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The Member of Parliament for Colchester Morris Men

SIMON PIPE talks to the MP who's paid tribute to the morris in a House of Commons motion.

It's not the sort of declaration one expects from a British MP. "I don't have time to dance myself, but I'm happy to be a spectator and groupie."

A morris groupie in the House of Commons? On a point of order, Madam Speaker, surely they're not that representative in the Palace of Westminster?

But it's true, and what's more, he knows his stuff. He's even been to a couple of Ring meetings. And if you mention the name of Adderbury, he says, "Ah, now that's a traditional side, of course."

One of Bob Russell's first political acts of the year 2000 was to table an Early Day Motion in Parliament, noting the centenary of Cecil Sharp's encounter with William Kimber and the Headington Quarry Morris Dancers, and the dance revival that sprang from it.

No one asked him to do this. No one had to tell him of the significance of 26 December, 1899. He knows because for decades, it's been a family ritual to turn out and watch Colchester Morris Men on Boxing Day.

"They've been dancing on that day for as long as I can remember, purely because it's the anniversary of Cecil Sharp's meeting. There were three generations of us on this last Boxing Day, watching at Wivenhoe. I can't remember ever missing it."

Nowadays, their Christmas ritual has an additional poignancy. Though it's an occasion they enjoy for its own sake, he and his brother keep up the custom in memory of their father Ewart, a long-time Bagman of The Morris Ring. He hadn't stayed around long enough to see his son enter Parliament in 1997.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the son of Ewart Russell should acquire more than a passing familiarity with England's native dance heritage. "Our home was like a morris stronghold, because he ran the Ring from there. It was Dad's proud boast that he'd seen more morris sides than any other man in history, because of all the Ring meetings he attended over the years.

"From the time he was elected, I found myself spending hours stamping letters to all the member clubs."

Useful early experience, one might think, for a young chap contemplating a future on the election campaign trail. Bob says that would be stretching a point somewhat, but he does tell of one episode that left its mark.

"I can remember on the occasion of Bill Kimber's death, helping my father rush out the news, and his thoroughness in insisting that even the Headington Quarry men had a letter. I said, 'But they already know.' And he said, 'I know they know, but they must be told officially.'

"I've thought more than once in subsequent years that you can't assume people know things they ought to know. If they are entitled to know officially, they must be told officially."

Now, of course, Westminster has been notified officially of the Sharp-Kimber centenary.

Early Day Motions aren't actually debated in the chamber - they're simply a way for MPs to make written statements on any subject they feel to be significant. "Nothing comes of them, but they're an important barometer of what's going on in the country," says Bob. "They draw the attention of our elected representatives to matters of interest and concern.

"There are those who criticise Early Day Motions being used for this sort of thing, but I thought the centenary of the morris was something which ought to be nationally recognised. Morris dances are part of the fabric of our country, and the House of Commons is there to represent our country, so why not use it to tell people of something that's significant? And what Cecil Sharp did in reviving the morris was of major significance.

"Whatever people's view of morris dancing, it is the English traditional dance. While morris dancing may not have the appeal of Riverdance, but nevertheless, it is our ceremonial dance. For men."

At this point in our conversation - we're on the phone - Bob becomes slightly distracted. He falters, and then explains: "My two staff are wiggling their bottoms."

The diversion over, he returns to the subject of gender, which he'd only quietly dropped in to the discussion.

"There are traditionalists like the Colchester club," he says, "or other mixed or female groups. I have no views one way or the other, but the morris for purists is a men's dance. Women dance the morris with a difference character. A stick dance with ladies doesn't have the same male aggression. I have seen blood drawn."

It's not only on Boxing Day that the Russell family gather to watch their local side. For the last ten years the Colchester men have sent him their programme, and he tries to go out for one of the summer evening stands. He's doggedly loyal. "If they were to put morris dancing into football-type leagues, then Colchester would be a premier side."

He doesn't tend to stay on to the end of the evening, but he knows what sort of thing goes on. "I've been to the Thaxted Ring Meeting, and there was all the singing in the pubs afterwards. It was quite something."

He also had a memorable time at the Colchester Ring Meeting in 1987. "It was my last weekend as mayor of Colchester, and that's why they organised it."

Among the highlights was a performance by a rapper sword team during the familiar church service. "They did a back somersault in front of the altar in St Botolph's Church and it brought the house down. The minister said afterwards, 'I bet they drink Carling Black Label.'"

And that's not all that happened that weekend. The Daily Telegraph reports that Bob's not a dancer himself, but this is not the complete truth. "I have danced," he confesses. "I was at the feast as guest of honour and they taught me Bean Setting.

"But it's the only time I've ever done a morris dance. And that's the honest truth."

Try telling that to the whips.

Link: MP puts the morris in motion

2000 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew

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