The Joys of Modern Life

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The Independent Culture
WHAT IS it about morris dancing? Why are we compelled to belittle this tradition when we'd never do the same to the Argentinian tango, say, or even to the jigs of Ireland and Scotland? Are we afraid of being accused of jingoism? Do we resent the reminder that our own treasured hobbies will one day fall out of fashion? Or is it just fun to laugh at people who prance about waving hankies?

Well, let me tell you that there's a lot more to morris dancing than that. There's prancing about and waving hankies in public. And that requires courage, a sense of humour, a respect for the nation's colourful heritage and several tankards of ale. Reader, I know of what I speak. For I have tried it.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You probably assume I took the easy option and went for the showy morris style of the Borders, with its hearty stick-clashing and face-painting, not believing I was ready for the more sophisticated double-stepping that's indigenous to the Cotswolds. You couldn't be more wrong. I agree that a lesser journalist might balk at the challenges of the Sherborne dances, but my attitude has always been that if you can't manage Fieldtown's Dance of the Old Woman Tossed up in a Blanket 99 Times as High as the Moon, then you've no business calling yourself a morris dancer.

To learn the difference between a whole-gyp and a half-gyp, I visited the Cambridge Morris Men, a group - or a "side" - that has been frolicking to the rhythms of the pipe and tabor since 1920. (By the look of them, one or two of the founder members are still participating.)

A dozen of them had been booked to jingle outside two of the city's pubs a few Friday nights ago, and I was allowed to tag along. If you live in Cambridge, and happened to spot us, I was the one not wearing multi- coloured ribbons, shin-mounted bells, white trousers or any of the other historical garb that makes you wonder if the fabled reserve of the British is really as deeply ingrained as we're told.

By eight o'clock, six Morris Men are formation skipping in the evening sunshine. Handkerchiefs are flicked, pick-axe handles are clacked, foreign tourists are flabbergasted. Come the last dance of each display, Bonny Green Garters, bystanders are invited to join in. This is my moment. Soon I am gambolling back and forth while wearing a straw hat and holding a relatively clean handkerchief.

Not only is it really no different from blowing a whistle while wearing combat trousers at a rave, it's even rather invigorating. The cocktail of music, physical activity and embarrassment gets the heart pumping, and by the end of the dance, I'm converted to the cause.

I am happy to know that people are keeping these customs alive, particularly when they are as splendid and hospitable as the Cambridge Morris Men. Got that? Now, if they could keep their side of the bargain and destroy the photos they took of my Bonny Green Gartering, we'll say no more about it.