Friday, 11 January 2019

The Foresters Morris Men Plough Play Tour 2018

Plough Monday fell on the 7th of January 2019 and making a mental note of that date, I find myself looking back at a Plough Monday event of 2018. Plough Monday is an ancient and almost forgotten custom, remembered only by a few and kept alive by even less. Traditionally this date which should be the first Sunday after Epiphany (the 6th of January), would mark the commencement of the agricultural year in England.

Many varied customs have been associated with Plough Monday with distinct regional differences. A common feature however, was the hauling of a plough from house to house collecting money. This procession would have been accompanied by musicians and various persons performing a seasonal mummer’s play. Which brings me very nicely to a contemporary performance in Beeston, Nottinghamshire. The one I attended in 2018.

I was well aware that the performers from that well known Morris side the Foresters Morris, would be gathering at the market square in Beeston. I chose instead to make my way to the first pub on their list and meet them for the 8pm stop at the Hop Pole. I did not want to stand in the cold, I wanted a pint.

It was past 8pm when the first member of the troop wandered into the bar of the Hop Pole, a soldier. He laid the basic story or introduction before the assembly and he was soon joined by other characters, one by one performing their piece. A fool, two dames, the most mature farm boy I have ever seen, a quack doctor and eventually, Beelzebub himself. Not a plough in sight but the laudable object of the evening; to raise money for local good causes, maintained that traditional money collecting aspect.

The play performed is a ‘traditional’ Nottinghamshire variant of the Plough Mumming Play or rather as traditional as it can be. The play performed being a very clever composite of three of four, all documented in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire during the early twentieth century.

It is a recruitment play in which the ‘sergeant’ attempts to press varying members of the troop, by presenting them with the King’s shilling. There is a dispute over the paternity of the baby carried by one of the dames, which is itself extremely entertaining. The baby is a boy because he rattles when shaken and he is thrown back and forth, between dame and supposed father many times. One character is killed by the devil, this representing the death of the Old Year but the character is resurrected by the doctor. This of course represents the birth of the New Year. So we see a common folkloric motif displayed, that of the seasons.

The same format that same basic script, is performed gain and again at each stop. Never are the performers word perfect, nor is each performance identical to the previous but rather we witness a variation of a theme. Each is highly entertaining and pleasing to the surprised crowd in each pub.

Moving from the Hop Pole, I joined the troop as an unofficial hanger on. Taking up a suitable position in the Commercial Inn by about 8.30pm, to witness the proceedings over gain and to document them with my camera. Here I could see that the ‘show’ was warming up and the large audience were getting very involved, booing and hissing Beelzebub almost like a pantomime bad guy. After a brief explanation of the performance the troop moved through the crowd collecting money, before waving goodbye and heading for the next stop.

We arrived at the Bendigo Lounge well before 9pm but here it all went wrong. I shuffled in and took position on a staircase, this should have given me a good view of the play. In comes our sergeant who begins his usual spiel but mid-flow, he was stopped by a member of staff. We were asked to leave and I cannot over estimate how shocking this was. The stops for the play are decided far in advance, they are not at all random and each visit is done with the permission of the management. To have the agreement rescinded, without explanation and the proceedings halted so rudely, was disgraceful.

As we left the lounge I told the young man concerned; whose accent was not local, that he was making a fool of himself. I do not believe he understood a word I said, as his reply was a curt, ‘Thank you.’ As a result of this incident and in contradiction to all the other stops, I am unable to give the Bendigo Lounge a positive review or recommend the restaurant in any way. Indeed and unfortunately, I find myself doing just the opposite and can only advise against patronage of this restaurant.

We gathered ourselves together and made our way to the Malt Shovel, rather earlier than planned obviously. Here we were welcomed and although not a busy bar, the audience were certainly entertained. The barman on duty was probably more amused that his customers and I suspect the play was the highlight of his evening.

Soon we were at the Crown Inn and once again, a warm welcome, an active crowd and some rather bemused bar staff. I don’t think they had ever seen anything quite like this play before. The same format, the same welcome and the same bemused looks from the bar staff were again found at the White Lion across from the tram terminus.

I have visited this pub once or twice before. I am not however, a regular. I was pleasantly surprised however, when the landlord recognised me. I had attended a performance of ‘A Christmas Carol’ here in this pub just before Christmas (see link #3 below) and I had enjoyed a rather pleasing whisky on the recommendation of this gentleman. The pub is something of a hub with regards community happenings and always warm in its welcome.

Since we were running ahead of time thanks to the unfortunate happenings earlier in the evening, I could of course have a drink here. This gentlemanly licensee of the White Lion not only remembered my previous visit, he could remember precisely which whiskies I had tried and which one I had preferred. That is what I call knowledge of your clientele. I was very impressed.

Our last call of the night was the nearby Star Inn at about 10pm. The troop ran through their now familiar (to me) performance with enthusiasm, again to the amusement of the public and bemusement of the staff. Looking back I can honestly say that the experience was educational and enjoyable. The Foresters Morris should be commended for their commitment in keeping the custom alive and for their excellent charity work. I do not know how much money was raised for local good causes in Beeston that night but I am led to believe in was a three figure sum. Therefore it gives me pleasure to wish the Foresters Morris great success with their future Plough Play performances.

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