Jack Merry here. It's that time of year when the air is crisper, the days are shorter, and the list of things to do gets -- shorter, too. Why so, you ask? Because the city Brigid and I call home, and where the Green Man offices straddle the Border, is bloody cold and damp come late Fall. What that means is that I stop busking altogether until the weather gets much warmer. Oh, I know that you think the holiday shopping crowds bent on buying as much as possible in the next six weeks or so would be be generous with that lucre for the wee cold fiddler all dressed in green, on the corner with his fingerless gloves and greatcoat playing tunes to cheer them up. Indeed they might be if I could bring meself to actually play tunes of a cheerful nature when it's bleedin' cold and all I'm thinking of it is a spiced ale near the fire in the Green Man Pub, but I can't! So what do I play? Oh, there's Blowzabella's instrumental version of 'Lyke Wake Dirge', and I'm rather fond of 'The Druid's Ring' off John Garden's Lost Dances Of Earthly Delights album, as well as a sprightly if somber 'Cold Haily Windy Night'. I suppose David DiGiuseppe's 'The Midwinter Reel' could be considered somewhat upbeat... Still it's hard to play the fiddle when your fingers are so cold they go blue and you can't feel the strings.
So what do I do in the winter beside drink ale, read fiction, and snuggle with me darling wife? A series of all-night dances is what mainly pays the bills as the good folks at Toad Hall have an all-night contradance which has musicians, callers and dancers coming from all over to be in it. Danse Macabre, the band I'm the lead fiddler in, is the featured band, playing four sets over the course of the night for a fair price. Lots of other local bands take part -- Sparrowhawk, The More The Merrier Dance Band, Tree and Leaf, Nine Standing Stones, Huddled Masses -- even a group called The Norns (all female fiddlers of Scandinavian heritage) plays at some point during the winter-long series of dances. Of course, the catering is done by an all Scandinavian collective who obviously read the description of the buffet in Jennifer Stevenson's Solstice chapbook:
'What amazing bounty. Ribs, roast beef, roast piglet, roast lamb, an astounding goose with a chicken in her cavity, and a grouse inside of her, and a quail inside of her, and far in the fragrant center a hard boiled egg with a gem in the middle like a pomegranate seed, perfectly divided just this minute by a grinning chef waving a whacking great cleaver. Glazed fish, their scales picked out in jelly. Fish in cream, fish in wine, red-fleshed fish shaved thin, smothered in capers and heaped with grainy caviar. Hot vats of noodles Swedish style, noodles with sauerbraten, noodles layered between pork chops, noodles tossed in sesame paste and ginger and red hot peppers. Fruits in and out of season: musk melon, honeydew, pears and alligator pears, mangos, pineapple, a dozen kinds of apples: golden green orange crimson scarlet blueblack and white and their piebald miscegenations. Breads shaped like suns, breads studded with raisins. Doubled buns steaming indecently, with butter running in their crevices. Dawn isn't hungry yet but she clutches her mug of glogg, grinning mistily.'
Good music, tasty food, plenty of drink for a thirsty throat, lively dances, and excellent company -- What more could one old fiddler want on a midwinter's night?
If you haven't visited it yet, Toad Hall's a old stone church built like a Viking long boat so the acoustics are bleedin' near perfect -- as long as you keep moving -- and everyone here does as the caller, a red-headed lass who prefers to be called simply Freya, keeps everything lively. Last night, she called a set of tunes as requested by Emma Bull that she described thus to our caller: 'So, I don't know if these dances still exist in modern contradance, but in the Regency I like 'Black Nag', 'Hole in the Wall' and 'Trip to Paris', and 'Mr. Beveridge's Maggot' (when I can remember the figures) and some others I can't remember the names of. And in Victorian ballrooms, I'm nuts about 'Portland Fancy', which I like so much I mention it in the book presently under construction.'