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Sunday, 12 November 2017

Venting popular steam and keeping the State under control

Each country has somewhere in its traditions, unless utterly repressed by a totalitarian state and its secret police, versions of letting off steam, of warning off the ruling classes or unpopular characters, and of reminding the authorities that democracy is a delicate bloom that must not be abused. In England this was traditionally 5th November; darkness, fires, masks and disguises so that participants can't be identified, and burning effigies. Today Lewes is the only one I know that maintains the full threat of years past - and I bet the local council are doing everything they can to close it down. 

Here the equivalent is Perchtennacht, the night of the Perchtenlauf or the run of the devils. The costumes are elaborate and frightening, there is a complete lack of English style health and safety, and the Perchten are violent and dangerous. They carry sticks, clubs and chains. Traditionally, this was when a village got rid of an unwanted member - a nonce, a cheat, a deviant - by hitting them with sticks, chains and whips. Hard. You see, not to be out and lining the route of the run is an admission that you're not part of the community, so it's obligatory to be there.  

In recent years most of the sting has been taken out of the tradition. Slightly anti-social offenders still get their knuckles sharply rapped with a stick, or get a poke in the kidneys as a gentle reminder, but death and serious injury are rare these days. Organisers are obliged to maintain an identity register, so miscreants can be named, and police maintain a presence. In Völkermarkt last night, however, the old ways were back. It was a riot. Two people targeted by the Perchten were seriously injured and it took the police an hour to restore order. Other people were injured as they fled violent assaults. 

Because this is Austria, no-one is calling for Perchtennacht to be banned and many are speculating whether the targets will now quietly move. Here it's still a reminder to the authorities that if they don't act, if they ignore long-building public disquiet, then people will do the job themselves. It's also a reminder to everyone (including me) of the importance of spending lots of time in the pub, greeting and chatting to anyone you meet and building friendships and trust ... you're either a member of the community, or you aren't. 

When, in the years after the German surrender, this part of Austria was occupied by the British army, a local maid and a lad from the Inniskillings fell in love. When his battalion was due to return home, he deserted. The whole community including the Mayor conspired to hide him until the end of the occupation, when they married and he spent the rest of his life here, dying only very recently. I talk to his daughter most mornings as she walks the dog. 

This is still a country in which local communities are not scared of their own power. I wish my England were the same. 


Anonymous said...

Raedwald said:

'This is still a country in which local communities are not scared of their own power. I wish my England were the same.'

Well if the English are still not stirred ten years from now then I'm afraid it'll be more or less over for them as a unique people. Talk of community in the sense you are using is forbidden - if you are from one of the four ethnic groups of these Islands. Any attempt is branded as 'white supremacy', or 'neo-Nazi' these days.

I'm a realist so when I organized a meeting some years ago I made sure we were not disturbed by either plod or the anti-fascist fascists. Private land was kindly offered and within a wooded glade thereon we met. Nine-hundred and four English together for the day. I'll never forget the wonder on the kids faces as an historian spoke to them about their origins as Northern folk in antiquity.

Again with the kind permission of the landowner an Irminsul made of English ash was raised, and dedicated - a ceremony to complete a fantastic day and one I'll never forget. I returned to the site quite recently and the 12 foot wooden pillar I helped erect is beginning to take on the beauty you'd expect as it ages under an English heaven.

hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare þe ure mægen lytlað


Anonymous said...

Sounds wonderful, Steve. If only ...

DeeDee99 said...

The English yeomen and women still don't understand that the Establishment hate them and are doing their best to neutralise them.

The culture and history of every minority (including the Scots, Welsh and Irish) are to be protected and celebrated - except the English. Basically, they fear us.

anon 2 said...

Yes, DeeDee - they do fear us. They also want to use us without giving credit for our quality.

And Steve: that's beautiful. Thank you - and also the quote from "The Battle of Maldon"! Once went past it while on a train with some American post-grad students. They had the hardest time believing it's real . . .

G. Tingey said...


It's all too obvious that none of you have been in Sussex when Bonfire is on, especially in Lewes.
Burning torchlight processions, denunciation of "Popery" the works ... including walking through the fire at midnight.
Wonderful stuff.