Country Matters Jan 23: Noisy New-Year!

Arrowsmith’s lute with dog Jethro carved into the sound hole, and a water colour by Jacqueline Byrne.

“With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain…”  sings Feste, the jester in William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”.  Christmas carol singers had to contend with snow and ice in the second week of December last year, and no doubt brass players were challenged by the difficulty of increased condensation when playing outside.  But outdoor music doesn’t end on Christmas Day.  Twelfth Night takes place on the fifth of January, when there was once a Pagan tradition of marking the beginning of the new year by hunting a Wren, killing it, mounting it on a decorated pole – often ‘dressed’ in colourful silk – and then carrying it from house to house to be given money or food by the householders in pretty much the same way as was done by carol singers, children at Halloween and before ‘Bonfire Night’.  The practice was most common in Ireland but was also known in Wales (especially Pembrokeshire), the Isle of Man, certain parts of rural England, Galicia in Spain, and South-Western France.

The killing has been commemorated in folk songs by many modern collectors of traditional songs, including the electric folk group, Steeleye Span in 1972.  But some outdoor singing serves practical purposes. In Switzerland for example goatherds yodel as a method of communication, sometimes using Alpenhorns to cover greater distances.  Shepherds control their dogs by whistling as well as vocal commands, and in almost every country worldwide, bells are used to inform people as well as announce the time. Islamic muezzins call Muslims to prayer from the minarets of mosques. Even in towns and cities, singers and musicians called ‘waits’ were employed to act as musical town-criers for civic occasions.  Town-criers themselves use vocal techniques similar to singing to help get their message across. I wonder if Cirencester’s own John Lawrence might be persuaded to add an occasional song on appropriate occasions?  The popular carol ‘Past Three O’clock On a Cold Frosty Morning’ recalls the days when watchmen patrolled the streets, calling out the time and reassuring citizens that all was well. Almost the opposite of relying upon burglar alarms which are supposed only to make a noise when all is not well.  Sadly, many urban dwellers tend to suffer being disturbed by false alarms, or the prolonged cacophony of bells or sirens to which neither police nor property-owners pay any attention. Which possibly means that the burglars continue their work with impunity.   At least in isolated rural areas owners themselves sometimes have the opportunity to get in a little shotgun practice.  In days gone by some landowners kept blunderbusses loaded with coarse rock-salt for use when unwelcome strangers set foot on farmland.

Just as there are many places in the Cotswolds where the night sky is both dark and often clear enough to see the vast scatter of stars that make up the Milky Way, the more remote parts of the countryside at night used to be quiet enough to hear the calls of owls and the bark of foxes. The contrast with the daytime racket of the noisy human population about their business is almost a shock for countryfolk.  Especially those of us who remember the days when motor vehicles were few enough that parking in Cirencester was easy, and military jets were not such regular visitors to Fairford and Brize Norton. The sound of vehicles on the concrete surface of the A417 past Cirencester is audible day and night.  No wonder people seem not to notice others shouting across streets in town and holding private conversations publicly on mobile phones. There’s no longer any peace to disturb.  

The accompanying photo shows a watercolour of a wren by Jacqueline Byrne, and Arrowsmith’s Lute Guitar, its rose carved with an image of our dog, Jethro.

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