Magdalen Bridge, the main thoroughfare across the River Cherwell, is closed to traffic and a large crowd gathers in the road at 6am to hear the choir of Magdalen College sing Hymnus Eucharisticus and other madrigals from atop the chapel tower. It’s delightfully bonkers and, in truth, a bit anticlimactic: all very Oxford.
Many of the colleges have May Balls the previous night so if you go to the Bridge you’re likely to see the wealthier students staggering around in posh frocks and tuxedos. It’s a rare chance to deliver an ‘accidental’ elbow to the likes of the Bullingdon Club before they toddle off into a life of privilege and politics. And every year one or two students try and dodge the security guards and jump into the shallow river below, a tedious tradition of very recent origin that often ends in broken bones and cracked heads and which sadly monopolizes media coverage of the day.
Never mind. May Morning isn’t really about the Bridge or the choir or the jumping students. It belongs to town as much as gown.
For once the choir have finished and the prayers have been said, everyone throngs back up the High, led by teams of local morris dancers and the hopping figure of a Jack-in-the-Green. People are so tightly packed together that you can barely squeeze past the iconic Radcliffe Camera. As you look across the crowds you just catch glimpses of handkerchiefs flicked up above their heads, or hear the sharp crack of hazel staves thwacked together, the distant bump and grind of a melodeon, the insistent shaking of bells. Everywhere ordinary people are dressed in green with garlands of flowers wrapped around their hats or twined in their hair. Pubs and cafes fling open their doors and even welcome musicians, while drunken revelers pour into the streets, baiting grumpy commuters on their way to work. Stoner kids limp in, pasty faced from a night of no sleep and dub reggae out on Port Meadow, ready to give it a little bit more. For a few short hours, the people of Oxford join together to party, and folk customs and folk music are what they want to see and hear.
I fell in love with May Morning the first time I went. That was twenty years ago. My girlfriend painted my face with exuberantly sprouting leaves, and we danced about tootling on tin whistles and swinging from lamp posts. I’ve been going and playing music ever since, most recently with the Hurly Burly Whirly Earl-i in the Morning Band, a group of local folkies, hippies, artists, poets, romantics and ne’er-do-wells. We wear costume, position ourselves in front of the dramatic Tuscan columns of the Clarendon Building (draped in green for the occasion), and play a mix of medieval, English and French tunes on bagpipes, fiddles, euphoniums, concertinas and drums. Rough round the edges and something of a deliberate antidote to the decorum of the Bridge, it’s all a bit rude and rumbustious. Nevertheless we pull a large crowd. Gradually inhibitions fall away and strangers link arms in impromptu jigs or snaking farandoles, brought together in a spirit of rebellious revelry, or what I call revellion, a jovial two fingers to the powers that be. The sight of it lifts my heart.
Over the years my costume and character have evolved. Where once I went out in medieval attire, now I play a curious fellow, quite of my own invention, called ‘the Bosky Man’ (bosky: wooded, covered by trees). I started with morris bells, liberated from a charity shop and strapped to my calves. Then I added a tailcoat and vintage top hat from Portobello Market - a traditional way of mocking the aristocracy - and began decorating it with fake roses, magpie feathers and bones.
And then, in a nod to tradition, I hit on the idea of painting my face, half-black and half-white. I know there are good, valid, historical reasons why folk dancers blacked up - that they were miners or chimney sweeps, or that they needed a disguise - but I doubt I am alone in being uncomfortable with this today: the risk of confusion with 1970s black parody is too great and so it’s not for me. But in any case, I like the indeterminacy of piebald. It connotes liminality, uncertainty, day and night, male and female, the shimmering boundary of inbetween. Just like nature itself, my mask is a bit scary: once I made a small child cry simply by looking at her. But imagine my delight when, last year, the Oxford Times published a photo of me with the caption ‘some revelers appeared in traditional costume.’
And this is the point. The only thing we can say with any certainty about traditions is that they change. However much they preserve the past, they have always evolved, bit by bit, to meet the needs of the present. The Victorian May Morning, with its Christian prayers and madrigals looked very different from the antics recorded by John Aubrey. Ours looks different again and in a very real sense, students jumping from the Bridge, the Whirly Band and the Bosky Man have now all become traditional. Continually applying our creativity and powers of invention is what keeps traditions alive.
And so if, on a May Morning in a hundred years time, when I’m nothing but fertilizer for spring flowers, someone dresses up in a top hat and tails, paints their face black and white, calls themselves the Bosky Man and is a bit rude to the crowd, I shall of course be delighted. My work will not have been in vain.
Up the May!