mr. zilla goes to town

Monday, May 02, 2005

maydayhem

(High Street/Magdalen Bridge.)

ANZAC day marks both a focus of Australian nationalism and the time in Canberra when you feel the first chilly nights and light up the fireplace. But for people with upside down feet, May Day a few days later doesn't feature strongly on the cultural or national calendar, except perhaps when the labour movement is steeling itself for some rough years ahead. Similarly I don't recall the day featuring highly on the US calendar, perhaps due to both a fairly weak labour movement and the day's taint of many decades of military parades in front of the Kremlin.

The day in England (and throughout Europe for that matter) has much deeper roots; more about the annual spring rebirth, fertility and reproduction than a mere century-old barney about the means of production.


(Cometh the time, Cometh the Green Man.)

Unless you've been on a champagne and black Russian binge in a black tie river-bourne ballroom on the Thames all night and got back to Oxford around 4am absolutely hangin for a kebab and a breakfast beer -- a fortunate circumstance in which we just got a head start on everyone else -- May Day in Oxford begins with a six AM burst of prayer and choral song from Magdalen College and Bridge, followed quickly by the dispersal of the ten-thousand strong crowd to the innumerable pubs throughout the town for a pint or three. Leading the town in this celebratory charge are Oxfordshire's delightfully barmy troops of hanky-tossing, stick-whacking Morris Men.


(Wild hankies at 10 paces outside the White Horse on Broad Street.)

Having first been exposed to it at length by Australian practicioners at the National Folk Festival, gotta say I love the unbridled merriment of the Morris madness. What in essence used to be a way for medieval farmers to busk and make a few coin with their mates to fund their boozing is now a marvelous excuse for modern pommy blokes to strap their bells to their regalia and apply themselves thoroughly to the tankard. Plus ca change, the more punters love a pint and a shot at a bit of Maypole action, as the saying goes. Without in any sense rejecting their multicultural modernity, a number of the locals I was speaking to yesterday morning really got a great sense of joy out of the sustenance and continuity of a form of very particularly English culture.

Unfortunately I have to report that the day wasn't fun for everyone. One of the other Oxford traditions that some students follow is a May morning leap from the Magdalen Bridge into the muddy river below. This year the five metre drop was into a river barely three feet deep and known to be festooned with shopping trolleys and so on from undergrad hijinks at other times of the year. Despite the police erecting barriers and security guards warning students off, over a hundred ended up jumping, and fifty had to be rescued from the river with broken legs, ankles, feet, ribs, concussion, and worst of all at least one reported spinal injury.

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