Friday, 15 October 2010

Stokesley: What a Difference a Fair Makes!

Stokesley on the edge of the North York Moors is a delightful market town. It has a little river that runs through it on which the ducks paddle searching for crusts of bread. There are butchers and bakers and quite possibly candle-stick makers, banks, hairdressers, newsagents, grocers, boutique clothing outlets, and stationers.

You can happily walk up one side of the street and down the other, popping into a choice of churches, cafes, pubs and restaurants and (if you are like my brother-in-law Mr Smartypants) doffing your cloth cap at 'my good neighbour' spoken in a peculiar vernacular of Yorkadian (Yorkshire/Canadian). It doesn't matter what you do out in the big blue yonder, when you are in Stokesley all is well with the world.

And then the fair comes to town.

The Stokesley Fair transforms a sleepy village hamlet into a pulsating, flashing street of screams and vomit. The aromas are diesel fumes, fat and sugar as machines with names like Extreme, The Edge, and Over the Top rotate and revolve in three different ways. Airbrushed pictures of tropical palms cannot mask the northern brick red roofs as the half moon bravely tries to shed scenic light above a terrace.

Nothing has changed in the cheese factor of the fair's music: Bonnie Tyler and Phil Collins boom out against the Black Eyed Peas and some bint urging us to 'take it off' - not in North Yorkshire where it's cold and raining, surely. Klaxons and computer-generated enthusiasm fill the air with audio pollution as King Frog, Crazy Frog, Crazy Circus and the bumper cars vie for attention with not altogether friendly competition.

You can win goldfish at the hoopla or throw or shoot things for a Spongebob Squarepants or Toy Story prize - every time! Even the rewards are passe and desperate. 'Are you ready?' 'Yeah, baby!' Force yourself to be jolly - choose your weapon of transatlantic confection: wilting bags of pallid candy-floss; sizzlers; 1/4 burgers; roast pork 'American style'.
Children are primed for an adulthood of brief excitement and lengthy disappointment. Their miniature rides mimic those of the adults and despite the tame tea pots and the mini wheel twinkling fairy-like through the trees, they ride the energy storm with their hands in the air like they just don't care and squeal with the best (and worst) of them. Gypsies Rose, Lee and Bothwell can predict their future from the caravan or motor home, but teenage pregnancy, benefit dependency and spiritual unfulfilment isn't tricky to foretell.

Giant teddies bear rictus grins and dead eyes. Theatre may be shabby back stage but out front it is magic. The fierce tawdriness of this fair is all pervasive and I doubt any are deceived. Down this end of town they play Only the Lonely and try to ignore the poignancy. The Captain Cook Brewery seems a much better proposition and we drink our way along the bar. Sunset (4%) - a smooth, nutty, session ale; Slipway (4.2%) - a dry, hoppy ale with a touch of citrus tang and a lingering bitterness; Endeavour (4.5%) - a darker session beer with a clean palate, malty flavour and no bitter aftertaste. 'Almost too plain'; Black Porter (4.3%) - like velvet with sweet notes of licorice and chocolate.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

All the King's Men

Continuing my punishing schedule of cultural experiences in Edinburgh, I head to the National Museum of Scotland to see the Lewis Chessmen. These charismatic little pieces are advertised all over the city and have piqued my interest. Created in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century from elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales’ teeth, they were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis and came to public notice through an article in The Scotsman.

I like their expressive faces – the bulging eyes and Dwayne Dibley teeth. They are very intricate, even down to the strands of hair and ornamental carvings in the chairs on which they sat. They seem to follow slightly different patterns which could possibly be due to different craftsmen making them from the same workshop, and some are clearly replacement pieces made later on – there are about 70 pieces all together.

The history of the pieces is shrouded in tales of murder, deception, folklore and legend. A local man, Malcolm MacLeod, said his cattle were grazing on Uig Bay sand dunes (which suggests they must be grassy sand dunes) when he discovered the chessmen. The minister of Lewis preached against idols (the island was strictly Protestant) so Malcolm was afraid of what he had found and took them to the minister in great trepidation. The story before that (or how they came to be in the sand dunes) is that a young boy washed up on shore with them in a bag (the exhibition includes a carved buckle which may have come from this bag) and met a man who promised he would lead him to safety, but instead hit him on the head with a rock and stole them.

Archeological problems are posed by these pieces because nothing else like them has been discovered. Walrus ivory is a popular material for work in Trondheim and Dublin, which makes sense because they were part of the Viking trading route: Greenland; Iceland; Trondheim; Shetland/ Orkney/ Lewis Islands; Isle of Man; Dublin. In the 790s the Vikings raided the Western Isles with a series of brutal attacks on coastal communities and monasteries. Tradition says there was a monastery at Mealasta but there is no evidence of this. Lewis was a Scandinavian island and didn’t revert to Scottish rule until 1266.

The characters are in the likeness of warders, kings, queens, pawns, knights and bishops. They were probably used at chess, tables (a predecessor of backgammon), and a game called hnefatafl. There is nothing like this from similar times in the otherwise progressive Islamic artistic tradition where craftsmen were reluctant to portray humans for religious reasons.

The kings each hold a sword in two hands as though in the act of drawing it – classic mythology says kings did this while listening to the words of Odin. The queens, resting their cheek on their hand, all look vaguely fed up. The bishops were a new feature on chessboards when these were made – this may reflect the importance and patronage of archbishops based in Trondheim (Trondheim was the seat of archbishops).

In true Wikipedia fashion, the exhibition provides information as to how and where these figures have been used in popular culture: they are the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s wizard chess; the template for Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Chess-Dream in a Garden; and the motivation for Oliver Postgate’s Noggin the Nog. He writes that he noticed, “far from being warlike, it was clear that these were essentially kindly, non-belligerent characters, who were thoroughly dismayed by the prospect of contest.”