Culture Vulture: Is knowledge and pride lacking?

Joe Conway
Joe Conway

Slowly and seductively the tall blonde began moving to the pulsating music (writes Joe Conway), Turning to her left she started weaving in and out of the two lines of men and girls. Gradually the music increased in pace and the dancers whirled wildly in response to the irregular beats. The dance reached its climax and ended in a flurry of swirling arms and stamping feet.

The splendid folk-dance had been performed by a group of Romanian students on a cultural exchange visit to the East of England, and I was one of a group of arts workers looking on. I was charmed by the music, the dance, and the spontaneous way the students had got up after dinner to entertain us.

But the smile on my face didn’t last long. Though I didn’t know it there was a challenge in store for us as the blonde approached our table. ‘Now you,’ she said. ‘Now we ... ?’ somebody questioned. ‘Now you do traditional English dance,’ the blonde continued. ‘You want us to dance?’ someone repeated incredulously.

Seeing the bewildered look on our faces, she continued, ‘you don’t wanna dance, no? Then you sing old English song for us.’

We treated this cringe-making episode as if it was a joke. But the inescapable truth was that a group of well-qualified and experienced English musicians, actors, and administrators couldn’t perform a single traditional song or dance from their own country!

This experience with the Romanian students ties in with last month’s Culture Vulture in which I mentioned my experiences in Italy. Like the Italians the Romanian students were knowledgeable and proud about their heritage, and used their traditional songs and dances to enrich their own lives and those of the people they were entertaining.

It’s almost unnecessary for me to pose the question that arises from these observations, but here goes anyway. Why are we, here in England, so lacking in knowledge and pride about our historic culture?

Not that the answers are particularly difficult to find. Industrialisation, urbanisation, modernism. These ugly words sum up much of what happened to undermine traditional English culture in the 20th century. Not to mention passive listening rather than active participation. And even education. After all, there was a time when children were taught English folk-songs in the classroom and when country dancing was a regular item on the school curriculum.

Beyond that there are other factors which go even deeper. A sort of diffidence and embarrassment about our heritage which almost amounts to a national inferiority complex. And which goes hand-in-hand with an all-too-ready acceptance of globalisation.

But let’s end this month’s column on a more positive note. Next weekend the Peterborough Heritage Festival will be back, reminding us of our past traditions, with historical re-enactments, displays of archery, falconry, and much more.

It’s also good to report that there have been other indications lately that interest in our heritage may be on the increase. In Peterborough in recent months I’ve reviewed some quite outstanding programmes of English music and drama.

The last concert by the City of Peterborough Symphony Orchestra in March included inspiring performances of stirring works by Elgar and Vaughan Williams. In April baritone Charles Cunliffe gave a superb recital of early 20th century English song. Meanwhile in recent months there have been stunning appearances here by three of the best ever folk-rock bands, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, and the Carthys.

Paralleling these concerts have been productions of immortal plays by Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. But perhaps even better was the takeover of the city centre by so many Morris and Molly dancers three weeks ago. This was historical English culture with a vengeance! Centuries old dances, catchy folk-tunes, jingling percussion, colourful symbolic costumes, everything live, nothing recorded.

So who knows? If the Romanians return we may be able to demonstrate a few English songs and dances after all!