Most Northern traditions involve beer.
Beer was once a staple food of the North, the idea of it got us through a morning at work, it measured out the time we had for dinner – four pints meant you got an hour, two pints meant you had 30 minutes or were a lightweight – and it made the afternoon at work fly by as you handled heavy machinery. It waited for you in that snug, warm place between work and tea. After tea, there was always the pub to go to.
Then health and safety came in, natural selection went out and beer was wiped from most Northerners’ work days. Now work can be measured by how much coffee you drink. Rather than falling asleep at your computer in a beer-infused dream, you will go on a mad caffeine rampage with a stapler.
Thankfully, beer still features as a major part of the festivals in Saddleworth. Whit Friday means God, brass bands and beer, Yorkshire Day equals families drinking together and Rushcart brings in the Morris Men with beer tankards. Morris Men have been much maligned in the past, jokes ranging from ‘Why do Morris dancers wear bells? So they can annoy blind people as well’, to the ribaldry of English composer and poet Sir Arnold Bax who said, ‘You should make a point of trying everything once – except incest and Morris dancing’.
I met my first Morris Men more than ten years ago. Back then I was young, naïve and had a convertible. I drove everywhere with the roof down so I could feel the wind in my hair and play my music so loud that everyone could hear it. Yes, I was a dickhead. So, there I was, Rage Against the Machine on the stereo, my then girlfriend, Carol (later to be Mrs Oldham), in the passenger seat trying to stop her hair from flying everywhere and as we rounded the corner we came face to face with 20 blacked-up men. It was like the Al Jolson appreciation society. These blacked up men were with another 100 or so Morris Men pulling a cart and a lone Morris Man rode on top of a 16-foot stack of rushes. They glared at me. I turned off the stereo. They jangled past. I slowly pressed the button to put the roof down. All I could think was that this was a deleted scene from the film, The Wicker Man. I drove on, wondering why Al Jolson Morris Men were in the world. I feared that a Gracie Fields’ hit squad was lurking in our village or, worse, I would be beaten to death by a marauding gang of George Formby impersonators, my last words drowned out by the closing chords of Leaning on a Lamppost. Oh me, oh my.
That was ten years ago and nowadays I am more erudite, accepting and have invested in a high level security system otherwise known as a four-year-old; it has stealth technology and is guaranteed to bite or lick you when you least expect it. I now realise, as all rational and sane people do, that there are Morris Men in the world and that they are akin to the creepiest, drunkest, kindest clown you will ever miss book for a children’s party.
Morris Dancing is traditional here in the same sense that flamenco is traditional in Spain; the only difference is that none of the Morris Dancers look like Penelope Cruz and they all have tankards lashed to their belts. Oh, and they all have bells too, plenty of bells. Morris Dancing is not mainstream, there will be no Strictly Come Morris Dancing or Britain’s Got Morris Dancers on your televisions soon. Morris Dancing is so fringe that it has become cool. What’s better than donning the last bells you will ever wear before picking up a two-foot long piece of wood and striking the fingers off another Morris Man? All this to sedate music! You wouldn’t get this at a One Direction gig and they sorely need bashing with a two-foot piece of ash tree.
Unlike One Direction, Morris Men have scars. Morris Men have bruises and cuts. Morris Men sometimes break bones. This year at the Rushcart one broke his ankle. This is hardcore Morris Dancing and next time you take the piss remember this: who’s the bigger fool, you trying desperately to be cool or the Morris Man who will outlast the latest fad? Bring on the dancing. Bring on the tradition. Bring on the beauty of Rushcart.
Life on Pig Row is the story of Andrew and Carol Oldham’s lives as they raise Little D. It all takes place 1,330 feet above sea level in a small hamlet on top of the Pennines surrounded by the Yorkshire Moors. Pig Row is the tale of their move from a semi-urban life at Drovers to a more self-sufficientish lifestyle in their cottage set within a quarter of an acre. It’s not quite The Good Life but it’s getting there. Come take the road less travelled with Pig Row, you’ll find it makes all the difference.