Ye Gods! Who or what are they? They dress only in black. (Johnny Cash afficionados?) They have black faces. (But they’re nothing like the Black & White Minstrels.) They scurry around whacking people with clubs… I’ve given it away now, haven’t I?
You’re still wondering what these gothic and possibly pagan performers have to do with God being an Englishman. Fair enough. Let’s get the Men (and Women) In Black out of the way first.
They’re Wolf’s Head, and describe themselves as a men’s border style Morris side. That’s Morris as in Morris Dancing. The women, including Emilia in the picture, are from Vixen, “the contrasting ladies side”.
They’ve been dancing together for about 15 years, appearing at folk festivals, village fetes, schools fairs, weddings, new age/pagan conferences and “will consider all invites big, small, conventional or just plain weird.” I saw them supporting the launch of Cole Moreton’s new book, Is God Still An Englishman? at Wallspace at All Hallows on the Wall in east London. (More on the good book below.)
But hold on a moment. What on earth am I doing associating with something so uncool, sad and geriatric as Morris dancing? That quintessentially traditional knee-britches wearing blemish on English culture? I’m not even English. And I’ve always known that Morris dancing is rubbish.
Well… It was like this…
- Some Morris dancers performed in our village a few years ago. As I observed them I sniffed with disdain. There are few certainties in life. But that I would never ever have anything to do with the likes of that cavorting was definitely one of those certainties. But then my daughter wanted to join in, and wanted me to hold her hand, and what could I do? On the one hand, I was horrified. On the other, it was she who was asking. So that was my first experience of Morris dancing. It wasn’t pretty, but we both emerged uninjured. (Apart from the lasting wound to my psyche.)
- I had some dealings with a most unusual Morris dancer. No beer belly. Not even a beard. And she was a woman. She was credited with reinventing Morris dancing as a performance art, mainly through the innovation of introducing actual dance. A radical and iconoclastic move. (And if I manage to recall her name I’ll add it in.)
- Then a few hours ago I witnessed the menacing moves of the Wolf’s Head borderstyle Morris side. (See pics above.) The music is better then the usual accompaniment. Richer, darker, more driving and lively. Something you’re not so embarrassed to find yourself enjoying. As if the Pogues joined a biker gang of vampires, and then took up Morris dancing. (There’s a video of them in action at the bottom of this post.)
- And they do like their ale. As do the old-style jingly jangly Morris men. Which makes up for a lot I find.
So now things are different. I’m still not English. But Morris dancing does not seem so rubbish.
Which means I can eventually get round to dealing with Cole Moreton’s question: Is God still an Englishman?
But surely that begs another question. When did God become English in the first place? I must have blinked and missed it. Aah no, wait, according to Cole it happened before my time.
So tender a care hath he always had of that England… His chosen and peculiar people. (Dramatist John Lyly, 1580, suggesting England was the modern equivalent of the tribe of Israel in the Bible.)
Or as a more direct Bishop of London put it in 1589 (the year after the victory over the Spanish Armada):
God is English.
An Irishman explained the situation more recently.
The English think God is an Englishman. (George Bernard Shaw, speaking to the New York Times, 1911)
Aah, so that’s how I missed it. It’s the not-being-English thing. Bit like the Morris dancing.
So how did God’s chosen people become a society, as the current head of the Church of England, Rowan Williams, put it, merely “haunted by the memory of religion?” Is the English God dead?
Cole Moreton’s book is subtitled: How we lost our faith (but found new soul). It’s partly about his personal journey. He says: “I want some solid ground on which to place my feet. I have moved during the course of my life from extreme certainty of faith into doubt and onto wondering whether it is still possible to believe in anything at all.”
It’s also about how Britain has been transformed over past 30 years. “We begin in an age of relative certainty, looking at where English belief (and the self-belief so closely linked to it) came from and discovering just how flimsy it was. The second section investigates how everything fell apart, uncovering a remarkable secret history of blunders and battles over sex, money and power. The third part asks what we are becoming now.”
The book is a fascinating and readable read. Cole Moreton wears his erudition lightly. He’s full of sympathy for the human condition. He’s not prescriptive, but takes you on his search for answers. It’s often fun. I commend it to you.
But how does it all end, I hear you ask? Is Christianity finished in Britain? Is the English God dead?
Look. You should really read the book, OK? Just buy it. It’s great and it’s got a lovely cover too.
Oh alright, alright… According to the bumpf on the dust jacket, Cole “reveals how a constantly evolving but uniquely English spirituality remains at the heart of who we are.”
Or as he puts it himself inside, towards the end:
The English God appeared to be dead, but it wasn’t true. He was just regenerating. The obstinate way in which people refuse to stop believing has given Him new energy, but He has also changed so much. He looks both male and female now. He quotes from the Quran as well as the Bible, and many other books besides. He doesn’t care whether you are straight or gay, married or cohabiting, because there are much bigger things to worry about… If you listen carefully, you can hear him humming ‘All You Need Is Love’. He’s a bit of a sentimentalist, but has at least rediscovered his sense of humour.
On which note I’ll stop for now. Except to give you the Wolf’s Head video I promised you. Here it is. You’ll get the gist of it after a minute or so. The bloke who walks in front of the camera in the middle of the performance is Cole.