Today we welcome author A. E. Ryecart to Divine Magazine. She’s a gay romance author, living with Mr. R. just outside London near to a lovely historic town jam-packed with good pubs and cafes.
One of her favourite places to write is the café at the gym. She has an early morning swim, then settles down with the laptop and a strong coffee, surrounded by energy and music.
Today she’s introducing us to a fascinating glimpse of a very English Festival…
The Spanish stage an annual tomato chucking contest, Americans have wife carrying competitions and the Finns dance at the Summer Solstice whilst wearing reindeer antlers (note: I made one of these up). In England we roll cheese down a hill, burn effigies of the Pope on Guy Fawkes’ night and dress a man up as a bush and then beat the shit out of him (note: none of these is made up).
The official name of the annual beat the shit out of a man dressed as a bush competition is the Jack-In-The-Green (or JITG as I’ll refer to it from now on because it’s too damned long to type) which is held each year over the early May bank holiday weekend in Hastings, a small town on the Sussex coast.
Like many English sea-side towns, Hastings has seen better days. Straggling along its long pebbly beach are the usual glut of entertainments: penny arcades spewing out noise and gaudy lights, and rides for the kiddies. But there’s also a swanky art gallery, fresh fish sold from tall, thin wooden fishermen’s huts and an edgy and alternative vibe that centres on the small but appealing Old Town.
But back to the JITG. At its heart, this is a Green Man festival that’s all about welcoming back the spring following the lean months of winter. It feels old and thrillingly pagan although in its current format it’s a revival of a festival that died out in the Victorian period, resurrected by a group of local enthusiasts – and good job too, because the JITG is great fun.
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A key event is the parade. The narrow streets of the Old Town are closed off and instead of cars the roads are thronged with the truly weird and wonderful. Groups of Morris men and women march but these aren’t the hanky waving, bell ringing variety who leap and skip in flower bedecked hats. No, these are Morris with attitude. Blacked out faces, top hats like the ones old fashioned undertakers wore, capes and coats covered in black and purple streamers they march to the heavy beat of drums. These aren’t the guys who haunt your dreams, not dance at village and church fates. Huge papier mâché models are carried along, some as tall as a house, of animals and wide-eyed – and scary looking – men and women. Some of these models are downright creepy and remind me of those carried in the Spanish festival of Las Fallas which takes place in Valencia. I don’t know who or what the JITG models represent, but they send a delicious tingle down the spine. And then there’s the greenery. Everybody who lines the parade is expected to be wearing a sprig of green. If you’re not? Well, expect to get a dab of green dye blobbed on your nose. The star of the parade is Jack himself, the aforementioned man in a bush. Some poor soul staggers along, weighed down by more foliage than can be found in a garden centre. And then they beat the shit out of him. Not in the middle of the parade, in front of the kiddies. No, that happens later in the day on top of the hill by the ruined castle.
The parade is fun. All the pubs are open and a pint or three is obligatory. And believe me, a drink it required if the trek up the hill to the castle is to be made. It is there, amidst the ruins of the first Norman castle, that Jack meets his sorry end. Pushed and shoved, bruised and beaten, Jack is eventually slain, his death allowing spring to – well, spring forth and bathe the land in warmth and sunshine (or not as the case may be: remember, this is England where warmth and sunshine are in short supply).
Really, why chuck a tomato, carry a wife or dance in antlers when you can beat around a bush?
Want to find out more about this quaint English tradition?
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