I can remember, when I was young, being taught a simple dance. All of my schoolmates were taught it too. We stood in a circle, each raising one arm in the air, then skipped around each other in a pattern: in and out, round and round. It made no sense to me until May Day came around and we were marched out of class to a Maypole that had been erected in the playground. Each given a colourful ribbon to hold in those outstretched hands, we did our dance as directed, and found we had woven a pattern that spread out from the pole until there was no space left to dance.
The tradition of Maypole dancing can be found in many countries including the US, the UK, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Belgium, and it’s far from clear how it came about or what it symbolises. Some think of it as a celebration of springtime, and to others it has suggested a pagan worship of trees, or fertility. To me, it represents the creation of a pattern from actions that seemed meaningless. We had been taught to perform a series of steps, and at the end of it there was a result that we could not have foreseen.
When I started to write The Arrival of Missives the image of a Maypole was often in my mind. It’s the story of a girl who lives in a village in the UK. The year is 1920; the Great War is over and huge changes to society are to come, but they have not reached her little village yet. She is focused only on what comes next for her: she will marry the blacksmith’s son, she will have children, and she will live her entire life in that quiet place and time.
But a different person has another series of steps in mind for her. Her schoolteacher, for whom she has deep feelings, tells her that he can see where the steps lead. He knows how to create an entirely different kind of dance. Should she trust his knowledge, or the traditions of her village? Or should she make up her own steps in this dance? May Day approaches and she finds herself in the running to become May Queen. This small event – that many would deem insignificant – might change the course of all humanity.
I live close to a museum of historic buildings. These cottages, workshops, barns and mills have been moved from their original sites and relocated, piece by piece, in the middle of the West Sussex countryside to make a new pattern of houses from different times, for different purposes. Nobody could ever have foreseen their future – or the future of the old Maypole that stands among them, taken from a village to grace a museum instead. Every May Day the museum hosts a festival, and people dance. We’re all making patterns, even if we can’t see them. Who know what future they bring?