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Andrew Hemsley dressed as a bogie for Jack in the Green celebrations.

Jack In The Green is back!

Jack in the Green celebrations return to Hastings after two years’ absence. Local born Andrew Hemsley, journalist for Hastings and St Leonards Observer, writer and a Jack in the Green bogie, talks with HOT’s Chandra Masoliver about this great Hastings traditional festival.

CM: Who, or what, is Jack in the Green?

AH: In simple terms, and on the most reductionist level, Jack is a large conical bush – a frame decked with leaves and ribbons with a crown of flowers – carried by a person, heavy enough to leave bruises across that person’s shoulders. The Jack is many things. He is an archetype, a symbol of life, death, rebirth and regeneration, completing a circle. With the tradition we enact locally, Jack symbolises the end of winter and the spirit of summer.

To me, he is very much a nature spirit and has light and dark aspects in the same way you can walk through a sun dappled wood in May and walk through it in a stormy November night. It is essentially the same place, but you are confronting very different aspects of nature. For the most part though, Jack exemplifies the more benign sunny elements of nature, though he is still wild and unpredictable, untamed.

When you carry him, I think Jack also takes on the spirit of those who animate and bring him to life, or, more likely, they take in his spirit. It is a circular breathing back and forth. The Jack can empower those who carry him, release a very real energy.

I have laboured to walk up some of the steep hills on the various Jack routes when I have been unencumbered, yet seem to fly up them when carrying his weight. It’s very hard to explain other than to say we give to the Jack and he gives to us.

To a large extent you lose yourself when inside him. It becomes an indefinable fusion of flesh, bone and the spirit of nature. I should stress that these are perceptions that are true for me, but may not be the same for others involved.

The Jack emanates something, gives off an aura that draws people to it. Otherwise why would people be so obsessed about being close to it, wanting to touch it or risk stealing a leaf? In these materialistic times when people are losing touch with nature and the landscape, what draws them to Jack? It is just another of the enigmatic mysteries surrounding him.

CM: So how did Jack in the Green start in Hastings?

AH: The current tradition of Hastings Jack in the Green is a revival and was co-founded 39 years ago, by Keith Leech and his then wife, Lynda Ridley, when they moved to Hastings from London.

Keith was on a mission to discover any local traditions connected with Hastings and while researching local newspapers came across a picture of Jack in the Green and his attendants, photographed outside St Leonards Subscription Gardens in 1849. It had been organised by local chimney sweep, Charles Lee and his family. The Jack looks remarkably similar to today’s Jack, who is based on it.

This is the first known photo of Jack in the Green in Hastings showing the Lee family chimney sweeps outside St Leonards Gardens.

The attendants are wearing paper tatter or rag suits and have blacked up faces. They feature traditional characters like Merry Andrew the clown and The Fat Man in Red with a drum. Keith also discovered that there was a Jack being taken out in Hollington in the 1950’s. This was a children’s Jack which accompanied the May Queen.

In London, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Jack in the Green was taken out in May by the chimney sweeps to tie in with the end of their working season and coming holiday. They were often joined by milkmaids and both groups made elaborate May garlands which they displayed in exchange for money. Both sweeps and milkmaids feature in today’s Hastings Jack in the Green procession.

There are also other accounts of wild and drunken Jack in the Green revelries in Hastings between 1849 and 1880, with many writing letters of complaint to the local press calling on officials to ban it. There was one notably rowdy May event which ended in a pitched battle at Wellington Square. The first revived Jack in the Green event took place in St Leonards, with participants recreating the original 19th century photo.

The first time the Jack as it is now went out, for the first revival 39 years ago.

The custodians of Jack at that time were Mad Jacks Morris side, of which Keith was a member. Keith then decided to move the celebrations to the Old Town. They were still very low key then – with just a handful of people and no crowds.

Mad Jacks wore white, and carrying the Jack messed up their outfits. That is when Keith dreamed up the idea of bogies with their green rags and faces. I think he subconsciously tapped into an older archetype, as when you examine May traditions throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, they often feature green wild men, who look remarkably like the bogies.

CM: What will happen during this Jack in the Green festival?

AH: There is live music as well as dancing and drumming displays across the whole weekend, starting from Friday 29 April. Prior to the weekend, a lot of work goes on across the Old Town with volunteer teams working to cover pubs, buildings and street railings with greenery and coloured ribbons. The real event, with Jack and the procession takes place on the Monday – this year May 2.

The bogies collect the Jack from the secret Old Town location, where he is built, and take him down All Saints Street to arrive at the Fisherman’s Museum at Rock-a-Nore well before 9am. Only the bogies and perhaps a selected few associated with them, are allowed into the museum.

The bogies gathered by the Fish Market at Rock-a-Nore Road. Photo by Jeff Penfold.

Outside, crowds build up, formed of costumed celebrants and people who have come to enjoy the spectacle. There is a real buzz of anticipation that builds up into a crescendo. At the appointed time – 10.15 am – the Jack bursts out of the museum to loud cheers and whoops. The mood then quietens for a moment as Mad Jacks Women Morris side dance around him in a circle.

Then Jack and the bogies are off at a pace to the end of Rock-a-Nore Road, to process back along it. This is where the Jack pauses to acknowledge and greet all the participants and groups involved in the procession.

Then the procession, led by Jack, is off up All Saints Street. It crosses the Bourne then makes its way down the High Street. There is a half hour pause and break by St Clements Church to allow dancing and drumming sides to perform in the High Street and for Jack to meet his admirers.

Then it is up the steep and leafy Croft Lane and Torfield to Collier Road and the West Hill. Once on the hill, Jack takes his position on a small stage, surrounded by the bogies, a sad departure from the lofty hill at the castle where he once overlooked the gathering and the celebrations.

There is a main stage given over to performances by the various groups involved in the procession. It is an opportunity for people to relax on the grass for a while, eating and drinking. At around 4pm, the Jack is led, by the bogies, to the main stage. Mad Jacks Men then perform a circle dance around him. This is always a dance called The Rose, which has a sad, wistful tune. At the end of the dance the Jack is ceremonially slain to release the ‘spirit of summer’. Leaves are then handed out (and thrown) to the surrounding crowd, who are desperate for a leaf to bring them luck. I always tend to keep a few leaves back to give to any tearful child who has missed out.

Then the bogies carry the frame back across the hill to the secret location where Jack lives, and we breathe out and relax.

CM: You’ve been involved as a bogie from the start, what do you do?

AH: My involvement has always been as one of the bogies – the leaf-clad attendants of Jack, who carry him and bring him to life as well as protecting him throughout the day.

Bogies also fill the role of ‘greening up’ the faces of the spectators, thus involving them in the tradition. Many local people ask ‘who is the Jack this year?’ What they don’t realise is the Jack is carried by a team who alternate along the route. Changes are seamlessly carried out. Two bogies lift the Jack, the person inside rolls out forward while the new carrier rolls in from behind.

It can be very hot and stifling inside Jack, especially on a warm day. The role is extremely demanding as you have to keep him moving, dancing and interacting with the crowd the whole time. We are usually all exhausted by the end.

Being a bogie is about two opposing forces – it is about letting go of yourself, abandoning inhibitions and being wild and raw. It is also about being in control, being acutely in tune with those around you and the Jack during the procession. Striking the balance between bringing back Jack alive and dancing him with wild energy, and yet having to be totally aware of your surroundings and never losing control. That’s the trick when being inside Jack. Creating the illusion of a wild uncontrolled dance but having to be totally aware of what is around you through a very narrow slit of vision.

The thing about being part of Jack in the Green is that you never stop thinking that you are part of something way bigger than yourself, a history, tradition, mythology. And you always stand in awe of that, overwhelmed and overshadowed by it. Personal traditions spring up connected with Jack in the Green. Mine was the Bogie Stick – a large heavy tree branch sanded, painted with symbols, bedecked with ribbons and decorated with stones from Hastings beach. It became a personal custom to anoint the bogie stick with two life-giving substances before the event. One was Sussex Harvey’s ale – I won’t say what the other was but it is connected to fertility.

Andrew Hemsley with his bogie stick.

We are so respectful of what we do, of the custodians who have come before. As a bogie you feel like you have been selected by history and fate. It always feels like an honour and a privilege. I think if someone asked ‘why do you do it?’ most of us would reply along the lines of ‘because it feels right’…

Bogies are inducted and have to be proposed and invited. We are all very different individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds and working lives. The company has included accountants, railway men, plumbers, journalists, teachers and a miniature train driver – but all share a passion for the Jack. We are a band of brothers.

It is now almost 40 years since the revival started and quite a few of the bogies from the early days are getting rather ancient. Luckily an influx of young bogies has ensured the energy levels remain high. Some of these younger men are the sons of original bogies, but all have some deep-rooted connection with the tradition and have grown up with it.

Life with bogies always has forward motion, a flowing stream. We are confident of our abilities, sure we can do what is entrusted to us in protecting Jack, bringing him to life, yet also self-effacing and never elite, as some have wrongly perceived us. We are custodians, servants. We do what is necessary, but Jack always remains centre stage – that is fundamental.

CM: You say it’s almost 40 years since this revival started, what has changed over the years?

AH: If I am honest it is less wild now. In earlier years, a part of the celebrations on Monday involved dragging willing females into the Fisherman’s Museum to green them up. This was always in the spirit of ribald exuberance of past May traditions and only ever involved willing participants. Now it no longer happens.We don’t regret this. It has always been an evolving tradition and we respect the times we are in. Now, post Covid, we have serious debates about whether to green people and how we do it in a safe way that does not risk spreading the virus.

The biggest change has undoubtedly been moving out of Hastings Castle for the final celebrations and slaying of the Jack. We were told we had no choice due to the increasing size of crowds at the castle. I remain not so sure. I saw an aerial picture of one of the last events in the castle and it still showed plenty of green space between people. It’s hard to see the ruins of a stone Norman castle as being a fire hazard.

The Jack in Hastings castle at sunrise on May Day 2021.

Moving to the sloping lawns of the West Hill has lost much of the energy and focus. I have never spoken to a single person involved in the tradition who says it feels better being on the hill than the castle. The castle had its own unique energies, a natural area for the festivities.

The Hastings tradition evolves and shifts. When I first became involved the procession was largely made up of visiting Morris sides and Giants’ groups from London and Wales; now there are more groups from the local community involved, drumming groups and Hastings sweeps.

Hastings people have taken Jack in the Green to their hearts, with many Old Town residents decorating their homes in flowers, ribbons and greenery. They genuinely love the event and we are keen to involve the community.

Returning to the point about it feeling less wild, much of that is due to health and safety and insurance considerations. But the spirit of the Jack is still very much alive and going strong. The tradition still seems to create that unique flowing energy that touches and affects people.

Further information on the Hastings Jack in the Green festival:
hastingstraditionaljackinthegreen.co.uk

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Posted 12:46 Wednesday, Apr 27, 2022 In: Festivals

6 Comments

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  1. Jennifer Baird

    What a brilliant article/interview! Full of the ancient and archetypal energy, passion and spiritual power of the festival of spring! Also deeply moving for all of us who love Hastings and Jack in the Green! Thank you Andy and Chandra

    Comment by Jennifer Baird — Saturday, Apr 30, 2022 @ 18:45

  2. Kerry Phillips

    Great interview Chandra and a great article Andy, giving the insight to the history and wonder of Hastings’ much loved Jack in the Green, which we very much look forward to each year. With so many people sadly becoming so far removed from the natural world and less and less connected to Mother Nature, this festival is a great way to all get together and uplift the soul and spirit….well it is for me anyway! Well done and huge thanks to all of you involved in making this wonderful festival such a success each time. It’s very easy to turn up to these amazing events and take for granted the huge amount of hard work and organisation that is involved in making it happen. I think I speak for the majority when I say, “I CAN’T WAIT!” 🙂 X

    Comment by Kerry Phillips — Thursday, Apr 28, 2022 @ 20:44

  3. Kerry Phillips

    Great interview Chandra and a fabulous insight Andy, of the history and wonder of Jack in the Green, which we love and look forward to so much each year. Many people seem to be having less and less of a connection with Mother Nature and are sadly drifting further and further away from the natural world, which makes this festival even more beneficial and uplifting to the soul right now…. certainly for me anyway! Well done and huge thanks to all of you involved, as we tend to turn up at these amazing events, sometimes taking for granted the huge amount of hard work and organisation that has been involved. I know I speak for many when I say I CAN’T WAIT!

    Comment by Kerry Phillips — Thursday, Apr 28, 2022 @ 20:03

  4. Jackie Oxbury

    Andrew, the respect for tradition and what you do, feel and believe in, shines through. At this time, we are all so in need of the regeneration, the wonder, the magic and the fun Jack in the Green represents. Thank you for a wonderful article.

    Comment by Jackie Oxbury — Thursday, Apr 28, 2022 @ 15:29

  5. Helen Pond

    Excellent article and very much sums up Jack in the Green past and present. I am so grateful once again we are able to celebrate it after the two years we have just had.

    Comment by Helen Pond — Thursday, Apr 28, 2022 @ 07:46

  6. Ted the tree lover

    Fabulous article. So informative and takes one to the deep heart of a venerable tradition. Makes one want to green up and join the dance.

    Comment by Ted the tree lover — Thursday, Apr 28, 2022 @ 06:40

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