“First of May! First of May, Outdoor ****ing starts today”. Rumpole of the Bailey, a fictional lawyer, a character in every sense of the word, created by John Mortimer, spoke this in a cheerful fictional reminiscence of his Oxford University years. This little rhyme is not quite poetry, but it evokes a certain jaunty freedom that comes with springtime, but which we are denied at the moment. This flits through my mind, cycling at 5.45am, past the small meadow close-by Magdalen Bridge, Oxford, this May-Day. Why so early? For those that don’t already know, Oxford is a strange place, or at the very least inspires some great imaginations – literary, scientific. At the moment, much great imagination here is put to the wheel of helping resolve Covid-19. This May morning, this May Day celebration, is a multi-layered event, formally starting at six am, with choristers of Magdalen College singing in the turning of the season, from Winter’s half-light to the full-light of Summer, from the barrenness of Winter to the fecundity of Summer. In 2018, it was the seventeenth century Hymnus Eucharisticus, composed anonymously by a Fellow of Magdalen College. This is Oxford’s Rite of Spring. Not Stravinsky, not even Rumpole’s joyous rhyming coupling-couplet, but something historically deep. People (usually) gather under Magdalen College Tower to hear the ancient bring-in of the Spring at 6am. They have been doing so since the Tower was built, 1509. Many people, often thousands, every year. Then when this beautiful introduction to Spring is done, there is the business of the young and the daring jumping off Magdalen Bridge and into the River Cherwell. Some of these (usually) young men impress their lovers; some end up in hospital. The police try to enforce some damage-limitation by putting barriers on the bridge with one small gap for people who want to plunge into the river. Then there is a queue… And people wait their turn to do what used to be a spontaneous act – when was it started? The history isn’t written, but probably in the time of ancient, when Anon was the most prolific composer. For me, it is madness to even think of swimming under Magdalen Bridge while all of this is going on; to be dive-bombed by crazed youth from a height of around eight meters is to court personal disaster.
I have never swum under Magdalen Bridge, but I have rowed, and punted, and Venetian-rowed under it. Last Summer, on my birthday, Pauline and I did exactly that, upstream then downstream. Today I hope to swim, soon after six in the morning, or a little later, if there are plungers this year. I had thought, the day before last - will they come, regardless of the plague? What did they do in previous plague years? The written record seems sparse, but suggestive – when people were dying on the streets in bygone days, turning to religion of one kind or another was a possibility. Today’s May Day religion is a strange mix of Christianity and paganism. The next question that comes to mind – “did May Day celebrations in Oxford actually kill people in bygone days?” Alexa the house-bot is mute on this topic. The day before last, I was full of anticipatory speculation – if the crowds come, will people stand two meters apart to listen to Magdalen College Choir, singing at the top of the tower? Will they form a Covid-19-supermarket-like queue, an arm-and-a-broom away from each other for the river plunge? My decision on plunging was made early - I will not be doing so. Actually, the decision was made many years ago - I have never plunged on May Day, although I know people who have.
Going over Magdalen Bridge at five fifty this May the First, there is almost no-one there; the only people standing and waiting were probably those that did not check for May Day closures. Those people, and as it became apparent, the police. Like so many things right now, May Day Morning had gone virtual. May Day was happening on my laptop, with the Magdalen College Choir live-streamed at 8am. A tradition broken – 8am not 6am. The celebrations will take place on Twitter, says the Oxford City Council. Just how, I wonder? Can Twitter cope with the sexual energy in the air on the usual First of May morning? It wouldn’t be decent, I think. It wouldn’t be legal. Let me paint a more usual May Day Morning, more usual than today.
The baseline – these are people like Pauline and myself, people who got out of bed around 5am and got here. These are the firm salad leaves at the base of a good May Day Celebration salad. Last year, Pauline and her Venetian Rowing club rowed up the Cherwell River to Magdalen Bridge for 6am; they do this every year. Then the hero-vegetables that build some body to the salad – Oxford students in their tuxedos and ball gowns. The night before May Day, some of the Colleges of Oxford University celebrate with their May Ball. Students dance and drink through the night and into the early morning, then migrate to the base of Magdalen tower. The look, and I think also feel, like hero vegetables. Some of them prepare to mindlessly jump off Magdalen Bridge – wet hero vegetables. What better way to end a night of Brideshead-Revisited-style Summer-Ball than to jump of Magdalen Bridge and afterwards enter either your lover’s arms, wet and muddy, or be taken to hospital, without your lover in tow. The Brideshead Revisited image of Oxford is a version of Oxford in the nineteen twenties, the central character, Charles Ryder, reading History at Hertford College in 1923. Fictional Rumpole would have started at Oxford probably in 1928 or 1929, so they probably didn’t overlap, probably didn’t eye each other off in the Meadow on The First of May. I try to imagine the improbable fictional meeting of callow youth looking for a ****, homosexual or heterosexual, in the long grass. What would they have said to each other? Thinking to the present-day, would they have violated social distancing rules? And would the police have intervened? They should, I think, given that outdoor ****ing was made illegal under the Blair administration (I looked online for the “Outdoor ****ing (Meadows) Act and couldn’t find it, so I’m not so sure now). If plunging into the river counts as swimming, then this Covid-19 May Day would have outdoor swimming and outdoor ****ing both illegal, especially if either were undertaken with more than two people. Even worse if those people were not related. But if they were related, then that would be another law broken. My mind has gone down a rabbit-hole of relative illegality that would require a Rumpole of the Bailey to sort out.
So, the usual scene, in years BC, Before Covid, on the bridge… The beauty of the setting disrupted by the improvised crowd of unlikely characters, like something from Salvador Dali, when time has melted. Drunken sleep-deprived women in their ball-gowns, in the gutter, mascara running, one high-heel in hand, the other lost to the street cleaners that mop everything up by 9am, for a clean Oxford start to the day. Of young men in bedangled tuxedos, bow-ties ripped off, collars askew, looking more like boys after their first serious drinking session, looking down on the mess they have made – on the pavement, in their relationships, with their lives – regretful. Then the diverse nuts and seeds on the top of the May Day Celebration salad - morris-dancers and folk-musicians, emerging from the Tolkein-landscape. Add a dressing of liquid madness, and the salad is complete.
On the Bridge, the First of May Alice-in-Wonderland salad is complete, waiting for the tower-singing, bringing Spring into the year, and a bringing a spring back into people steps after Winter, or after a night of carousing. “First of May, First of May…” I can’t get it out of my head, this fictional last-years May Day, with Rumpole, Ryder, and the choir singing ancient songs by Anon. Then horror of horrors, in my mind, the choir starts singing it too – “First of May, First of May”… Then the people cheered and danced, the virtuous and the hellish somehow intermingled, the May Day Celebration salad tossed. May Day was becoming more Hieronymus Bosch than Salvador Dali; in my mind. Just in my mind.
Today, May Day 2020, the Shakespearean stage that is Magdalen Bridge on this day is empty of actors. The police have a car at each end of the bridge, and a van ready for business at the top of the ramp that leads to the Cherwell River right next to Magdalen Bridge. This is a clear message – don’t even think about jumping into the river. So I stopped thinking about swimming under Magdalen Bridge and moved to plan B, a much less satisfying one. Upstream of Magdalen College, the Cherwell River branches into several smaller streams, and while the main stream the one that goes under Magdalen Bridge proper, a smaller, shallower stream flows under the bridge into the grounds of St Hilda’s College. It was from a set of concrete steps, into a shallow and muddy stream that came up to my waist that I had my May Day swim, away from any attention. Pauline looked at it, and her better senses said no. Not here. For me, it was a symbolic marking of the turning year, to a new dawn when Covid-19 deaths had peaked. The UK government had released the mortality data for all the care home Covid-19 deaths up until the 30th April – the last day of April had nearly four and a half thousand deaths reported. To put this in context, the previous daily high was just under a thousand deaths on the 11th of April, with daily deaths falling sporadically but very steadily right up to the 29th April, when the government finally brought out all its dead. I finished my short swim, coloured as it was by thoughts of Covid-19 deaths. Getting muddy as I got out, it was clear why this water didn’t attract Pauline. She didn’t swim just there and then, but had an offer to make to me – why don’t we go to Port Meadow to swim and you can wash the mud off? She was just about smiling, the sky was clearing of clouds, and the sun came out. So we did go to Port Meadow, this being part of the one outdoor physical activity per day that we were allowed under lock-down.
In usual times, there would be music after the choir-tower singing and the bridge-plunging, as people, players and dancers take over the streets of central Oxford. The two hours or so when the centre of Oxford is closed down to motor traffic, until 8am, is a short burst of Springtime madness when Oxford seems timeless. Today, there are more police than people. No music. No dancing. With nothing to do now on Magdalen Bridge, we go to Port Meadow. Getting there, we see that the meadow part of Port Meadow is bepuddled, as is the dirt track to the Dodo Tree. The grass is long and wet after a night of heavy rain, and the attraction of bare-bum bonking is likely to be, well, dampened, I think, even for the most ardent of young couples. After a cleansing swim in dip-in, dip-out sunshine, there is breakfast. My College usually does a very happy May-Morning Breakfast. This year nothing is open, but we have our porridge, Pauline and I, under the DodoTree. And I am singing again in my mind, optimistically, “First of May, First of May…”.