Monday, April 19, 2010

Improbably Nimble...

Improbably nimble... that was a description offered during a conversation about some Morris Men. Not, as it happens, the ones I spent this weekend with. But pretty darn accurate.

We set off Friday night for Dranouter - five of us in one car, the rest all making their way across the channel (none of us by air, thank goodness, as the Icelandic volcano put paid to any flying this weekend).

We arrived in good time and (nearly all of us) met up for an evening meal. There were 18 in the crew altogether - that's musicians, dancers and support team. I was in the band (I've never really been much of a dancer, alas), on the bass in place of their regular chap who was off in Singapore or some other far flung place.

We had a superb meal and the menu had about 40 different kinds of beer. I looked at the wine list - it simply said 'Glass, 1/2 carafe, full carafe' and prices - not so much as a 'red' or 'white' let alone any kind of further descriptor or choice! I guess it shows pretty much where the Belgian loyalties lie.... beer!

The following morning I abandoned my room mate (Natalie) and went for a wonderful walk in the woods just by the hotel on Mont Noir. It was beautiful! Sunshine, birds singing... the perfect morning. And a pretty good start to a rather good day. The reason Albion Morris were playing in Dranouter is that they had appeared at the Festival for something like 35 years! And some of the original dancers were still in the troupe. They were booked to play their last official gig at the Folkcentrum, which is a cultural centre and includes - as well as a super little venue and restaurant - a folk museum. So - how old do you think the guys felt when, watching a historical film, they saw themselves?! I guess when you find your childhood memories in a museum it's nostalgic enough... but to find yourself in a museum? That's a little scary.

In the afternoon, four of us went into Ypres (but spelled the Flemmish way) to the exhibition in the town hall: "In a Flanders Field". It was intensely moving and quite extraordinary. The first world war has shaped this country. Ypres was occupied, not by the Germans but by the British. And we brought with us Chinese, Australians, Sikhs and Moors... the whole city turned into a massive military camp. The terrible conditions are described often enough on screen, but to see the conditions and the photographs of the actual trenches, the bodies, the gas masks, the total destruction that hit the city - it's mind warping; and soul rending. If you go to Belgium, visit this exhibition if you can.

The afternoon we had a workshop scheduled - teaching non-morris dancers how to do some dances. Some local folk dancers joined, as well as some very small children, and they learned three dances (one of which seemed to take forever and by the time we played the tune for the 17th time we were quite ready to murder the dance teacher, Ada). We then had a meal and a chill out before our performance in the evening.

I have to say the dancers excelled themselves. Considering the team was augmented with members of Brighton Morris as so many of the original Albion crew couldn't make it, some of whom had not danced those particular dances before (or in those particular traditions), they did fantastically. I certainly didn't spot a wrong move, but then again I was concentrating like mad on the music.

I did hear that Stuart got hit on the head, but I missed that particular event. All I saw was some great dancing, a very enthusiastic audience and enjoyed the fantastic atmosphere.

At the end of the gig - which was quite emotional for everyone really - two 'Albion groupies' sang a song they had written especially for them. They'd been to see the team for more than 20 years... that's loyalty! And the song was very funny too.

Our hosts were amazing - always looked after us with drinks vouchers (thankfully they had an excellent cider) and made sure we had a superb sound and generally looked after us. You couldn't ask for more as a performer.

After the gig finished the evening continued with a song session led by Ian from Brighton. It was very entertaining - loud sing-along songs which perhaps bamboozled the locals, but entertained them none-the-less. With a most bizarre version of 'Music Man' and many other shanty type songs, I had a wonderful time singing along and relaxing after the intense concentrating of playing (the morris tunes are not one I'm really familiar with and I had to work hard!).

The session ended at around 1.45am, and it was weary, emotional and happy we all returned to our hotel rooms. Mind you, one member of the cast was poured into his room - having eventually been prised away from his best friend, the pillar, without whom he would have been bereft (or just in a heap on the floor). One of the dangers of so many beers and so little time.

The following morning I went with Stuart and Daphne into Popperinge where we visited Talbot House. This building was run by a military cleric, 'Tubby' Clayton and was a haven for the troops. No matter whether you were a colonel or a private, within its walls there were no ranks and everyone was treated equally. Tubby built a chapel in the roof, and his services were always full. So many of those men he ministered to came once, and never came again - never breathed again. Whatever your religious beliefs, he performed a great service, and you can understand why, in such terrible times, people clung to any belief that offered hope in such circumstances.
There was a beautiful garden, a concert hall (from a nearby house which Tubby comandeered without permission from the absent owners), a contemplation room, a billiards table, piano (which is still played today) and an opportunity to return to sanity for an all too brief moment.
We headed home Sunday afternoon after another lovely meal at the Folkcentrum - the trains were crowded with people. It was the end of the weekend, the end of the Easter break and also full of people desperate to get home because of cancelled flights. All in all I had a terrific weekend - excellent food, drink, company, music, dancing and singing. I saw long tailed tits, and heard the most wonderful song from a blackcap. I visited two museums and also the small cemetery at Dranouter. I had plenty of opportunity to contemplate, and to enjoy. A perfect weekend.
I'll post a link to my photos as soon as I have uploaded them.
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