Apr 152017
 

Today is known as Easter Saturday in England and parts of the former Commonwealth, although the name is a trifle confusing to some. Going strictly logically, Easter Saturday should be the Saturday in Easter week, that is, the week after Easter, not the day before, which by the same logic should be Holy Saturday (the Saturday in Holy Week). You can call it Holy Saturday if you like, I’ve always called it Easter Saturday.

Easter Saturday is a rather quirky day in my experience, although what happens on that day has varied a lot in the different countries where I have lived over the years. In England in the late 1960s and early 1970s it felt a bit strange squeezed between the solemnity of Good Friday and the celebrations of Easter Sunday. People just went about their ordinary business as if it were any old Saturday. I had trouble making sense of it. Often, if it fell early enough, it was Boat Race day and I got into the spirit of that. More importantly it has always been the day when the Bacup Britannia Coconut dancers do a tour of the town from boundary to boundary. I went for several years when I lived in the Midlands. It’s something else.

England is loaded with seemingly bizarre calendar customs that defy the imagination. The Padstow Old ‘Oss and Abbots Bromley Horn Dance spring to mind immediately. Haxey Hood and the Whittlesea Straw Bear are not far behind. Bacup has always struck me as the oddest of them all and, of course, is surrounded by stupid speculations about “origins” which used to drive me to distraction. The dancers themselves buy into this nonsense. According to the semi-official history on their website the dance was either brought to Bacup by Barbary pirates or by Moors who had migrated to Cornwall to work in the tin mines, and then relocated to the Lancashire quarries. Does anyone in their right mind actually believe such absurd crap? Other unverifiable information – repeated endlessly on the internet with ZERO evidence – is that there are “similar” dances performed in Provence called “Danse des Coco.” I roll my eyes. A little digging will reveal to you that five troupes performed related dances in the Rossendale Valley in the late 1850s and Bacup’s original troupe, the Tunstead Mill Nutters, was one of them. So much for Barbary pirates.

The enduring mystery is who came up with the idea in the first place. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s black our faces, put on frilly skirts and clogs, and dance in the streets clacking wooden discs on our hands and knees.” “Aye, lad, graidly !!” According to the Burnley Gazette, a man named Abraham Spencer (1842–1918) was one of the founders of the Tunstead Nutters back in 1857, at age 15 !! The Tunstead dancers passed on their tradition to workers at the Britannia Mill in Bacup in the 1920s, by which time the other groups had faded into oblivion.

There are some old photos of the other groups knocking around and the Rochdale Coconut Dance tune is extant. A great many English calendar customs fell out of fashion at the turn of the 20th century for a variety of reasons. That Bacup held on is remarkable. Here’s a couple of samples from recent years:

It’s amazing to me that this should be such an extraordinary event, yet is not drowned in a sea of folkies every year. True, the town center is mobbed in the middle of the day, but if you attend early in the morning or later in the afternoon when the dancers are nearer the boundaries, spectators are thin on the ground – just the die hards (like me).

The route and order of events do not change much. After a bit of a warm up dance (and drinks) at the start, the Stacksteads Silver Band sets off, in single file, down the middle of the road, and the dancers split into 2 groups of 4, directed by a whipper-in, and dance on either side of the road – alternating stopping to perform and jogging along the road. Progress is slow and steady. In the town center around midday, the teams split up and perform in various pubs. Otherwise, along the way they pause to perform 8-man garland dances. It’s a grueling day for the dancers, but they are always in good spirits until the end. If you follow the dancers all day you won’t get the tune out of your head for a looooong time.

Lancashire Butter Pie is a suitable dish for the day because it is local to the south Pennine region and because it is suitable for the last day of Lent, being meatless (if you ignore the butter, and the dripping in the pastry). I don’t know why it is called butter pie since the filling is more potatoes and onions than butter. It’s certainly a humble dish, eaten by mill workers, and I find it pleasant accompanied by some pickles and Lancashire cheese.

Lancashire Butter Pie

Ingredients

200 gm flour
50 gm butter, cut in chunks
50 gm dripping (or vegetable shortening)
2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 onion, peeled and sliced.
salt and pepper

Instructions

Make pastry by combining the flour and dripping with a pastry cutter or in a food processor until it resembles coarse sand. Add enough cold water a little at a time until the pastry just comes together in a ball.  Wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, parboil the potatoes and onions for around 20 minutes. The potatoes should be cooked, but not soft.

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F/180°C.

Roll the pastry to make 2 crusts. Line your pastry dish with one crust, then layer in the potatoes and onions mixed with the butter, and salt and pepper to taste.

Top with the second crust and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry is golden.

May 082016
 

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The 8th of May is Floral Day in Helston in Cornwall – usually. If the date falls on a Sunday (as this year) or a Monday, festivities are moved to the previous Saturday. Never mind.  When this blog turns 3 years old on the 10th of May I’m going to start celebrating movable holidays. For now I’ll just celebrate Floral Day as if it were today.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I tend to foam at the mouth when people trot out the usual nonsense about the “pagan origins” of calendar customs in Britain, and today is no exception. Floral Day in Helston is the time to perform the Furry Dance which everyone will tell you is an ancient custom whose history is lost in the “mists of time.” Nonsense. History does not have mists – it just has idiots. It’s true that Floral Day is a genuinely old custom but there are precious few records of the particulars of its celebration before the 19th century. The practice was “revived” in the 19th century, for fun I presume, and has evolved steadily over the years.

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Before I talk about present-day customs let me get a few things straight. First and foremost, May celebrations in the south of England celebrate the coming of SUMMER, not SPRING. Sure, May celebrates the turn of the year with flowers and greenery, but May is not really early springtime in Cornwall, but the start of summer — such as it is.  Towards the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century there was a strong movement to revive rural calendar customs in England which were perceived as dying out due to rural depopulation caused by the Industrial Revolution. Many calendar customs were fading, and the decline of rural villages played a part. But these customs were not demonstrably “ancient” and had nothing to do with pre-Christian Britain. They were simply what they seem on the surface – times to have fun. It was misguided 19th century anthropologists and folklorists who imbued the customs with an air of ancient mystery. I’m all in favor of having a good time; I’m not in favor of bad history.

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Floral Day usually starts out at 7 am with the morning dance. This is a semi-formal procession/dance that kicks off the day. Shops and houses are all decked out with bunting, flags, and greenery, and couples parade through the town, and through a few houses.

This is followed by the first performance of the Hal-an-Tow pageant at 8:30am a.m. At one time this was a costume parade featuring the Hal-an-Tow song, which became quite famous with folkies in the 1960s and 70s. Here’s the Watersons:

Nowadays it’s become more of a death and resurrection play featuring St George among others – akin to Mummers Plays in other parts of England. The song is certainly old, and its meaning is rather obscure. It does seem to allude to the Spanish – maybe the Armada – but there’s no telling the exact context.  Modern versions of the pageant try to make the symbolism clearer by bringing a lot of elements in from all over England (can’t seem to get away from 19th century Romantic syncretism).  The pageant is now performed several times along the parade route until 9:30.

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The pageant is followed by the children’s dance at 10 am. The children’s dance involves over 1,000 children aged from 7 to 18, all dressed in white, the boys with Lily of the Valley buttonholes and the girls wearing flowers in their hair, the flower determined by the school they attend. They come from St Michael’s School, Nansloe School, Parc Eglos School, and Helston Community College: each year a different school leads the dance. The boys wear their school colors in the form of school ties, and the girls wear matching colored flowers (blue cornflowers for St Michael’s, forget-me-nots for Helston Community College, daisies for Nansloe and poppies for Parc Eglos) in their hair.

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This is followed by the midday dance at noon. There are numerous participants but the number of dancers is restricted. You can apply to participate a year in advance (by mail – no emails !!). Otherwise participation is by invitation. Dress code has been fixed to men in grey top hats and tails, and women in long gowns and big hats. Dress has varied considerably since the late 19th century. Originally the parade/dance was for the town gentry only, and they dressed in their formal wear, whatever it happened to be. During the First World War some men were in uniform (also on V-E Day which, coincidentally is May 8th http://www.bookofdaystales.com/v-e-day/ ).

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The dance takes various routes through the town depending on circumstances. It parades through certain houses according to custom, but they are not always the same. Some modern owners object to having hundreds of people trouping through their homes.

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The music for the midday dance is provided by Helston Town Band, augmented by members of other local bands. They play from memory; supposedly the music for the dance has never been written down. I’m sure that it has never been written down officially, but anyone with an ounce of musical knowledge could do so, and I am sure has. The tune is a variant of a dance tune, generically known as “Long Dance” which can be found throughout England.

Helston Flora Day, playing the "Furry Dance"

In 1890 Cornish antiquarian M. A. Courtney wrote that the tune was sometimes known as “John the Bone.” He also recorded this rhyme from local children:

John the Bone was walking home,
When he met with Sally Dover,
He kissed her once,
He kissed her twice,
And kissed her three times over.

In 1911 Katie Moss, a London composer visiting Helston, observed the Furry Dance and joined in the dancing herself in the evening. On the train home she wrote words and music of a song about her experience, calling the song “The Floral Dance”. She quotes the Furry Dance tune in the piano accompaniment to the chorus – though altering the melody in two bars. This song was published by Chappell & Co., and first performed by baritone Thorpe Bates the same year.

The first recording of the song was made by Peter Dawson on the Zonophone label in 1912. It has since been recorded by many other artists.Here’s the original 78 rpm.

I visited Helston in April 1975 and you can read about my exploits here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/tin-miners-and-cornish-pasties/  — especially my encounter with Cornish pasties at the Blue Anchor.

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Pasties would certainly be a suitable dish of the day. Fish pie is also a good option given that Cornwall is generally known for its fish, especially pilchards, and Helston is a fishing port. But for variety I’ll go with Cornish fairings.  They are a round, risen gingerbread biscuit that can be found throughout Cornwall. The etymology of “fairing” is obscure (just as the history of Floral Day is). It could be from “fair” – either a celebration, or something nice.  Seems suitable. This is from an old Cornish recipe which gives good instructions, but the ingredient list is typically gargantuan for Victorian household recipes. I’d go with one quarter the amount. Mixed spice varies in constituents – usually cloves, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and nutmeg. You can wing it; I do. When you cut down the recipe you’ll also need to use your own judgment with the spices. I tend to be a bit liberal.

Let’s hear it for GREAT British cooking !!!

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Cornish Fairings

Ingredients

24 cups flour
6 cups caster sugar
4 cups butter
1 cup lard
2 ½ cups lemon peel, shredded or grated fine
3 cups golden syrup
3 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
¼ cup water
1 ¼ tbsp ground ginger
1 ½ tbsp mixed spice

Instructions

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Rub the butter into the flour (you can use a food processor for this step). Put this blend into a large mixing bowl.

Mix the spices with the sugar.

Put the golden syrup into a basin on its own. Mix the water with the bicarbonate of soda in small saucepan and bring it to the boil. Pour the boiling mixture into the syrup and add the lemon peel. Pour this mixture into the flour and butter. Add the spices and sugar, and mix to a soft dough with a wooden spoon or (preferably) your hands.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface to 1″ thickness. Cut into rounds.

Place the fairings on baking trays spaced apart. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until risen and golden brown.

Fairings can be served warm or cold. They don’t keep long (a day or two).

May 272015
 

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Today is the birthday of Isadora Duncan, (Angela Isadora Duncan), U.S.-born dancer and dance theorist, famed throughout Europe and the U.S. for her style. Although born in California, she lived in Western Europe and the Soviet Union from the age of 22 until her death at age 50. She performed to acclaim throughout Europe after being exiled from the United States for her pro-Soviet sympathies.

As I hope I always am, I will be up front about my bias here: I don’t like Duncan’s dance or her theories about it. It seems to me to be a product of its time without much endurance beyond that, although it soldiers on in little isolated pockets via her disciples. I have no quarrel with the general notion of physical and mental freedom, just not really enamored of its expression in Duncan’s work.

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Duncan began her dancing career by teaching lessons in her home from the time she was six through her teenage years. Her different approach to dance is evident in these preliminary classes, in which she “followed [her] fantasy and improvised, teaching any pretty thing that came into [her] head,” A desire to travel led Duncan to Chicago where she auditioned for many theater companies, finally finding a place in Augustin Daly’s company. This job took her to New York City where her unique vision of dance clashed with the popular pantomimes of theater companies.

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Feeling unhappy and limited with her work in Daly’s company and with U.S. audiences, Duncan decided to move to London in 1898. There she found work performing in the drawing rooms of the wealthy and drew inspiration from the Greek vases and bas-reliefs in the British Museum. The money she earned from these engagements allowed her to rent a dance studio to develop her work and create larger performances for the stage. From London, Duncan traveled to Paris, where she drew inspiration from the Louvre and the Exposition Universelle of 1900.

In 1902, Loie Fuller visited Duncan’s studio and invited Duncan to tour with her. This took Duncan all over Europe creating new works using her innovative dance technique. This style consisted of a focus on natural movement instead of the rigid technique of ballet. She spent most of the rest of her life in this manner, touring in Europe as well as North and South America, where she performed to mixed critical reviews. Despite the critics’ mixed reactions, she became quite popular for her distinct style and inspired many visual artists, including Antoine Bourdelle, Auguste Rodin, Arnold Ronnebeck, and Abraham Walkowitz, to create works based on her dance.

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Duncan disliked the commercial aspects of public performance like touring and contracts because she felt they distracted her from her real mission: the creation of beauty and the education of the young. To achieve her mission, she opened schools to teach young women her dance philosophy. The first was established in 1904 in Grunewald. This institution was the birthplace of the “Isadorables” – Anna, Maria-Theresa, Irma, Lisel, Gretel, Erika, Isabelle, and Temple (Isadora’s niece) – Duncan’s protégées, who would go on to continue her legacy. Later, Duncan established a school in Paris that was quickly closed due to the outbreak of World War I.

Breaking with convention, Duncan imagined she had traced the art of dance back to its roots as a sacred art ( a fantasy which, as an anthropologist, I find hard to deal with). She developed within this notion free and “natural” movements inspired by the classical Greek arts, folk dances, social dances, nature and natural forces as well as an approach to the new U.S. athleticism which included skipping, running, jumping, and leaping. I hope, however, we can remember that all human movement is derived from culture.

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Duncan’s philosophy of dance moved away from rigid ballet technique and towards her perception of natural movement. To restore dance to a high art form instead of entertainment, she sought a connexion between emotions and movement: “I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body’s movement.” Duncan took inspiration from ancient Greece and combined it with the U.S. conception of freedom. This is exemplified in her costume of a white Grecian tunic and bare feet. Inspired by Grecian forms, her tunics also allowed a freedom of movement corseted ballet costumes and pointe shoes did not.

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Her focus on “natural” movement emphasized steps outside of codified ballet technique. She also cited the sea as an early inspiration for her movement. Some attribute the founding of modern dance to Duncan, but I think this is over-reaching. She is certainly ONE of the inspirations, but modern dance is a very different animal.

Both in her professional and private lives, Duncan flouted traditional mores and morality. She was bisexual, and alluded to her Communism during her last United States tour, in 1922–23; Duncan waved a red scarf and bared her breast on stage in Boston, proclaiming, “This is red! So am I!”

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The circumstances of Duncan’s death are well known. On the night of September 14, 1927 in Nice, she was a passenger in an Amilcar automobile owned by Benoît Falchetto, a French-Italian mechanic who was demonstrating it for her. She wore a long, flowing, hand-painted silk scarf, created by the Russian-born artist Roman Chatov, a gift from her friend Mary Desti, the mother of film director Preston Sturges. Desti, who saw Duncan off, had asked Duncan to wear a cape in the open-air vehicle because of the cold weather, but Duncan would only agree to wear the scarf. As they departed, Duncan reportedly said to Desti and some companions, “Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!” (“Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!”); but according to American novelist Glenway Wescott, Desti later told him that Duncan’s actual last words were, “Je vais à l’amour” (“I am off to love”). Desti considered this embarrassing, as it suggested that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a tryst.

Her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and rear axle, hurling her from the open car and breaking her neck. Desti said she called out to warn Duncan about the shawl almost immediately after the car left. Desti took Duncan to the hospital, where she was declared dead.

The New York Times noted in its obituary: “Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, tonight met a tragic death at Nice on the Riviera. According to dispatches from Nice, Miss Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement.” Other sources described her death as resulting from strangulation, noting that she was almost decapitated by the sudden tightening of the scarf around her neck. The accident gave rise to Gertrude Stein’s mordant remark that “affectations can be dangerous.”

My wife and I once attended an “arts costume party” where we were supposed to come dressed as our favorite artists. I went as Vincent, suitably dressed in period clothes with my ear swathed in bloody bandages; my wife dressed in a Grecian tunic with bare feet. She was instantly recognizable, while everyone was terribly worried about what had happened to my ear.

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Duncan told others that her mother was desperately sick while pregnant with her, and survived only by eating oysters and sipping champagne. This, she believed, was the food of the goddess Aphrodite. I’m a tad skeptical of the latter claim – maybe the former too: Duncanesque though. In any event, it’s a good excuse for me to prattle on a bit about oysters. Longtime readers know about my love of tripe, but I have never really gone on much about oysters which are, in fact, my second favorite after tripe. I like cooked oysters all right, and have had more than my fair share of them in fritters, soups, etc. But you won’t find me eating them cooked when I can get them on the half shell.

There are really two issues about oysters on the half shell: what you put on them, and where they are from (and what type). These are both things I can prattle on about more or less indefinitely. What to put on them can be a complex question. I’m content to shuck them and eat them plain, slurping the liquor from the shell as the sauce. But I’ll also commonly indulge in the usual squirt of lemon, dash of hot sauce, or grind of black pepper. A horseradish sauce can work for me too. Some Asian cultures have some pretty nifty ideas too, although mostly they want to cook them. Here in Yunnan they are grilled with a spicy topping. In Japan they’re much more comfortable with raw stuff, and I’ve had some delectable multi-layered hot, sweet, sour, salty sauces dribbled over them.

Type of oyster is one of those things you can’t really argue about. I’ve had them all over the world. Grand Central train station oyster bar in New York is a good (but uber-expensive) place to sample different varieties if you don’t want to travel. My tastes are simple – I like them ALL !!

Truth be told, I’ve usually drunk beer with oysters. In England and Ireland it’s quite common to drink Guinness with oysters which provides a bitter contrast. For champagne I’d go with a Moët & Chandon brut if I could afford it these days. I don’t know where I scared up the money to drink it (with strawberries) when I was an undergraduate.