Pick up Every Stitch

This Samhain passed quietly, without a single trick or treater, despite our expertly carved pumpkin in the window. People don’t really celebrate Halloween here– it is seen as a crass commercialisation of an ancient Celtic holiday, a “Yank” import.

It remains my favourite holiday, and really, I celebrate it all year round. Last night we had to decide what horror movie to watch. I don’t like to watch anything too scary at night. I love horror films but I have to watch them during the day.  So that ruled out most things, leaving us with our Hammer boxed set, Ginger Snaps, and Season of the Witch from 1972.

George Romero’s little known masterpiece of Suburban witchcraft is a nod to the pyschological horror of Hardy’s The Turn of the Screw while still being a feminist meditation on the mainstreaming of non-conformity happening in the early 1970s.  It is also proof of the power of a title– marketed as “Hungry Wives” in the US and “Jack’s Wife” in the UK, both distort for me the heart of the film. The thrill of watching this is similar to seeing the seductive and colourful British folk customs through a cinematic distortion in original The Wicker Man.Here we get to glimpse of the pagan rituals of a solitary witch who later joins a coven, all glamorised for the big screen.  Of course, this might seem cliche– we have had many witches on mainstream telly in recent years. But Jan White’s sincere performance of a woman coming to power strikes me as very real in a film genre that is full of histrionics and dazed women victims.  As she discovers who she is, you feel as if you are seeing this moment of transformation for the first time as well.  Romero says it is the only one of his films he would like to remake, and I would be curious to see that happen.

Miniature witch ball, inspired by old Yorkshire custom, available in different colours in my Etsy shop.

Grey Mary Visits

Who is that at the door?  A horse skull for a face, with green bottle-glass eyes, covered in a sheet, draped with motley ribbons.  Is there a man beneath? You almost recognize the shoes, the only human thing about him, as your neighbor’s, but not really.  And now, singing.  The spring hinged jaw opens and shuts.  The company he keeps is familiar, you know them from the village, they carry his jingling reins.  They had started out at dusk, you heard them farther out by the church, singing through the night, door-to-door. asking permission. And now it is midnight, and they are here.

In many UK folk traditions, the festival of Christmas carried on for 12 days after, and in Welsh tradition this is when Mari Lwyd, Grey Mary, Grey Mare or simply the Mare went wassailing.  Though today it may be seen as some kind of artifactual party-bringer, it is not hard to see in this strange being a skeletal, ghostly remnant of the “Great Mare” Epona, the ancient Roman-Celtic horse goddess once widely worshiped on this island.

Mother Red Cap, or the Crone of Camden

“Before the good folk of this kingdom be undone,
Shall Highgate Hill stand in the midst of London.”
–prophecy of Mother Shipton

Beneath the history dusted off for tourists in ghost walks and Tower of London grotesques, the spurned of London persist in collective memory.  We will never really know their truth, and this is even more so with women’s stories.

The unwritten persist in our imagination, amplified perhaps because of the silences surrounding them.  Jinney Bingham, or Old Mother Red Cap is one who has taken on mythic proportions in my narrative of North London.

In the essay Old Hags, Marina Warner argues that the infamous crones of London, though their erasure may be almost complete, provide an ancient, “apotropaic” magic:  they are “tomb guardians for the mean streets.”

Mother Red Cap is an old folklore archetype– shook down to us as Little Red Riding Hood.  The red hood or cap was associated with witches; it belies the girl’s collusion with the wolf and her penchant for straying.

Mother Red Cap was also the name of a famous pub in Camden, up until the 80s.  In Famous Impostors, Bram Stoker writes of its competitor across the road, Mother Black Cap and claims that there were also two witches after which these establishments were named.

Stoker goes on to explain that the black-capped woman was Mother Shipton, 17th century Yorkshire prophetess who foretold the Great Fire of London, now reduced to the panto dame.  She faces off eternally, silhouetted on the wings of the Mother Shipton Moth.

Mother Shipton Moth

But Mother Red Cap, Mother Damnable, “The Shrew of Kentish Town” or Jinney Bingham was also a real woman who lived in a cottage where the World’s End pub in Camden now stands.

She was the child of a brickmaker and a pedlar’s daughter.  A mother at sixteen, her baby-dady was one Gipsey George sent to Newgate and hung at Tyburn for sheep-stealing.  Stoker describes unkindly her series of lovers, some of whom, it’s inferred, died at her hand.  Her parents were tried and hung as witches.  She lived as a fortune-teller and healer in the house her father built on waste ground. In the end she was left with her “only protector”– a black cat.  She traveled only at night under hedges or in the lanes as “the rabble bait[ed] her as if she were a wild beast”.  The black patches on her cloak looked at a distance like flying bats.

Hundreds of people claim to have seen the devil enter her cottage– but he didn’t come out.  Later, she was found dead with her crutch and a tea pot full of herbs, crouched by the ashes of her fire which had burned out.  Her body was so stiff the undertakers had to break her limbs to fit her in the coffin.

And so she stayed in this spot, on the pub sign depicting her as brewster or witch, until the 1980s.  In 1776 the space across from the pub was to become a second Tyburn, but what became of those plans I don’t know.  Urban legend claims she still haunts the Underworld, the heavy metal club that is now in the spot.

The closest I’ve come to spotting her ghost was in Stinking Lizaveta drummer Cheshire Agusta’s possessed performance at the Underworld in 2007:

My friend C lives above the pub now. She has  the cunning ability to be seemingly everywhere at once, and a joie de verve that in the time of Mother Red Cap could’ve got a woman in trouble.  If Jinney’s ghost really is still there she has good company.

C, who now lives at the site of Mother Red Cap

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.