced recently, though I don’t expect the bacon will have had anything to do with that… it quite obviously didn’t put her off in the first place.
Here’s a link to a film featuring the team shortly after I left on Youtube – South Downs or you can watch it below.
The Big Bamboo
The Big Bamboo was one of the venus being used while the Whitby folk festival was on, and one night we performed there, closely followed by the Seven Champs, one of the few Morris sides we had any time for. Unusually we stayed on to watch the line up, encouraged by the atypical quality of the performers. The Big Bamboo was an overlooked and residual memory of a more glamourous and prosperous age in Whitby town; when that would have been I couldn’t be quite certain but the dust seemed to whisper gently that nothing had really changed behind it’s doors since the late 1950s. The walls were hung with fishermen’s nets, glass and cork floats, the ceiling hung with the same, fake plastic lobsters within attempting to give the higher leaping of the dancers a short back and sides as they sailed skywards.
The roof was supported by totemic and Kontiki like fibreglass approximations of Polynesian Gods and altogether the place reeked of another time and definately another type of music. You would have been within your rights to have expected some early Cliff Richard or maybe something like Bernard Cribbins’s ‘Gossip Calypso’, and the sound of a lyrical Melodian or some old gal blowing and bashing away next to the toilets on a Pipe and Tabor seemed a million miles from anything the Big Bamboo would have ever had, in a million years, experienced or imagined. I remember that the night had so much charm. Perhaps the truth sadly, on reflection, was that what little charm this dusty backwater venue had was being artificially amplified by the effects of the alcohol we decided to forego our Orange Juice rule for that night.
In retrospect maybe it was the ghost of another more raucous age that encouraged us to new heights of debauchery, alcohol certainly had it’s part to play, but the evening ended rather un-charmingly. In one of the weirdest ways imaginable.
So utterly pissed were we that it was all we could do to get to the exit by the time we had to leave and Dave (yep same anonymous Dave again) had just finished a pint, placing the glass in front of him. Realising that he needed to relieve himself but being rather drunk and unable to make an attempt at getting to the toilets, he turned his back on us and replenished the pint glass he had only just recently emptied. As we all winked and nudged and got our coats the head barman shouted from the bar next to the exit, ‘If you could all bring your empty glasses to the bar on leaving’, obviously just trying to speed things up and with hundreds of glasses to collect, floors to sweep, loos to clean and so on, who could blame him for wanting to get home before five in the morning. Obligingly we all took as many empty and half emptied glasses with us as we could teetering dangerously to the bar and the exit, Dave as you will have by now guessed, just took the one.
As we waved goodbye to some of the Champs and people we’d met on the night we handed our glasses over, Dave placed his on the bar, full to the very brim. A poke in my ribs alerted me to the scene behind as I walked away and I took a look over my shoulder. The same barman who had asked so politely for our help had obviously thought he’d take a little refreshment before carrying with his early morning’s toil.
Well it’s a pity to let a whole pint of beer go to waste isn’t it!
May Day Mayhem
This is a tale intended to convince, once and for all, that Morris teams aren’t just old fat beer swilling idiots, they can be young, thin, drug taking idiots too!
On May Day, which embodies more than an element of Pagan significance in Britain, South Downs Morris were charged with making an appearance on top of one of the highest hills in the county, Mount Caburn which overlooks Lewes, to dance as the sun rose over Sussex at about 5.30am. You may not believe it but people would actually turn up to watch us at this ungodly hour, such was our popularity.
The early start obviously neccesitated being up early enough to get dressed, get there and then get up the hill, which isn’t exactly small, 490ft in fact. Soon this particular occassion in a fit of healthy forward planning we decided to party all night, get completely stoned and take amphetamines (Speed) in order that we could all stay awake for long enough to make the gig at 5.30am on top of the hill. I remember trying to get to sleep even though I was speeding, such was my desperation for rest at the time, only to give up when I’d spent at least an hour staring at the ceiling of the room I was trying to crash out in.
At the appointed time we got our rides to Caburn which luckily was close to the village of Alciston where we had been that night. We arrived late and had to run up the steep side of the hill because some silly bugger had parked at the base of that side in order to make sure we arrived on the summit before the sun rose. If we arrived later than sunrise, the whole meaning of the Dance would be lost, and as I’ve mentioned there were a bunch of mad bastards awaiting our appearance.
When I look back and think about running up a steep hill at 5 in the morning while stoned and speeding, dressed in 18th century working man’s corduroy trousers, scaring the sheep half witless with the sound of the bells attached to my calves, rosettes flapping in the early morning breeze, I really do wonder about the state of my mind in the late 1980s. However we made it on time, danced a few dances and as expected my mate Chris puked up after dancing Monk’s March, a dance that sure as eggs is eggs made him vomit if he’d been having a good time the previous day or night.
The craziest thing is, after all this I got someone to drop me at Glynde railway station so I could travel to Hastings and go to College. I got there before the place opened, spent the entire day being arty and still felt ‘alert’ when I returned home that evening.
Mad, just plain mad. I couldn’t run up a bar tab these days let alone a steep hill.
All Lads together
Being in a Morris side, or at least being in this one was I believe akin to being (and I’m only guessing here, who knows what they get up to in those showers!) in a Sunday side football club, something like Battle Town F.C., or another of those little village clubs that are more an excuse for putting the pounds on in the pub, than taking them off on the playing fields of England. There was a youthful arrogance, a real work damn hard and play damn hard attitude. Without any real knowledge that we were the best we somhow knew that indeed we were the best, and in a strange twist, possibly just truly believing that really did make us one of the best sides in the whole country.
Youth and Wisdom
I cringe now when I think of how downright dissmisive and rude we were to others, how stoned and how pissed we were half the time. And now, now that I too am a Fat Bastard who couldn’t get more than a few inches between my feet and the pub car park’s tarmac I know that most of what we had was just blind self belief, but somehow, with the understanding an old man has for a young man I don’t regret the arrogance and rudeness or the self belief, instead somehow I wish I was still as blindly arrogant and self assured, in the end that’s all youth really is and perhaps all we really were.
Mike Murphy – January 2010