I’ve been up all night, or at least I feel as though I have, my body clock’s all out of kilter but it’s May Morning, the sun’s shining and the year has begun. I swear I saw some cow parsley in the hedgerows this morning although it’s not normally out until end of May or perhaps early June. I left home at 7.00 last night to head for the pub in Oxford, stopped off on the way to put up a tent in a friend’s garden (because I’m allergic to his cats), so I had a bed for the night and spent a pleasant evening in the pub.
There’s something about staying up all night that many of us probably experience when we are young and prepared to do that sort of thing, but as we get older we do it less. (Shift workers probably never lose touch with the experience.) I didn’t stay up all night, I retired to my tent at 11.30. I’ve decided that, since I turned fifty, I’m only prepared to do an all-nighter if I’m guaranteed a comfortable chair. The last time I stayed up for May Morning all I could find was a log to sit on. This time I certainly felt as though I’d been up all night after sleeping fitfully until 4.08, when a friend helpfully sent me a text to wake me from a dream that I was still trying to get to sleep (try unpacking that one).
Rising at 5.00 to be at the base of Oxford’s Magdalen Tower to hear the choristers at 6.00, the inky blue light having faded to full daylight, there was a tremendous sense of the unreal. People singing and dancing so early in the day, folks dressed up in their finery, the occasional symbolic (and sometimes not so symbolic) representation of the spirit of youthful fertility (Is that the spirit of spring in my trousers of am I just pleased to see you?), the pubs open, going for a full English breakfast before heading home to bed, it sort of mixes things up.
It was two years ago today that I set off on a tour of the country. In the two years that followed that six week writing project has turned into something called: In Sat Nav We Trust – A search for meaning through the 39 historic counties of England.
Here’s an extract from the current draft of the first day:
I’m not particularly into choral music, being more of a blues and soul-funk or alternative rock kind of guy but it has always struck me that events such as this are about quality. I don’t suppose it’s possible to go anywhere in the world and hear a better example of choral music, especially of the olde English Christian but apparently pagan variety (which is a bit odd when you think this is a Christian choir with regular gigs in the college chapel singing at Evensong and the Eucharist). It may not be delta blues, swing jazz, Paul Simon or Talking Heads but it’s probably just as genuine, and is an example of excellence that you’d be hard pushed to improve on anywhere in the world. Perhaps Bill and Ted’s idea of excellence, combined with Robert Pirsig’s concept of quality, is where the good life is really at.
Each year Magdalen College Choir sings at the top of the 144 foot Magdalen Tower starting with the Hymnus Eucharisticus, all terribly churchy. This is a tradition said to go back over 500 years although I’m sure I read somewhere that it was revived in the Victorian period, but such apparent ambiguity is often the way with traditions. They follow with a prayer and a selection of madrigals and medieval songs variously including This is the Month of Maying, The Silver Swan and Sumer is Icumen In.
May Day is one of those great traditions where Christian and apparently non-Christian symbolism is intertwined, such as people often like to point out when they see green man bosses in cathedrals. Of course May Day is replete with May poles, a Queen of the May and all that burgeoning spring and fertility stuff so it’s no surprise that the choir sings a hymn about one of the great Christian rituals, followed by madrigals full of stories of young lads cavorting off into the wild with their maidens to be laid down on the green for a bit of how’s your father; except that this is as far from ideas of your heavenly father as you can imagine. Still religion is often a bag of contradictions but then again so are we all.
Where all this apparent contradiction leaves us is anyone’s guess but I’m sure it’s all very meaningful and, having been to May Morning on quite a few occasions now, standing at the base of the tower feels meaningful to me, regardless of which god, gods or goddesses are evoked by the occasion.
In the past few weeks I’m sure I’ve seen the leaves coming out, I’m sure I’ve been there as the hedgerows turned from brown to green, I’m sure I’ve not slept through the transformation. But not sleeping last night, to then drive home in the morning, it’s like noticing it for the first time; the colours are so much more vibrant, someone turned the saturation up! It really does feel like New Year’s Day.