In a dark corner of The Braying Ass, favoured haunt of morris
momentous news is about to break. Grizzled old beardy throws back
jar of the foaming stuff, and addresses his acolyte, the fawning Del
Porter, earnest morris enthusiast. "All those great sides
(belch). They came, they danced, they disappeared. Sorry, Del - you
that off. Remember Old Spot? Taken from us, Del."
"A tragedy. Swine fever, wasn't it?"
"Nothing was ever proved, Del. And now we'll never know how they got it. They are but a memory, glowing on the pyre of morris nostalgia. Nought left but an intriguing odour, hanging in the Cotswold air. They danced higher than anyone else and now.... oblivion. Self-induced, of course."
"Fun at the time, I suppose. And then there was that Mr Bol -"
"Quite. Very, very slow dancers. The most statuesque team in morris history. Statue-like, rather. I've heard they stopped dancing a couple of years back."
"Really? How could you tell?"
Grizzled Old Beardie gazes before him, wistfully, eyes clouding. Del senses there is more to come; something big.
"Thinking of those great old sides, Mel?" he says, prompting.
"It's the strangest thing, Del," says Grizzled Old Beardie, a look of mystification disturbing his features. "My glass appears to be empty."
What great news is Mel about to impart? Which of the morris greats is making a comeback, 20 years on? Check Shave The Donkey for the next gripping instalment.... coming just as soon as we get round to it.
"Not that all are so blessed," he suddenly declares, to a startled
"The great Winster Processional of Life has all but passed by, laddie, and e'en now the sound of squeeze box and ruddy big ruddy drums is fading. Some of the truly great exponents of our dubious art have disappeared beyond the horizon, and we cling to the memory of them, lest it too breaks ranks and vanishes through the side door of the nearest passing pub. The interminable session goes on in the lounge bar, laddie, but the masters have quickly nipped out the back for a few moments that we know will become... eternity."
"Ah, right," says Del. "Still on that one, are we?"
"Remember Garstang? North West mob; all giants of men, bellies the size they ought to be, beads swinging wild across proud chests, and those hats, Del!"
"I remember them well. I heard a crack team of Britain In Bloom judges was sent to give them a prize. Couldn't catch them to pin on the rosette."
"And now.... wilted, withered, drooped, and gone. Just a massive great bill for subsidence to remind you, if they'd ever danced past your house. We dance for the moment and the moment passes and at the end, what are we left with, eh? Just a lot of smelly undergarments. What's it all for, eh?"
"Mel - "
"What's it all mean? Tell me that"
"Why do we do it, Del? It's not for the audience - they went home years ago - SO WHY DO WE BOTHER?"
"Mel, please! Stop shaking me! My new teeth haven't cemented in yet."
"I'll tell you what it is. All my life I've lived for the morris and d'ye know what it is? It's all..."
"...it's all just.... a futility."
It is Del who breaks the awkward silence.
"Is that it?" he asks.
"You want some more?"
"No, I mean, is that really... It? The End? Is the caper up, so to speak?"
"Of course it's up. There's no other way to caper, is there?"
"Or could there be, say, an encore? A return?"
Beardie stares at Del, comprehension dawning. His voice lowers.
"You mean..... reincarnation!"
Before Del can reply, an empty tray appears at their side. A voice
breaks in, apparently from amid a walking collection of pimples attached
to the tray.
"That one dead?" asks the owner of the pimples, indicating Beardie's glass. Beardie gives the boy an intense look.
"Tragically, yes. But you know what?"
"It's going to come back as a pint of best. Isn't that so, Del?"
"You've heard of Open Morris, I suppose?" growls Beardie.
"Er... dimly," says Del.
"Precisely," barks Beardie. "No such thing. It doesn't exist."
"Oh, but surely.... I'm sure I've read about it somewhere... isn't it the organisation that says anyone can dance the morris, regardless of, um, you know.... orientation?"
"I think you mean 'gender', dear boy," says Beardie. "Orientation is knowing which way up.... oh, never mind."
"But if it doesn't exist...?"
"Oh it exists, all right -"
"I thought you just said it didn't?"
"It doesn't. Except in the minds of a few woolly idealists, mostly in East Anglia. It exists, dear boy, just as a bit of fancified idealism.... the muddled-up notion that the secrets of the morris can somehow be 'laid open', or some such rot. It's a concept."
"Oh, I get it. Sort of perestroika, as in Gorbachev?"
"The same. Nonesense, of course. You and I know it can never happen. Too many dark figures at work, lurking in the fringes of the morris."
"Ah - like that border team with the black faces - Silurian?"
"Darker than that, laddie. I'm talking about men who are blacked up on the inside."
"Open Morris, indeed! Take it from me, laddie, there are powerful men about who will make sure it will never happen. Not in their best interests."
"You mean - the Squire of the Ring?"
"Him? Ha! A puppet. A place-man. He knows nothing of the forces I'm talking about. It's the men behind him you have to watch - the ones in the shadows. The ones who never get up to dance."
A silence falls. Del is uncertain how to proceed. He tries a
change of tack.
"I'm in the Ring myself, of course" he says, with a lightness that he knows must sound false.
Grizzled Old Beardie sits back in his chair, raising a startled eyebrow. He seems to be surveying Del in a new light.
"You are? Frankly, I'm surprised. Were you a Cambridge man?"
"Er, no. Good dancers, I believe."
"The Travelling Morrice, then? Or 'fellow travellers', I should say. A thin disguise of a name, if ever I saw one."
"No again. What do you mean, 'fellow travellers'?"
"Oh come on, you must know. Though I'm surprised you have no Cambridge connection. I thought the Ring recruited all its men through Cambridge."
Del, unwilling to leave the table, makes a discreet signal with his hands, unnoticed by Old Beardie.
"But what about Thaxted? Oxford City? The Ancient Men?"
"I'm not talking about the ruddy Morris Ring, you fool," snaps Beardie. "I'm talking about... the Other Ring. The real one. The one that no one knows about. The Morris Ring is just a front."
"Oh but really, that can't be right," says Del, in a failed attempt at jauntiness.
"Can't it? Look at the facts. In 1934, a group of men meet in Cambridge. Interesting times in Cambridge, the Thirties. Things happening behind the scenes, if you catch my drift. There's discontent with the accepted order. A few men are beginning to question the way things are run by the Establishment."
"The English Folk Dance & Song Society, you mean?"
"Yes, EFDSS, with its exams and its grades and its pianos on the vicarage lawn. Emasculating the morris. And so a few trusted men - sound chaps, with the right ideas - gather quietly in Cambridge, ostensibly to put the manliness back in the morris. They want to reclaim it from the preening pansies in the gymshoes. But they know it won't be easy. There's that Miss Karpeles and her outsize gymslip, for a start. The manliest one of the lot - a formidable power. Outright confrontation isn't going to work. Things must be... devious. So an organisation is formed. You might call it an espionage outfit. The Ring."
"But surely... I mean to say..."
"It's as plain as your face, laddie. Look at the key man."
"An enthusiast for 'healthy living' in the open air... fond of wearing baggy shorts. Knew what the inside of a youth hostel looked like, too, I shouldn't wonder. We all know what that meant back in the Nineteen Thirties. Look what was happening on the other side of the Channel, in Germany."
"Yes, now you mention it, I have read about Gardiner being a little... zealous. Wasn't there a story about him wanting to lead a morris tour in Germany, shortly before the war? I think it was gently pointed out to him that it might not be a very good idea."
"How d'ye know it never happened?"
"Well, we'd know, wouldn't we?"
"Please yourself, laddie, please yourself. I've said too much already."
At this point, the barman arrives, and places two drinks on the table.
"I'll put it on the tab, shall I?" says the barman. "A pint of best..."
"And a ginger beer. Thank you."
The two men sup in silence. Del watches the beer go down, hoping
it will do its work. It does: in his contentment, Grizzed Old Beardie
forgets his reticence.
"It's been quiet, lately," he says.
"Oh, I don't know -"
"Too quiet," insists Beardie. "But now things are stirring. The Ring boys are after something. I know what it is. And so do the Feds."
"The Morris Federation? Oh, now really..."
"And then there's the one they call The Donkey."
"The Donkey? Why's he called that?"
"Not for the reason you're thinking, laddie."
"Who is this Donkey, then?"
"No one knows. No one's ever seen his face. Assuming he is a 'he', of course. We're not even sure of that. But we're sure he's after these papers. They all are."
"You remember you were talking about reincarnation, Del? Droning on a bit, actually, about the glories of teams that have... passed over, shall we say, to the other side?"
"I think it was you who was - "
"Now there's a team that might be coming back. If the arrangements can be put in hand. It's a matter of getting hold of the papers."
"I see. And what -"
"Can't say too much, old chap. Suffice to say that it's all cloak and dagger stuff."
"It is? But golly, isn't that a bit dangerous? I know the Plymouth men dance with real swords, but daggers, I mean to say..."
Beardie shakes his head in dismay.
"I don't mean they danced with cloaks and daggers, laddie! They always did the usual stick and hankie stuff, just like the rest of us. But you're right about them being dangerous. It was the sticks, y'see? They weren't the same as other sticks."
"They weren't?" says Del, mystified. "How so?"
Grizzled Old Beardie leans forward. He glances warily about him, before whispering his reply.
"Diseased wood, laddie."
"Diseased wood? I don't understand..."
Grizzled Old Beardie shakes his head. "You weren't on the scene 20 years ago, were you Del? Otherwise, that might mean something to you."
"One of the best-loved teams of that halcyon age - and the extraordinary thing is, no-one's ever seen them dance."
"Golly. So their dances have never been collected, then?
"Our knowledge is distinctly sketchy."
"And now they're coming back?"
"Everyone thought they'd been... rubbed out. But I've heard different. It turns out they've been buried, out of sight, all this time."
Del laughs. "Stuck in some snug bar, eh? Ha!"
Del stares, his incomprehension complete.
"Nothing seen of them for years. But then The Donkey decided to seek them out, about 18 months ago. For a long time, not a sign. It looked as if they really were The Lost Morris, after all. Now rumour has it they've been unearthed. And the way I hear it, they're looking as sharp as ever."
"Good lines, eh?"
"But... I'm still not with you. Who is this legendary team?"
Beardie sighs. He leans forward, and whispers a single word, by way of a clue. Del screws up his eyebrows, none the wiser. Then his face brightens.
"Utrecht!" he exclaims.
A curl of disdain appears on Grizzled Old Beardie's lip.
"Couldn't you put your hand in front of your mouth? I can't possibly drink this now."
"Absolutely full of germs."
"Eh? But you've almost finished... oh never mind. Same again, I take it?"
"Hello dearie," she says.
"Ah," says Beardie, who has never been entirely comfortable in the presence of the tender gender. "But... you're a woman!"
"Observant, isn't he?"
Gruffly, Beardie ploughs on. "You'll be, er, one of those border types, I suppose, judging by the face paint. Always waving your arms in the air and screeching like a banshee."
"Ooh, well... ladies' pleasure, dearie."
"What?" Now it is Beardie's turn to be bewildered. This isn't what she's meant to say at all. She's meant to say, "Oh my dear, I do feel queer"; to which Beardie is ready to respond, "It must be all that Watneys beer." Beardie decides to improvise (desperately).
"Oh dear mother, what a fool I be," he says.
"Yes. Six young fellas came a-courting me... you know. Don't you?"
The lady edges away. Beardie makes at a face at her, urging her to respond. Why doesn't she respond?
"Well aren't you the blue-eyed stranger?" she says. "And you can stay that way. I'm off."
Beardie stares after her, then looks at Del, imploringly.
"Why did she call me that? I'm not the Blue-Eyed Stranger. I'm the Gallant Hussar."
The ticking of the bar clock bores into Del's skull. Beardie looks as if he needs something to steady his nerves, but Del thinks better of suggesting it. A man enters the bar. He looks remarkable only because he looks unremarkable. Marks And Spencer Chap isn't often seen in The Braying Ass. Beardie looks up only briefly.
"Hmm! Not one of us. Obviously wandered into the wrong pub. Your round, I think."
But Beardie is mistaken. The chap approaches their table. He draws up a chair, eyes darting between Del and Beardie. After a moment's indecision, he addresses himself to Beardie. Huskily.
"How D'Ye Do, Sir?"
"Fine thanks," says Beardie.
The chap looks confused. His instructions had been quite clear, and he's followed them to the letter. This shouldn't be happening. It isn't happening.
"Perhaps I could help?"
The chap turns. It is Del who has spoken. Beardie's mouth drops open.
"How D'Ye Do, Sir?" the chap tries again.
"Oh, Bobbing Around," says Del.
The chap hesitates, then decides to continue.
"The Monk's March," he says.
"The Fool's Jig," says Del.
"They do indeed," says the chap.
"Have you got the papers?" asks Del.
The man reaches into his coat and draws out an envelope. "No," he says. He hands the envelope over. Del seems satisfied.
"What about him?" asks the chap, indicating Beardie.
"Oh, don't worry about Mel," says Del. "He won't remember a thing in the morning."
"Slipped something in his glass, have you?
"About ten pints of best bitter. I wanted to find out how much he knew."
"Not that it matters now."
And with that, the chap rises to leave. "I'll go and enlist for a sailor, then." "Good idea," says Del.
Once again, Beardie looks at Del with popping eyes.
"You must be... one of The Donkey's men! Or my name's not Mr Mel Sourditch."
"Actually," says Del, casually, "Your name's not Mr Mel Sourditch."
"We probably should have mentioned it earlier. It was thought best you didn't know. But don't be put out: I'm not really Del Porter."
"Del Porter is just an anagram."
Feverishly, Beardie scribbles letters on a beer mat.
"Yes, I think... oh. Lord!"
Del Porter - or whoever he is - sips at his ginger beer, with a hint of a raised eyebrow.
Beardie blusters on. "Then you're... The Creator."
"You flatter me. But no. You think you see Del Porter before you, but Del Porter is just a code. I am, you might say, a mere cipher."
"And Mr Mel Sourditch?"
"The key to the whole riddle, my dear friend. As you heard, the envelope I've been handed does not contain the missing papers you've been waiting for. We secured those weeks ago, after a long search. There were a few technical details to sort out, but now The Donkey is ready to release them to an excited morris world. Contained in this envelope are the final instructions. Would you like to see them?"
Beardie reaches out a trembling hand. He tears at the envelope.
CONGRATULATIONS ON GETTING THIS FAR (says the sheet inside). WE DIDN'T THINK ANYONE WOULD HAVE THAT MUCH TIME ON THEIR HANDS.
SO - YOU WANT A SNEAK PREVIEW OF THE RETURN OF ONE OF THE BEST-LOVED OF ALL MORRIS SIDES... WHICH NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN DANCE?
TO REVEAL THE NAME OF THE SIDE, UNSCRAMBLE THE LETTERS OF THE FOLLOWING ANAGRAM:
"MR MEL SOURDITCH"
THEN GO TO THE "SEARCH THE DONKEY" BOX ON WWW.THEDONKEY.ORG. KEY IN THE NAME. ALL WILL BE REVEALED.
IT'LL BE WORTH IT. UNLESS, LIKE OUR FRIEND BRIAN, YOU HAVE ALL THE EARLY EDITIONS OF MORRIS MATTERS MAGAZINE.
©2001 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers