The Diary A strange week

Only this time last week, I was recovering from being at Goodwood for four days and trying to find a winner on Saturday. Same-o same-o. The next day a drinks party, where I was told of a girl in Hungerford, who is a tailor. As I am in need, following the significant disruption to the suiting at Goodwood, I must pursue this avenue. On Monday, off to the NHS eye man, who confirmed I needed an eye operation which will allow me to drive…….. better (?). Work occupied some time, sorting out a website for a client and working on the launch of a new restaurant/bat in Farnham. We took a nephew to the flicks and had fish and chips afterwards. He seemed strangely pleased. We saw the Lion King, the filming of which was of an extraordinarily high level. I know that lions can’t talk – but this was very real!

On Thursday came my first highlight of the week. Off to Denchworth to meet chums in the local, where various odds and sods were celebrating the renewal of the twinning of nearby Wantage with not-so-nearby Seesen in Lower Saxony. For you to fully get the flavour of the evening, you have to understand that some years ago, the Beaverbrooks who lived at the manor, had a pair of Peacocks. The Beaverbrooks moved – the peacocks didn’t and went feral. There are now a dozen of these birds, which are not small, very territorial, terribly noisy, hugely destructive and crap about four times as much as a chicken, which, should the crap touch any paintwork on anything, makes paint stripper look like water. Secondly, the Denchworth pub has a very strong reputation, Aunt Sally circles.

Aunt Sally is, as most of you will know,is a traditional English game usually played in pub gardens and fairgrounds, in which players throw sticks or battens at a model of an old woman’s head. Leagues of pub teams still play the game today, throughout the spring and summer months, mainly in Oxfordshire and some bordering counties. In France, the game is called jeu de massacre (“game of carnage”). The game bears some resemblance to a coconut shy or skittles, but with teams. Each team consists of eight players. The ball is on a short plinth about 4 to 6 inches (100 to 150 mm) high by 3 inches (75mm) diameter, known as the “dolly”, which is placed on a dog-legged metal spike about 30 to 40 inches (750mm to 1000mm) high. Players throw sticks or short battens, about 18 by 2 inches (450 x 50mm) at the dolly, from ten yards away, trying to knock it off without hitting the spike. Successfully hitting the dolly off is known as a “doll”; however, if the spike is hit first, then the score does not count and is called an “iron”. The Oxford and District Aunt Sally Association has an excellent website HERE. The game is taken quite seriously – and fixtures and the fixture list are not messed about with simply because some Germans want to have a bit of a celebration.

So, back to the pub and the twinning festivities. The Wantage Twinning team decide that nothing could be more English than to have some Morris Dancing. The Twinning team from Seesen decided that they would send their top yodellers. So we had Morris Dancers followed by Yodelling, followed by Morris Dancers followed by Yodelling. Throughout the various performances in the gardens, the Aunt Sally was reaching a climax with shouts of “Get In” and “Iron” and of “Dolly!”, while the battens smashed into the plastic sheeting keeping the game’s perimeter safe. Simultaneously the Peacocks decided the Peahens were being seduced by the Yodellers and started with some warning territorial cries. This frightened the Peachicks who took off for a distant roof – but were uncertain whether they could make it, as flight was a relatively recent activity. Thunks of wood from both Morris men and battens against plastic; cheering players, Peacocks, Accordions, (did I mention the accordions?); Yodellers bewildered by gasps from the onlookers as a peachick managed to lift-off and land without going through the pub window; the evening was wonderfully eccentric and very, very English. I suspect there are rules against that sort of thing in many parts of respectable Europe.

Friday saw the annual pilgrimage to Gifford’s Circus providing with my second great experience of the week. It is a joyful thing to do, especially with kids or the forever young, and it is a true celebration of one woman’s strange obsession. Nell Gifford decided years ago to have her own circus – so she did. She kept it manageable, successful, portable and admired. It arrives in late spring and travels mainly around the Gloucestershire – Wiltshire – Oxfordshire –  Warwickshire area. She was married, and now she’s not, and that’s sad. Sadder still she has inoperable cancer, two young children and a circus that I hope will always continue. Nell has tens of thousands of people and their kids who love her, her work and her dreams and who will miss her when she is gone. Some kids love Tweedy the clown, who is the best thing to happen to the world of Circus since Coco because he is a genuinely lovely person who is kind to kids. Some Dads love Nell because she is horsey, blonde, pretty, reliable, and unreachable – because none of us had a real circus act to show off to her. Some of the Dads became torch-bearers for Nancy Trotter Landry, who is so hot she makes the Jalapeno and the Scotch Bonnet look pointless.

The show was fab, the music was great and loud, the acts were fine, the clowns corpsed each other, and the band and the kids joined in and went as feral as a Denchworth Peacock. Curmudgeons like me might say in our blase way, that what we saw, was not very difficult, or that the acts were similar to last year and we miss the point. Several points actually. Technically, putting on any circus performance safely in a forty-foot diameter ring is damn tricky – and the ring is probably smaller.

But in that circus and in what we see every year, Nell has given us a tradition, something we can do and share as a family. Something that I can take Bob or George or Mary or even a possible future Nell to and know – guaranteed by all that is mystical and holy and human – that they will have a good time. And it’s a treat and a priviledge when I’m taken by a Father-in-Law along with his grand-children and sometimes our friends and sometimes theirs. So a good week, spoiled by some horse who didn’t know I had tipped them, but made special by some Morris Dancing Yodelling, Nell, a few Peacocks and Aunt Sally.

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