Oliver Cross: Who’d have thought Morris dancing could be this fun?

Morris dancing isn't just for men with beards.
Morris dancing isn't just for men with beards.
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I’M DOING an exercise in extreme reading, taking on two huge books at once, just because they’re there.

At THE Bank Holiday weekend, I thought it might be a good idea to see whether there was a local venue holding an interesting event which I could write about, this being a lean time for news, unless you count the Middle East falling apart and alarming volcanic activity.

And guess what? It turned out that the Chemic Tavern, in Woodhouse, Leeds, which I visit so seldom that I had to remind myself of its location using GPS technology, was holding a surrealist weekend involving a cider festival and apple-cheeked female Morris dancers performing at a venue – the Chemic car-park – so thoroughly inner-city that you wouldn’t have thought that it would be good for anything other than rap, hip-hop, arguments or conversion into yet more student flats.

The car park is surrounded mainly by red-brick, back-to-back Victorian terraces and the back wall of an old factory. It could not, despite the cider festival, be mistaken for cider country, such as Somerset or Dorset, unless you knew that this area of Leeds, being an inventive sort of place, is rather good at turning the unpicked apples which pile up in students’ gardens into organic, locally-sourced cider, which, were it to be sold by the Prince of Wales under the Duchy brand, would be out of the reach of many of the locals.

But here it comes free, it being a community resource, like the elderberries and brambles growing on spare land all over the city and waiting to be turned, by way of an exciting concept called guerrilla gardening, into pies, wines, cordials or other delights.

The four young women Morris dancers were having to work double-hard because their troupe, usually at least eight-strong, had been depleted by the Whitby folk festival, which hoovered up most of Yorkshire’s available female morris dancers. However, by moving around energetically and smiling as if there were no staff-shortages (which is, come to think of it, how many service-industry employees are forced to operate), the dancers charmed everybody and drew many of the audience, including children and some men, into their complex dance patterns.

I might have joined in myself, had I not recognised that, given my coordination issues, the possession of a slap-stick, to be banged in time with other dancers, would probably have had police and A&E consequences. But it was refreshing to see young women Morris dancers, the typical Morris dancer being a grey-bearded man who possibly took up Morris dancing during the folk revival of the 1960s and is by now hobbling a little.

I’ve always regretted that my parents didn’t order me to take ballroom dancing lessons when I was younger, not that I would have taken any notice, having discovered the joys of free-form disco dancing, one of the few physical activities which doesn’t require its practitioners to know their left from their right.

The value of ballroom dancing, from a health point of view, is that it’s a form of activity you can pursue into old age and is therefore likely to do you more good than energetic sports which you will probably be forced to give up just as you enter the heart-attack danger zone. I remember David Cameron talking with great distain about how some schools were teaching Indian dancing rather than proper, competitive public school sports, such as cricket or rugger.

But folk dancing, whether Indian or Morris, requires a degree of team-discipline and fitness that would be of lasting benefit to many children. Cricket, on the other hand, is an utterly worthless activity for children who lack the coordination to do anything useful with a ball (eg, me and many others).

YOU MAY not have noticed that Libya, following the British-backed overthrow of the odious Col Gadaffi, has fallen into a state of bloodshed and chaos.

This is because World Opinion, which has a goldfish-like attention span, has moved on to Syria, Iraq, Islamic State brutality and the question of whether western intervention is called for. David Cameron, who on a visit to Libya in January 2013 declared he was proud of the country’s “democratic revolution”, is understandably keeping his mouth shut.

I heard George Galloway, the Respect MP for Bradford West, who I don’t like, argue on the radio that the very last country which should be thinking of intervening in the Middle East is the UK, the history of British involvement in the area, from the days of Empire to the invasion of Iraq and beyond, being an object-lesson in making bad situations worse.

Of course something more than hand-wringing needs to be done to avert further tragedy, but we’re the wrong people to do it. Perhaps it’s time for the United Nations to find itself a use.

I’M DOING an exercise in extreme reading, taking on two huge books at once, just because they’re there.

I’m re-reading, for the third time and because I don’t know of a more engrossing, astonishing book, Dickens’s Bleak House along with my first JK Rowling novel, The Casual Vacancy.

I’ve avoided Rowling up to now because I don’t like fantasy, although I do like Dickens’s near-phantasmagorical characters – people who, although thoroughly real and with no magical powers, are so extreme that they seem like bad dreams. They abound in Bleak House, including Krook, the rag-and-bone dealer who spontaneously combusts and is reduced to a foul smell, a patch of soot and some burned leg.

Rowling can’t quite go that far, although both novels are supposed to be realistic (Dickens insisted that spontaneous combustion was a natural phenomenon) and both are state-of-the-nation reports on England from top-to-bottom – from Jo the crossing-sweeper to the imperious Lady Deadlock in Bleak House and from the dysfunctional Weedon family to the monstrous local businessman Howard Mollison in The Casual Vacancy.

Both are interim reports on the country we live in, as well as well as great entertainments, but I think things are helped by my reading Dickens on Kindle and Rowling on paper-and-ink.

Somehow, juggling two books becomes easier if one of them isn’t actually a book, one which, if dropped, could damage your toes. You can have both a Kindle-book and a book-book on the go without causing undue confusion.

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