There are thorns on a red rose – challenging “traditions” & heritage narratives

A creative response to the previous blog post.

The Pace Egg Play, Monday 6th April 2015.

It’s 9am, foggy but muggy and cars still have their headlights on, you’re running for the bus to go to a village that you’re not from.  At the bus  stop there’s the mashed, yellow remains of a burger and there’s something gherkin in the air.  The 59 has gone up by 20p, fumble for change in a purse full of receipts, plectrums, and spare nose studs.  Sit upstairs in the fresh fug of strong weed.  Stare out of the window at Strangeways, at the shop where your dad used to mend radios, at new roads, new names for places, converted mills, and new stories gifted by the “place makers”: New Islington from Beswick.  The bus journey passes by in the grey, blurry way that bus journeys do – the tick of the second hand of your watch, the cars going past, cyclists, pedestrians, fat pigeons fluffed up on the Cheetham Hill roofs.  Think of that burger, think of the pecking and avian squabbling, think of the peregrines ready to feast on a fast food filled sky rat.  Look out for the wall of Heaton Park, think of the deer within the park, of the daft yellow trumpets of daffodils – on the wane now.

Try not to forget to get off the bus.

Pass over the M60, look for the signs of Middleton – the yellow rods of Rhodes, Alkrington nature park – a heron standing on the side of one of the lodges, the smooth skim of swans and Canada geese.  Get off the bus, feel nervous – ethnographer or researcher or story hunter – your position is not yet chosen.  Experience the next few things in a blur: knock on the door, hug and a kiss, a cup of tea, loo break, the sound of the door closing behind you and button up your jacket. Walk down the road, the rest of the 59 route, into Middleton.

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Don’t stop at the monument – head straight for The Dusty Miller, the show will begin soon.  In the pub it’s dark, the TV is on, there are three people in the pub, two of whom are behind the bar.  Order vodka and Coke and take a pink straw.“Cheers me dear.”  Wonder whether to strike up a conversation with the man reading ‘The Crusader’ pages of The Express – he seems affable enough “Rooney took a penalty an’ missed it.” but let’s not discuss immigration.  The bargains from the “Double’s Bar” are chalked on blackboard with an assertive grocer’s apostrophe.

Try to get your phone to work – it’s the only camera that you have to capture this piece of heritage.  This annual tradition staged on a carpet of stale beer and cigarette burns. And they’re here – a group of “jolly boys, who’ll do no wrong”, heavily made up men – one of whom is blacked up. Feel the cold shock at the use of “black face”, that burning ball of anger in the pit of your stomach. But remember your part too – you’re here as passive viewer, don’t get involved no matter how hard the pull to intervene.   Besides, you can write about it later.

The show itself is more of an Easter pantomime then serious Mystery play.  A Mummer’s play, begging for coins for beer and clog dancing.  Listen as they sing a version of a Pace Egg folk song…

Pace egg song
Printed in English Folk-Songs (1891), English County Songs (1893). From Gilchrist et al (1906) ‘Lancashire Pace Egging Songs’  Journal of the Folk-Song Society 2 (9) 231 – 236

Consider: there’s something nice in celebrating traditions, but wonder whether the narrative needs challenging, the lack of a black actor, the lack of questioning and acceptance at this use of “black face” in the 21st Century. Consider the roles of the cast: the horse, the king, the Turk, Saint George, a knight, some other characters, remember how the Doctor in the Pace Egg plays of the North West have been studied where the Doctor acts as the narrator and as the saviour of George and his tales of travels are suggested as representing the world between life and death (Harryman, 1999).  Go have some lunch and ponder further.

“We don’t do poached eggs.  Fried or scrambled.” At the café your companion orders Rag pudding “the poor man’s steak and kidney pie” – chips, and peas.  You chat about the play- which is now being performed in front of the triple fork of the Moonraker monument (another made-up story) “What’s ah?” asks one woman to her friend as they come into the café “Oooh, it’s the thingy…”.

The next pub is the Harbord Harbord named after one of Middleton’s famous men.  Don’t expect an origin story akin to Nabokov’s tragic abuser in Lolita, Harbord Harbord was a landowner from Norwich who married into the powerful Assheton family (who “owned” most of Middleton). According to part of the portrait of the town in Agnes Garner Hilton’s semi-autobiographical novel The Promise of Life. A Romance of Middleton Harbord stole Mary from another man.  You sip the yeasty dregs of end-of-the-barrel beer as the play starts up again.

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You watch again.  Thinking that everything that is deemed “heritage” is ultimately made up – perhaps as stories to instill a sense of civic pride, perhaps as a communal touchstone, or -perhaps more problematic – to engender a collective identity. As the Turk cries out “Middleton born, Middleton bred, strong in’t arm but thick in’t ‘ead.”  You conclude there is more than one narrative to this story, that this is but one interpretation of a partly-remembered, semi-researched story.  Your thoughts spread out widely, driving down the roads of Middleton, spanning out through and around the arteries of the borough through Rochdale, Milnrow, Littleborough, over the 1974 boundaries into Rossendale, Burnley, thoughts flying with hen harriers over the trough of Bowland, zipping down the Lune towards the sea.  Think of Lancashire as you type, that there is more than one heritage narrative, one neatly packaged tied-up-with-a-ribbon story placed like a glossy image on the front of a luxury tourist magazine.  Think of this play as a form of “fake nostalgia”, served up and consumed.  Geographer Tim Edensor goes further than this, positing that these stories are produced to create some sort of false memory which is then “externalised, situated and staged outside the local community”.  Perhaps if you been a passerby watching this spectacle you may well have laughed, shrugged, and accepted this show as some sort of ancient tradition.  “We’re jolly boys, we do no ‘arm… An’ we’ve come a Pace Eggin’ as yer very well do know.”

You go to the Boar’s Head watch the play in the April sunshine for the final time that day.  The players head to the Ring O’Bells to hand over their cudgel, take their bows, and spend the day’s collected coins on ale.

References

  • Edensor, Tim (2005) Industrial Ruins. Oxford: Berg.
  • Gilchrist et al (1906) ‘Lancashire Pace Egging Songs’  Journal of the Folk-Song Society 2 (9) 231 – 236.
  • Harryman, K. (1999) ‘”By my travels”: The doctor’s speeches in some North-Western Pace-Egging plays (Traditional English mummery performances) Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 81 (1) 113 – 125.
  • Hilton, A. G. (1936) The Promise of Life.  A Romance of Middleton. Manchester: Sherratt & Hughes.
  • The Middleton Pace Egg Play website: www.pace-egg.org.uk
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