Bad mare day

I’m currently throwing ideas about for a potential MASI project involving costuming, embodiment, and affect. I wish I could say this was a perceptive new research direction of mine but, in reality, I made a terrible pun about seven weeks ago, while pitching MS-219 to the current first year, about Super Furries and super furries, and I couldn’t quite let go of the latter. So far no-one’s quite persuaded me that basing potentially two years’ work on some poor wordplay is not, perhaps, the genius move I might think it is.

It’s not about members of the furry fandom though – at least, not just about them. I hope we’ll be able to derive some more universal observations and, in particular, some evidence around the culture and science of wearing what theme parks call ‘rubber-head’ costumes: ones which encapsulate the wearer’s entire head, rendering their identity completely unknown to the observer.

Wearing a rubber-head costume in public is probably quite a niche thing for an adult to do: sports and theme park mascots, particular cosplays (specific Star Wars characters, in particular), outsider artists (think Frank Sidebottom, a character fully embodied by Chris Sievey but never seen without his oversized head, initially of papier-mâché but, later, fibreglass), and… oh hang on…

…see, I’d completely forgotten that for a quarter of an hour in Swansea about 18 years ago, I became an animal, and what’s more I blogged about it soon after. So I dug out the piece from Nine Days’ Wonder, the blog recounting my inglorious time with Sweyn’s Ey Morris. Another piece from the blog made it to print and consequently got me ever-so-tangentially mentioned in the Times Literary Supplement, of all things. Truly the digital past was a different country.

Anyway, here’s the entry in question. For full comprehension it’s useful, but not essential, to know roughly what a mummers’ play is, but if you’ve reached this far you might as well carry on anyway. Enjoy your correspondent’s not-exactly-secret gothic-anthropomorphic past.

5th December 2004

It’s far too early on a Saturday morning, far too close to Christmas, and there are far too few parking spaces to be found anywhere in Mumbles. At least part of your parking problem is due to the large Christmas fair that’s held in the village today, and the reason you’re trying to get there is that you’re going to be taking part in your first mummers’ play.

You’ve been given the part of Slasher Jack, a largely dispensable role containing the challenging sum of one line. To wit:


SLASHER JACK: In come I, bold Slasher Jack, bold Slasher is my name; with sword and pistol by my side I’ll surely win this game.


You don’t think this will be a problem. It’s a part not even you could forget. You might not have a pistol, but you have a prop wooden sword. You have the promise of a sack-cloth as some sort of costume. All told, you think you’ll enjoy this.

Slightly unusually, your mummers’ play will be sharing the bill with a horse. To be precise, a dead horse. There’s a peculiarly Welsh tradition, common around the turning of the year, that involves putting a horse’s skull on a stick, wrapping a skirt of material around it, and putting the whole thing on a pole. Called Y Fari Lwyd (the Grey Mare), it was paraded from house to house around Christmas, to the delight of local youths and the despair of pretty much everyone else.

The Mumbles horse isn’t exactly a Mari Lwyd – but it’s close enough. And five minutes before you’re due to start your play, the skull and skirt are wheeled out by its keeper.

Then there’s silence. Something’s wrong.

“Where’s your son?” asks the head of your side.
“He can’t make it,” says the dead horse’s keeper. “He tried really hard, and he’s really sorry, but there’s no way he could get the time off work.”
“Oh. That’s a shame.”
“I know. But if one of you lot wants to wear it…”

And then, inevitably, every eye starts looking at you.

Slasher Jack is obviously more dispensable than even you thought. So today, Matthew, you’re going to be the remains of a 140-year-old horse. Clambering under the ribbons and material, you clumsily put on your new head. It’s heavy and cumbersome. It’s been attached to what could be the pole from a rotary clothes line. You spend two minutes trying to get everything in the right place, without the pole showing or the head falling off. You fail. And now you’re due to perform.

Being Sharper, rather ineptly

As dead horses go, you’re not the most convincing. You stand on the sidelines while the others perform the mummers’ play. Saint George is killed and revived, the dark knight seen off, and you peer at the world from between the folds of a yellowing sheet. You turn Sharper’s head to look at the action.

Sharper – yes, he has a name, or at least he did in the 1860s, when the rest of the horse belonged to a mobile grocer from the Gower. Sharper died, but he was buried in a lime kiln. The local boys, Victorian Arthur Daleys all no doubt, heard about the Fari Lwyd tradition, took Sharper’s head, decorated it, and took it from house to house asking for money. The local vicar helped them get a song to sing, so you suspect they can’t have been that bad.

140 years later, they’re singing the song again, and you bow down in the right bits so that Sharper can be seen to die. You’re getting the hang of this now.

It’s time to meet and greet, so one of the other mummers takes you by the mane and drags you around the market. The timing’s perfect, because you’ve discovered a rope which, excellently, pulls apart Sharper’s jaws when you tug it. You spend the next five minutes perfecting the timing, and seeing just how far you can make unsuspecting members of the public jump into the air when they see a dead horse’s jaws spring open. You admit that this probably makes you quite a bad person.

All too soon the market winds down. The carols are sung. Still under the skull, you pose for photos with a variety of small children, safe in the knowledge that their resulting phobias will keep any psychiatrists in clover for decades to come.

And then you go walkabout, dodging the Mumbles’ bus shelters, pedestrian crossings and Christmas shoppers. The local pub has asked the mummers to do their play there. So you go with them, still half-man, half-horse, leading yourself to water, or something a little more potent.

Later, you look up Sharper on the web. You’re not too surprised to find a comprehensive page that tells you all you already knew about him, and quite a bit more. You read the article that tells you about the attempt to revive the tradition of taking him from door to door, at the turn of the millennium. Your eye comes to rest on this paragraph:

You can sing, but don’t expect to go under the Horse. “Nobody does that but me,” says [the horse skull’s owner]. “It’s 134 years old now – and if anybody breaks it, it’s going to be me.”

Emerging from a spare room full of your half-repaired electronics, your wife finds this highly amusing.

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