The Jack swaggers through Hastings Old Town, accompanied by a gaggle of puke-green Bogies (no, not the nose gunk), Hobby-horses and the considerable heft of Herne the Hunter. People crane their necks and dangle precariously out of windows to catch a glimpse of the mayhem.
What the hell am I on about? Hastings’ Jack-in-the-Green festival: an annual folk procession and celebration of Wicker Man-ish weirdness.
A hugely-bearded man laughs as one of the Bogies (tree sprites, apparently) daubs my nose with toxic-smelling green paint. He swiftly downs a warm pint from one of the (many) pubs lining the parade’s route, rejoins the procession and begins to dance with Kate Bush-style athleticism. A nearby policewoman tips her hat in salute.
Seemingly endless Morris troupes, from all corners of the country, clatter up the steep slopes. They range from the more traditional, and widely mocked, “hankies and bells” variety to truly intimidating black-clad mobs. Their barked chants threaten to crack the windows of the nearby chocolate-box cottages. The whole experience is like being lost in a Medieval woodcut.
Obviously, this is my first Jack-in-the-Green, but the event has a cult following amongst the usual suspects (CAMRA-supporting, long-haired folkies) and, unsurprisingly, the local hipsters. First held in Hastings in 1889, the Jack is a physical embodiment of the coming of spring, made from garlands of flowers and leaves. Essentially, it’s a giant dancing bush.
Bear with me. I’m sure you, like the hundreds of people who were attending a motorbike show down the road on the same day, are thinking that it all sounds, frankly, like a load of codswallop.
But I think, in the end, that’s the point. No-one there (ok, maybe a few Bogeys) was taking it too seriously: everyone in the bizarre pageant had a witty quip prepared, was very keen to have their picture taken with newbies like myself and was quick to moan about the weight, heat, smell, appearance and strangeness of their costume. In fact, I overheard one accordion player say: “We’re like a West County Slipknot.”
So, overall, the reasons for Jack-in-the-Green’s popularity can be boiled down to two simple points:
- It’s an excuse to drink.
- It’s an opportunity to laugh and take the piss, whilst upholding a time-honoured tradition with gusto.
Can you get any more British than that? I didn’t stay for the ritual slaying of the Jack as it was way past my bedtime, but I left with a warm, fuzzy feeling that all was well with the world. Or maybe that was the local ale.
Given there are hundreds of events around the country and globe, I urge you to lose your Jack-in-the-Green virginity next spring. It has to be seen to be believed. I’ll be the one prancing around half-naked, ale in one hand and flowers in the other.
WORDS: MAX FIGGETT