The tall story of Gogmagog: Giants are big again. Ann Hills reports on the revival of a longstanding tradition

Click to follow
IN Salisbury's market place stood Granfer, 14ft 2in tall, a towering, bearded, smocked Dorset shepherd with his crook, celebrating St George's victory over the firebreathing dragon. His ladyfriend, Caroline Moore, walked beside him, a head shorter at 10ft 8in, in her bonnet and prim, tiered dress. The crowds were awed by this procession of giants, which included the debut of St Christoper of Salisbury, a direct descendant of his 400- year-old namesake in the town museum. We were Lilliputians among a race of Gullivers.

A carnival in need of a giant need look no further than Derek Moody, creator of Granfer and Caroline and co-founder of the British Isles Giant Guild for Human Guildmembers and True Members. The latter are, as one might expect, true giants, who will be covered by Guild insurance so long as they are safe on their own, or operated by Guildmembers. Journey(wo)man members are apprentices who have demonstrated skills to a Master Gianter or Mistress Gianter.

Derek is a genuine Master Gianter - one of an exclusive band who trace their ancestry back to Spain in the 1300s or earlier. Julius Caesar set minds boggling when he reported meeting giants in Britain. A translation of his De Bello Gallico is on these lines: 'They (the British) enclose their victims in wickers of osier and burn them at the tops of giant men.' Perhaps the Long Man of Wilmington or the Cerne Giant would be able to explain if they could rise up from the chalk downs.

But Derek and his isolated chums are all we have left in a long tradition, now being revived. 'Certainly there were giants in several cities such as York, Coventry, Norwich and London in the 14th and 15th centuries,' says the bearded gianter.

Gog and Magog stood in honour in the Guildhall, charged with defence of the city - far removed from less respectable relatives who were associated with rough musicians, disguisers, even witchcraft, hobby horses, beasts and dark Dorset Oosers and Skimmities and their like. Both pagan and religious giants, such as St Christopher, were banished by superstitious zealots after the Reformation.

They survived better abroad. 'Early Catholics had parades with patron saints and giants who towered above the crowds. From Spain they crossed borders through Europe and voyaged by sea to South America,' suggests Chris Preece, a social worker and part-time gianter with Derek. 'Giants release the child's soul within all of us, shaking hands across borders,' adds Chris, not sure about their exact genealogy, buried in the mists of time.

Today giants demand respect. 'The correct etiquette on meeting a Giant is to raise your hat,' said Derek, as he took Caroline Moore apart, embarrassingly down to her innards. 'Giants are constructed like the wings of bi-planes,' he explained, painfully pulling the carrying harness out from where her stomach should have been.

Caroline is named after Karrimor rucksacks, or after Carrie - a short version of Caroline and a pun on names gleaned from gravestones of the mid-19th century.

She weighs in at six stones; a lightweight lady. 'It is like carrying another person,' says her creator, adding that Granfer, at more than 12 stone, is a bit heavy for your average carrier. 'Only two men can take him on. We want a strapping young farmer to share the load.'

Not that there is any money in giantry, since each each well-heeled character costs at least pounds 1,000 and sometimes much more.

'Sheffield bought a Prince and Princess pair from Spain for pounds 25,000 for the World Student Games,' says Chris.

And they don't get up and go on spur of the moment. A giant can take an hour or two to put together for each outing. Then the problems start. You can't take a giant of 10 feet or more out in public in a wind. Force 4 is the limit. And each giant porter needs a crew because he (or occasionally she) has a restricted view, unaware of overhead wires, erring children, frightened horses or incontinent dogs. And so guides becomes the porter's ears and eyes, 'alert for a stumble, or a sudden gust of wind', to quote the Guild's literature.

Since crowds gravitate towards Giants, the latter need protection from a rush of admirers, or from a particularly inquisitive journalist. 'Giants are said to eat people who disagree with them; whether they disagree with them before or after they have been eaten we do not know,' is one of the stock replies from a race which continues to haunt the land long after they were supposed dead and buried.

But giants do not just lie and die. They are reborn, travel the land hosted by Bran Duir in London, Nathandriel in Huddersfield, or Sheikh Mustapha Pizza in Sidmouth . . . or perhaps by Giganteus, who has invited his international pals for his 50th birthday in Maastricht on 4 June. There the Brits will have more clout this year, thanks to the Guild.

The Green Knight from Gawain - who carries his head in his hand - is on his way to the birthday party in the company of Rodger Molyneux-Roberts, London-based Giant Master for makers called Gog. 'They met 11 French giants at the Channel tunnel opening,' explains Rodger, a devoted European. His biggest giant is Gogmagog - recreated from the original destroyed in the Great Fire of London. 'Gogmagog is 26 feet high, certainly the tallest giant in Britain,' adds Rodger, noting that this record holder is currently resting in the Surrey countryside, suffering from metal fatigue. He weighs about 43 stone and takes 10 porters; Rodger hopes he'll be fit for 1995.

British giants won't rival Spain, where at a festival two years ago a staggering 650 met together, a focus for fear and fun. What's more, the Latin giants run, leap and dance to their own music, while ours are less active. 'The Spanish gianters have to do weighflifting all through the winter,' said Chris.

Now, with the Guild to promote 'the building, operating and maintaining of carried 'Dancing' and 'Pageant' giants in the British Isles', they will be registered. The Gui1dmembers will have insurance, an archive, create a diary of gianting events, teach and advise - and generally partake in processions for the sheer fun.

'We've no excuse,' concludes Derek, who might be in disguise at a host of festivals this summer. If he's not Gianting, he's teaching adults, including prisoners, computers skills. 'But I'd rather be fishing.' And hoping to land a whale of a giant fish, no doubt.

(Photograph omitted)