Leafing through the streets

Yesterday was May Day, and a lot was going down in London. We started out at Green Park where Space Hijackers, a group of trickster anarchists, were holding a May Day street party to commemorate the forgotten, carnavalesque and radical roots of the day. Some people had dressed up fully OTT– a glittering mermaid did a tailed cheesecake pose for photographers, a tall man sported an abbreviated 18th century gown that showed his suspenders. There were peasants and pirates and a couple V masks. But many people failed to dress up for the occasion– some “cake-eaters” street theatre. They were in lame ironic tee shirts or typical anarchist black hoodie and bandana get ups. I made the effort in a corset, bustle, bloomers and 80’s acid wash bolero– with matching parasol.

I was handed a verbose pamphlet entitled WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE ARRESTED by a scruffy dude in a brown, moth eaten sweater. Buzzkill. There were more cops and photographers than revelers but they seemed like a fun bunch– even the police were laughing and smiling. I suppose supervising us would be a preferable assignment to, say, dealing with the aftermath of certain football matches. I shared grapes and a pie with some other corseted women and then we were off to a small square– the exact location escapes me. I did notice though that every lane out was lined with cops and they had two vans with them, ready to close in and cart people off. It felt like a set up. Now, cops in Britain (at least after the Thatcher days) are mild and good spirited compared to the armed, robocop looking riot police I was used to seeing at LA demonstrations. Even still, I felt a bit nervous, having never done anything with these organizers. I thought maybe their intention was to get arrested, as there were a cadre of black-hoodied anarchist teens already mocking and baiting the police and it just didn’t seem in the spirit of things. Plus there wasn’t any drumming or musicians– just someone with a boom box blaring dub. I didn’t want to wait around to see what would happen. (Later I met up with some other revelers who stayed for several hours and they said everything went down peacefully– dancing and eating and singing– and they actually felt protected by the large police presence.)

The night before I had gone out with my friend Hadyn to see the greening of the Jack at the Market Porter pub. This Jack-in-the-Green is an old May Day custom, revived in Hastings in the mid 80’s by a troupe of Morris Dancers. The greening started rather late and we were already drunk and ready to go home, but a few people were busy putting leaves and flowers on a wire Jack. Basically, this leafy giant is attended by “bogies” or men in green-man suits, and a troupe of musicians. Everyone gathers around the Jack and goes from pub to pub on May Day, and since the bogie inside the Jack can’t see, everyone must shout directions and help him, and as the day goes on and people get more drunk, this becomes more…interesting.

We met up with the revelers at the Charles Dickens in Southwark. They arrived very late, headed by a guy in a bear suit who proclaimed to us “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING ON” as the band tumbled in, the bogie was helped out of the Jack and everyone started drinking. Again.

(the crazy man in the center with the fresh scab on his face kept trying to follow me into the bathroom at each pub but one of the guys was really graceful and effective in dealing with him.)

I confess I have a thing for the green beards– these men who are willing to embody an archetype and maybe even make a fool of themselves for a day. They all befriended us as if we were one of them, buying us rounds and inviting us to the celebrations in Hastings and telling us about the history of the custom. One bogie shared a swig of single malt out of his silver flask, another bought me a pint of wonderful bitter. And another who played the accordion actually knew something of Portland beer culture! And he we laughed about the looks on all the commuters faces as the Jack-in-the-green swooned down the streets– how surreal and subversive joy can be, especially in black-suited London.