Friday, 21 May 2010

Robin in Nottingham

There are mild grumbles in Nottingham about the new Robin Hood film. Nottingham can live with an Australian playing the outlaw, a newish story and even the usual dodgy accents – outsiders tend to be uncertain how Nottingham people speak. But word has got round that the character played by Russell Crowe – Robin Longstride – is a Yorkshireman.

Reviews of the new film were lukewarm. Nonetheless, Nottingham has declared that May is Robin Hood Month. There's an exhibition (costumes and set, I think) at the Castle and I've seen signs of other events in the area.

I hadn't expected the mediaeval market. I came across it on my way to Nottingham Contemporary, paying my second visit to the Uneven Geographies exhibition. While I hate shops, with few exceptions, I find it hard to resist a market and began to explore the stalls.

I watched a man making a thick leather tankard. I hadn't heard of leather tankards before but the procedure looked convincingly mediaeval. Opposite was a stall selling sausages and another offering Transylvanian glass – nothing to do with Dracula but delicate and glowing. There were stalls selling food, jewellery, carvings – all sorts of delights. It wasn't until I reached the stall selling baseball caps made of panels cut from tin-cans that my lazy, sun-soaked mind began to wonder about the label “mediaeval.” Still, the Heineken cans are a pleasing shade of green though the Coca-Cola logo might look out of place in the greenwood.

I started spotting other inconsistencies – a sausage stall, staffed by two smiling men in Robin Hood hats, was named after “King Tut” - much earlier, I think, and unremembered in mediaeval times. I know the Crusades saw returning soldiers bringing all kind of new goods to England - but would they have brought smiling Buddhas fashioned from resin? Did they eat ostrich burgers in baguettes in Sherwood Forest? I couldn't rule it out but kangaroo meat is totally implausible. Wodwos carved from wood seemed more authentic.

For a few minutes I counted inconsistencies. Then I began to delight in them. I love the Robin Hood legend but I've never insisted on historical accuracy – it's a baggy myth which is refashioned with every telling and imagining. Robin probably didn't wear tights, despite Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and Richard Greene – and at the same time he did, because imagination makes it so.

My Robin Hood isn't Robin of Locksley, returning nobleman, but the outlaw beyond class who sees an unfair society and acts for liberty and justice. His greenwood is a place of freedom and equality – and women are equal there, because that's how I've imagined it.

I began to wonder how my Robin would be today. He might be with the migrants who live outside the law in our cities, aiming at invisibility but too often exploited. Or perhaps he'd be an eco-warrior, defending the wild places and remaining greenwood from those who exploit them for cash. Either would be a more uncomfortable Robin than any Hollywood has produced. Only the TV series of my childhood really engaged with contemporary politics.

But Nottingham's mediaeval market didn't seem entirely out of place in the Robin Hood myth. People who'd come to Nottingham for all sorts of reasons mingled at the stalls. There were Goths, political protesters, parents whose children wanted to splash in the fountain – all assembling in the Old Market Square and strolling round the stalls. They moved easily from demonstrations of weaving and wood-turning to chat with the vendors of amber, carved elephants and eco-clothing.

Myths update themselves all the time. No single version can hold them.

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