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When it's springtime in Helsinki...

From our Scandinavia correspondent (yes, we really have one): even Englishmen aren't entirely sure what to make of morris dancing - it crops up everytime someone tries to analyse the national character. But as TONY SHAW writes, it's become a part of Helsinki tradition.

Are Englishmen essentially repressed exhibitionists? Does separation from one's mother intensify repressed cravings for national identity? Is anyone other than these perplexed Brits interested?

It seems the answer to all the above questions must be "yes" if the experience of the morris dancers in Helsinki is anything to go by. Started in 1995 by a handful of Anglophiles, led by two native Brits, this group has established itself as the only locally-based, independently-funded vestige of British "living tradition" in eastern Scandinavia - no British Council guests expected here.

Tea drinkers in Alma Bator may sip away in private, beer quaffers in Kuwait may enjoy some public renown, but morris dancers in Helsinki do it in public - and occasionally even for money.

It is of little consequence here that dancers calling themselves "maurs" or "maurice" or even "morris" have been doing it back in UK for more than 500 years. To most locals on the streets of Helsinki for the annual spring carnival Vappu, or Mayday, it is just another group of somewhat gaudily-clad characters frolicking in public as a presumed consequence of alcoholic disturbance from the previous festive evening.

The uncharacteristic display of public exuberance has in recent years lost the overtones of sincere public politics and become more than ever a consumer package - the helium balloon sellers now more visible than any ballon debaters, let alone Red Square style marches. For the Helsinki Morrisers it's an opportunity to emulate their English counterparts, albeit at a more tolerable hour, to kick off the season of outdoor ritual display by joining the general midday melee, imparting to any inquisitive Finnish questioners the significance of gyps and heys in the scheme of modern traditional street theatre.

To the writer it has offered the first opportunity to be actively involved in this very Scandinavian tradition. White hats are worn on this day by all the high-school graduates, which in a more strictly class-segregated society would seem to be flaunting one's educational prowess. But in this rather egalitarian society it only reflects the distinction of those more enthusiastic for educational success.

Earlier the "students" celebrated and the workers marched, but nowadays the streets of most Finnish towns (and Scandinavian too to my belief) are thronged with brilliant-white hatted newly-qualified scholars, assorted off-white-and-cream headgeared or unhatted family groups and parties, and then the stalwartly sported, blanched, brownish, weather-beaten apparel worn by pensioners or elder graduands.

And in between this assorted throng, the prance of a flower-decked merry Morriser keeps the spirit of the home-fire glowing, if not quite the flag flying.

2000 Tony Shaw, Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew

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