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Postcard from the fieldwork

This piece was first published in The Folklore Society newsletter, Issue Number 103, June 2024. The Folklore Society has kindly given me permission to reproduce it here.

Padstow's Maypole at night, surrounded by lots of people
Night singing around Padstow's maypole, 2024

I once worked with someone who insisted that it is possible – in his case, preferable – to get to know a place without visiting it in person. Using tools such as YouTube and Google Street View, Trip Advisor and Flickr, reading accounts and viewing photographs and video on social media, all backed up by travel writing or other works of non-fiction, he maintained, he would have a comprehensive view of the place in which he was interested and, importantly, he would not need to leave the comfort of his desk.

It’s a compelling, if unpopular, argument viewed through the lens of climate change and the increasingly incomprehensible cost of living. Why burn carbon and cash in the individual pursuit of trying a local delicacy or seeing a mountain? Sadly, he and I are no longer in contact, otherwise I would like to have discussed with him my experience of Padstow May Day.

My doctorate examines how the creative writer could (or even should) represent the calendar custom in fiction. A practice-based PhD, I am working on a novel that offers an alternative representation to the films and literature where the calendar custom is used to create eerie plot zeniths and otherworldly, occult or supernatural settings, and instead foreground the ‘everydayness’ of the custom: how the custom plays a regular, recurring part in community calendars, and can have (and have not) deeply significant meanings for those that participate, organise, steward, observe. I think it would be difficult for an individual interested in the calendar customs of Britain not to come across Padstow May Day, and since my research began in earnest, I have consumed a great deal of material from and about the Cornish May custom, such as Oss Oss Wee Oss! (1953), King for a Day (2022), Frontline Folklore (2024), Doc Rowe’s materials, not to mention social media content and information in tourism guides. But, unlike my former colleague, this only fuelled my desire to attend, and with huge thanks to the Estella Canziani Postgraduate Bursary for Research, I was able to make my first visit to Padstow May Day in 2024.

Red and white bunting between buildings, a crowd of people below
The crowds gathering beneath the flags of the red 'Original' old 'oss

As my fictional custom is also set in May, I hoped my trip to Padstow would offer ideas to illustrate the variety in which May can be celebrated, and demonstrate the continued importance of May, and the onset of summer, for communities. I also wanted to experience a custom that is ostensibly well supported by the whole community, and observe how people chose to participate and show their support. May Day 2024, as I hoped, offered plenty on all of these fronts.

There were aspects of the custom where my experiences confirmed my expectations. For example, on the first night, it was the steady, to-the-gallows drum beat that drew me in to the town after dark, just as I had imagined, for night singing around the maypole. I hadn’t expected, though, the crowds pre-May Day: the drinking having already begun, the number of people standing in the dark and the cold, making plans for the next day.

But, despite the amount of material about May Day I had greedily consumed prior to my attendance, there were many, many elements I hadn’t expected or considered: about the town (the blue of the seawater, the calf-stretching hills, the positioning of the maypole): about its people (those dressed in white and red or blue vastly outnumbering those in ordinary clothes, the volume and ferocity of support from local young people), about the custom (the beauty of the song, the impact of the accordions, the emotional response it provoked in me). I especially loved the territorial atmosphere, with some pubs being either red or blue but shops declaring their impartiality, too eager for custom. Even the chain shops asserted their support with arranging the red, white and blue clothes at the front of the store.

I hadn’t expected Padstonians to greet each other with calls of ‘Happy May Day!’, and I hadn’t even considered people celebrating May Day in their own, private ways: the bunting-bedecked garden parties in which neighbours clustered before marching into town; the groups lugging boxes of booze to boltholes. Most surprising, I think, was the aftermath, with festivities continuing in pub sessions and catch-ups the following day.

It struck me how May Day is an expression of knowledge, as well as celebration, veneration. There’s the understanding of the turning of the year and the progression of life, of course, and the rousing singing and the accompaniment by accordion and drum is one more obvious aspect of knowledge. But there is surely some comfort in the knowledge that individuals will always be met by their community on May Day, whether they still reside in Padstow or not; that the young people, often leading the battle cries and forming parties within parties, are just as fervent in their support as the elderly people, who, it is clear, wouldn’t miss it for the world.

My former colleague has got it wrong. We can assume we have the measure of a place, a people, an event, from our desks. But, to my mind, unless we witness it for ourselves, unless we speak to the people to whom it means most, unless we watch the weak sun go down over a garlanded maypole, we can never truly understand. I look forward to seeing how my experiences at May Day manifest in my writing, and I shall be forever indebted to the Estella Canziani Postgraduate Bursary for Research for making it possible.


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