Saturday, 2 August 2008

My Old Man's a Scarecrow

So, the village Scarecrow Competition has been and gone for another year. Last year we came third, with an effigy of Patrick Moore complete with telescope. This year, our tableau based on Lonnie Donegan's My Old Man's a Dustman failed to reach the top three. Since you may not be familiar with the emerging phenomenon of the Scarecrow Competition or Festival, I'd better explain. Local people build scarecrows and stick them in their front gardens. I say “scarecrows”, but we're not talking here about two sticks and a hat. These are quite elaborate effigies, often of real people. The event has been advertised (it's a good way of raising money) and visitors to the village are given maps and walk around a “scarecrow trail”, admiring the scarecrows. Tea and cakes are laid on at the village hall, and everybody has a good time. Certificates are given to the makers of the best scarecrows, though how you judge this without wheeling a cage full of crows round with you, I don't know.
How did it all start? The obvious answer is with the Kettlewell Scarecrow Festival. Kettlewell is just over the hill from here and has held its festival for years. People flock to it from all over – they even get coachloads of German tourists, apparently. The idea has caught on, and it's now commonplace for villages round here to combine events like fetes and “open garden” days with scarecrow competitions.
But where did Kettlewell get the idea from? Somewhere else, obviously. I've seen scarecrow-making websites from as far afield as Australia. And where did they get the idea from? It's a bit like asking what happened before the Big Bang.
The answer, no doubt, lies deep in the psyche. This is the nearest we get these days to the world of The Wicker Man. To compress fifteen hundred years of history, the Church displaced paganism and took over its festivals. Burning dour policemen inside wicker men (if you don't understand this, watch the film) was replaced by burning members of religious minorities, then effigies of the same on November 5th. We are beginning to progress further: we like to think we realise that other people are probably no more or less stupid than ourselves, that prejudice is wrong (well, I live in hope that we do) and that even burning effigies of people is a bit mean.
So what's it all about? It's the Guardian reader's answer to the pagan fertility rite. Sometime around midsummer, we build an effigy. Instead of burning it, we're nice to it. We sit it in the garden on a sunny day. Why didn't we think of it before? Perhaps that's what the gods wanted us to do all along.

The Guardian is the only left-of-right broadsheet newspaper to enjoy anything like a wide readership in Britain. “Guardian reader” is a playful term of mock-abuse for middle-class socially concerned people who might typically be anti-nuclear, read books about building compost heaps and think their children are being creative when they draw on the wallpaper. You probably get the idea. I, I should add, read the Guardian.

Buy a cheap pack of tights: you need at least three pairs. Stuff one with straw. Leave just enough room to tie a know in the waist. These are the legs and the lower half of the torso. Stuff another. These will be the arms and the upper part of the torso. Tie the two “top knots” together with a piece of string, as close as you can. Dress the structure in old clothes. For the head, take a third pair of tights. Tie off the legs at the gusset and turn it inside out. Stuff with straw. Tie off the waist - the knot goes where its neck should be. Hair? Sewing hair on is a bind. Hats are easier. How you do a face is up to you. I think they work well without faces on. To much detail is not necessarily good. Less is more. Keep it simple. The hard bit is fixing the head to the torso. If you have a metal rod say, 18” long, you can stick it in the torso and impale the head on top. You can sit it in a chair (easiest) or stand it up using a post (a bit of “2 by 2”) threaded through its trouser leg and jacket. Be warned: you can get very fond of your scarecrow. I've even been known to take mine out for a drive in the country. Well, we live in the country, so driving anywhere is a drive in the country...

Thanks for the photographs are due to Karen Rivron and The Weaver of Grass.


The Weaver of Grass said...

Somehow scarecrows seem to take on a life of their own - it is as though the population of the village has increased overnight. I wonder what the old farmers, who used to fashion figures on two bits of stick to really scare off the crows, would think to these modern effigies. The hardest part must be taking them to bits - or do people keep them as "one of the family" until they give them a facelift next year?

The Solitary Walker said...

Scarecrow-dressing popular in Lincs/Notts too... love the photos.

Steve said...

Scarecrows - even the most pleasantly apparelled ones, always look slightly sinister to me. Even watching Wurzel Gummidge as a kid I always harboured a secret fear that he was about to whip out a hatchet and lop off the heads of those annoying kids that hung around with him. The Crow Man was especially scary. However, the festival sounds like fun. And being nice to scarecrows as opposed to burning life sized effigies of people can only be a good thing. The next step on from this is to form a society where people can adopt a scarecrow and send money for its upkeep and maintenace.

Dominic Rivron said...

Solitary Walker: Scarecrow dressing? I'd not heard it called that before - but then you're probably not far from the places where people go in for well-dressing. Or - do the locals dress as scarecrows?? That would make my shirt look a bit tame:)
I'm intrigued to know when it started in the Lincs./Notts. area, as I'm quite interested in the recent origins of the practice.
Steve: Thanks for this. I can imagine a situation where maintaining a scarecrow might well be considered propitious. When I put out my guitar-playing scarecrow, I should have put a hat on the ground in front of him!

Rachel Fox said...

They started a scarecrow festival in our village last year (to raise money for a local care home). I have promised our little girl that we will join in this time (in September) so I may be back later in the month to use your instructions!

Dominic Rivron said...

Great! The more people make them the better, I think. In our village we put out an instruction leaflet (well, we did one year - we'll have to do it again), as there are always a lot of people who would like to do one, but don't know how to go about it.