23-08-2022

Our Fete: The Rise to Nationalism

Every year a procession of yellow RAF wheelbarrows weave their way through the streets of the English village of Thriplow, in South Cambridgeshire, a Shetland pony named Honey is decorated with yellow ribbon, demonstrations of how to rescue someone from sinking mud take place using mannequins cut in half, and a single, and singular, daffodil has a picket fence built around it bearing the label ‘The oldest daffodil in Thriplow’. Welcome to our village fete.

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By ‘village fete’ I mean the festival or celebration held annually in each of the small towns and villages of England. With its roots in Britain’s agrarian past, the village fete marks the passing of the seasons, its rituals linked to the patterns of sowing and harvest. In this respect, the fact that Britain is no longer economically dependent on its agriculture might have meant the demise of the fete, its tombstone bearing the damning epithet ‘quaint’. This characterisation suggests that the fete represents an antiquated social system, its stalls with their jars of preserves – jam and honey – also representing a wider sense of preserving – in this case, as addressed in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2000 ‘Village Fete’ event, notions of ‘English heritage’. Yet the fete survives, challenging every herald of doom which has prophesied its impending end – its adversaries, the internet, television, radio, universal literacy and the Industrial Revolution, have failed to destroy the inevitable and continual human return to ritual – instead, they have sustained it.

The mechanisation of society politicised the fete as a tool for both industrial action and those opposing it. Although increasing literacy might have separated ‘folklore’ from ‘the image of folklore’, as mythologist Martin Shaw suggests, it nevertheless increased its circulation among a wider community of ‘folk’. Meanwhile, the emergence of a post-digital society has produced a new wave of ‘virtual Romantics’ - not wholly dissimilar to the Romantic poets who, in their rejection of the Industrial Revolution, longed for a lost Arcadian idyll.

The interest, therefore, lies in the degree of change that effervesces within these contexts of annual repetition. We see cross-fertilisation in the adoption of the American ‘trick or treat’ Hallowe’en ritual. Certain specific locations have reclaimed ‘their’ customs, staking their claim to ‘authenticity’ and declaring all other manifestations to be mere imitations. Some of the festivals that have emerged are not as old as they might seem. In this way the village fete synthesises, reflects, contradicts and curates history into a continuous lived, and living, archive.

May Day Crowning Ceremony

Although they can be seen ultimately as reactionary events, village fetes continue to provide anchors within a changing world. Society and history are inextricably woven into this tiny world of horse skulls engaging in rap battles, and oak branches scaling church spires, whether these scenes are representations of wider ideology, symbols which ideology has come to manipulate, or even a confused translational space somewhere between thought and action.

SPRING (i)

The first Spring birdsong signals a change in the rhythm of the agricultural year, and rural England begins to emerge from hibernation. Bonfires become the rising sun, maypoles are the earth’s axis and fertile phallus, and an abundance of flowers displays agricultural fecundity. Ceremonial acts of fertility seek agency over the land, reinforcing our relationship with nature and with our work upon the earth. The seasons’ associated symbols become physical and psychological structures which mirror the year’s cycle of decline and revival. The ceremony of crowning the May Queen evolved through an accumulation of rifts in the allegorical meaning of English mythical rituals.

As Britain transitions into industrialisation, people’s relationship to, or dependence on, the land becomes less important, and as May Day celebrations decline to near obsolescence, the remaining fragments of a rotting maypole begin to ignite within another social context; May Day becomes Labour Day. 

Once a celebration of work, the fete that marked this occasion now becomes an escape, a relief. The trade union has taken the place of the Church and the fete becomes the perfect vehicle for demonstrations: in 1926 the General Strike becomes a form of May Day; mock funerals are held for blackleg miners, and Soviet flags appear at county fairs. In demanding that the pace of work slowed down, workers were reclaiming their right to control over the time and space where they worked, a right that was suppressed during the Industrial Revolution. The vestiges of ritual enable a traditional icon to assume new meaning on the fringes of its traditional context, but notably within the same working-class social milieu.

The problem, however, with symbols is that they can be used to disguise political motives, decked out in the costume of community. In 1926, the British elite appropriated and manipulated the symbolic event of the village fete, turning it on its own people: a counter-fete emerged, a festival to undermine strike action, organised by a body of middle-class volunteers whose ‘fete’ involved the novelty of doing the jobs of the striking workers. Working-class people made clear their belief that the volunteers were misappropriating traditional cultural expression to ‘wage war on the working classes’.

This was an early example of Shaw’s separation of ‘folklore’ from ‘the image of folklore’: the myths we consume are not authentic folklore, but toxic imitations of folkloric myths masked by the façade of their iconography. St George’s Day, for instance, no longer featured men battling papier-mâché dragons, a living representation of the legend; instead it was gradually transformed into a timid, and at times dubious, attempt to define what it means to be English. As Summer arrives, we begin to wonder: has our former ‘Merrie England’, framed by the seasons and encompassed by its acts of ceremonial chaos, become self-conscious and snobby?

Blessing the Herring Festival

SUMMER

Summer in Britain is brief, but for a few weeks early morning dew gives way to a bath of sunlight, and even the nights develop an inky calmness, in which bonfires are lit and there is dancing. Relieved of the burden of winter darkness, suddenly time is on our side. Time we spend plummeting down a hill chasing a large ball of cheese, pushing fully-grown men along in prams at impressive speed or vaulting over fenland landscapes.

Sports that are connected to a specific landscape or industry form a mutually constitutive relationship between bodies and spaces, forging both regional and national identities. These have the power to unite people, irrespective of race/class/gender: but an identity influenced by place can also easily become exclusionary. Under the umbrella of a religious/superstitious/magical set of beliefs, this can promote a dangerous and active nationalism which offers a form of natural mutual affinity as its alibi. However, whilst an understanding of a regional localism within the context of rural heritage so often inspires an outpouring of nationalist sentiment, a wider understanding of the rural, one narrated by rural communities themselves, continuously disrupts this perspective. 

Traditions are reactive. They occur each year, and to avoid monotony they absorb the quickest, newest, and sometimes the most controversial idea to occur in the last three hundred and sixty-five days. In our humble prize vegetable competition, a large courgette might have its stem sculpted into ringlets, a nose whittled to size, and pansies for eyes, all at the expense of Margaret Thatcher. Or a coastline that has previously been sustained by its fishing industry might now re-enact, with pantomime vigour, a blessing of the herrings for the benefit of the festival tourist. When the very architecture that sustains our ritual fetes implodes, artificial environments often emerge to maintain them. Or we rely on the world of satire – a postmodern fete, democratically rich with humorous social critique.

Ultimately, change is inevitable – even in our most sacred traditions; yet this is no more evident than at times of disaster.  War, more than any other phenomenon, has provided the context for the most significant revival of the customs and ceremonies of England. In fact, as the writer Dougald Hine observes, folklore has only fully emerged as a systematic study of mass behaviour within the post-World War II context. As England takes the offensive abroad, she retreats domestically into nostalgia and secularism, hiding her insecurities with flags, feasts and other delusions of greatness. The distinctions between patriotism, royalism and nationalism become blurred under the influence of a pint of cider and a piece of pie. Yet sometimes the fete becomes more introspective. We hear about ‘community’ most at times of crisis, when a population is forced into isolation, through either pandemic or political estrangement. And sometimes, all it takes for the British to come together is the promise of a bake sale and tombola. 

Pontypridd Horse Show in 1946

AUTUMN

Within the darkness a modern Merrie England really does come alive. People’s inhibitions are lost when they are hidden within the drawing-in of the nights. Within these shadows, demons and devilry begin to emerge, hidden behind their carnivalesque masks and disguises. An embodied celebration in which the mythical, the incomprehensible, the unfathomable, even, finds a physical form, one that is inflected with grotesque realism. Our festival activity in the darkness serves as a useful way for the working class to act out popular scenarios in which they overcome social boundaries. Yet it also provides a symbolic vehicle to be manipulated – stereotypes emerge and, at its worst, ceremonial content becomes an arena in which dangerous prejudices emerge. On the other hand, smaller, quieter Romantic tropes, a pint with neighbours or a regular village market, make room for non-performative unity, perhaps without deeper meaning, but equally ritualistic. 

Yet, as the nights close in, it becomes easier and easier to confuse ritual with meaning. The origins of a tree decorated in toast is lost, or at least so tangled up in the clamour of magic and mystery that where they will next flourish is anyone’s guess. Practices change so dramatically that they become comically out of place. There are very few traditional festivals in England that have not been touched by the Church, a body which in its heyday provided people’s everyday practices with purpose and organisation. Yet the decline of the Church has been accompanied by cultural pluralism and ethical liberalisation, and without a clearly defined single origin of common beliefs, the fete acquires a further level of vigour through its ability to reject and reference meaning. In the village of Braunton, the sacred ‘Cross Tree’, one of the Dancing Elms of Devon, which were the centrepiece of May Day festivities in the county, was cut down in 1935 to make way for the increasingly ubiquitous motorcar. In parallel, the 1930 Tynemouth Carnival in North-East England featured clowns holding up signs that read ‘Safety First Traffic’, and children painted yellow – a sign of resistance to the double yellow line. 

Harvest, a last celebration before we plunge into Winter, is a period of sacrifice, whether religious or otherwise. Yet rather than a celebration of the harvesting of the soil, the fete has transitioned into a cultural entity to be harvested in and of itself. A submission to silliness, the joy of caricature, and the creation of customs from its iconography have, despite the complex origins of many of its practices, ultimately sustained the Autumnal fete as an act of consumption. 

Morris Men take flight during dance

WINTER

Without religion, English rituals have found a new purpose. A means of representation and expression, our festivals, our fireworks, our effigy beheadings, are a means by which to understand disaster, death and all things diabolical. In this respect, we need the fete more than ever before. The British are known for finding it difficult to confront death, but maybe they can make conversation about it a little more easily when decked out in a sheep’s skull. 

As an outlet for our darkest fears, the absurd and theatrical are a form of both control and sanctuary, as well as fuel for terror. Based on American writer Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation spawned a wave of Clansman costumes in small rural towns and villages across the United Kingdom: the Klu Klux Klan had found its visual identity. The revival of symbols is in theory a powerful visual medium, but this can so quickly become sinister. Even the musicologist Cecil Sharp’s work to revive the folk songs of England has been critiqued for its nationalist undertones, despite Sharp’s own democratic and socialist political views. Ross Cole, writing about the political role of folk song in the early twentieth century, suggests that ‘Sharp seems to have been less keen on achieving political equality for all members of society than on a spiritual call to national unity.’ 

Morris men dancing with their faces painted black in the town of Padstow, Cornwall, has now proved controversial enough in contemporary English society  to ban these rituals being appropriated as a regional symbol. This might be considered helpful to the secularists who accuse folklore collectors of wrongly catapulting too many events into the public eye. However, the Joint Morris Organisation’s decision to ban the practice of blackface Morris dancing in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, resulting in the Morris Federation recognising in an open letter the need to ‘take further steps to ensure the continued relevance and inclusivity of the tradition’ was undoubtedly overdue. Yet when looking at the ritualistic beheading of a young female virgin in traditional Morris sword dance routines, it could be argued that the British folk movement’s darkness allows it to escape its connotation of whimsy and engage with a lived experience beyond the sphere of the ‘quaint’ and ‘old-fashioned’. 

 In complete contrast, ritualistic dance ceremonies now find a contemporary articulation in their influence on Techno music. This can be seen in Techno’s combination of energetic, convulsive movement followed by moments of meditative stillness. Rave culture sustains the fete in both the urban and the rural context with its genuinely ritualised disorder and its underlying aim of subverting the societal and political status quo. The Stonehenge Free Festival in the 1970s embodied a contemporary pagan ritual, culminating in the Summer Solstice, but was deemed so dangerous to society that it was shut down in 1984: a sign not of the death of the fete but rather of its continued potential for disruption. We can only hope that the symbols, rites and rituals of English folklore, so well established, and adapted so often, strengthen the cultivation of a modern English community, one in which the meaning of ‘English’ constantly expands rather than creating a secular division.

SPRING (ii)

Does England all too easily fall into patterns of fear, retrenchment and blame, succumbing to a historically ingrained tendency to be seduced by nationalism? Our only hope is that external influences, cross-pollination, adaptation, and the extent of change with which these inflections transform the fete and its practices will prevent us from going too far along that road. Ritualistic practices and community celebrations require discipline as they evolve, and this may be key.

‘Cancel culture’ will stop us in our tracks. The internet is God. English feudalism relied on Christian religion to keep people working on the land; capitalism appeals to individualism to ensure that people carry on consuming, and in the post-digital world our addiction to the internet is a result of its omnipotence and omnipresence. If the fete involves behaviour dictated by our relationship to life and work, positioning itself somewhere between control and escape, then it must now adapt to a cyber-workforce: a population commuting between the physical and virtual, more connected to a community than ever but with the ability to detach itself at any moment. The emergence of ‘cottagecore’ fashion is evidence of this: twenty-first-century Romantics longing for an Arcadian idyll, yet rarely leaving their screens.

Maybe ‘the folk’ simply cannot afford the fete. Londoners with second homes dominate our picturesque idyll, and who’s grabbing our rituals? Margate, on the South coast of England, is the new hipster destination. The ‘rural’ of our dreams is expensive. We could bring the villages into the cities instead: Gillian Darley’s Villages of Vision discusses the breaking up of our cities into structures of traditional, rural ‘village’ models. So Greenwich Urban Village Fete might thrive, or a curated V&A ‘Village Fete’ might find its audience. Whilst in America the Burning Man festival has emerged as an annual Labour Day event, its structure creates a social microcosm, almost a socialist community, marking an end and a new beginning. Socialism with a 425-dollar price tag. At least ‘Rural England’ cannot be considered dead in the water – there is a demand for it, and the cost of its supply is indicative.

Yet nowhere is Merrie England more alive than in the portal of TikTok. We’ve seen the rise of populism over scientific approaches: people are no longer being replaced by machines, as they were in the industrial period, but instead people are being turned into machines. Each TikTok dance is a mechanised, ceremonial act, declaring an affiliation to a particular community, sustaining an algorithm of reverent reinforcement that people think and believe in the same practices as you. Add in ‘photocopylore’ and ‘faxlore’, and folklore is not just alive and practising, it’s expanding rapidly. Too fast-moving and ephemeral to censor, our digital rites encompass a summer of trendy clothing stitched with straw, alongside the depths of winter represented by scary meme-myths of societal damage.

We have our post-digital fete now: all we need is a new reason to perform and a cycle within which to structure our lives. Let’s allow a return to our first Spring. The fragile condition of the natural environment at the hands of industrial progress has left us with a need to rejoice in a fete that supplies an awareness of the cyclical quality that nature provides – and with it an understanding of the irreversible growing consumption of so-called ‘renewables’. A maypole with environmentalism at its heart.

Extinction Rebellion activists in the midst of protest

Contribution

This article was written by Niamh Thompson who conducted a 'critical investigation into the masks of the quaint fete'. Whilst at the Royal College of Art, Niamh produced a publication, one that was structured through the seasons, beginning with a post-industrial Spring and ending in a second Spring, the post-digital. The work included within it a wealth of archival footage from village fetes from across the UK.

To see more of Niamh's work, please visit her website here.

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