Silver Ants - An extremely personal reminiscence of the ups and downs in the life of Redbornstoke Morris

An article written by Brian Mander when Redbornstoke Morris reached 25 years.  Brian Mander was a long time member of Redbornstoke Morrris and foreman for many years.  This article was originally published in Morris Matters (Vol 21, Issue 1, January 2001) and grateful thanks to Brian Mander and to Beth Neill of Morris Matters for permission to republish here. 

SILVER ANTS[1]

AN EXTREMELY PERSONAL REMINISCENCE OF THE UPS AND DOWNS IN THE LIFE OF REDBORNSTOKE MORRIS[2]

 

A personal view of the origins and development of Redbornstoke Morris by Brian Mander, written on the 25th anniversary of the team and published in Morris Matters (Vol 21 No1, January 2002) and reproduced here with the kind permission of Brian Mander and Beth Neill (Morris Matters)

Twenty-five years is a life sentence. Indeed, with good behaviour we could have expected some remission. But then, good behaviour would not have been so much fun.

David Adcock was to blame initially. He had originally been introduced to the Morris by his music teacher[3] at school in Loughborough soon after the end of the Second World War and he continued to dance in Leicestershire as an adult. When he moved to Bedfordshire in the late sixties he was keen to continue but, for various reasons, he was unable to practise with any of the possible local sides on a regular basis. After a few years of withdrawal, he proposed starting a new side at a meeting of the Parent Teachers Association of Redborne School in Ampthill. The school was very supportive. The inaugural meeting took place on 3rd May 1976 and Redbornstoke Morris was born. The side takes its name from the central hundred of Bedfordshire, between the River Flit in the south and the Ouse to the north - essentially, the brick-making plain.

In those days the organisational model for men's Morris was that of the typical Morris Ring side and the embryonic team slotted into this. In fact, we were encouraged a great deal in the early days by two local Ring sides, Bedford and Whitchurch, both of which have provided Squires of the Ring in the intervening years. However, despite their prompting, we never felt the urge to apply for membership. On the other hand, our repertoire was absolutely standard – a few dances each from Adderbury , Bampton, Bledington, Brackley, Bucknell, Fieldtown, Headington, Longborough and Sherborne - with a few other odds and sods. The foreman at the time would learn something one week at a Whitchurch practice and teach it to us the following week. We lapped it up.

But changes were in the air. In 1979 we had a change of kit, from whites with a green baldrick to green breeches and a red baldrick. This was precipitated by some of the side learning a bit of rapper, for which the baldrick was exchanged for a sash in the same colours. Although the rapper did not last long, we kept the kit until 1986, our tenth anniversary year. We also started to question the wisdom of such a wide repertoire and by the start of the eighties we were dancing only Badby and Bledington.

Looking back on the breeches years, we had lots of fun. The side grew and the diary became more and more interesting. But there were also problems – lots of arguments and acrimonious general meetings. We did not have a shared sense of direction and there were factions within the side pulling in different directions.

Practices became difficult too. A local Cotswold side folded and at least a set's worth of them joined us. We also agreed that some boys, who had formed a Morris team, from a local middle school could attend our practices to sharpen their skills. In addition to this, some of the wives and partners of men in the side asked to come along to practices. We usually had five sets dancing on practice evenings, although two of them were not made up of Redbornstoke members. All this was very positive in its way, but we had not really thought out all the consequences or the strategies needed to cope with such large numbers. As foreman at the time I found it impossible to see what was going on and, in retrospect, it seems clear that we did not make much progress. Although the boys stopped coming after a season or two and the women formed their own side (Bedfordshire Lace) and also left, I think some damage had been done[4].

By 1983 there were a number of us who were discontent with the standard of dancing and with the perceived casual attitude of the side in general. There were even a few of us who were thinking about leaving and starting a new side with a more serious approach. However, two members of the team had the idea that a group of us should develop an entirely new "tradition" for Redbornstoke in the hope that it would give us something to which we could all relate and pull together. So, on Sunday evenings during the summer of '83 ten of us met to put together a dance that was the first of Redbornstoke's "Ampthill" tradition[5].

 

This did help to prevent the side from splitting up, but there were negative aspects as well. We should have realised that those who had been left out of the process would feel upset. Nevertheless, the side survived. Ampthill was adopted and a few more dances developed, but it did not immediately become the central unifying core that we had hoped.

Another problem was music. We had loads of musicians, who played as a band. They had differing ideas as to what was needed and some of them appeared to be bored with the basic melody and went off on flights of fancy - good music, no doubt, but not easy to dance to.

So our problems continued. In 1985 a number of senior members of the side left and in the AGM of that year the squire is reported as saying that it seemed unlikely that the side could continue, but we should nevertheless plan for the following year, our tenth anniversary.

We very nearly self-destructed, but the tenth anniversary year was wonderful; a real renaissance of commitment and enjoyment. There were a number of reasons for this.

The people who left were experienced dancers and could have been a grievous loss, but some of them had very strong, but contradictory, opinions on how the side should operate. We also gained a number of new recruits and, although they were new to the Morris, they were very enthusiastic. We had elected a new and very energetic Bagman and an excellent musician returned after some time away. We were also dancing Ducklington at this time; many current members look back on the Ducklington years as a golden age for our dancing. I'm not so sure personally, but the side certainly enjoyed it and that helped to strengthen the cohesion within the team. Another important factor was that we had decided that for our anniversary year we would dance out with every "local" ritual team. When we sat down to write out the list, we were staggered by how many there were and so we ended up dancing with two or three teams at each of our weekly pub nights through that season. This helped to regenerate the feeling for the social side of the Morris that has been of prime importance to us ever since. All these factors combined to generate the most important features of all - we had a renewed pride in being members of the team and we had fun.

In some ways, this is the end of my story - fifteen years ago. Much of the positivity of that year has continued since and, generally speaking, we have been mercifully free of internal politics. Unlike some sides, we do not have a great deal of social contact outside of the Morris, but when we are together there is a very strong bond and a shared sense of purpose. Of course, it would be untrue to suggest that we have had no further problems at all, but we have been remarkably lucky[6]. On the whole, we enjoy one another's company.

One major factor in what makes Redbornstoke tick has been the continued development of Ampthill. In the early days, when we had only three or four dances in the style, we had considerable difficulty with it. So we cut right back to just the first dance and worked on that. The "tradition" then developed fairly organically; we have never pushed the pace. Because of this, we feel that it has gained an internal coherence that we very much enjoy. Our hanky dances have become increasingly complex geometrically, which keeps us having to think.

Another recent development has been a set of winter dances. For many years we have danced out on Plough Monday with a mummers group[7] and some local Morris sides[8]. It is often extremely cold at night at that time of year and there is the danger of pulled muscles dancing Cotswold Morris with any degree of energy. One of the sides that accompanied us danced Border and so we did not feel that we could do that. We experimented with a fairly traditional style of Molly, but never really enjoyed it. After a few years of this, it was suggested at a general meeting of the side that we should develop a winter version of Ampthill with stepping that did not have the sudden muscular movements of Cotswold.

In October 1998 we arranged a Sunday workshop and sorted out the basis of a winter "tradition" that we call Marston. We had thought that, as the stepping sequence was arranged to have the same sort of punctuation as Ampthill, we would have all the Ampthill choruses to make a ready-made repertoire. However, we found that the vast majority of Ampthill choruses just did not feel right for Marston. Nevertheless, we all enjoy the feel of Marston and in the intervening years we have worked hard on developing a repertoire. This is still providing us with interesting challenges[9].

In the last paragraph I mentioned a Sunday workshop. These have been a key feature of our diary for several years now. We usually have one or two a year to consider innovations. For example, in the Autumn 1999 workshop we produced three entirely new Marston dances and the following year two new figures and three possible choruses. In some ways, these workshops embody an important aspect of what Redbornstoke is: we have ownership of our material. Many of us have been with the side for quite a few years and have been a part of the maturation periods for both Ampthill and Marston. In some ways they have matured to accommodate the way we feel about the dance. We also regularly deconstruct our dances and everyone has an input into the reconstruction. Having our own sets of dances is another brick in the wall of the team.

And music. As a non-musician I am acutely aware of the pivotal role that our music has had in the development of the team and in our enjoyment of the dance. This could be the topic of another article - by a more knowledgeable author - but I acknowledge the debt that the side owes to our musicians.

So, where now? For many years now, our summer repertoire has been Ampthill and one "Black Book" Cotswold tradition. This latter changes every few years. We have been dancing Bledington for a while and felt that it was time for a change. To what? Well, we have not thought of a name for it yet. Suffice it to say that we had a Sunday workshop last Spring to look at possible Cotswold steppings and figures.

The story continues.

Brian Mander

December 2001

 

[1] Redbornstoke Morris celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary in 2001. Our rear baldrick badge shows a three-legged ant. Although our official badge is the one on the front of the baldrick the ant has been used increasingly over the last few years as a motif for the side.

[2] I [Brian Mander] emphasise that this is a personal view and I recognise that I am a sharp critic and that other members of the team may be puzzled by some of the negative aspects of my analysis.

[3] Mrs Johnson or Johnston, a lady "of mature years". David remembers that she had had some connection with the Esperance movement, possibly through her teachers' training college

[4] In the wider context, of course, there was a huge amount of benefit in the promotion of the Morris, but the side itself suffered.

[5] Billy Bones

[6] Or, maybe, luck has nothing to do with it.

[7] The Brafront Guizers started in 1980 as a sub-set of Redbornstoke. Five of the Guizers still dance with Redbornstoke.

[8] Bedfordshire Lace continue to accompany us. Black Annis (not the Leicestershire version) and Ragged Rainbow are now defunct.

[9] We have a separate kit for this - almost a negative of our summer one - all black with shoulder ribbons.