“The Green Man festival has been a part of this town since time immemorial,” said Dave, as we walked through the low hills towards the ancient town of Garve.
“That’s bollocks …” said Sarah.
“Well it was revived …”
“If it ever existed in the first place …”
With a day to go until the polls opened, we were in Shropshire, for a celebration of all things English. Our hosts were friends who had become directors of a performing arts centre.
It was located in a one-time gentleman’s manse, a stone pile on a hill, with 30 rooms, an orchard and a forest. Former Melbourne spoken-word scene desperadoes, they now found themselves effectively enrolled as the local squire, obliged to adjudicate matters of land tenure, right-of-way, and host the village fete and Boxing Day shooting extravaganza.
Now we were on our way to the village, to put in an appearance at the end of the annual May Day celebrations, held in the grounds of the local castle. The centrepiece of the day was the Green Man battle, in which the said figure of natural fecundity and regrowth battles it out with the Frost Queen, the presiding spirit of cold and death. Should the latter win, spring will be delayed.
“It’s an invented tradition,” I yammered, falling into my usual bad habit of turning every conversation into a tutorial. “Like the coronation rituals, or clan tartans in Scotland, it was developed in the 19th century as the rise of capitalism and a bourgeoisie threatened the traditional legitimacy of a ruling …”
“Oh f-ck, we all know about invented traditions for God’s sake,” said Dave. “We’ve all done cultural studies.”
“Actually,” said Sarah, “this one was invented about 12 years ago, by an ad executive. He’d burnt out in Soho, and moved up here. But he couldn’t sit still, so he got this festival going.”
“To remind people of their connectedness and help build the Big Society?”
“No mainly to get up the nose of the local church. He’s a bit of a pagan.”
“They should have just cut to the chase and called it The Wicker Man, everyone does anyway,” said Sarah.
“What’s the Wicker Man?” said Radio Girl.
Ah. Radio Girl doesn’t know the Wicker Man. The joys of a young mistress. Other things Radio Girl doesn’t know: Journey’s original version of “Don’t Stop Believing,” Yuri Andropov and the post-Brezhnevite hopes of a liberalised USSR, the USSR, Mort Sahl, Debbie Harry (“doesn’t she play grandmothers in movies?”). Things I didn’t know: party-mix tapes are called playlists now, how Bluetooth works, that Dave Grohl was in a band after Nirvana.
Whatever the roots of Green Man, it’s proved a great success. Cars snaked out of the village, bumper-to-bumper for a mile. Green hills, hedge-quilted, rose and fell like a sigh, lambs nuzzled in the field, a stream babbled under the 14th century bridge. In the still spring air, one understood why Shropshire (OK and nearby Worcestershire) had become the quintessential image of the country, serving as the setting for everything from the lachrymose, teenage poems of AE Housman in A Shropshire Lad:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows
what are those blue remembered hills?
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content
I see it smiling plain
The happy highways where I went
And cannot go again.
To the setting of interminable radio soap opera The Archers, now more than 60 years old, whose elaborate back story location — the county of Borsetshire — is somewhere around the joint. Amid this rural splendour, these filed shadowing Domesday lines as the man said, what, one thinks, could be more English?
Except of course that it’s Welsh.
Or was for hundreds of years. More precisely, the area was a borderland, administered as an autonomous fiefdom right up to the late middle ages, mixing Welsh and English law and lore. It was only when the idea of England as a unified and essential place came to the fore that such interzones had to be clarified.
At that point the periphery becomes the centre. Shropshire became more English than actual Angle-land to the east, its Celtic hero Caradoc (Caractacus) retroactively enrolled as a proto-English hero of anti-Roman resistance.
“You know they could have done a lot more with this,” Sarah said, as we crested the rise, and saw the Green Man battle playing out before us in the old castle jousting fields below. “They could have had three knights, Clegg as the hero, Cameron as a jester, Brown as Grendel …”
True, dat. In the wider world, the election was winding to its close, with no huge gaffe or event to kick it into touch. Cameron was doing his ridiculous “no sleep till power” thing, bothering bakers, fisherfolk and other all nighters though he seemed to eschew early-opener pubs, which would have made for great vox pops, the terminal alky vote. Brown and Clegg did the same thing so they said, but everyone reckons they snuck a snoozer.
It’s now looking possible or even mildly likely that Cameron and the Conservatives will prevail. The latest Guardian/ICM poll has the Tories on 36%, Labour 28% and Lib-Dems 26%. Hitherto an 8% Tory lead has been judged enough to give them absolute victory but that was when the Lib-Dems were running at 20%-22%. Once you bump up their vote, things change, because a tranche of hitherto safe Tory seats fall to the Lib-Dems. On a 36/28/26 split, the Tories are heading for about 290 seats, 35 short of a majority (or about 25, if you count in Northern Ireland unionists).
However, the Tories have been trending upward for a week now, since the third debate, and if they get another one or two per cent, they might just make it. My guess is that they’ll get to about 305 seats, and that what will then happen is a full-blown constitutional crisis.
At the Green Man, this all seemed a long way away. The England that is a demesne of the EU, of the financial markets, is far away from this reverse engineered fantasia, a ring of stalls selling leather tankards, pseudo-Saxon jewellery, rare olde roast beef, and the like. How do they think of themselves, what do they believe?
The short answer is that those who think most of something called England or the UK by and large aren’t from here. Many of those most committed to the Green Man were sea changers, tree changers, moat changers I guess, who had consciously chosen the area for its Englishness, and were now weighing up the balance between the Tory and the Lib-Dem. The locals? They were by and large a rural proletariat, their work not on the fields now, but in the shops, the aged-care homes, or with no work at all, too distant from Labour even to feel alienated by its current incarnation.
“You know the problem’s immigration …” said one bloke, outside the beer tent, as the medieval folk trio began a rendition of Time Of Your Life on the lute and fiddle. Christ, here we go, I thought.
“But it’s really about a lack of housing,” said Sarah, beginning what was clearly a familiar series of conversational gambits. This went for about 15 minutes, before it ended with the guy saying: “well yes, everything you say is right, but I just don’t like ’em.”
He wasn’t a bad bloke either, but his reaction is a measure of the disjuncture within England and its sense of identity. Shropshire is a place of communities settled to a degree that no non-indigenous Australian can understand. People refer to strangers as someone “from off”, and being “from off” covers people from villages two miles away. There may be wi-fi in the White Pony pub in Garve, but by and large people don’t move, a British pattern visible even in the big cities.
But Garve is not the world, and the world is on the move so Shropshire gets its fair share of migrants, from rehoused Kosovans, to work-hungry Poles, capable of putting in workdays that would stun a horse, for a pittance, due to exile’s desperation and the zloty exchange rate.
People don’t want them indeed in one stunning display of ill-grace, the local Women’s Institute refused to let a group of Kosovan women use their clubhouse kitchen to cook a traditional meal but they are not sure what they want, their English imaginary a tangle of motifs, Green Men and the Archers, Roast Beef and Hotel California on the 12-string lute.
Not that this is necessarily the dominant mood, of course. For the most part, you have to admire a quirky flexibility with regard to national symbols, absent of many a culture. The day featured a series of rubber duck races down the small river — for example, past the road fork from pre-Norman times, when Garve had a larger population than it does now, under the “new”‘ bridge built in the 14th century, ending near the churchyard, whose Yew tree predates the birth of Jesus.
People pay a couple of quid to buy a rubber duck, give it a name or a number, and then hundreds of them are set off down the current. Radio Girl and I took my friends’ daughter to see it, only mildly freaked to suddenly have a six-year-old swinging between us, on a spring afternoon in Shropshire.
The rubber duck race is pure Dada, all the more so for being conducted with the austere seriousness of Tristan Tzara running an open-mic night at the Cabaret Voltaire and it is that capacity for earnest silliness (whose purest reduction was Python) that is England’s bounty.
Also its curse. The old line that Britain acquired an empire in a fit of absent-mindedness is a con, but it gives a clue as to how the country would like to see itself essentially as a place constituted prior to politics, as natural and inevitable as the Green Man rising from the forest to battle the frost queen.
The trouble with that attitude is that no society is pre-politically constituted. Who we are is a product of the way in which we have been put together, even if the manner in which that was done has been buried beneath mounds of Saxon earth. Sooner or later that has to be redone, and the day for doing so could be Friday and those who have long persisted in the belief that, as a nation, they don’t do politics don’t know where to begin when faced with that process.
But loveliest of trees, the cherry now is in bloom, and the faire is in full swing. The whole thing about invented traditions can be misunderstood — it’s not that there were no traditions there before, simply that they were less formalised and rigid than the versions created in the 19th century.
Standing between the samosa tent and the runic astrology table, I looked up the rise to the Norman castle, and thought it was quite possible that someone at a fair here in the 1080s had looked up and wondered what life would be like in 500, a thousand years’ time.
Maybe in 24 hours, David Cameron will be prime minister presumptive. But I, like millions, am hoping that a chaotic and unresolved result will open the space for new possibilities, and fast. Like the mad growth of spring doing its work against the hard frost, or young women you have to explain your life to, and in so doing suddenly find yourself renewed.