Straw Bear 2010

I’ve been incommunicado the past few days as I spent the weekend at the Whittlesey Straw Bear festival.

Last year we went to this as spectators and it was mind and body numbingly cold but just so bizarre and amazing and fun that we determined to learn to morris ourselves.  All year long I was thinking “in 2010 I’ll be dancing in the Straw Bear festival!”  But as it turned out, my shoulders have been getting worse and I can’t flick a hanky above waist height any more.  I certainly can’t do stars or swings, and even the stepping jars everything and makes things hurt more.

So, no dancing after all.  However, all was not lost.  Ely and Littleport’s regular bodhran player, John, was dancing at Straw Bear, in a side called Mepal Molly.  I loaned him my 18th Century working woman’s clothes for the occasion, and he looked better than I do in them!

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This left Elriot with no drummer.  As I had got my bodhran for Christmas, I saw a chance to get involved in the festival in a different way, and volunteered to stand in for John.  This was just as well, as almost all our other musicians were also dancing with Mepal Molly.  It left me and Dave, one of the Riot’s fantastic fiddle players, walking behind the Ely and Littleport Riot, trying to play in the pouring rain.  That’s me in the hat with the liripipe.

It was a bad start.  In the wet the goat-hide of the bodhran’s skin stretches and goes all floppy, which gives it the acoustic properties of a damp paper bag, and you couldn’t hear me at all.  To make matters worse I dropped the beater in the street twice during the procession because I was having to hit the drum so hard to get any noise out of it, so I felt that I was literally letting the side down.

However, after the procession was over, the festival moved into “wet weather protocol” mode, and we were able to go inside at one of the many Whittlesey pubs and drinking establishments.  There the bodhran began to dry out and recover some of its bounce, and I managed to play OK and only drop the stick once.  So far nobody had said to me “please, just stop.  You’re making a terrible noise and we’d rather just have Dave on his own.”  So I felt that I was doing about as well as I could expect – ie, adequately.

Besides, I had the example of Mepal Molly to bolster me.  They dance only on Plough Monday and at Straw Bear every year and they practice once a year.  They are so bad that you can’t believe they haven’t actually practiced for years and years in order to become incredibly skilled at giving the impression of badness.  They are a hoot, and a kind of self-reverential morris parody tribute side.  And they make everybody laugh, including themselves.

Anyway, we moved on to another dance spot and played some more, sharing the spot with Red Leicester, who wear multicoloured ragged jackets and red facepaint.  They were fantastic – really energetic and also obviously having fun.  They had a tendency to go up to any woman who looked like she wouldn’t slap them for it and kiss her on the cheek, leaving her marked with red paint.  Surprisingly few people rubbed the paint off afterwards.  Most wore it like a badge of pride for the rest of the day.

I don’t seem to have a picture of Red Leicester, so here is one of Gog Magog Molly, looking a little bewildered:

Bewildered is not a normal look on them.  They usually come across as very confident and cheery and their dance style is crisply precise and imaginative.

For our final spot of the festival we went indoors again at another pub, and – after the dancing – there was a certain amount of standing around, while the audience who had come to watch the dancers visibly wondered what was going to happen next.  So Dave just started playing.  It was a reel, which I’m comfortable with, and a speed I was OK with, so I joined in, and then Mark, the Riot’s other amazing fiddle player came over from Mepal Molly and he joined in too.  Before I knew it, there I was, like the bloke in my icon – the drummer between two fiddle players – playing live music in front of a pub full of people.  It was absolutely amazing!  I pretty much forgot everything except just letting the rhythm flow through me, and it was like magic.  I loved it.  I am so keeping up this daily practice thing.  I want to be able to do that again!

Today we went back to watch yet more dancing culminating in the bear being burned.  And I have to say that, after spending yesterday in the bear’s company, it was moving and distasteful and not at all funny to see it go up in flames.  Almost like a real sacrifice.  They didn’t burn the baby bear, fortunately.  That would have been too grizzly ;)

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