About a year after I started on the folk singers my friend Ruth Noyes, librarian at the EFDSS, suggested that I should photograph some morris dancing. I was sceptical (and still am to some extent) but, on Whit Monday in 1963, I was persuaded to go to Bampton in Oxfordshire, mecca for the ‘Cotswold’ style of morris dancing for centuries and one of the great annual gathering places for folkies. It is on Spring Bank Holiday nowadays if you want to go. Cunning Ruth knew I would love it; postcard village, plenty of ‘Big Houses’ with lawns to dance on and spectate, lots of pubs, two full teams of dancers (three now – it’s not all bonhomie and beer in morris dancing) and guest teams in the evening, though that day I moved on to Headington Quarry, Oxford, for their annual evening turnout. Ruth certainly got me going...
I soon realised Bampton and Headington were part of a rich tradition of customs and events which happen on the same day (or near) in the same place every year, known in folklore circles as ‘Calendar Customs’. Before long I had embarked on what turned out to be a thirty year adventure photographing UK customs and traditions, some of them several times, albeit with a gap between 1973 and 1979/80. I managed to cover about 200, plus more general folkish things such as green men, superstitions, folk art and holy wells, but this collection is by no means comprehensive. For one thing I was paying to do all this myself, many, many, tens of thousands of pounds, to the indignation of my bank manager, who did manage to influence me to the extent that I sometimes felt obliged to abandon a custom (for a whole year) when well paid work was on offer. I never dared tot up what it actually was costing me. When I started the project I was thinking it might end up as a spread in a magazine, maybe even a book or an exhibition. The EFDSS certainly got plenty of black and white prints and so did the people I was photographing, but nothing much else happened until, in 1972 I was invited to advise the BBC on a film about calendar customs, The Passing of the Year. This involved taking the director, Barrie Gavin, around to see a varied and suitably photogenic selection that year followed by the actual filming the next. Plenty of opportunities for me as well, of course, but when the film was shown I was the one in hellish trouble because one of the Bampton Morris sides had been extensively shown and the other totally ignored, provoking a furious phone call from the wife of its leader as the credits rolled. Furthermore I couldn’t go back to the North East for years because both the sword dance teams we had persuaded to turn out specially for the cameras had been edited out altogether!
I stopped photographing folk things in 1973, because I simply couldn’t get anyone outside the comparatively small ‘folk’ community to show the slightest interest. Perhaps it was because most of the pictures were in black and white. In the early sixties most periodicals were printed in black and white, indeed most photography was black and white and we got paid extra to work in colour. So the first ten years of these custom pictures were essentially done this way with some colour for luck – which turned out to come true to some extent as it is some of the earliest colour you will see in this field. Nevertheless, if asked, I would say that the black and whites I did in the sixties are my best custom pictures.
I spent the next seven years on proper work, much of it multi projector slide-tape productions for training purposes, conferences, promotions or simply for people to look at in reception when waiting to see someone upstairs. It was fascinating work in all sorts of businesses, all over the country, entirely in colour, so when I came back to the customs in 1980 I was more inclined, and much better prepared, to tackle them in colour.
I took up the customs again because I was asked to do a book about them. Though I had a lot of material already I felt I had to update it and add many more. This time I worked in colour, with black and white on the side for old times sake. Mind you, though I still like them the old fashioned way, it is definitely not recommended by serious snappers to shoot colour and black and white simultaneously. Apparently it addles the brain. I have done it all my photographic life so I guess it must be true. But I still don’t accept that colour is ‘better’ than black and white. Different. More ‘information’ in colour of course, but very often too much. Still, black and white has become a useful shorthand for ‘history’ in books, magazines and newspapers and therefore I would like to point out that even my most recent pictures are 25 years old and some of them go back to the late 1950s. On the other hand I do accept that spectaculars like Notting Hill Carnival are all about colour.
I researched, wrote, photographed and fought with the publisher for five years. I guess what he really wanted was little girls in Laura Ashley dresses dancing around maypoles, but The National Trust Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain did get published in 1985, more or less little girl free. During 1984 and the beginning of 1985, in pursuit of evidence and up-to-date pictures, I had covered over 60 customs, from Shetland to Cornwall - and sworn an oath never to attend another, though I did do a few more later, mostly customs I hadn’t seen before.
So what did I think of the customs myself? Well, I loved them, as can be plainly seen in these pictures, and in the book. I hope. But I never wanted to take part in any of them, for the fairly obvious reason that you can’t leap about and take pictures at the same time. Even getting too matey can be unhelpful; if you are one of the gang they fool about and make faces for the camera. I might have seemed a bit stand-offish at times, but I wanted to be as objective as I could be. Also you have to pay absolute attention to what is going on. Good photographs are not achieved by hanging around in the pub drinking, however ‘real’ the ale may be. Boringly, I have to insist that I am a photographer first and a ‘folkie’ by association.
Still I was intrigued by the motivations of the participants, who all know each other whether performers or spectators. My favourites were the actual folk customs like dances, plays, street football and, especially the spectacular fire ceremonies. Not that keen on May customs, though. Too much coercion of kids to the glorification of their parents, too twee, too much National Trust. Not that keen on ‘customs’ that were invented last Tuesday, either. Surely an event becomes a custom, by definition, after a few centuries. These tend to the work of ‘professional’ folkies from outside the area who are doing them entirely for each other. These are pretend customs, not interesting. Processions and civic customs are sometimes spectacular; but I suspect that the grander ones, even if they have impeccable origins, continue in their dressed-up way because of the self-importance of the dignitaries involved. I have never liked Christmas much, with its moral blackmail and grizzly office parties and Santa transformed from a jolly bringer of presents to a ‘chugger’ demanding money with menaces. In 1985 I was asked by the late magazine Illustrated London News to produce my take on the Festive Season for a spread the next year. I worked very hard, including Christmas Day. When publication time came the picture editor rang up to say ‘Look, we have a new editor and, inevitably, he doesn’t want to use the story.’ Freelance life strikes again, though I did get paid. However, looking at the pictures again I can see there might have been other reasons they didn’t want to use them!
Anyway, enough moaning. I have the utmost respect, love and admiration for all the folks I met and photographed over those 30 years, and I made many friends. I hope they are not disappointed by my qualified enthusiasm. My beard remains a photographer’s beard and not a folkie’s!