Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Timewarp Britain: Summer Fêtes

Given that the term 'fête' comes from French it is interesting how it has become such a British institution. Of course in England it is pronounced as 'fate' as opposed to the French pronunciation 'fett'. In France it sums up something rather like what we term as a carnival, a town-wide event. I know it is dated, but in my mind it will always be encapsulated in the movie 'Jour de Fête' (1949) starring comic actor Jacques Tati. It is available to watch for free in 12 parts on YouTube: there are black and white, partially coloured and colour versions.

Anyway, the British fête is something different, usually confined to a single location such as a school or a church; larger events are deemed at least 'parish days' or these days more in favour is the term 'carnival' which often has a procession leading up to it and also tends to have fairground attractions as well as the more low key stalls. The county fairs like the one in Hampshire I comment on last summer, are of a far larger scale. The objective of fêtes is fund raising and this is done in a range of generally traditional ways. In part the lack of change at fêtes is an endearing element of them. Aside from the bouncy castle and the face painting an organiser of a British summer fête of 1949 would not feel out of place at one in 2009.

I was a big fan of fêtes in my youth and worked at many as my parents were active members of the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) of the schools I attended, the bodies behind such events at schools. Fêtes need a reasonable amount of space and sufficient people who can spend a decent amount of money playing on simple games and buying cakes. They are frivolous events and I guess this is why I never saw any occurring in East London where there was a lack of space to host such things and the population lacked the spare cash. Interestingly they did not seem to even occur in Milton Keynes, though it has a great deal more space. Maybe that says something about the nature of the population or the fact that the city is so thinly spread. The natural home for the fête seems to be from large village size up to leafy suburb and they are less common in really rural areas or inner cities.

In the past fortnight I have attended two fêtes, one at a church, one at a school. Though every fête is unique there are many common elements. It is usually 'opened' by a notable, this can be anyone from the local vicar or school head to a celebrity of various degrees of stature. Sometimes you get something slightly different. I attended a fête opened by a real owl and another opened by Queen Elizabeth I (in fact a teacher dressed as her). Maybe with our perception of celebrity changing with so many 'reality' and talent shows, this is becoming a less common element than it once was than in my youth when I attended fêtes opened by people like DJ Ed Stewart and actors Bernard Cribbens and Buster Merryfield

The backbone of the fête is that there will be a number of stalls, some selling items and some with games. The items tend to be of a particular nature such as 'white elephant' or 'bric-a-brac' (wonderful English phrases in themselves), i.e. second hand ornaments. There may be some second hand clothes, but these tend to be reserved for jumble sales, which are usually held in the Autumn and Winter rather than the Summer. There will be a stall selling homemade and often bought cakes as well. One noticeable thing over my youth is that the people running these stalls now all wear plastic gloves and all the ingredients are listed on each homemade cake so that the event does not get sued from someone with a nut allergy. They often sell cupcakes (also known in the UK as 'fairy' cakes) and classic home-made recipes such as chocolate-cornflake or chocolate rice-crispy cakes. There is usually a lot of heavy fruit cakes, some sponges and sometimes some nice banana or coconut cake, always a good bet as they tend to be lighter.

In addition to the cake stand for cakes to take home, there will be 'refreshments', usually tea and cake with orange cordial for the children, sometimes crisps are available as well. This tends to be run from a large tent or the hall of the school or church. Invariably these are served on institutional crockery, if you are lucky, Beryl ware. Summer fêtes are distinguished from their Winter equivalent or jumble sales by having a barbecue, usually of burgers and hotdogs. The vegetarian option has now creapt in here. However, allocating the task of cooking the food still seems to be allocated to any black or Hispanic man who can be found in the neighbourhood, with pale white women serving the customers. There is clearly some racial stereotyping going on. In our district white South Africans tend to be the best barbecuers but the job is given to a black man whose moved from Birmingham. You can read a lot about a neighbourhood from its fêtes. I must say the quality of the burgers has risen over the years, I had delicious homemade ones at the church; onions seem to be less burnt than they used to and the rolls, less doughy. I do not know if my tastes have deteriorated since the 1970s, but quality in fête barbecue food seems to be on the rise, perhaps it is the Jamie Oliver effect.

Other stalls sell things like pot plants, old children's toys and second hand books. What struck me recently was how little prices have risen. I was still paying 10p (€0.12; US$0.16) for a second hand book, the same as I did in 1978, although in today's values 10p then is worth about 50p now. This seems made as costs have risen since then. In that time, cakes seem to have gone from £1 (equivalent to around £5 today) to £4 so seem to have kept up better with inflation than books and toys. The only time I remember someone breaking from this was a woman who took over running the second hand book stall at the local Scout jumble sale to where I lived. I went for many years and each book was meticulously priced, with different prices rather than the blanket price most places charge. This woman charged prices by assessing the wealth of the potential buyer. It was incredible how much resentment this caused and led to people abandoning piles of books. She did not realise that even when at a charitable event, people want to know what they are letting themselves in for (they may be saving their change for a cake or a cup of tea) and to have an arbitrary figure imposed not only lost her sales but meant regulars not coming again. People can tolerate higher prices than 10p, but they need to know what the prices are.

Aside from the stalls selling items, there are the games. These are usually old fashioned and very low key. One universal one is the tombola. Here again prices have not risen much and I got 5 tickets for £1. You open the ticket and see if it matches one of the ones on an item on the able, usually numbers ending in a 5 or a 0, so getting a 1 in 5 chance of the prize. The 7-year old boy from my house won 3 out of 5 at both events, and began assuming he would always win. I took him back so that he would lose more and better understand the odds, but then feared that I had unleashed a gambling monster as he said 'if I just buy a few more tickets, then I'll win again'. Having rarely won anything in years of tombolas, I knew that way leads to poverty. Sometimes there are specific bottle or cuddly toy tombolas, most have a random selection of items. The boy from the two fêtes won a selection that probably sums up the kind of items you get: an old, though unused, radio; a jar of tomato relish; a tin of tuna; a teddy bear; a small candlestick and a large pot of scented moisturiser. Other games include the coconut shy, probably the only time in the year most people get close to an unprocessed cocount, throw wet sponges at someone often a teacher, smash crockery (this is where I saw a Beryl ware plate selling for £2-3 on eBay smashed), roll the 2p across a board - where it lands may result in a prize, spin the wheel, bash the rat, pick a nail, the raffle, racing (battery-powered) pigs (or their equivalent) and so on. Less active are guess the name of the bear/doll, weight of the cake, number of sweets in a jar and so on. There are sometimes innovations, I saw 'pan for gold' in which you had to sift wet sand to find little bits of metal, finding sufficient won you a prize. Back in the 1980s home computers briefly brought computer games to fêtes, usually lovingly typed in some teenager and the one with a high score at the end of the day won a prize, but trying to shade the screen and now we all have computers, meant that innovation died. Getting a remote-controlled car around a course has been a bit more enduring and would be something the fête-goer of 1949 would not recognise, though the one of 1979 would.

So all of this is going on, you are losing money amiably or winning items you will donate to another charity event. The big innovations are the bouncy castle and face painting. I think face painting appeared at fêtes when I was living in London in the 1990s and not attending them any longer. Yet it is now a stalwart element of these events and for the day you see boys with bat or tiger or spiderman faces, girls with butterly faces. I never understood the fascination but it is immense. There are books on doing it and a lot of effort is taken. I think this was best satirised in the second series of 'Phoenix Nights' (2001) which actually with the 'fun day' episode took off a lot about British fêtes. Anyway, until someone stops face-painting on some health and safety grounds it looks like it is here to stay. The same can be said for the bouncy castle. I love the fact kids can literally go mad springing off the walls and floor for 15 minutes. I wish they had been invented in my day. Some usually collides with someone else and there are tears and I am sure soon, some parent will sue a school or a church and then children will only be allowed on them one at a time, harnessed to the side and wearing head protection.

The final element, aside from the uncertain weather which accompanies any Summer event in the UK, are the performances. I rarely pay much attention to these but they are an important part of the fête and must make many parents, teachers and instructors. Generally you get some kind of sports demonstration, something like a local martial arts group. There is usual musical input whether from a local marching band or brass band or from a school orchestra. There are often girls in leotards dancing or twirling batons. At large fêtes there may be dog or motorcycle displays by the police or some local military unit. All of this is pretty unremarkable, but can be enjoyable for children who do not get to see much live entertainment these days. As a teenager interested in history and with a love of fêtes, I used to particularly target those which featured historical reconstruction elements. There are huge numbers of historical reconstruction groups. In the 1970s the English Civil War was the popular focus, but these days there is a range from Roman and early Medieval through to Napoleonic. These events seem to be decreasing in number, again possibly due to health and safety concerns with all that black powder going off. I did see a group who did 18th century dance at one church fête three years ago, all in appopriate costume, the musicians too.

Sometimes there is an odd anomaly that is thrown into the mix which makes a fête different. I attended one near the Fulda Gap in what was then West Germany at which the future Chancellor, Helmut Kohl (born 1930), attended, with an amazingly low level of security. He sat at a table behind ours in the restaurant cutting up his elderly mother's fish. That was not a British fête, but I was just reminded of it. It had many of the same elements, though much more cultural clothing worn by the audience. The one that struck me the other day was at the church fête which the vicar's brother (both must be 1.95m and broad with it) performed songs in Spanish with a group consisting of a teenager on a keyboard and a late middle aged woman on percussion. Twice he sung a song about Che Guevara helping pull off the Cuban Revolution, which seemed pretty anomalous in an English churchyard. It was as if a Graham Greene novel had come to life. He lattely moved to 'La Bamba' and other more anondyne material, but it was a delightfully quirky element to the proceedings.

Though Summer fêtes have evolved, it is a slow process and if you ever enjoyed such events before, then you will not be disappointed by the ones today. Take along a child to an event which is about human activity rather than what they can do electronically and they may actually find they enjoy it. For primary school children there is a lot of practice at handling money (the 7-year old with me always overpays 'because I get more change back' is his theory) and the stallholders are more patient than the average shopkeeper. I know Britain is embedded in its past which blinds it to much of contemporary life, but in my view the fête manages to connect past and present, and it is raising money for a charitable cause. May they long prosper and not be choked off with excessive health and safety concerns.

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