Wednesday, 10 May 2017

On the trail of the Oss, by Anna FC Smith

I have just returned from an intense trip to the West Country, attending some of the May Day festivities that I have long yearned to see. Luck had it that I was down that way for a hen do weekend and so arranged to meet with Doc in Padstow, Cornwall, for the first of their Obby Oss Days. I’d wanted to meet with Doc and gang on the Sunday evening for the night singing but given the nature of my weekend this wasn’t possible. Instead, we met with him on the Monday in a little cottage he had hired with friends.

The weather was fairly miserable, so everyone was taking a break in the dry after having already spent a morning following the Oss around town. This was Doc's 55th time at Padstow, and he and his friends discussed the custom, alongside other customs including Crying the Neck, as we sat around and drank tea. Doc and his friends are all genuinely cool! I know this is a trivial sounding compliment, but I had such a great time hanging out with them all and listening to their knowledge and tales, they are simply the epitome of cool in my world. We listened out for the drumming to see when the Oss were on the move, leaving when we heard the intoxicating beat calling us out.

We joined with the Blue Ribbon Oss. Some of its supporters were decked in flowers and wore blue tourist style anoraks over their outfits. The drums and other instruments were inside plastic bags to keep off the incessant drizzle. The streets were packed and there seemed to be as many people documenting the event on their phones as there were revellers. There were lots of youths drinking, singing and running about like any festival or party, but to the same repeated song, which goes round again and again. The Maysong is a very catchy tune and surprisingly you don’t get bored of it (well, I didn’t). I thought it was interesting how the teasers dance with the Oss in a ‘festivally’ or ‘ravey’ kind of style and the whole event has a revelling atmosphere. Doc told me that the Blue Ribbon Oss was originally the 'Temperance Oss' but that soon after its first appearance, its supporters were as debauched as the other groups.

At one point, we were with the Oss as it was beaten down and so the song lulls into its gentle verse, ‘The Night Song’. I looked up and watched an old lady singing to a baby in a window overlooking the street. I couldn’t help but well up, witnessing the passing on of a custom from one generation to another.

We went in and out of the cottage all day, losing Doc most of the time because he was in prime position at the front of the crowds. We finally saw the two Oss meet beneath the maypole in the centre of the town, and they raucously danced together in the middle of a heaving crowd. They broke branches and flowers off the maypole and after they continued their journey up the hill, I collected them as souvenirs. We left Doc to continue the next few days of the festival in Padstow and headed over to Devon and Somerset.

Doc had given me the number of Paul Wilson, a key organiser for The Original Sailor's Hobby Horse, Minehead, Somerset. They only dance in the evening of the 2nd so we made use of the day by driving over to Combe Martin, Devon. This is where The Hunting of The Earl of Rone takes place every year on Spring bank holiday weekend at the end of May. Though we wouldn’t be able to see the custom, I wanted to see if I could find anything out about it and see its location. I visited the Combe Martin museum and incredibly they had one of the original hobby horses plus costumes for the Earl of Rone and The Fool. The staff told me loads about the custom and one even did a demonstration of the dance they do in the procession. I bought a pamphlet about it and was given contact details for an organiser. As with the other West Country customs, the faces of the horse and the Earl himself is painted in a very stylised form, with bold shapes and colours defining the features similar to Japanese Kabuki masks.

We then set of to meet Paul and the Sailor Horse. We’d missed the start of their procession so were driving around looking for somewhere to park when we heard the drums and the Oss coming down the street. We quickly parked up and then followed the supporters as they danced through the town and out into the suburbs. This horse is more colourful than those at Padstow; it is in a boat-like shape and its top is covered in shaggy ribbons. They stopped on a green where lots of children joined the group and a little girl demonstrated her skill on the accordion.

Here, I got chance to speak with Paul about the custom. He is not originally from Minehead but got involved through his interest in folk music and custom. We remarked how embedded folkies can become in the traditions they take an interest in. I noticed that the horse had someone’s name and dates painted on its side and Paul told me this was to commemorate a young lad who was part of their group and had died tragically young. The horse attended his funeral.

After being on the green for a while, we heard more drumming and the Town Horse came around the corner with its supporters. We were lucky to have bumped into the right horse as we did! Our group decided to go on their way rather than collide with the oncoming troop. There is rivalry between the groups, and a child noted that in the previous year the Town Horse had pushed The Sailor Horse. It was exciting to learn that they were going to dance together later with another horse, the Black Devil, who had not been out for many years. After more processing and chatting, watching the children being chased by the horse, we had to leave for Wigan.

This trip solidified what I want to create for this project. I’ve returned to texts by Jeanette A Bastian, and her thoughts on tradition and carnival itself being the living archive. Seeing how significant events have been captured and marked by tradition, how Doc himself is so entwined with the customs he records and how him and his archive have been the source of newer folk events, I have decided to create a new ‘custom’ and ‘character’ inspired by everything Doc.