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Saturday, 26 March 2011

Way of the Morris: morris on, big time

The bells, the bells... I was lucky enough to get my hands on a review copy of Way of the Morris, a documentary by actor and film-maker Tim Plester, which has just started doing the rounds at film festivals, and was recently at SXSW in Texas.

And what a treat it is. Unlike the recent Morris: a Life with Bells On, which never felt at ease with its subject (morris off), this is a beautifully crafted story by someone with a link to the morris tradition who doesn't allow it to stand in the way of good film-making.

Strong sense of place: tick. Photography to die for: tick. Good storyline: tick. In fact, it looks as if he may have done something very clever and made a film that will make morris dancing more mainstream just by showing it as it is. He's looking for distribution at the moment.

Plester, you see, is from Adderbury in Oxfordshire and his father is a morris man, although one furloughed by a damaged knee. But Plester junior lives in the city and the documentary is a journey with him through the history of morris dancing in his village without getting too bogged down in its origins. Instead it focuses on the hiatus in the town's morris tradition caused by the Great War, although as someone mutters during the course of the film, there was nothing much that was great about it. It wasn't until the folk rock revival of the early 70s that the troupe was started up again.

I suspect that part of the shimmer of the finished product is a reflection of the personal journey that Plester took over the course of its production. When I originally got a copy through the post there was a problem with the print, prompting an attempt to lay my hands on a better quality disc and a trip to West Finchley, where Plester lives.

"I've joined the Adderbury village morris men," he explained. "I'm dancing the morris now. And people keep asking when I'll be doing it next and whether I'll be filming it. But no. I mean, it's just become part of my life. Making the film was a part of my life too, but it's not my whole life."

There are many moments of intense beauty along the way, starting right at the beginning with a short animation about how the world was danced into existence by a fox, that reminded me of the beginning of Watership Down. This is echoed about halfway through by an exquisite long shot of a fox emerging from the woods and looking around, apparently staring down the camera despite the great distance and then disappearing back into the woods again.

Other things I loved about this movie included the shot of two sloping roofs next to each other while the script briefly mentioned the hypothesis about a connection between the Moors and the origins of morris. The word "pyramids" arrived just at the moment when the viewer realised that the rooves were a perfectly proportioned representation of them.

It also works as a kind of how-to guide for those potentially interested in taking up the morris, since Plester's dad does a satisfyingly practical explanation of why people tie knots in their hankies and most of the basics are covered in a pretty unstructured way. The men of the troupe are disarmingly charming and the hats - ohmygod - are great.

Slow paced but sharply edited, none of the multicultural references - notably to the Haka - seemed forced and there is also a cleverly presented morris dance to gentle techno, which is fun. It gets a bit purple and Shakespearean in places - sceptered isle, blessed Albion, totemic, blah - but never tips over entirely into sentiment.

Way of the Morris is showing next in Arizona, making me wonder whether it will eventually arrive in Britain garlanded with laurels from elsewhere (see below for British showings). It deserves awards and will probably get some. But more importantly I would think it will find itself an audience far beyond morris enthusiasts. And since the English will never be truly at ease with themselves until they're at ease with their traditions, this can only be a good thing.

* Arizona film festival, April 7
* Athens (Ohio) film festival, April 22-28. Exact date to be announced.
* May 2 preview showing at Sensoria in Sheffield.
* Tulepo film festival, Mississippi, May 12-14
* Sunday, May 15. Barbican cinema 1, London, 2pm. Screening with panel discussion afterwards. 
* London International Documentary Film Festival, May 13-28, date of screening to be announced.
* Sidmouth folk festival, July 29- August 5, date to be announced.

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Sunday, 20 March 2011

England and St George

St George's Day falls on a Saturday this year and the piece of my soul that will be forever England takes a certain satisfaction in this. Even Dave "let's move Mayday to October" Cameron couldn't have a problem with us all having a day off in spring if it's on a Saturday, surely?

So with the state of the nation to the fore, here's something by a songwriter called Greg McDonald, who cites The Clash and Show of Hands among his influences. His first solo studio album, called Tomorrow England, has Phil Beer on fiddle and this video is a promo rather than a whole song, but there's enough to get a flavour of what he's up to. The official album launch is April 25, although I got a copy through the post with a press release and a handwritten note showing that he's read the blog. So flattery definitely pays.

There's going to be a single out in time for St George's Day called, um, St George's Day. It's about a British soldier who marries an Afghan woman who is then murdered by racists in Greenwich Park. Whether it's tasteful to invent murders in London parks for lyrical purposes is worth asking but since McDonald is from that neck of the woods it's his psycho-geography and I guess he can do with it as he will.

St George's Day is a bittersweet song that chimes in with the overall theme of the album, which I'd say is a kind of contemporary Englishness that's none too specific about its roots and is also alert to the many charges against said Englishness: racism, xenophobia and historical militarism. The album cover shows McDonald in a cherry red uniform with an accordian, like a toy soldier. This has its charms. But on a day when the main issue is why it's OK to bomb Libya in the name of democracy now but it wasn't OK to send groundtroops to Iraq for the same thing eight years ago ("not in my name" said a million Brits) you could be forgiven for musing that the modern English are more comfortable around toy soldiers than real ones. Perhaps he's on to something. 

There are some good lines. Singing the Reds starts "The devil came down to Lewisham..." and, with the borough's three syllables slurred into two, it's a homage to The Devil Went Down to Georgia by the Charlie Daniels Band. Louis Armstrong also gets a look in, with a knowing reference to his assertion that "It's all folk music. I aint never heard no horse sing a song". I also like the title, to say the least, of Fairytale of New Cross. When coupled with the fact that McDonald is playing several times in the coming months at The Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich (one of my favourite places in the world, for the whitebait suppers and the spring tides lapping against its bay windows) it seems entirely possible that, since The Glamour Cave is in Bethnal Green, this is my psychogeography too and that perhaps I was always going to like the album for that reason. 

So it's geographically specific and a bit political without being prescriptive. I liked the title track the best, with its lyric "Tonight these dreaming streets, Tomorrow England" conjuring the glistening cobbles of Greenwich in the rain and a certain kind of incoherent ambition probably brought on by having had a few too many shandies. Allusive and poppy, this is useful folk aimed squarely at the mainstream. I wish him good luck.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Friday, 11 March 2011

Mike Harding takes on the Catholic church

"What really disgusts me," says Mike Harding, "is that the Bishop of Salford is more concerned with the insurers than with the victims. So far there are 57 individual cases of physical and sexual child abuse that we're aware of and if all of those cases went to court the church could stand to lose a lot of money. I think he's been told by the insurers not to make a proper apology."

He's talking about his schooldays at St Bede's College in Manchester, between 1955 and 1963, and about the scores - possibly hundreds - of former pupils, including himself, who were abused by a towering figure of authority there: its rector, Monsignor Thomas Duggan.

Duggan was at the school between 1950 and 1966, and for 16 years abused at will, according to his victims, who are now in their 50s and 60s. Then in 1966 he was suddenly removed from the school and sent to Langho, near Blackburn, in a transfer that was - bizarrely given the nature of his tenure - against the wishes of his parishioners, who were almost entirely in the dark about his attacks on his pupils.

"You wouldn't think of telling your parents," explains Harding, now 66. "They wouldn't have believed it. And then life for the boys who told would have been worse. It's a terrible thing not to be believed."

The diocese recently told a delegation of former pupils that, oddly, there appear to be no extant records about Duggan at all, although Harding believes that he died a couple of years after being removed from St Bede's.

According to Paul Malpas, a businessman based in Ireland who was in the year below Harding at school, Duggan "used to meet boys in the corridors, put his arms around them and rub his face into theirs, whilst asking 'are you being pure boy?'.

"On other more secluded meetings he would put his arms round boys and lean into them, rubbing his face and his body into theirs, groaning and moaning into their ears or sometimes, with the more naive boys, [he would] threaten them with expulsion from the school for nothing in particular, just to put the fear of god into them.

"As a punishment of last resort and this could be for failing a monthly Latin test or some such evil crime, a pupil would be sent up to Duggan. His preferred method of punishment was to tell the pupil to remove his clothing below his waist and stand naked in front of him whilst he spoke to the boy of his poor record. He would then either lean him over the arm of a sofa or put the lad over his knee and wallop him with a strap and at the same time fondling his rear end to presumably make the pupil more pliant."

Harding was one of the (slightly) luckier ones and was never sexually abused. "I don't know why - maybe he didn't fancy me. But I used to get a hammering from him physically. My best friend - who I've known since the age of five and went through school with - was [sexually abused]. I'm so angry about it all."

And with good reason. For although Harding moved on successfully into adult life, forging a career in music and comedy - these days he makes Radio Two's folk show, which is on at 7pm on Wednesdays - he says that the campaign with which he is involved, to get a fulsome apology from the church for what happened at St Bede's, is motivated largely by the knowledge that many of his former classmates' lives were irredeemably blighted by their experiences at Duggan's hands.

"There are two cases that I know of for sure that were terminal," says Harding. "There was one guy who threw himself under a train and another who died in a crack den in Manchester. Both were abused and it marked them for life. I went to university with the one who died of the overdose and we stayed friends afterwards. He would bring up the subject whenever school was mentioned. He messed up his life through alcoholism and then wound up on drugs."

Harding's involvement in the campaign began last year. "I was emailed by a friend in America, who'd been abused himself, about a blog that was being written by Paul Malpas. He'd had former St Bede's pupils writing to him from all over the world, saying that it had happened to them too over years and years."

But recent meetings with representatives from the diocese of Salford, which was directly responsible for the school at the time, have failed to produce a result. You can listen to a recording of the first meeting here.

At that meeting it was admitted that the church had long known what Duggan's time at St Bede's had involved. "Some of the boys who were abused by him had gone into the priesthood and so it was known about. But if these rumours were going around for so long, why was nothing done earlier?" asks Harding. "Father Barry O'Sullivan, who came as a representative of the diocese, said that he'd been waiting for it to come up for years."

Harding says that it's not the campaign group's intention to bring approbrium on the school, which is now an independent grammar that accepts girls and boys, and is no longer entirely run by priests - though there are several on its governing body, including the chairman.

"It's changed beyond all recognition," he says. "What I want is a full apology from the church in the same way that an apology was made for the industrial schools in Ireland."

"All these men have come forward after all these years," says Harding, "because they want the truth out. Many are not young men any more and they want some kind of closure. At the time they each thought they had been singled out because there was some defect in them. But it wasn't their fault and the church owes them an apology.

"What I've seen so far is a statement by the Bishop of Salford [see below] that makes it look as if the abuse is something that was 'reported' and 'alleged'. He's not actually acknowledged that it took place.

"What the church has always done is see this kind of abuse as being in breach of canon law, and dealt with it by moving priests around and putting them in safe houses. But in fact these were criminal acts that took place.

"I lost my religion when I was 14 because of the barbarity of that school, the hypocrisy of the priests - Duggan wasn't the only abuser - and because I had a theological problem with the notion of an omniscient creator who saw it all. I began questioning my faith because of physical abuse at school and it led me to question the whole of Christianity.

"I think what we've heard about so far may turn out to be the tip of an iceberg. If any other former pupils at St Bede's want to add their testimony they can contact Paul on"

* This is the text of an apology drafted by the Rt Rev Terence Brain, the Bishop of Salford, and originally intended for publication in the Manchester Evening News. "I am shocked and saddened by the complaints from some former pupils of St Bede’s College which have been brought to the attention of our Safeguarding Commission.  The complaints have been made against the late Monsignor Thomas Duggan and relate to the period of time from the 1950s to the mid-1960s, when St Bede’s was a diocesan school. Although it is not suggested that there was a culture of institutional abuse at St Bede’s, nevertheless the abusive behaviour which has been reported has no place within the Catholic Church.  I acknowledge and am deeply sorry for the pain and distress reported to have been suffered by those affected."

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Folk: love the music, hate the cliché

"Lilly white hands", "pretty fair maids", "milk white steeds"... Please join in when you think you know the chorus. "It was on a [fill in blank] morning, as [fill in blank] was dawning." There are certain phrases in folk that make my toes curl, although the love that I bear the genre as a whole means that I can be sophisticated and mature, and do the psychological equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears, going "la, la, la" when they come up. I loathe clichés: can't help it. They make me want to say something sarcastic.*
I know, I know. The whole point is that it's traditional music and how will we recognise it without its tropes? And yet it gets recognised. When Bellowhead, Jim Moray, Jackie Oates, The Imagined Village or Show of Hands do something innovative it's identifiable as folk. But just without the dull bits. And I know I'm not alone in feeling this way because Frank Skinner got booed when he started on about beards, sandals and fingers in ears at the folk awards this year.

The trouble with cliché - whether in music or anything else - is that it's just a bad way of expressing oneself. By using phrases that have been used over and over again you reduce the world to a series of stereotypes and make people think that they know what you're going to say before you actually say it. This means that thereafter they don't listen properly and that any time and energy you've devoted to expressing yourself better later on will have been wasted.

Cliché is the opposite of creativity. It closes off neural pathways, reinforces prejudices and blinds us to the innovative. It dulls the senses and makes the potentially fascinating appear prosaic.

True, there is a big old tension there when you consider it in relation to folk music. Very few situations under the sun are new, and writing and performing songs about the truths that ring down the generations is what folk is often about.

But every generation experiences these situations as if for the first time - because, for them, it is the first time - and not to acknowledge this through reinterpretation would be emotionally dishonest. So it's exactly the universality of a song like, say, Hard Times of Old England - but equally songs that speak of having to leave your home for economic reasons, going to war, or failing to marry and settle down when society tells you you should - that demand each generation claim them for their own. The world looks subtly different to each of us and explaining the textures and sensibilities involved in that is the wellspring of humanity.

I like folk because more than any other genre it reminds me of people and places I've loved. But I enjoy it a lot more when I see evidence of other people's original thought processes, creativity and passion embedded there. I like a bucolic mythologising of Albion as much as the next dappy, longhaired girl. But the largest amount of joy is in the telling.

Btw, surely it must be about time someone did an epoch-defining Hard Times of Old England for the 21st century? Something really angry...

* In case it's not obvious, I've been dwelling on last week's post about Dumnonia by Jim Causley and wondering what it was about that album and the old-fashioned nature of it that bothered me. Although, I'm not saying that the album is full of clichés exactly - more that it's possible that Causley hasn't found the right material yet or isn't interpreting the material he's got in a way that suits him -  the above is what I came up with.

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