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England: Music, Beer and Cultural Identity

Updated on January 30, 2013

On the Village Green – it’s an English Thing

England, April 2010.

The village of Hayride (not its real name) is marked on most maps of Norfolk in the tiniest of typefaces, reflecting its size and insignificance. It's only a half hour drive from the county city, Norwich, but it could easily be 300 years away as Time flies. Its appearance is of a village where the clock seems to have stopped sometime during the reign of George III. So what am I doing here on the Sunday after St. George’s Day and why am I telling you about it?

I have been inspired to write this article a reading a recent Hub (Published by MoneyGlitch) that delved into St. George and the Day dedicated to him. In particular, MoneyGlitch's essay asked "Why don’t the English celebrate their own Saint’s Day in the same boisterous and fun loving manner as the Irish do St Patrick’s Day or as respectfully and reverentially as the Americans celebrate say, Independence Day or Thanksgiving, for example? Let me summarise myself now – I still don’t have a proper answer to that question, but here in the Norfolk village of Hayden is about as close as I can come to finding one.

As a working musician I am fortunate to have the pleasure of performing at all types of events and functions throughout the year. This weekend in April is as fine as any that you may encounter in this sceptred Isle. The long, cold Tudoresque winter has finally passed into blooming spring: birds, bees and buds abound, as do shorter skirts on girls and short pants on men, despite the morning chill and the plunging temperatures at night - the English are a hardy lot, governed by nature as much by their ancient social and political hierarchies.

The gig is a beer festival. What a fantastic concept. Forget your medieval worship of fictional saints and mythical dragons - metaphors for ancient wars, there is nothing more English than Beer! The greatest drink in the English-speaking world has to be English Real Ale. It comes in all kinds of flavours and shades, with spectacularly eccentric names. It should be served, not warm like we Aussies imagine, but cooled to just below room temperature – cellar-cool will do. It comes in barrels, and is either hand-pumped from the cellar or ideally, poured directly from atap in a tilted barrel.

The Typical Norfolk Beer Festival

Village beer festivals usually contain the following components: A pub to host the event, (to provide beer knowledge, power and access to toilets). An outdoor area where a large tent can be erected to house the barrels of beer which are arranged on a scaffold behind a bar, upon which sit printed menus describing the various beers on offer. There is invariably a Hog Roast too. In an arrangement made in heaven, live music is intrinsic to a beer festival – I am a musician, I play at beer festivals, I like beer, I live in heaven, simple.

Festivals usually have a blues band on the Friday night, a folk band on the Saturday afternoon, a rocking party band on a Saturday night and either a Skiffle band or a jazz band on the Sunday afternoon – so it is at beer festivals in England. Amen.

We live in interesting times

An icy cold winter. A volcano grounding all airline flights - the epitome of human endeavour - dashed by ash. The Catholic Church is teetering like the Collossus with its foundations undermined from scandal within rather than by a rebellious Tudor King Then there is the election looming in the United Kingdom that has been turned on its head by a progressive Liberal who has sprung from nowhere after a televised debate – X-Factor politics. But.... beneath cataclysmic global events, spring unfolds  benignly in England, just as it always has - which brings us to the St. Georges Day weekend.

On this warm April Sunday, I am the mandolin player in a Skiffle Band. (Skiffle in this context being a raggle taggle English interpretation of old time Americana – bluegrass, Woody Guthrie et al; the musical form emerged in England in the early 1950’s and was played by artists such as Lonnie Donegan. John Lennon and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame were early skifflers.) As well as me, the band is comprised of a lead guitarist, a double bass, a snare drummer and the band leader, an original skiffler from the 1950s named Pete. It is old Pete’s gig, and his band is an almalgamation of musicians, whoever he can muster to play on the day really, but with skiffle, there is a sense of spontaneity, so we can more or less get away with our lack of band cohesion.

Hayride is a picturesque village at the edge of an ancient estate – part of the Tudor empire from the late 1500s I would guess. The buildings are mainly the former homes of estate workers; there is also a pub and an ancient church. A high wall and an arched coach gate at the end of the village lead into the vast grounds of the estate. The cottages are arranged in a square around the village green, which is about the size of a football pitch or a small cricket ground, more or less. There is a brick-built market cross in the middle, the trees form a Constable background to the scene, and butterflies flutter in the spring grass. The beer festival is held on the Green. An open-sided marquee is set up and contains the beer and a space for the band. Outside there is that ubiquitous English beer festival take-away – The Hog Roast - in this case two - as this is going to be a big Beer festival. The two hogs lay contented and dead on steel trays, cooked to perfection in their own juices. I study their browned, smiling faces while queuing for my portion – perhaps it’s the book I’m currently reading (Wolf Hall) or perhaps I am verging on the veggie or the insane, but for a moment I think of the heretics and the papists who were burned at the stake about the same time this village was being built.

No village green would be complete without its WI (Womens’ Institute) Jam stall. Though not strictly a beer festival requirement, there is one here. Red crossed flags of St. George are hung everywhere - across the beer tent, over the hog roast tent and the jam stall, in the windows of the cottages, across the front of the pub and fluttering from the flag pole on top of the church steeple. Down the centre of the green there is a long narrow area cordoned off by red and white pennants with a length of thick rope laying on the ground in preparation for the village tug-of-war. There is also a bouncy castle for the kids.

We drive down from Norwich at midday. Now Norwich is a story in itself, but in a nutshell it is a unique medieval city with a long colourful history which includes invasion, rebellion and progressive thought. It is home to a modern university and a reasonably multi-ethic population of locals, incomers and students from around the world. Politically, Norwich leans well to the left, whereas the rest of the county that surrounds it is distinctly conservative. Drive out of Norwich during a general election campaign and the Green Party posters are soon replaced by those of the Tories. To get to H….. we turn left at a big UKIP sign about 16 miles out of the city. The sub-text of such a sign is one of the reasons many English do not openly celebrate St George’s Day – Nationalist sentiment and Englishness are concepts full of contradictions. The English are a hybrid race, historically composed of immigrants; a race far more diluted than the Celtic Irish, Scots and Welsh. The modern English are composed of Celtic, German, French, Dutch, Afro-Caribbean, East Asian, Australian, American, Chinese, you bloody name it. Nevertheless – in a village like H….. you could be excused for thinking that the English are who they think they are – white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants – loyal to the Queen, respectful of their squires and content with their position in the complicated strata that goes back to the feudal system.

Outside the pub there is a group of local men – Norfolk accents, some shaved heads, but not city people – “You in the band boy?” they ask me. “Sure am.” Then a Scottish accent pipes up “Can ye do any Irish or Scottish songs Lad?” I look them over – it’s a joke – “Sure” I say, “I’ll do a couple of IRA songs if you like” – they all laugh. Then the Scot says “Do ye know any Pakistani songs?”

The event on the Green officially begins at Noon. People walk in to Hayride from the temporary car park in a field just outside the village. Others cycle in from neighbouring communities. They pack the pub with its low ceilings and flagstone floor and spill out into the street, and they begin to queue at the beer tent. The hogs finally begin to look more like pork than martyrs and the older village wives man the Jam stall while the younger ones, in tight jeans and Saturday night make-up, pour pints in the beer tent. Overhead a biplane circles with growling engines while the biggest blokes in the area form into teams for the tug-of-war.

Meanwhile the band, armed with our instruments and free pints of ale, have begun the first set and are attracting the foot-tappers and the head-nodders in the crowd. The sun comes out and recent rains are turned to steam; the beer is flowing, the light breeze flutters the flags, children bounce on the castle and for an afternoon all is well in England. No one sings God Save the Queen but they seem to know the words to 16 Tons and the Wabash Cannonball; I spot not a single vicar but there are quite a few beer-bellied, long-haired bikers. I see straw hats but no hoodies, and just as I am about to pass judgement on the racial mix, I see, scattered amongst the all white crowd, a couple of black faces, smiling too, beers in hand.

Good England 1 v Bad England 1

During the break, someone I know, who lives near the village and is as English and as liberal as they come, agrees with me that it is a lovely afternoon, but he is a little discomforted by the St. George flags and their Far Right, Nationalist connotation. I know what he means but at this event, apart from the lads at the pub, I am not feeling the Fascism, though to be fair, I know it is here in subtle ways. The Flag is obvious – but today is about the pleasures of England and its beer rather than its so called patron saint and its hijacked flag. The scarcity of non-white faces reflects that this is a rural community and that outside of Norwich, ethic groups are thin on the ground, but mostly for reasons other than they are not welcome. But the UKIP and Conservative Party signs out here in the countryside are indicative of an old, reactionary politics too. The prints and paintings in the pub depicting the fox hunt speak of a time recently past, another slice of history consumed by the passage of time. The flags of St George are part of that transition of time too – a symbol of an older England which can be flown two ways – tattooed onto the necks of skinheads or flown merrily atop a tent on a village green during a beer festival. The trick here is to recognise which context the flag is flown in. I still can’t decide, but one thing I do know is that I love playing music and I love beer, and on this particular occasion I have no problem proposing a toast to the village green and all who drink on her.

Good England 2 v bad England 1.

Final Score.


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