Monday, 1 February 2010

Tar Barrel Rolling

In my attempt to uncover age old traditions as part of our culture I attended the annual tar barrel rolling in Ottery St Mary. This tradition dates back to the 17th Century and occurs every bonfire night to commemorate Guy Fawkes and burn the spirits of evil. It consists of setting alight wooden barrels containing tar, wood scrapings and paraffin. Once alight the barrels are carried through the streets of the town on the backs of the local men, who pass the barrel between them until it burns out. The event attracts thousands of people each year who fill the streets and square of the town creating a thick crowd that then have to avoid the burning barrels as they dart through the streets. This adrenaline filled event is reminiscent of Spanish bull running due to the collective fear and excitement of the crowd. When partaking in this event the herd like behaviour of the crowd seemed of another time, one that belonged far back in the zeitgeist of history resurrected each year


The final barrel upon being dropped and becoming mass of embers and smoke is surrounded by the local barrel men who lock arms and sing songs. The smog covered faces and clothing of each man lit only by the red glow of the embers and surrounded by the noise of the crowd connoted some old age ceremony. The men look almost satanic in this moment, separate from the outside world. The hoards of cameras and tourists surrounding them become indifferent to the event. It is in this space that the tradition really lives on.
I went along to the encampment at laira bridge to ask the travellers if i could interview them and take some photographs. These travellers had cut through a fence and are illegally camped on a site just outside of Plymouth city centre. My interpretor and I walked into the camp and approached a couple of men who immediately demanded my reason for being there, upon explaining my project and asking whether they would mind if I took a few photographs more people arrived. Although not overtly threatening there was an aggressive edge to their behaviour and they became rather hostile and persuasive once they understood my request. They decided we would have to pay £100 in order to take photographs of the site, which we could only haggle down to £50. What became clear was their drive for money, as soon as the prospect of getting some cash became viable we were surrounded and told to go to the cash point immediately and asked to confirm what time we would be coming back in an attempt to secure a deal... Even the children were asking us for our cameras and wallets. It was as if some ideology of gleaning money off every person who stumbles across you is engrained at an early age.

illegal camp of Irish travellers - photographed secretly - Harry Hilliar

The interesting thing for me about this type of travellers is that they live in contradiction to the romantic notion of romani gypsies living off the land and travelling from place to place offering aggricultural labour in return for a piece of land to settle for a while. These travellers all owned brand new expensive cars and caravans, preferred concrete settlements to grass ones and had sought out an inner city dwelling as opposed to a rural one. Instead of opposing the capitalist society and seeking an alternative existance their ideals and behaviour would suggest that they are infact wholesale subscribers to the capitalist machine, driven by the lust for cash. I do not know whether these cars and caravans are the majority of their possessions or whether or not they pay taxes. I continue to try and maintain a objective opinion of each traveller I come across however the danger of calling these type of travellers untrustworthy and dishonest.

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