Saturday afternoon fever

In New Labour's vision of `Cool Britannia' and `Rebranded Britain', morris dancers are as unfashionable as wing collars. So what makes them do it? Is it a yearning for a lost rural Arcadia or just an excuse to visit every pub in the country?
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In Keston Village Hall, just south of Bromley, Kent, the Ravensbourne Morris Men are about to set off for their annual Boxing Day dance. On one of the two tables in the room are soft drinks, all of which are entirely untouched. On the other is hot punch, around which several men are cheerfully jostling with many a cry of "Seems a pity to waste this last drop!". Others are strapping on their jangling garters, and mustering their accessories, including a cake impaled on a stick which, like most things pertaining to morris dancing, is "probably something to do with ancient fertility rites". The wooden horse's head - also probably something to do with ancient fertility rites - is not being used on this occasion.

Amid the kerfuffle, one of the men's wives warns me against the punch. "It's so strong," she says, "that last year it caught fire... They make their jelly with it as well," she adds. "Jelly?" "Yes," she says, and explains that the Ravensbourne Morris Men always make a "special" jelly for their yearly dinner, or Annual Ale as it is more correctly known. This year, the jelly is likely to be even more incendiary than usual, because it is a hundred years since the most momentous event in morris- dancing history.

Now, before going any further, a note of caution is required. It must be acknowledged that the histories of morris sides, as troupes of dancers are known, are bristling with anniversaries and traditions. The description of any innovation tends to be followed by the contented words, "this has now become an annual fixture". The Ravensbourne Morris Men, for example, speak of their annual Boxing Day meet as though it has been happening for about 600 years at least. In fact, their side was founded as recently as 1946, and the Boxing Day event began in 1972, and in strangely post- modern circumstances at that: the American actor Richard Chamberlain was spending Christmas in Kent and wanted to see something "traditionally English", so the Ravensbourne Men put on a dance just for him.

That said, though, what happened in 1899 surely merits the commemoration it will be receiving throughout the next 12 months. It was in that year, on Boxing Day (one of the few winter days on which morrising occurs), that the revival of folk dancing began with the chance meeting in Oxfordshire of a musician/schoolteacher called Cecil Sharp, and William Kimber of the Headington Quarry Morris Side. The Side performed their dances and Sharp, entranced, set about his life's work of collecting and propagating folk songs and dances.

Such dances - whose source most morris dancers put somewhere between "pagan" and "lost in the mists of time" - had been popular at all levels of society under Elizabeth I, and seemingly for a while thereafter. But they had dwindled throughout the 19th century, when there was a great movement of population from the land to the towns. As rural life seemed threatened, so it became increasingly romanticised by people whose views were perhaps coloured by the fact that they had never done a day's stone-picking on an empty stomach in a sodden field for next to no money.

Sharp was searching for a lost British Arcadia that also haunted the likes of Thomas Hardy, Gertrude Jekyll, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Morris and John Ruskin (famous for writing The Stones of Venice; less well known for relaunching the maypole). This folk revival had overtones that were both socialistic and nationalistic. Against a background of international tensions, rural traditions were thought of as a common denominator around which the nation could unite.

At folk dancing's HQ, Cecil Sharp House in Camden, there is poignant, flickering footage of Sharp's associate, the composer George Butterworth, goofily dancing the morris shortly before being killed at the Somme. But the Great War only emphasised the malignity of industrial society. It actually encouraged rural romanticism, as did the Second World War, which was followed by the second big folk revival, and a boom time for morris dancing.

This yearning for a rural idyll remains a large part of our culture, and is most particularly at the heart of morris dancing, which is currently neither booming nor on the critical list. When, for instance, I ask David Jex, manager of east Surrey Dial-A-Ride and a former Bagman (or secretary) of the Ravensbourne side, to explain the appeal of the morris, he talks dreamily of "standing looking across the Weald of Kent of a summer's evening".

There is more to it than that, though. When you see pictures of morris dancers in books, the question presses upon you with great urgency: why do they do it? But when you encounter them in the flesh, the answers are obvious.

For a start, they do cut a dash. The Ravensbourne Mens' own take on the quite nebulous morris dress codes is compelling. Setting off in their John Bull hats and black cloaks towards their dancing venue - The Greyhound pub in Keston - they have a sinister, highwayman-ish glamour. And the delicacy of their neckerchiefs, leg-tassles and bells only points up the grizzled manliness of their faces. Their appearance puts me in mind of a word of warning I had received at Cecil Sharp House: "Call a morris man quaint and he'll bounce you on your head."

Thanks to weekly practices, they're all pretty lean, too. One of the dancers, Ian Peretti, who works for Sony and is The Fool of the side (a title which is no reflection on his intelligence, but probably something to do with ancient fertility rites) tells me that he recently went into hospital for an operation on his knee, and the surgeon said: "Good God! What exercise do you do to get muscles like that?".

The other aspect is the social one. The Ravensbourne Men are obviously great mates, and when a former member of the side, now exiled in Cardiff, turns up at the last minute to join in the dancing, the cheers are deafening. It also seems that all their practices end in visits to the pub, and most of their dances take place at pubs...

"But that's purely coincidental," says David Jex, not very convincingly. "The fact is that a pub usually has an outside space for dancing, and toilet facilities, too." It is true that the Ravensbourne Men spurn the morris tradition of wearing tankards on their belts ("It gives the wrong impression," Ian Peretti tells me). But, on the other hand, they do carry about with them a great clanking pail labelled "Beer Bucket".

We are now approaching The Greyhound, and with a sudden cry of "Hup!" from the master of ceremonies, Jex, the Ravensbourne Men start dancing down the road in a sinuous skipping crocodile. The effect is totally heart-lifting, the dancers resembling slimmer versions of that ecstatic figure in the famous postcard captioned "Skegness is so bracing".

In the pub car park, before a rain-soaked crowd of 300, the performance proper gets underway, starting with "Bean Setting", the dance that Kimber showed Sharp a hundred years ago, which involves the complicated manipulation of ash sticks.

After a series of dances with superb names like "The Buttoon", "Step and Fetch Her" and "The Vandals of Hammerwich", two of the finest dancers in the side perform what looks like free-form skipping, but with complex and exhilarating embellishments. These men are Wayne Taylor, a publican from far-flung Mill Hill, who apparently watched morris dancers when he was four and vowed, there and then, to become one himself, and Jim Bartlett, a former schoolteacher who once danced all the way from Orpington to Worcester. Later, I ask him why he did this, and he sucks on his pipe for a long time. "That's a good question," he says eventually. (A modest answer because the marathon dance, like most morris events, was in aid of charity.)

As the dances continue outside The Greyhound, and the charity collection circulates, there's a notable absence of mickey-taking from the crowd. But the Ravensbourne Men do get their fair share, often from people quoting the old joke, "Try anything once - except incest and folk-dancing". They are plagued also by cries of "Which one's Morris?", which apparently really gets to you when you've heard it a thousand times. (The derivation of the word, incidentally, is unknown.)

Morris dancers are undoubtedly a magnet for every second-rate satirist in Britain, and several of my phone calls to sides went unreturned before I hooked up with Ravensbourne, who agreed to meet me out of genuine affability, and because they're hoping to recruit new members. They describe themselves as an only "averagely thriving side but extremely traditional". By this they mean that their side is male only, which they think is the correct approach, given that morris dancing is probably something to do with ancient fertility rites.

There are about a hundred sides of a dozen or so men each in the exclusively male association, the Morris Ring. But in the early Seventies, women started or, as they would with some justification have it, re-started morrising, and the mixed-sex sides are catered for by The Morris Federation and The Open Morris. These together account for marginally more dancers than are in the Ring.

The folk-rock movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies helped morris dancing; some newer leisure trends (like Sky bloody Sport) have worked against it. Other folkish commodities are currently more fashionable - especially anything involving the word "Celtic". Generally, though, morris dancing chimes in well with our heritage-minded age.

Heritage - in some ways a perpetuation of the rural romanticism described above - is about searching for the consolation of tradition in a fragmented and fast-moving world. Intertwined with this is post-modernism: our mix- and-match culture. How else to account for the following scene, played out in The Greyhound when the dancing has stopped?

The Ravensbourne Men are dipping their personalised tankards (not worn on the belt, perhaps, but certainly kept close at hand) into their beer bucket and belting out the Queen hit "We Will Rock You". They started doing this on Boxing Day a couple of years ago and it has, to coin a phrase, "now become an annual fixture". Listening to their lusty choruses of the song, overlain with strange and rather beautiful folk harmonies, it is obvious that the second-rate satirists of England have no cause to worry. Morris dancing is good for another hundred years at least.

Anyone interested in joining the Ravensbourne Morris Men should call Ian Peretti on 0181-643 3863