If, as C.S. Lewis suggested, there is a joy too deep for laughter perhaps there is also a grief too large for tears. You might think so if you were watching the large crowd who gathered on a wet August Wednesday at the North East Surrey Crematorium as they moved back and forth between happiness to sorrow while gathering to say a final farewell to former Squire, Bagman and formidable Foreman Bob Davies. There was an irrepressible gladness at being among those family and friends that Bob had attracted around him over his long, rich life; and that mingled with the painful awareness of the great loss at the centre of the gathering.
Among the strong turnout from East Surrey Morris Men – which included no less than eight who held or had held the title Squire – were those who had never known Bob during his dancing days, whose respect was based on his reputation both within the side and among other sides we have danced with over the years. Part of this has been communicated through the on-going commitment the side maintained to regular visits to see Bob in the years after his stroke. Also present was a strong contingent from Greensleeves Morris Men and Winchester Morris Men, a representative from Chalice Morris Men in Somerset, a former Treasurer of the Morris Ring from Ravensbourne Morris Men and a former Ring Bagman from Bedford Morris Men. Apologies were received from sides even further away.
The wicker coffin was borne into the chapel on the shoulders of six senior members of the side. If this seemed a physical demonstration of the burden of grief all carried, none bore it more so than Bob’s wife Pam who sat in the front row with their son, Ian and their daughter, Sue who was accompanied by her husband Roy and daughter Phoebe. But it would have been a poor reflection of our former Squire for the occasion to be marked only by solemnity. So it was an inspired choice by the family to play a recording of him singing The Farmer’s Boy which he had sung so frequently over the years that it will be forever associated with him. In true Bob style it caught the brief dispute with his larynx at the start over just where to pitch it, but once that was settled it was carried on without hesitation or ornamentation to completion. The assembly being provided with words, we all joined in from the second verse. A memory associated with Bob’s rendition of this traditional song was of the particular Rye weekend where, full of the local brewer’s cheer, he was observed steadying himself by holding one of the overhead low-ceiling beams. The side, which had often reminded him of the occasion by parodying the raised hand as he sang it, continued that tradition during the last verse in good-willed tribute to the rich repository of memories he has left us.
After a moving summary of Bob’s life, which can be read here: Bob’s Story, the assembled mourners left to music played by the East Surrey Morris Men musicians. The specially chosen selection were songs Bob frequently sung over the years: The German Clockwinder, Spanish Ladies and Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire. The musicians continued to play a selection of Morris tunes as they led the crowd back outside into the rain. A symbol that the journey goes on, accompanied by song, for those of us left behind.
And as if to confirm this, after the formal farewell the gathering transferred to the Jolly Coopers, a local pub in Epsom, where the family had arranged a fabulous spread for the assembled horde of well-wishers, mourners and supporters. And although the unrelenting rain prevented any outdoors dancing, there was music and singing a-plenty to celebrate Bob’s life.
So perhaps we could leave the final words to the man whose ‘Immortal Memory’ is commemorated by Morris Men everywhere. Cecil Sharp, of course, passed away 6 years before Bob was even born, but to read his words it is difficult not to wonder if – in some way – he saw him coming…
“The Morris Dance is essentially a manifestation of vigour rather than of grace… arising out of the life of man, as it is lived by men who hold much speculation upon the mystery of our whence and whither to be unprofitable; by men of meagre fancy, but of great kindness to the weak: by men who fight their quarrels on the spot… drink together when the fight is done, and forget it, or, if they remember, then the memory is a friendly one. It is the dance of folk who are slow to anger, but of great obstinacy—forthright of act and speech… The Morris dance, in short, is a perfect expression… of the English character.” Farewell Bob, a friend, a legend, an inspiration, and a fine English character.
And if, as there ought to be, there is a gathering where we meet on the ledge, it would be only appropriate if Cecil himself were one of those who would welcome Bob to the Heavenly Ale. I would be the last to deprive you of any comfort you might find in the scene; but what I would caution, is that if a discussion arose between them about, say, exactly how Fieldtown Uprights should be performed… well, I wouldn’t be too quick to put money on who will be forced to concede they were wrong!