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by Banbury Bill

A bitter blow as fizz bucks tradition

What is the world coming to? Since time beyond memory, morris ales have meant morris, and ale. Just that. Maybe the odd drop of rough cider, but certainly not the juice of the grape.

Bells and ale go together like a horse and hearse. Give a morris person a beer and you knew where he stood, even if you couldn't be sure how long he'd manage to stay that way.

Yet I've now learned of a morris tour that features not only trips to wineries, but also, would you believe, a champagne breakfast. I read of this and made a noise like a popping cork.

There is an explanation, however. The event in question is the annual week-long gathering of almost the whole of the morris community in New Zealand. They're naturally keen on their wines, and as I recall from my own time on The Tour, there's a couple of professional grape experts among the Kiwi capering crowd.

They get up to all sorts at these quite extraordinary gatherings. I'll never forget the surreal experience of being one of a crew of eighty people paddling out to sea in a Maori war canoe, all dressed in full morris kit. I regret to report I wasn't there the year they all danced naked (mixed company, mark you) in a stream fed by hot springs.

The Tour often covers New Year's Eve - hence the champagne breakfast on the morning afterwards. It didn't happen there year I was there, though.

I mailed David Barnes (who's just been building his own house in smelly Rotorua, the North Island's own Sulphur City) demanding to know what they're up to.

"Our last tour in Hawkes Bay," he replied, "included a New Year's champagne breakfast followed by hang-gliding from Te Mata Peak. With bells on!

"Certainly it seemed appropriate to continue our Champagne breakfast tradition, particularly as this may or may not be a new millennium."

There had been talk of staging the 2000 Tour in the Gisborne area, the part of mainland New Zealand that's closest to the International Date Line and therefore, it claims, First To See The Sun. Thousands of Kiwis had the same idea, though, so a spot close to Wellington was chosen instead.

"Petone foreshore is flat enough and low enough that we won't have to risk hang-gliding or bungy jumping this year," said Dave, "which in view of the celebrations likely the night before is probably wise (now there's a novelty - wisdom and morris?)."

Visiting morris people from the UK, Australia and the United States could also expect a trip to some Martinborough wineries. But the Kiwis haven't lost their sense of the importance of things.

"On the beer front," said Dave, "I am delighted to be able to report that a number of bottle stores (and supermarkets - at last) are now carrying a range of English beers. To be able to find Adnams is a delight. I had to promptly mail some off to John and Julia in Auckland, fellow members of the Adnams Appreciation Society (NZ). Hopefully a new shipment should get here before the tour. Also the Wychwood beers, and the bottle for the Ruddles is excellent for drinking."

That's a relief. UK sides needn't send out liquid "relief parcels" after all.

Not quite a corker

This mention of popping corks reminds me of an exchange I had in a New Zealand café. There's no morris content in this story.

"This wine is corked," I said to the man at the bar, after glugging turned to gagging. Confusion crossed his face.

"Of course it is, mate," he said. "How d'you think I got it out of the bottle?"

Dawn of a new age

The first of January, 2000: a new dawn, a new start. A new president takes over the helm of the Morris Federation. Millions pour into Greenwich to celebrate the great occasion. Fireworks all along the Thames, and all that sort of thing.

John Bacon beat off two strong candidates to become president, as from midnight on New Year's Eve. Shave The Donkey has decided to be unaware of any other significance in the start of the 2000th year in the Christian calendar, but the change of power is momentous enough for us.

John's declined to give us any thoughts on his plans, just yet - we understand he wanted a period of taking stock. Certainly he takes over a healthy organisation, thanks to the great efforts of Janet Dowling and Beth Neill, the outgoing president and secretary, and their fellow committee members.

John may be silent, but I have, after some coaxing, had more luck with Beth's successor, Fee Lock. I asked for some insight into the kind of Fed secretary she hopes to be. The official statement reads as follows:

"Fee is very pleased to have been elected secretary. Her aims are to have the longest fingernails in the folk world, to institute the outrageously and gratuitously sexiest Best Bum Competition (men's teams only need apply) and her first act as world leader will be to make chocolate available on the NHS to all women of child-bearing age.

"But it's true about the fingernails, though."

Fingernails? The Fed may be in safe hands, but I fear the same's not true for the bottoms.

Yawn of a new age

Phil Williams of Old Harry Morris Men writes to tell me of the Swanage team's intention to dance at dawn on 1 January, 2000.

As the father of young children ("Is it morning yet, Daddy?"), I groan inwardly at the thought of it. But then Phil points out the great attraction of this, compared with dancing the sun up on May Day.

"You don't have to get up at 5.15," he says.

Must be that salty Dorset air. Good for the brain.

Entendres cordiale in the cupboard....

I begin to worry. Not only are there people who drink wine on dancing tours; but worse, there are morris men who don't howl with leery delight every time someone says something they didn't quite mean.

I'll point the finger at Redbornstoke Morris.

Members listened with intelligent politeness as their fellow-dancer Adrian Williams explained to me how he planned to find room to store the vast Morris Federation archive. Only after he'd volunteered for the role - effective from New Year's Day - did he learn quite how many boxes of the stuff the Fed had gathered. His home is not large.

As reported elsewhere in The Donkey, Dr Williams told how he'd found storage space at work. My shorthand notes confirm what he actually said - without a snigger from anyone present. It was this:

"I'm on reasonably good terms with the librarian, who has a cupboard under the stairs."

Oh, come on, chaps!

The Fez Sez....

I wonder whether The Fezhead Chronicles will find a place in the Morris Fed archive. I won't contemplate their future usefulness as an insight into the psyche of morris types, but they'd doubtless be of interest to students of what's known these days as "strange phenomena".

Issue number 2 of the Chronicles dropped through dozens of e-mailboxes in early December, whether their recipients wanted it or not. It's entertaining stuff, though some of the humour may be lost on people who aren't familiar with The Flying Cleggett and other members of The Fabulous Fezheads (and becoming familiar with them may not be a sound move).

To give you an idea, here's a quick steal from Mystic Clegg's astrology column:

Gemini - sign of the Twins
Famous Twins include Ronnie and Reggie Kray, Bros, The 'Flying Cleggetts'.
Personality traits: Tend to be lost without their twin
Mystic Clegg says: Don't leave home without your twin, as you might get lost.

We're also told of a new knife-throwing act for the coming season, The Flying Cleggett and the Wheel of Death (was I wise to breach their copyright just then, I wonder?). And from an item headed, 10 Things you always wanted to know about the Fezheads (but were afraid to ask), we learn that Snake Hips Steve cannot turn left, even when in danger, and that his fellow nightshirt-dancer, Adonis Kebab, has an irrational fear of underpants.

If you'd like to receive future issues of The Fezhead Chronicles, send a request to

Be warned, though, that the Chronicle itself offers the following advice:

"....those who wish to stop receiving our thoughtful prose need merely change their e-mail address."

Get thee behind me, Beelzebub!

Panto time again. Not only in the theatres, but also in the streets and pubs. Or so I was told the other day by a despairing expert on mummers' plays. He never went out to see one, he said, abjectly, because so few existed.

But surely, I said, lots of morris teams and other such bands of merry souls are performing mummers' plays these days?

"Oh no they're not," he didn't reply.

In his view, the tradition had become corrupted and defiled: in a true mummers' play, the characters would do little more than stand in place and faithfully declaim their ancient lines. You'd have your minimalist wooden sword fight, and that's as expressive as it would get.

But now - why, people act! They play it for laughs. They change the scripts. It's degenerated into some kind of street panto.

He had a point, of course. Maybe the truth is that there are now two kinds of mumming - the ancient and the modern - and that this is a perfectly legitimate extension of the custom. No harm done, as long as the original survives and is recognised.

The good news is that there are plenty of people out there striving to bring out all the riches of the tradition. I was fascinated, for instance, to read the new web site for the Darent Valley Champions, an offshoot of Hartley Morris Men.

They began researching Kentish plays back in the Seventies. "It was whilst performing the Shoreham play in the Royal Oak," the web site recalls, "that Simon Evans noticed an old gentleman in the public bar mouthing the words."

Since then, they've never looked back - but maybe their audiences don't shout, "Behind you!"

Not in the best of taste

If you like your mumming strictly in the old style, then don't turn out for the recently-established Boxing Day play in the splendid Oxfordshire village of Adderbury.

The cast includes various morris types as well as Tim, landlord of the much-loved village pub, The Bell.

King George is played by an actor named Linda, and as for the script ....well!


It's your money I want, it's your money I crave
If you don't give me money, I'll chase you to the grave!
So come on now, remember it's Christmis [sic]
We're collecting money for the local hospice.


Hospice? That's no way to talk about Tim's beer!

On which note, I'll exit stage left, in tatters.


©1999 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew

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