Book of the Month: The Seasons by Nick Groom

Below is my column from this month’s Countryman. It is a review, of sorts, of Nick Groom’s wonderful The Seasons: an elegy for the passing year. The book is a celebration of English customs (and customs in England) and has an interesting discussion of St. George’s Day, celebrated today with discounts on gin and bitter in pubs across the land.

Groom establishes the antiquity of St. George’s Day as an English festival. Local celebrations can be dated back as far as the ninth century, and ‘from at least 1399, St. George’s Da was officially recognized as a national holiday of sorts’. But after the Reformation the day fell out of favour (Catholic idolatry) and in spite of various attempts to revive it, notably in the nineteenth century, I doubt the day now really means much to most English people.

Does this matter? Nick Groom acknowledges that ‘commercialization and commodification’ could make St. George’s Day as embarrassing to the English as phoney ‘Oirishness’ has made St. Patrick’s Day to many Irish people. But he argues that if the English do not celebrate their national day ‘such expressions of national identity that remain will be appropriated by political extremists or taken over by commercial interests. It is time to act, and St. George’s Day seems to be a good day to do so’.

He wants to the day to become a ‘national day of local customs’, a celebration of local diversity and character, ‘individuality embedded in landscape and place, its history and its wildlife’. Even though I have not followed Groom’s recommendation to toast the day with homemade dandelion wine, it is an attractive vision. Nevertheless, I think I might prefer to celebrate 24 April, St. Mark’s Eve, which is apparently both ‘a much more private and intimate time’ and ‘a time of dissipation’. Take your pick. My Countryman article is below.

 

On one level The Seasons is a serious meditation on how we can recover traditions derived from the Christian calendar and the cycle of the farming year. Groom believes that the English folk tradition helps us make sense of ourselves, so he wants to maintain and even invent festivities that ‘celebrate both the seasons and the calendrical year, and our place within them’.

This is not just theory. Weighed down by 40 pounds of chain mail he plays the part of St. George in a traditional play in his village of South Zeal, Devon.  ‘The English people’, he says, ‘just like the Scots or for that matter the French, need to share the rhythms of their festive year’. And this is easily done, even by those who do not want to participate: ‘They also serve who only stand a round.’  

I am not wholly convinced that frost fairs, wassailing, cheese-rolling, Morris dancing, mummers’ plays, the Atherstone Shrovetide Ball Game (‘the only rule appears to be that the players are not permitted to kill each other’) and the like do much to preserve English culture in a meaningful way – but I am happy to support the festivities by propping up the bar.       

And regardless of the book’s main thesis, it is a treasury of obscure facts and folklore. Take the month of May. If it is cold we can console ourselves that ‘a hot May makes a fat churchyard’. (If it is warm we can just enjoy the weather.) May Day itself has a whole chapter, including much about its carnal aspects. But he also gives details of many local May festivals, some of which survive.

On almost every page there is an ‘I didn’t know that’ moment (for instance, the 77 thirteenth century names for that taboo animal, the hare – old Big-bum… the one it’s bad luck to meet… the fellow in the dew… the cat of the wood… the animal that no-one dares name… Lord Voldemort). OK, I made that last one up. But Nick Groom’s book is well worth buying or borrowing.   

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