Monday 22 December 2008

Once a year

And so it came to pass. Saturday night saw us in the East Sussex village of Rottingdean with the Mummers Play peculiar to that place. Most villages in England had their own version of this traditional drama in years gone by. Folklorists such as the redoubtable Doc Rowe have made proper studies of this bucolic street (or to be more accurate) pub theatre and have amassed scores of different texts. The thread that joins them all together however is the age-old theme of death and resurrection but their origins are lost in a swirl of time and beer. Characters vary but are likely to include any or all of the following, or more - Father Christmas, The Prince of Wales (or any other monarch) A Soldier, Twing Twang (or any other ridiculously-named village idiot), The Doctor, A Turkish Knight, Little Black Jack or Beelzebub, and a Widow. I believe the purists call this a 'Hero Combat ' play but since I haven't Wikepedia'd it I couldn't comment one way or the other. What I do know is that the Rottingdean play was committed to paper by it's last surviving performer, my wife's grandfather, Jim Copper. Tellingly he wrote beneath the text, 'Faded out 1896'. He was right, too, for his contemporaries had either lost interest or the older players had died and Jim performed the whole play himself one last time in (I imagine) a sort of Tommy Cooper fast hat changing routine. As with his repertoire of songs, however, he was determined that the play wouldn't die, but it was a long delayed fuse that was re-lit in 1971 when various members of the family resurrected it and it's been going ever since. The veracity of the play is confirmed by Angel Thirkell, novelist and granddaughter of Burne-Jones who lived in Rottingdean. The play was traditionally performed in the pubs and the big houses around the village centre and she lived in three of them; in her book 'The Three Houses' she records the annual visit of the Mummers to her home, describing the mens uncomfortable shufflings and awkwardness, also the smell of sweaty corduroys after they'd left. Still, they'd picked up a few shillings in beer money from the wealthy and great. We now confine our 'performances' solely to two pubs in the village and one back at our 'Prince of Wale's' own establishment just up the road in New Anzac. This provides more than enough opportunity to become refreshed with Harveys best bitter and the sword fights, an intrinsic part of this jolly drama, become ever more daring and vibrant. The play concludes with our ringing the ancient Rottingdean handbells, the sight and sound of which is well worth the (non) price of admission, what with there not being quite enough bells, some of the clappers being missing and nobody possessing any skill whatsoever. This does not deter however and we make a brave, if confused stab at at least five carols. The audience, all valiant with ale themselves applaude rapturously as we tumble towards the welcoming bar for a fresh injection of the Lewes medicine. Having been killed for the third time this evening I am once more resurrected, and live, I sincerely hope, to fight another year.Christmas has finally arrived and through this ridiculously charming play we've been given a small glance into what passed for entertainment in years gone by. One thing's for sure...they had fun.

Monday 15 December 2008

Tricycles are nicycles with icicles

More petrol-based stuff I'm afraid but Sunday was my baptism of fire concerning the Morgan Trike. My bro-in-law has recently purchased one of these devices, a Morgan Aero circa 1932. The occasion of our journey was a meeting of The Morgan Three Wheeler Club in miserable weather conditions but taking us on a wondrous route through darkest Sussex. Eccentricity is the name of the game where these game little cars are concerned. Fortunately, 'ours' has three speeds and reverse, whilst earlier models have two speeds and no reverse which makes for interesting manoevering. The ice generated around the carburettor on such a day as Sunday would have gladdened the heart of Frosty the Snowman and seriously increased our fuel consumption. Naturally, once we had become lost a couple of times we ran out of petrol, and whilst contemplating our lot, what should hove into view but a half-timbered Morris Minor, the jovial driver of which made free with his spare can of the precious fluid. On our way once more we fair scuttled along scattering leaves and squirrels before us. The sensation of speed is heightened by the vehicle's being so low - you can place the flat of your hand on the road from the seated position when stationary. Nevertheless it will achieve around 80mph which I should imagine is a truly trouser-changing experience. Not being the sort of fellow who is naturally clubable I was pleasantly surprised by these Mogmen and women...a usefully eccentric bunch, they more than matched their cars which happily took them on jaunts across the Channel to places such as Latvia. Suffice to say we had such fun in this car that I have to say I wouldn't mind one myself. The game's afoot!

Friday 12 December 2008

Gordon's for a tonic.

Another extremely poor shot grabbed on the camera phone as I went in. I almost hesitate to mention this place. It's so wonderful. In Villiers Street the institution which since the 1890s has been Gordon's Wine bar never fails to provide a haven for the weary ad man. An unprepossessing entrance takes you down into, well, a cellar, or series of them. In some parts it's barely posssible to stand upright - and that's before you've imbibed. It's quite gloomy down there as indeed it should be with candles providing much of the illumination, and the flaking walls carry an eclectic mix of printed ephemera - a brave Victorian lithograph of some Boer War action here, or an old Music Hall poster there. You come here to drink wine or it's fortified cousins, sherry or port. Nothing else. The bottles are stacked behind the bar in rank after gorgeous rank and the soft squeak and 'pop' of corks being drawn is the only musical accompaniment to the jolly badinage of the disparate clientele. A perfect spot for assignations, couples who shouldn't be, huddle at rickety tables their faces desperately longing, candlelit in a sad chiaroscuro. Tragic and romantic. Merry businessmen of the camel coat and velvet collar kind get stuck into port and talk of National Hunt Racing and the 'little filly ' who's Robert's new secretary. Tourists sit in wonder and can't quite believe where it is they are - it's so far removed from the London of gloss and glitter. It's rumoured that 'operatives' of HM government frequent the place...but how could we tell if they did? If you've had a good lunch somewhere in Town I recommend that you skip the dessert and make for Gordon's and enjoy a glass or two of Port and a plate of Stilton. Cool in Summer, warm in Winter, Gordon's is the perfect place to waste your time.

Monday 8 December 2008

Is it a plane, is it a car?

This wondrous device was seen at Prescott earlier this year. Constructed by the omni-talented Roger Smith it is a reconstruction of the French Leyat propellor-driven car of the 1920's. There are contemporary photographs of such devices cruising the Champs Elysées although the handling with their rear wheel steering must have been 'exciting'. You'll note that there is a pedestrian strainer across the front of the prop and the whole shebang is powered with, I believe a flat twin ABC engine contemporary with the period. It seems unbelievable now that such a machine could have been developed as a serious competitor to the regular motor car and indeed its survival rate appears to be quite low. There exists a wonderful book covering the exploits of the 'constructeur' as he demonstrated his brainchild throughout France. A fine heavily patinated touring example is on display at the fabulous Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. The one illustrated is a saloon and true to the original is built entirely on lightweight aircraft principles with much wire cross-bracing and canvas seating. This crazily exotic contraption is a joy to behold as it tail-twitches its way up the road conducted by whom?...a pilot or a driver?