Some anthropology – and some fights
I suppose I had better start with my own wedding. It took place at Oxford Register Office, which was then in St Giles, on 31st December 1966. It cost me the same price as a dog licence. Alas, though marrying Valerie was the best thing I ever did, I remember very little about that day and what I do remember kept me awake all night laughing. While my best man was feeding me whisky instead of breakfast, Valerie's father was picking her up from the house where we were both living in Cowley. As he entered the house a dog belonging to a friend of a friend vomited on his shoes. When we met at the Register Office, Valerie said “You look like a lavatory brush.” Those were my bride's first words to me on our wedding day. She looked uncharacteristically smart in a two-piece beige outfit. The Registrar was a fierce-looking lady who did not seem to approve of us. “Marriage is a SOLEMN.” (Somebody went tee hee hee). “BINDING.” A long pause, while she glared at the pair of us. “CONTRACT.” At this point I considered explaining to the Registrar that I thought the word “contract” was more applicable to commercial relationships than to personal ones, but I was silenced by a Medusa the Gorgon stare from my bride. I thought she was trying to shut me up, but I realise now that she was trying not to laugh.
The wedding party then moved to the Mitre Hotel in the High Street. Part of the Mitre was the Turl Tavern from which I had once been forcibly ejected as a student for encouraging the Labour Party Agent to sing “The Harlot of Jerusalem” in pursuance of my folklore studies. From this point on my memory is really hazy and much has had to be reconstructed. I do remember that the reception area of the Mitre was packed. There were friends, relations, morris dancers, folk singers, work colleagues, and no doubt some sorners (see below). One person I didn't know told me that he had heard that the bridegroom wasn't up to much. The doyen of Cowley Road's Irish community said “Oi give it sax mont's”. At least three different women were heard to say “She doesn't look pregnant!” Valerie, who was at the time a well-known folk singer, sang “Our Good Ship Lies in Harbour”, which finishes:
I'm married to the man I love
And I'm happy in my mind.
That was very nice. Less appropriate, I thought, was “The Cuckoo's Nest”, the chorus of which goes:
Some like a girl that is fair in the face
Some like a girl who is slender in the waist
But give to me a girl who can wriggle and twist
At the bottom of her belly lies the Cuckoo's Nest.(1)
I remember thinking that it should not be the bride's job to sing the Epithalamium (2).
This must have been the spur for my cousin Frank, who had been a naval officer in the war, and who had been trained to sing to a professional standard in the Brompton Oratory Choir, and who had doubtless consumed a quantity of Horse's Necks at Valerie's father's expense. He decided to contribute some wardroom favourites to the general festivities.
That portion of a woman that excites a man's depravity
Is fashioned with considerable care
For what may seem at first a simple little cavity
Is really an elaborate affair.
His wife was probably aware that she couldn't stop him at this stage, and he continued:
It nearly broke her father's heart
When lady Jane became a tart
But blood is blood and race is race
And so to save the family's face
They bought her a bijou retreat
On the shady side of Jermyn Street.
This was sung to the tune “Melita”.(3)
Somehow the newlyweds were transported to the railway station, followed by a large number of the guests. On the way Dr P. was caught on the top deck of a bus without his trousers. The conductress stopped the bus and called the driver to throw him off. It is thought that he was changing in or out of his morris gear. Whatever, the explanation, this may have had something to do with a mass brawl that broke out on the station platform, a matter that the happy couple were oblivious of.
The Mitre did not recover from our wedding. It was closed for a considerable period for renovation, since the morris dancers had caused structural damage. For a long time afterwards, people would accost Valerie or me in the street and say: “Oi remember your wedding. It was a great do!”
Another wedding that I only part remember is that of T, who married the daughter of an American Air Force General. The general said he did not understand the quaint customs of the British, and asked T to organise everything and send him the bill. Thus it was that large numbers of morris dancers received an invitation that read “Wharf House 9:00 a.m. for 3:00 p.m.” I got to the Wharf house at ten minutes past nine, entered quietly through the back door, and found the Abingdon Men in the middle of a brawl. One of them had claimed a score of 29 at cribbage, and his opponent disagreed. Fighting drunk an hour and a half before legal opening time! After six hours' drinking the morris hordes displaced themselves to the college chapel. There we amused ourselves by enraging the organist during the hymns by combining in an accelerando and stamping our feet to our own rhythm. Then we went into an adjacent room and drank a whole barrel (I mean 36 gallons) of beer without once turning the tap off. After that the morris men went off to do some “serious drinking” but I can tell you nothing more about that.
One morris wedding, at which I don't think I was present, caused a change in how morris weddings were subsequently conducted. The chaps had found their way into the reception room before any of the other guests. On a big table were several full-size Black Forest gateaux. So they organised a gateau eating competition. The competitors were required to hold their hands behind their backs and to eat like pigs. The winner was the first man to eat his whole gateau. Unfortunately, half way through this unseemly proceeding the bride's parents took up their station in the doorway, ready to greet all the guests individually as they came through. The men looked up in surprise, and of course their faces were covered in chocolate cream and fragments of cake. After this disgraceful display word got around, and organisers of weddings decided that morris dancers were to be kept away at all costs. “All costs” turned out to be £50. Several times I have helped to dispose of what was then quite a large sum of money and toast the bride and groom remotely.
Perhaps the most high-powered wedding that I ever attended was that of my friend J in Bradford Cathedral. It was presided over by three bishops, because the bride's father was a big cheese in the Church Missionary Society. Unfortunately J's father was Yorkshire Dales drinking champion at the time and all his mates were solidly working class and very likely unsympathetic to High Anglicanism. So the bride's side of the church was filled with posh people from Harrogate and such places, with the women wearing huge hats covered with imitation fruit; the groom's side was dominated by gruff men with their flat caps pulled down tightly over their heads.
“No booger tells me to take ma fookin cap off!”
The sheer class hatred was palpable, and to my eyes very funny. It continued into the reception, where all the guests were given thimble-sized glasses to toast the happy couple in wine.
“Where's t' fookin ale, then, parson?”
At a more recent wedding reception, a non-religious and very civilised affair, the guests were astonished by a Scotsman (at least he was wearing Highland dress) who filled a huge plate with a mountain of food; then, having finished it, he repeated the exercise; and repeated it again. Then he pulled a doggy-bag out of his sporran and filled that up, then left. Nobody knew who he was, but everybody was astonished by his eating capacity. It turned out, it seems, that he was a sorner. Note: sorn (Scot) v.i. To intrude oneself as an uninvited guest. [Obs Ir sorthan free quarters] according to Chambers Dictionary, which is from Edinburgh so they must know about such things.
Back in my younger days when my contemporaries were getting married, I was invited to quite a number of weddings. Nowadays it is funerals. Sic transit gloria mundi. I remember one Anglican wedding where the presiding clergyman was drunk. He fell about and dropped his prayer book and notes. He accompanied the wedding party to the reception, and carried on drinking. So while the guests were getting friendly and loquacious, the vicar was becoming abusive and trying to pick fights. By the time the guests were starting to get irritated with each other, the vicar was curled up under a table, sucking his thumb and crying for his mother.
My friend J was invited to an Irish wedding in the East End of London. He reported that the drinking carried on uninterrupted for forty-eight hours, in the course of which donnybrooks broke out on three occasions severe enough for the police to come out in force. Though the fighting stopped as soon as it had started and none of the combatants bore any grudges or even remembered that they had been fighting. Apologies to any Irish readers, but a dictionary of slang gives “Irish Confetti”, that is, what you throw at Irish weddings, as “half bricks”. The good people of Northern Ireland, as one would expect, go a bit further. “Belfast Confetti” is the steel cylinders with sharp edges that are punched out of steel plates by riveting machines in the shipbuiding yards. These are potentially lethal when propelled by a sling or a catapult.
Just to prove to non-Europeans that we do not have the monopoly of bad behaviour at weddings, my final story has to be that which was told to me by a Sikh member of staff, who will not mind, I am sure, if I refer to him as Mr Singh. One Monday morning he came up to me (you have to supply your own Punjabi accent) and said:
“Oh John, I had a really good time this weekend. I went to a cousin's wedding”.
The point of the story was that an uncle had taken issue with the father of one of the happy couple and had hired a gang of Jamaicans with pickaxe handles to break up the wedding. This was sheer joy to the wedding guests, who smashed up the furniture to improvise clubs in order to join in the fighting. You have to visualise the happy couple, sitting facing each other on the floor in the middle of the Gurdwana, their arms ceremonially linked by a shawl, resplendent in silks and brocades, staring lovingly into each others' eyes, while all around them absolute pandemonium raged, with the women bopping passing warriors with kitchen equipment.
“Did you join in the fighting?”
“Oh no, John, I sat on a wall outside, and I laughed and I laughed. I saw blood running down the gutter and I laughed until I cried. There were twelve arrests. I haven't laughed so much since my grandfather's funeral.”
“How many arrests were there then?”
(1) The tune to this has several versions used in morris dancing. Most are in the Dorian Mode, and my favourite is beautifully adapted to the three hole pipe. There is an Irish version in the plain major, or Ionian Mode, which demonstrates the enthusiasm with which eighteenth-century Irishmen adopted the English language:
Hey ho the jollity
The quality, frivolity,
The pristine aetiology (!)
Of her Cuckoo's Nest.
(2) From the Greek epi = “on”, thalamos = “bed”, meaning a song from the days when property rights were more highly valued than privacy, and the happy couple, who had possibly never met before that day, were surrounded by family representatives detailed to witness the consummation of their union and to encourage them musically.
(3) Melita is the Latin for Malta, where St Paul was shipwrecked on his way to Rome. The original hymn is known as the Mariners' Hymn and is sung wherever The Royal Navy and Christian observance coincide:
Eternal father strong to save
Whose arm doth bind the restless wave
Who bidst the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed course to keep
O hear us when we cry to thee
For those in peril on the sea.
Or, if the ship is in one of the more insalubrious ports that fringe the world's oceans:
For those in peril of VD.