Friday, 26 October 2018

Second Place Rosette poets talk traditions and rituals in Britain

Sophie Rowson spoke to some of the poets from our newest anthology, Second Place Rosette: Poems about Britain, about some of their family traditions and rituals!


Kim Russell

Much of my early life was spent with my maternal grandparents, who did everything they could to help my parents and give me and my younger sister a memorable childhood. We had sparklers and Catherine wheels on Bonfire Night and pillowcases for Christmas presents. Nan would take us to watch the crowning of the May Queen and maypole dancing, and every summer she would organise one or two day trips on a coach to the south coast: places like Bognor Regis, Littlehampton and Margate. My nan loved beauty pageants and, if there was one on the television, we’d watch it and vote for our favourites. If there was one at the seaside resort we were visiting, she’d drag us along. I used to dream of being a glamorous girl with bouffant hair in a swimsuit and stilettos, but inside I knew that it wasn’t for me and grew up to be an ardent teenage feminist. 

Louise Walker

The summer holiday at the seaside must be one of the most enduring rituals in British culture and one I have loved since childhood. Nowadays, going to the sea is crucial to my writing ritual and the journey is the process which detaches me from the workaday world. I can’t think of much to beat waking up on the sleeper train from London Paddington and pushing up the blind to see Truro Cathedral while I eat my bacon roll. Or arriving on a tiny plane on St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly in evening sunshine and going at once to have fish and chips at Porthcressa, where my poem ‘An Ordinary Miracle’ is set. To an extraterrestrial visitor, those gathered around the small van parked facing the beach might look strangely solemn, while those inside move gracefully through their allotted roles. Apparently, as in so many rituals, there is a hierarchy: the young ones start by heating up squeaky polystyrene pots filled with vivid mushy peas, graduate to wrapping up the warm parcels, and then to the vital job of taking the orders to pass on to the chef, the high priest. From early morning joggers in Bournemouth to dog walkers on February evenings in Ramsgate, we are all compelled to turn our heads and contemplate the sea as we follow our cherished rituals.

Ian Dudley

On Boxing Day, the Headington Quarry Morris men perform the mummers' play St, George and the Turkish Knight. This is to commemorate the meeting on Boxing Day 1899 between William Kimber of the Quarry and Cecil Sharp the musicologist. Their encounter is credited with kick-starting the revival of Morris dancing in England.

The play is a farrago assembled from centuries-old source material, and tells the story of the patron saint of England (born in Lydda, Syria Palaestina or Cappadocia, but certainly not England) doing battle with a Turkish Knight. In the usual version of the play, St George fights and slays the Turkish Knight, and brings him back to life with the help of The Doctor. In the Quarry, the Turkish Knight kills St George and brings him back to life. Other characters with walk on parts include Father Christmas, Beelzebub, and Jack Finney.

On Boxing Day, the Morris men tour the play round the pubs in the Quarry. The side's final performance takes place outside their home pub, The Masons Arms, in Quarry Hollow. The hollow is a frost pocket, and the audience is shivering but enthusiastic. The performance, after the cast have spent the morning drinking, is not quickly forgotten.

Jo Brandon

My poem First-Footing is about a New Year's Eve tradition that my family used to celebrate. The poem itself became an exploration of luck and superstition and has a more cynical viewpoint than is true of me autobiographically. (I have quite a superstitious streak and knock on wood to keep all things well, so this ritual always appealed.)

Mum told us this ritual was a way to bring good luck for the following year, I don't know where she learnt it from – I should ask but some things blur nicely into family mythology. I do know that it's a ritual practised more in Scotland and Northern England. Different places attribute luck to different physical characteristics, a dark-haired man, for example, is generally thought to be lucky. So, on New Year's Eve just before Midnight we would gather in the kitchen and mum would have got a slice of white bread out of the bag and a piece of coal from the scuttle while my dad got his shoes on. I would hop from foot to foot in excitement, hoping that Dad made it out before the clock struck Midnight (it doesn't work otherwise). Dad would ceremoniously go out the back door and would bring the New Year in with him through the front, we'd close the doors quickly to stop all the heat getting out. It always made me feel like we'd swept out the past year and started afresh. Much more affirmative than the lists of resolutions I wrote and never kept.

Beth Thompson

Walking along Liverpool's waterfront and pausing to look out over the River Mersey. It's a ritual all Liverpudlians entertain and a special one to me. I have an early memory of cartwheeling ahead of my mum and grandma, who had laid out a picnic on the grass and were watching the ferry draw circles back to the terminal.

The waterfront is at once a sublime and meditative space, where the city looks out at the world and the world looks in on the city. In between is a sort of playground for expression and contemplation. At any moment, you'll find similar scenes: couples hand-in-hand, teenagers skating, somebody alone and lost in thought.

I like to sit with a coffee and watch these stories play out, each immersed in the same ritual – drawn to the river's edge. I visit regularly and I'm sure I will do so throughout my life, each time with different thoughts for the river.

I love the contrast between the opulence of the Three Graces, their lofty stare, and the harshness of the steel-grey river. It's as if the city's spirit, its blend of grit and glamour, is best conveyed here.

I think us Scousers are irrevocably connected to our city's landscape, an idea expressed in my poem, Liver Bird.

Rob Walton

For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in Scunthorpe in North Lincolnshire.  For many of those years, in early January, I would read articles in the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph about something known as the Haxey Hood.  There would be photographs of men in strange costumes.  Sometimes there would also be a news item on Yorkshire TV’s Calendar or the BBC’s Look North.

When I moved away and returned in the holidays, I would read about it all over again.

It intrigued me, but I always found it quite baffling.  I was a gormless townie and the Hood was a village thing beyond my ken.

My parents by then had moved to a small town, Crowle, which was only about nine miles away from the Hood, and I often thought of going, but the timing was never quite right.

Last year, at the age of 53, I finally got round to it. I went with my younger daughter to see it for ourselves.  We weren’t disappointed.  The atmosphere was great, people were friendly and there was something deliciously weird about it. 

Parts were gloriously British, parts were wonderfully unsettling and parts were too strange for Royston Vasey. 

Next year it’s on Saturday 5th January (it’s usually on 6th January, but it’s never held on a Sunday).  The Boggins, the Lord, the Fool, the Hood and the sway will all be there for your delectation and delight.

I’m going again, and I’ll probably write another poem about it.

Carolyn O’Connell

The poem I submitted for the anthology is On July 28th and recounts the annual ritual of my sister's birthday party when we were children. We were brought up in London but every year returned to the country where my parents were born.  It was always in the summer holidays and at the time of haymaking. Despite being 10 or 12 we joined in this ritual as other children had done for centuries before us. We would turn the hay with pitchforks that were often almost as long as ourselves with long spikes or gather handfuls of flower strewn dried grass: brown, sweet smelling and filled with dried flowers.  The dried hay was gathered from the fields on horse drawn carts and built into stacks in open barns.We loved the freedom this job gave us. Being in the open field on sunlit days, the smells of horses, grass, wildflowers and hedgerows are deep set memories together with the freedom and total change that children don't have today for its a forgotten way of harvesting.


Second Place Rosette: Poems about Britain is published on 8th November and is available to buy now now. 

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