Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Blackened toast

Politicians generally get short shrift in the Tavern but we are always prepared to be open-minded; this week, therefore, we are raising a brimming tankard to none other than David Cameron.

The Prime Minister was photographed at a folk festival on Saturday amid a Border Morris side complete with traditional costume trappings including - and here's the rub - black face paint.

Given that, these days, an image can travel halfway round the world while the text is putting on its shoes, this could be seen as a somewhat courageous move, in the time-honoured political sense of the word. In the words of one Canadian academic,
"...it seems unlikely that North American audiences who encounter Morris [...] would see in blackface dances anything other than a white peoples' representation of black culture."
Sure enough, even on this side of the Pond, knees are apparently jerking in a veritable Riverdance of protest - at least according to those newspapers doing their best to fan the flames. The Independent, for example, merrily relays this charming example of liberal intolerance:
"If you're a Morris dancer and you want to black up, ask yourself if it's really appropriate. If the answer is yes, you're wrong.”
Never mind over four hundred years of documented practice and the stated aim of disguise, for which soot long provided the cheapest and most effective medium; someone has decided to be offended so it has to stop.

Thanks to recent media fuss over the Bacup Coconutters, whose blackened faces adorned, successively, Will Straw's twitter account and the label of a guest beer in a House of Commons bar*, Cameron must have been fully aware of the implications of posing for the photograph.

While it's unlikely to have lost him any votes - it certainly won't be the Tory faithful carping away on Twitter - it shows a certain moral courage to ignore the critics and publicly embrace a tradition that has been so emphatically misinterpreted.

And a Prime Minister prepared to stand up to the offence-seeking mob and their ill-informed revisionist prejudice is a welcome sight to see.

So, just this once, David Cameron, your very good health!

*Regular readers may remember being subjected to a longer post containing which contains much rambling historical detail and comment.


  1. I see the comments are not particularly supportive of the racism angle. Makes one wonder how deep political correctness really is.

  2. They all seem to forget that long ago the large numbers of manual labourers above ground, never mind below, and workers in the fields had very dirty jobs to do, with limited water etc. to clean up. That and natural sunlight would make them look dark skinned as a norm. Also, there were relatively darker shades among some population groups, described as "swarthy", see many a military record. It was not racial, it was class, so the colouring related to lower orders having their bit of cheeky fun.

  3. AKH you're right - despite the best efforts of the journalists concerned. As far as I can see, the initial reports were relatively neutral but the Independent and the Guardian went straight in with the 'race row' angle, presumably hoping the row would then materialise as a result.

    Demetrius, a good point; men accustomed to seeing each other under layers of dirt or coal might well see it as an obvious exaggeration (and be able to recognize each other when outsiders were baffled by the disguise).

  4. They need to play banjos as well.

  5. Funny you should say that, JH...


    Actually it's guitars, but it's still an innovative touch - being a relatively recent side, they presumably had trouble locating appropriate squeeze-box and fiddle players for every performance.

    The former, in particular, are scarce these days and hence very much in demand (according to a friend who plays the instrument).

  6. Yep, these people drive me out of my tree, Macheath.


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