Leigh and the Land

One of the best ways of coming to understand a culture is though experiencing its festivals and celebrations.  That must be as true of England as of anywhere.

Of course an English village fete isn’t Siena’s Palio or Pamplona’s bull run.  English culture is, of course, quite different to that of Italy and Spain, but in the differences and similarities lie the clues we need to make sense of our own culture and that of others.

The Palio celebrates the ancient rivalries between the city’s 17 contrade or wards.  There’s lots of flag waiving, oodles of skulduggery and the tense build up to the horse race itself lasts weeks.

Pamplona meanwhile is a macho display of bravado: testosterone, posturing and rite-of-passage wrapped up together in an inimitably Spanish fashion.  No wonder Ernest Hemingway loved Spain and its culture.  Can you imagine him morris dancing?  Quite.

Leigh’s village green isn’t Pamplona’s Santo Domingo or Siena’s Piazza del Campo.  There are no bulls and very little blood and guts, but there is a certain amount of rivalry.

It’s difficult to know which of Leigh’s displays of primitive bravado would have appealed to Hemmingway’s macho personality more; the tug of war or the scarecrow race.

Given that the girls beat the boys at the tug of war I can only imagine that Hemingway would have stomped off in disgust in the general direction of the Fleur de Lys to demand a mojito.  Leigh being Leigh one hopes the bar staff would have told him that he’d be better off with a pint of Larkins than something with an umbrella sticking out of it.  All that derring do in the Spanish Civil War and marlin fishing is all very well, but what a chap needs to be a chap is a proper pint.  That’s one reason Hemingway should never be taken too seriously.

Enough of silly Americans, and more of proper English stuff.  Today’s Leigh village produce show (Leigh’s old name was Lyghe which gives you a clue as to how it’s pronounced) was the 70th such event and to mark the occasion it had a wartime theme.

I wandered round a similar produce show in East Hampshire a month or so ago.  That was a showcase for growers in several villages whereas Leigh was very local.  I have to say that the display of cakes, flowers, produce (and did I mention the cakes) at Leigh would have done a small town proud.  The wartime theme did however encourage a few entrants to produce boiled fruitcakes that looked as though they’d have survived the Normandy beaches.  Light and fluffy they clearly were not.

So what does all this say about Englishness?  Some years ago a French journalist recorded a five minute piece for ‘The Slot’ that runs after the evening Channel 4 News exploring the differences between the English (perhaps one should say the British) and the French.  Her summation was that while the French are cultured, the English are civilised.

It rather begs the question ‘what is English civilisation?’  If you’re in search of an answer you could have done worse than to have visited Leigh this afternoon.  Perhaps English civilisation is about finding common ground for all comers.  The common ground may involve sport or growing vegetables, dogs or small soldiers.  All entrants are naked before the judges (not literally for goodness sakes, that wouldn’t be at all English, far too continental) and may the best person win.  The produce tent is a great leveller, so is the tug of war, often literally.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a professor of linguistics or you run a herd of dairy cattle.   You’re only as good as your marrow.

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