Category Archives: books

Maypolar Express (or Dancing in the Street)

A recent mention in a Facebook group of Iona Opie reminded me that in one of her books with Peter Opie they mention children Maypole dancing in Monkmoor. I don’t have immediate access to the book, and indeed I’m not sure which one it was, though I suspect that it was either The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren or Children’s Games in Street and Playground . It was, after all, in the 70s that I read it. I believe they were writing about the late 50s and possibly very early 60s.

The recollection has stuck with me – though I can’t say how accurately – because I lived in Monkmoor in the 1950s and remember seeing older children on at least one Mayday dancing in the street. My admittedly faded memory is in accordance with Roy Palmer’s description in ‘The Folklore of Shropshire’. As he includes The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren or Children’s Games in Street and Playground in his list of references, I suspect that’s the book I read back in the 70s.

He describes how in Monkmoor (and indeed in Ditherington) children set up maypoles ‘consisting of a pram wheel  decorated with red, white and blue crepe paper and streamers, and set on the top of broomstick so that it could revolve. The May queen sat on a stool and held the pole while other girls danced round and sang…’

What did they sing, you may wonder?

The first verses of the song as printed by Palmer closely resembles other songs known at least in the West and East Midlands, and very possibly further afield.

Round and round the Maypole merrily we go,
Tripping, tripping lightly, swinging to and fro.
[or ‘Singing hip-a-cherry, dancing as we go]
All the happy pastimes [or ‘children’] on the village green,
Hurrah ! Hurrah! Hurrah! May queen
[Or ‘Sitting in the sunshine, hurrah for the queen!’ or ‘Sporting in the sunshine with our flowery queen]

The queen would sing something like:

I’m the queen don’t you see
I’ve just come down to the village green
[or ‘I have come from a far country’]
and if you wait a little while
I will dance a may pole style.

A version from the East Midlands then goes into a pair of couplets reminiscent of the ‘Oh you New York girls, can’t you dance the polka’ chorus from a well-known sea song. Palmer, however, shows a lyric vaguely related to ‘three cheers for the red, white and blue’ words often associated with Souza’s march ‘The Stars and Stripes for ever’, immediately followed by a snatch of ‘Rule Britannia’. Perhaps these patriotic sentiments were related to the still fresh memories of World War II?

While the maypole seems to have had something of a revival in English schools in recent years, I don’t remember any of these activities being encouraged at the nearby Crowmoor school, where I got nearly all my own pre-secondary schooling. My own turn around the maypole came in the very early 1960s, when I spent my last term as a junior at the recently-established Harlescott Grange Junior School. Astonishingly, I can still remember the tune to ‘Come Lasses and Lads’ to which we sang a set of words very similar to the lyric here. Here’s an extract from a slightly different version, as quoted in Spring in a Shropshire Abbey, by Lady Catherine Henrietta Wallop Milnes Gaskell

 “Come lasses and lads, take leave of your dads,
And away to the May-pole hie;
For every he has got him a she,
And a minstrel standing by.
For Willy has gotten his Jill,
And Johnny has got his Joan
To jig, to jig it, jig it up and down.”

There’s a demo version of the first verse here:

And that was pretty much it for me and Mayday. At any rate, until learned the splendid tune ‘Staines Morris’ (or ‘Stanes Morris’) a few years later.  Staines is quite a long way from Shropshire, though, so maybe I’ll come back to that in another article.

Roy Palmer’s ‘The Folklore of Shropshire’ is published by Logaston Press,

David Harley

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Pauline Fisk

Sad to hear of the death of Pauline Fisk, whose book Behind Closed Doors in an English County Town I reviewed on the Sabrinaflu blog here last autumn, on 25th January after a short illness. I’m sorry, too, that I never had the chance to meet her, and don’t know her family, so can’t pass on my condolences. If any reader of this blog is able to, please do, if you feel it appropriate.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World

Book Review: Pauline Fisk book on Shrewsbury

Title: Behind Closed Doors in an English County Town
Author: Pauline Fisk
Publisher: Merlin Unwin Books Ltd.
Published: September 2014
Price: £9.99

You might, seeing the title, expect this book to be an exposé of the sordid secrets of the residents of some dark corner of the English psyche with a made-up name like Mudchester. If Mudchester is what you’re looking for, there’s a long tradition of novels ranging from Trollope and Dickens to Jilly Cooper and beyond.

This is something a little different. On January 1st 2013 Pauline Fisk started blogging about her home town (nowadays) of Shrewsbury: more specifically, “things that have interested me, that have caught my attention, made me smile, made me angry, joyful, happy or sad; buildings that I love; people who fascinate me; events that have taken place, or extraordinary incidences of natural phenomena…”

The result is a well-written mixture of informal interviews, historical snippets and anecdotes. This is, in brief, a thoroughly nice (in the best sense of the word) book by a thoroughly nice person – or so I was told by the thoroughly nice lady who sold me a book. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for one of those well-meaning but slightly amateur publications that can sometimes be found on the ‘local’ shelves in small town bookshops. (Not that there’s anything wrong with encouraging local talent that hasn’t attracted blockbuster publishing budgets.) Pauline Fisk is an award-winning author with a track record of novels for the likes of Bodley Head and Faber & Faber, and she has a novelist’s eye for detail and people-watching, albeit with more empathy than some, and an eye for the interesting aspects of story that might, in other hands, seem mundane. And Merlin Unwin, though a relatively little-known regional press, has a reputation for publishing some very classy books such as their edition of Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ with photographs by Gareth B. Thomas.

She points out more than once in that she’s no historian, but there are historical snapshots here that will appeal to anyone with an interest in local history. But this isn’t a ‘period’ piece. For every insight into Shrewsbury’s more-than-usual-absorbing history [example], there are several pieces on more contemporary issues, interviews and so forth. Non-Salopians may not be personally outraged by the encroachment of the aggressively modernist Princess House into the 13th Century charm of the Market Square, but they may well recognize the tone of the discussions

The spirits of Henry Bolingbroke, the young Princess Victoria, Darwin and Coleridge sometimes walk these pages, along with more contemporary names such as two recent leaders of the Labour Party, Robert Plant, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury. However, the interview pieces are not usually with top-ranking ‘celebrities’ (which is fine by me…) They do include notable writers (Peter MurphyMichael Morpurgo); musicians like Dan Cassidy (brother of Eva and a fine fiddler in his own right) and gypsy jazzer Robin Nolan (George Harrison was a fan) and Chris Quinn; artists (Aidan Hart , Svetlana Elantseva; ‘Legendary Shropshire Tweeter’ Shroppie Mon; and people who don’t look for fame beyond the community in which they live, but whose stories turn out to be just as interesting: market traders, booksellers, florists…

Not everyone will be interested in the minutiae of living in a not-very-large town in a large but not heavily populated county – I am, but then I used to live there and still write about the area – but if you think you might be, you won’t be disappointed by the quality of the content and writing here.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World