My kind of pub: The Plasterers Arms, Hoylake.

How swiftly time passes you by: here I am at the end of January when it had been my intention all along to try and capture something of the character of the Plasterers Arms, Hoylake, on New Year’s Day 2016. Let us hope that the passing of time has not dulled the recollection too much, at least I can draw on cumulative effect, albeit with this New Year’s Day as the initial stimulus.

plasterers arms hoylake

It is always a joy and a pleasure to find ourselves in this corner of Hoylake, not least given the reception we ordinarily enjoy. In many ways it is to be wondered whether it is the situation of that pub which helps us along: tucked away and apparently isolated from the rest of the world the dancing is, in a manner of speaking, placed centre stage. Though it stands at the corner, with roads passing before it, the plucky spirit of the locals is such that they claim this space as their own, and in turn offer it up to us. Whether it is a quirk of geography or just the naturally occurring spirit of those around, we always enjoy a warm and enthusiastic reception. The impression given is that these folk come out specially, and deliberately, to watch and enjoy the dancing. These are not passing voyeurs but dedicated spectators. The response tends to be vocal and encouraging, banter and chatter rippling around our “auditorium” as well as between one and another. Then there are the children whose attention we capture, if only fleetingly at times. For certain of us, our commitment to dancing the Morris reaches back to our own childhood and witnessing the spectacle for the first time on the village green or at the local pub. The children of the Plasterers Arms always strike me as being particularly special: you get the impression that these characters have had a full and very active day at being a child. Meant in the best possible way, by the evening in the summer when we perform, they appear a little dishevelled, worn from the rigours of childish exertion.

From a performer’s point of view, I suspect something not distinct to the Morris, a lift in any performance results from the active versus the passive audience. It may take the form of fleeting eye contact mid caper (ideally a look of amazement and wonder on their part), shouts, cries and laughter, or those on the side-line trying to replicate the stepping or some figure in the kindest form of mimicry. This has, on occasion, come with the adornment of accessories, amazing to think how well white toilet paper can make up for a lack of handkerchiefs. When it comes to Greenbank, our standard audience participation number, there is seldom a need to cajole the good people of the Plasterers Arms, on the contrary, sticks quickly run out as the Foreman’s skills, patience and volume are pushed to the limit.

dancing at plasterers arm 010116

Thus far my focus has been turned to activities outside of the pub, yet I would hold that that fine establishment is a locus and catalyst to this spirit. Without wishing to get too caught up in spatial geography, I still hold that the setting of the Plasterers Arms has something to do with this. Not only does it draw people onto the streets but it also sucks them into its cosy interior which is really the point I have been wanting to make all along with reference to our visit there of January 1st 2016. From a humble façade a fine sanctuary opens up which typically accommodates all sorts. So it was on New Year’s Day that there were those, and rightly so, quite content to prop up the bar, quietly sip on a pint whilst we did our thing outside. They appeared not to resent the chaos ensuing on the street no more than we resented their keeping themselves to themselves (and this despite our “invasion” after that part had concluded and we retreated indoors). What is great about the interior of the Plasterers is the narrow corridor running before the bar, leading into a more open space where musician and itinerant “performers” collect. Within this densely packed space, standing room only, an orchestra pit comes to life, perhaps not in the style of the Phil’ but certainly in keeping with the tradition of music hall.

We are blessed with many fine and bold musicians who quietly bring this corner to life, and in expansive form. All comers are welcomed, and so it is that members of the public who may have set out with no intention of warbling a song that they may, or may not, be able to recall take to their feet and share what they have got. As the tableau unfolds, those on the edge joyfully join in bringing full force and gusto to a lusty chorus or two. Even the idiocy of dancing in that small space is tolerated in good humour with the nasty flick of the hanky in the eye being laughed off as an occupational hazard. The great charm of all this is that it is not planned, rehearsed or anticipated but is merely a naturally occurring phenomenon, the product of the right time and place. Though on the inside and, perhaps, in the thick of it I occasionally wish it were otherwise and that I was the member of the unassuming public who happened to wander into the Plasterers Arms and chanced upon this scene: a lucky coincidence and a beautiful piece of serendipity.

For me, the Plasterers Arms is in many ways unique: there is a community feeling whenever we dance there and the pub itself is a warm and comfortable refuge. Long may it continue!

David Clampin.

The Taming of the Broom

Paul, one of Mersey’s newest members, takes on a personal challenge…

Having been part of the Mersey Morris Men for roughly four months now I have been met with a combination of excitement to get involved with everything and try it all, and having absolutely no idea what I’m doing.

Having gotten the hang of a few of the dances my eyes fell on a dance that was introduced to me on my second or third practise with the group.

The illustrious broom dance was introduced as a warm up exercise and I had sadly missed the workshop day for it a month or so earlier. What terrible luck and bad timing!
a broom in waiting
What really roped me into this particularly challenging manoeuvre at first was actually the tune. I have been a huge traditional folk music fan for a few years now so I appreciate a nice tune.

The particular choice of music we have been using for the broom dance is a piece called ‘Four Up’ (Ed.- composed by Barry Goodman). The tune got caught in my head after that first practice and often randomly dives into my mind unexpectedly. Usually, I might add, when trying to sleep. Typical.

My next experience of the broom dance was at one of our events and watched two talented individuals perform the dance in public. I was thankfully able to get someone to film the dance and I knew that even though I had missed out on the workshop I had an opportunity to teach myself the dance.

Using this video and some written instructions I was able to piece together the sections of the dance and practice each part in turn. I was determined that one day I would perfect this particular dance, so I may as well begin working on it now!

Part of me questioned whether I should put effort in to this more challenging action when there were many other easier dances I could try and perfect first. This part was quickly told to shut up and I decided to try and do it anyway, after all there are no limits to what our muscle memory can master.

I finally put the whole routine together with music and had two very different results. The first was that I actually remembered everything in the right order (Result!!), the second was I was more out of breath than I have felt for years.

I thought the challenge was going to be in remembering all the different parts, but it is actually a lot more energetic than it looks!

I was finally ready to add it to my performance list, just needed the final test, to go through with the broom master himself to make sure I actually had it right. For the most part yes, a few little details need improving, but it will becoming easier when I don’t have to focus simply on what is coming next!
paul broom dance june15
I have now done the broom dance publicly three times, and I can feel each time getting better and I don’t quite feel like I’m going to pass out afterwards as much.

Here is to a future of perfecting this tradition and keeping it alive!

Breaking News – Rapper Sword dancing started on the Wirral, not the North East

A few weeks ago, we unearthed the following information in a local archive:-

In 1882, a flood in one of the Neston collieries resulted in the death of nine pit ponies. As a result the pit had a surplus of the two handled blades used to scrape the coal dust and sweat off ponies at the end of their shifts.

Wirral Morris Men (who later merged with Liverpool Morris to form Mersey MM) decided they could use these in dances and the rap-a-tap-tap of their boots on the wooden floors of the day led to the dances being called Rapper.

Mersey’s Scally Rapper can still be seen performing to this day. As miners moved to find work, the dances then spread through other mining communities, especially those in the North East, where dancers now lay claim to originating the dances.


Where do butterflies go in the rain?

When I was a lad, not so very long ago, I was given the gift of the book entitled Why Does A Glow-worm Glow (1977) being a compendium of answers and solutions to a number of science and natural history related questions. It was a fascinating little book given that so many of the answers provided were to questions that perhaps you have never thought to raise in the first place. Chief amongst these, to my mind, was the principle of where do butterflies go in the rain? Obviously, the key feature of the butterfly is its apparently erratic flight upon the summer breeze; they are indicative of summer sunshine but, as we all know so well, summer in this country is so often “interrupted” by the occasional shower, so what then for the butterfly? It really is a case of out of sight, out of mind.

As far as I am concerned, Morris Men have a lot in common with butterflies, yes they have their grace and gaudy colours, but they are also a feature of the summer months, so where do they go in the winter? It is along these lines that, when dancing out, so many members of the public are curious to know just that: where do Morris Men go in the winter? Out of sight, they might be generally forgotten by the general public yet, in private, and behind closed doors, we beaver away at our art trying to perfect what we know, and learning anew. It is the hidden, unseen, almost clandestine, element that fascinates me, something that forcefully came to mind when I attended the Morris Ring’s Jigs Instructional for the first time in Bottom Smackington.

Whilst perhaps our presence was known to those in that friendly, accommodating village, just a few miles down the road, no one would imagine such a dangerous concentration of Morris Men. Had anyone seen so many fine men congregating in that village hall, they might have speculated along the lines of some sporting fixture or interest group. What then might the people of Burton have made of a gathering of fine folk in the Gladstone Village Hall on the morning of Saturday 24 January 2015 with brooms in hand? Surely even those with the most vivid, or warped, imaginations could not have guessed that we were each treating our respective brooms to a morning out dancing. Yet that is what we did, it might be remarked that it is so rare that one gets to spend quality time with one’s broom: all too often it is a relationship focussed on base utility rather than anything more engaging or indulgent.

Of course, many in the know, as far as things Morris go, would be well acquainted with the idea of the eponymously titled Broom Dance but I wonder at how many, having never tried it, would sniff at its rather pedestrian and rambling execution? As far as the Mersey crew who were there on that fateful morning, there can surely be none who would recognise such a description. Despite our tutor’s youthful ease of performance, I think we all recognised the very real physical and mental demands of one should they want to work in symbiosis with the broom. Many of us had seen Peter Morris deftly perform this dance previously with such ease and poise, I suspect this might have been to the forefront of their minds in signing up to attend this workshop but how we were to feel the burn! Although not travelling great distances, and although the pace is not necessarily frenetic, you may rest assured that it is a strenuous pursuit. Further, although the stepping lacks the confusion and downright offensiveness of something emanating from Sherborne, there is a degree of mental exertion in placing the right foot, in the right place, at the right, without stepping on one’s broom of course. That is to say nothing of the very great dangers to be incurred when twirling and thrusting one’s broom between one’s legs: some very nasty snagging occurred I can tell you. So, amidst great puffing and panting, and the occasional whimper as broom falls to the floor or is trodden upon, some of us lumbered through this dance immediately driving out any of the effortless grace which we had witnessed earlier. Indeed, as the Foreman so deftly pointed out, the key to the dance is to precisely make it look effortless, yet that most simple of directives proved the most difficult to live up to. If nothing else, as we departed for the Inn at Ness on that Saturday lunchtime with our brooms between our legs, many of us looked upon Peter Morris in new light. Apparently he had, at this time, not long turned 40 but here he was with the energy, stamina and agility of one half those years.

So, where to butterflies go in the rain? Or, more properly in this case, where do Morris Men go in the winter? Well, they secretly hole themselves away in secret locations to perfect their art. Otherwise, they whip domestic tools from their mundane and humdrum existence to enjoy a new outlook and unnecessarily close proximity to the owner’s crotch. The thing is, obviously no one would ever imagine such things occur: they are happy to see a pretty butterfly on the wing on a summers day but otherwise give no thought to where they might be when out of sight.
D. J. Clampin

Laithwaite, Eric (1977). Why Does A Glow-worm Glow. London: Beaver Books.