There’s an understandable human urge for artists to do something big, something brand new, making a singular impressive mark never made before on the canvas of Planet Earth.
I think some marks are better made the way a dropped stone leaves ripples in a pond.
This Sunday, a host of MCs, poets and storytellers will stand and drop such a stone collectively in the streets of a London neighbourhood.
Because I asked them to.
Because they are taking part in the Willesden Green Wassail.
My family came to this country a hundred years ago, from… well…stick some pins in the Baltic and the Middle East and you’ve got me.
Something in our nomadic heritage meant they came here with strong value of working in the present whilst still honouring their ancestral roots; not through the awed respect of a memorial museum or a pristine book of memoirs, but through living traditions, in particular poetry, stories, ritual and music. And there was a kinship with others who carried their past with them in the same way. So, as I grew up, it seemed I took more interest in exploring the indigenous folk culture of England than a whole bunch of my Anglo schoolmates. A culture that stretches back into the mists of time, long before the written word, long before anyone could decide that only the history of rulers and empires was worth teaching. A culture that still lives in parts of rural England (and is much celebrated & preserved by many including theEFDSS in Camden).
A Wassail begins the growing season that ends with the more familiar Harvest festivals celebrated in Autumn. At this time of year fruit trees look like big sticks; not very promising if you are living a thousand years ago and depending on them to feed your family. So people gathered (and still gather, particularly in the South West) to sing in the orchards, pour apple cider at the tree roots and hope for a good harvest in the coming year.
We don’t have orchards in Willesden, what we have is an incredible bunch of independent shopkeepers who supply us with food in the face of competition from huge corporations. They are rarely thanked for their work; certainly never sung to and applauded by a large group of happy locals. So that’s what we do.
As with art, in a culture of solo achievement it ‘s easy to feel that only big impressive acts of social change are worth doing; the ones that make you worthy of newspaper headlines and unending public praise. It’s easy to feel that our little acts are inconsequential in a city of millions. But our community is created by us, by those small daily interactions, by the stones we drop in the pond.
At the Wassail we connect neighbours with each other, and regardless of where we come from, for a moment everyone connects with a group of ancestors no-one remembers, who once stood where we stand. The simplicity of people joining together in a shared positive act is mindblowingly powerful.
And with us are the bards of our time: musicians, storytellers, poets – traditional and modern – sharing their skills out on the streets as they have done for centuries in Moroccan markets, Irish pubs, Aboriginal songlines, and beneath the biggest tree in a thousand thousand villages around the World. And through their reflections and visions we connect that past and our present to a hopeful and expressive future.
Rachel Rose Reid is ‘Queen of the new wave of storytellers’ (BBC) and tames dragons in her spare time.
Willesden GreenWassail will be happening this Sunday, 22 January, starting outside Willesden Green Tube at 2.30pm (prompt) & travelling to Willesden Green Library, finishing with Wassail punch from locally picked apples inside the Library from 4pm served by Transition Willesden. Incase of rain, we’ll be in the Library.
With performances from