Monday, 8 June 2009

Mayday in Padstein

This is my first real mission in the search for fun. I'm in Padstow, Cornwall, for Mayday.

It's April 30. Tomorrow apparently the whole town will erupt in fun.

After a drive down, wondering when we're going to have a proper sustainable transport system, listening to the incredible Oreka Tx for the first time - (from the amazing film Nomadak Tx, a multi award winning documentary about musicians traveling the world collaborating, getting up to mischief and meeting wild horse riding, yurt dwelling mongolian throat singers who called the call of the wild so loud my heart leapt up and joined in...)

... then yodelling along to the CD of Chartwell the Dude and trying to master Ave Maria, both the melody line and the Bach Fugue accompaniment alla Bobby Mcferrin, while eating far too much chocolate, wondering when I'm going to stop eating so much sugar, and also trying not to crash whenever I got carried away...

Upon arrival, Padstow appears to be run by Rick Stein. I didn't know that. I eat at one of Rick Stein's restaurants (I don't think I had any choice) after calling Anthony for fish advice (I only started eating  fish 6 months ago after 29 years of fish phobia. "Anthony, I eat Seabass, will I like Sole?" Affirmative.

I started writing this at dinner after text from Mark suggesting travel book. Didn't like that idea, so decided on a blog instead and got started with first post in my notebook.

You know, I'm think I might get lonely on these travels. I think I'll always be surrounded by people, but there won't be much social continuity. We'll see. Maybe this can be some kind of temporary substitute for enduring relationships. Or maybe that'll mean I'll clog up an otherwise interesting blog with random ramblings about my day. Humm. Maybe if I get any readers you can tell me whether or not I should stick to the point...

Right, Mayday eve is apparently the time for singing, so I'm off to try and find some.

After going through every pub in the village, I pass a busker singing "I'll do the job I came here to do, by any means I can."

It's the only singing I can find. Otherwise, it's lots of boozing. People are pouring out of the pubs and flooding the streets. They look healthy and beautiful.

The busker's song is about his politics. He sounds honest. Maybe for him this is a way of forming his feelings into meaning and expressing them out.

How do you feel?

I feel a bit nervous in my friend's charity shop raincoat and my shoulder bag frayed to shreds at the shoulder strap. I feel a bit overwhelmed and alone, everyone is together in community enjoying themselves. I am walking and thinking, before you can gain any trust you probably need to be relaxed and maybe even fit in, or at least make sense.

Maybe the busker will know where the singing is. I stop and perch by him.

People pass.

"It's nice that he's here", a woman says.

Others give money. A young couple stand and listen.

The village centre is decorated by big flags in the streets and on the boats in the harbour. It's a shared thing. Maybe Rick Stein co-ordinated everybody to put up the flags but I don't think so. I think people shared a story that made each of them want to put up decorations. How did that come to be?

The busker finishes his song and I go to speak to him but his phone rings. "They've started singing, have they? Ah well, I'm here now, you'll have to drag me."

Somehow or other, five minutes later John the busker and I are in his car driving to the pub in the nearby village of St Issey. As we walk in, the whole place is singing "let the light from the lighthouse shine on me." The place is packed. Everyone is booming. The sound goes deep into my fibres.

Hang on, I think, this is a Christian tune, but no one seems to care. They know it and they're going for it.

The singing is led by a small group of folkies who stand right in the middle of the crowd, facing each other for courage and because they only know the words to each song between them.

They meet here twice a month, according to the events calendar on the blackboard. That's how they can do this.

Everyone looks rosy.

More songs, the dregs of the pint and then we're back into Padstow for midnight. In the car, John tells me he saw the baker and his wife working behind the till at Tesco. “What happened!?” The baker looked bashful, he says. ”Rick Stein made us an offer we couldn't refuse.”

As we enter the village square, we find this...

(apologies for video quality... my first two little bits of filming and editing in about 8 years and I had to play with some special effects....)

It's incredible, the town is packed. Then the crowd literally goes around the village to the homes of people who have stayed at home, and they sing to get them out. There are whole verses of the song dedicated to getting the loners out of their homes because the whole point is to "unite, unite and let us all unite".

Some sleep and then up for the morning.

At 8.30am the kiddies have their own processions with the mums playing accordions. It's fantastic.

Then mid morning the big version begins:

Sam Lee told me this is the oldest living traditional festival in Europe. It's amazingly cathartic - lots of shouting at the top of your voice - it has a profound community bonding role - everyone - everyone - comes out. And according to Sam there's something trancy about it. The previous year he had that kind of peak experience quality of following the drum and the procession and the music until he was really bored, then going through the boredom and into a kind of trance. For hours and hours he couldn't be without the music.

And they do play it all day.

Later we went to the pub in Padstow and this time there was singing. At the tops of our voices, belting out harmonies, joyful. Cathartic. Fantastic.
This all works because everybody knows what to do, and they know that because it's been happening every year beyond anyone's memory. There's no one story for the history of Mayday, I'm told.
And because it requires no abstract. "Unite, for summer is a come un today." That's it. Let's all get together once a year, isn't it good that winter's over and summer's coming? Good for the fields and the fun and the bones. No one can argue with that. Out on the streets they go.
Is it gold? I don't know because I am an outsider with a mini camcorder in my hand. The insiders look like they're having a gay old time. I certainly think it's good.
Well after midnight, I walk torchless across the fields to the campsite, a mile or so away. As I'm approaching the start of the footpath I'm relieved to see three others heading the same way. I stop to roll up my jeans and tuck them into my socks. A few feet away I hear “Oh that's a good idea.” A woman bends down to do the same, and the others with her follow her lead.
It strikes me that so much of how we learn and what we do is about picking up ideas from each other and copying. It's almost as if teaching is not required a lot of the time.
On the journey I am reminded of an England of old, an England of highwaymen and moonlit paths.
I can discern the path across the field because the trodden earth reflects the iridescent moon, while the matt surface of the ploughed earth absorbs it. I stumble once or twice because I can't take my eyes off the beautiful sky.
What do you do if you were born into a community with no rituals? OK that's rubbish, we've got lots of rituals but this is a good one and I've got nothing like it in my local culture. Singing and dancing in the streets all night with the entire community, simply to come together and welcome the change of season.
I like it. I like applying fun stuff to real things, like a change in season and the passing of time.
How do we do this kind of thing in communities which don't have a deep shared memory and love of a ritual which they all feel they own, together?

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