I remembered the quote wrong. It’s actually:
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
But it would be wrong to say that the countryside in England is like a foreign country when compared to the cities. That would imply that one of the two is more English than the other. That said, I think it is fair to say that the two are different enough to be different countries.
But, as ever, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Basically, I’m a useless relative. I never go to stuff.
My uncle and aunt own an apple farming business, and every year they hold an apple-tasting day. My aunt has been inviting me since about as long as I can remember, and I’ve never been. But this year, seeing as H and I got married last month, we’ve been too busy to book every day in October up with something. So, pretty much on a whim, we decided we’d go.
‘What sort of an event is it?’ Hannah kept asking. ‘Is it… like… 40 people? 100 people? 10 people?’
And I had to keep reminding her that I’d never been, so I had no idea.
When we arrived there, it was basically a small festival. (See above.)
And we were both a bit taken aback by the scale of it. How come there were so many people? And a mini-fair ground? And a craft fair? And a farmers’ market full of actual farmers? And Morris dancers?
All the cousins and their families were there in high-viz jackets, running stalls of various kinds. The oldest now basically runs the business. And from talking with all of them we managed to glean that it’s been going on for about 40 years. And originally, it was in a barn, and people came to taste apples, and that was it.
But how come, I wondered, it had kept going this long? What was it about tasting apples that kept people coming back year on year?
And then it occurred to me. I’ve been to hundreds of events like this, with the Morris dancers that I play in the band for. It’s just that (a) they’re all generally in the Oxfordshire area and (b) I’m usually fairly tipsy fairly quickly, so I perhaps don’t stop and take in my surroundings as much as I should.
But I remembered: this is how the countryside in England works. Why do we go to these things? We go because we go. We go because we went last year, and the year before that. And the people who we joined who were doing it before us have been going for decades before that. We’re here because we’re here.
It’s not really about apple tasting, or steam engines, or military displays, or a Morris side’s Day of Dance, or an Ale, or even a folk festival. They’re basically just the same as the old ‘fayres’ in the folk songs: Scarborough Fair and the like. They’re really just excuses to socialise.
This apple-tasting day reminded me that the countryside has an infrastructure, and a culture. People go to these events because they’re there, almost regardless of what the chief attraction is. (I know a lot of non-folkies who went to folk festivals when they were young just because it was the only place with alcohol and loud music for miles and miles and miles.)
And that’s perhaps the biggest misconception that people who have always lived in cities have about the country: the assumption that everyone lives alone in the middle of nowhere, and no one knows each other. Everyone knows everyone. And they know because they come to these events. And they don’t come because they necessarily want to eat the apples or watch the Morris dancers, although it’s nice to have something to do when you get there. People are social creatures, and they come to socialise.
The other thing that occurred to me is that the American expression of ‘Country Music’ is actually a very good one.
Most of what is considered folk in England is not particularly traditional. Even Morris dancing is very different now to one hundred years ago. But people don’t actually do it because it’s old. They do it because it’s a part of the countryside culture. And it actually still fulfils a modern function which is just as relevant now as it’s been for centuries.
A band like Show of Hands, for example, seems to me to really be more of a Country band than a Folk band, I think. In that they’re not really routed in the ‘folkie’ culture of Cecil Sharp or Ewan MacColl. Instead, they’re routed in this actual modern world of the English countryside, where everyone is broke, cultural identity is precious, and London seems very far away. (Which is presumably why they’re popular enough to sell out the Albert Hall every year for days on end.)
But I think it’s interesting how few folk bands really seem to capture that sense of country culture. Particularly now, when everyone is young, pretty, well-spoken and classically trained. And to clarify (in my position as a person from a very posh background) there’s nothing wrong with that. But I do believe that English folk music now is really a hybrid between classical music and acoustic indie rock. I’m not a fan of everything Show of Hands does (though I think they have some truly wonderful songs), but I do admire the fact that they seem to be pretty much unique in their ability to represent this countryside culture. They’re not polished for a Guardian-reading audience.
The last thing I learnt from that apple-tasting day was that it’s possible to make cider using the traditional Champagne method.
I don’t remember much after that.