A Dorset life for me
By Roger Guttridge. The illustration is by Becky Unwin
Published in December ’12
It’s as well that I knew nothing of Mummers’ plays in 1957, for if I had, there would have been carnage in the playground. I would have cast myself in the role of St George, whose role in this traditional Christmas drama is to slay the dragon or the Turkish knight and thus vanquish the forces of evil.
If John Fish is reading this, he will be surprised – astounded even – to find himself cast in the role of the evil dragon or the Turkish knight. (What’s so bad about Turkish knights, anyway? A legacy of the Crusades, I’ll wager.)
I still bump into Fishy from time to time, usually when I’m revisiting my childhood stomping ground of Sturminster Newton, although most recently when we happened to stray into Somerset on the same day. I, returning from an event at Street, was trying to extract myself from the mayhem that is Glastonbury Carnival; Fishy was the street marshal that I chanced to approach to assist my escape. He was, as ever, a model of helpfulness, offering coherent directions with a cheery smile. The man does not have an evil bone in his body nor, I imagine, does he have a great deal of noble Turkish blood in his Blackmore Vale veins. He may be Fishy by name but definitely not by nature. But that was not how I perceived him 55 years ago.
The scene of his ‘crime’ was the playground at Sturminster Newton County Primary School, an institution since renamed after a man who had more than a passing acquaintance with the Mummers’ play. The dialect poet William Barnes – born and raised just across the river from the very same playground – was steeped in Dorset tradition and as ready as any to slay the evil knight. Barnes defined Mummers as ‘a set of youths who go about at Christmas, decked with painted paper and tinsel, and act in the houses of those who like to receive them a little drama, mostly, though not always, representing a fight between St George and a Mohammedan leader, and commemorative, therefore, of the Holy Wars. One of the characters, with a hump-back and bawble, represents “Old Father Christmas”.’
Old Father Christmas was also at the heart of the yuletide bombshell that Fishy dropped in the aforementioned playground in 1957. ‘Father Christmas?’ he sneered. ‘You still believe in Father Christmas?’ He proceeded to explain that it was all made up – a figment of grown-ups’ imaginations. Or juvenile words to that effect.
I stood my ground, argued my case. Why should I not believe in Father Christmas? The evidence was indisputable. I’d seen the bearded fellow in his grotto more than once. And in the early hours of every Christmas morning, my presents duly arrived, just as my parents said they would. It never occurred to me that I might be the innocent victim of a well-intentioned deception by those same parents.
Despite my protestations, His Fishiness had sown a seed of doubt in my mind. After school, I raced home to Mum in search of clarification.
‘John Fish says Father Christmas isn’t real,’ I bleated.
‘Don’t you listen to him. Of course he’s real,’ she replied. Or maternal words to that effect.
Coming from my most trusted source, this was all the confirmation I needed. In the school playground next day, I couldn’t wait to tell Fishy that his information was erroneous. It must be because my mummy said so.
I don’t know how long it was before Mother admitted that John Fish had been right all along. But I remember my feelings when she did. I felt deceived, let down, foolish. In a juvenile kind of way. How could I ever face Fishy again?
Fifty-five years on, I’ve forgiven them both, Fishy for his brutal playground honesty, Mother for perpetuating the myth beyond its use-by date. But perhaps I should also be thanking them. For the episode taught me a lesson which has served me well as a journalist and as a person – a lesson which, I perceive, many adults have yet to learn. Namely the lesson of discernment – of recognising that being told something doesn’t necessarily make it true, however trusted the source. And that doesn’t just apply in the school playground. It’s one giant leap, I admit, but how many wars and atrocities might have been avoided if the dogmatic utterances of state and religious leaders were treated with a tad more caution?
On one level the mumming tradition is a bit of harmless fun but on another it reflects the longest-running feud in history. In The Return of the Native, a novel penned barely 300 yards from the abovementioned playground, Thomas Hardy describes the Mummers’ play as an encounter between those who ‘fought on the side of Christendom’ and those who ‘fought on the side of the Moslem’. In Hardy’s version, Father Christmas carries a club and Eustacia Vye, standing in as the Turkish knight, is duly slain.
Mumming has died out since Hardy’s day, but were it to be revived, a new script might be required – one in which St George lays down his sword and shakes hands with the Turkish knight. Peace in our time. John Fish, shake my hand.