The Mel Bear of Melbourne 2017

Performance commission for People Express and Melbourne Festival

Photo by Chris Mear.

A new “traditional” parading costumed character, based on Derbyshire’s market gardening industry.

Visitors to Melbourne Festival heard the story of the Mel Bear of Melbourne and other local lore from the Mel Bear itself, as it roamed festival sites in the town on the 16th and 17th of September 2017. The Mel Bear was a living outfit made of by-products and spare materials from Melbourne’s market gardens. It was somewhat inspired by Whittlesea’s Straw Bears, which aren’t really bears either.

Photo by Alistair Gentry.
Photo by Chris Mear.

The Mel Bear of Melbourne story

A fourteenth century manuscript tells of a man from Melbourne making his way to market on foot, with a load of vegetables, after his horse had met with an accident. A frightening, strangely shaped creature– perhaps a beast of some kind, perhaps a broken down and masterless knight, perhaps partly both– appeared on the road and began to follow the farmer.

Although he was very much afraid, the farmer eventually called out to the spirit. It claimed to mean the man no harm, and offered to carry his load of vegetables for him. The man agreed and the vegetables instantly disappeared, along with the ghostly figure. Not knowing what else to do, the farmer continued on his way. When the man drew close to the marketplace he found the figure waiting there alongside the road, along with the vegetables he intended to sell. After this, the spirit vanished.

In another local story, a ghostly knight accosts a farm labourer. The man called out for help, although there was nobody to hear it. Upon hearing the man cry out, the ghost confessed that it had been a lord of the manor who was cursed for taking food in tribute from local people and leaving them destitute. He led the labourer to certain nearby fields, which he said would be especially fertile and so they were, making the farm labourer in time a wealthy man. The knight is said to have atoned for his error on many other occasions in a similar manner.

Thereafter the people of the area commemorated the knight with effigies at autumn festivals, and during the spring with scarecrows in the knight’s likeness.

Some people got the story in full, or at least my full version of it from memory, others in part, and most of them didn’t question whether it was a real local story or one that I had made up. To be clear, it’s the latter, but in terms of one of my aims being to seed folklore and have people retell their own (almost inevitably imperfect, incomplete or embellished) versions of it from their own memories, I’d count this as a successful planting over the weekend. Time will tell if it grows up again in the guise of authentic local lore at some point in the future. Other things I’ve made, stories I’ve told or situations I’ve created certainly have.

Another thing that was very striking and distinctly modern was the number of people who wanted selfies, or just snapped pictures, filmed on their cameras from afar… presumably to turn up as social media updates, on Pinterest pages, Instagrams or whatever. Again, some of them got a full explanation of what it was all about, for some of them it was just a WTF moment or gave them a really good laugh. After several passers-by had called me Plant Man or Lettuce Man I modified my walk and posture, doing a kind of geisha walk (the costume and its sleeves were quite kimono-like anyway). This definitely put a stop to me being anything Man, but seemed also to have sown a seed of gender confusion and/or drag fascination in some passing boys whose heads were well and truly spun around by not being immediately able to tell the intended gender of the costume, or the gender of the person underneath since they were too far away for me to speak to.

A more practical and pressing everyday subject that came up from this project and the costume was the source of the living materials, and the fact that they were regarded as surplus or waste. I was already aware of pressure on farmers from their commercial buyers over cosmetic defects in the produce they supply, and also didn’t want to waste too much myself especially after I saw how perfectly acceptable and edible most of the stuff donated to me was. This is not in any way to criticise the contributors, or farmers in general, because they’re responding to pressures from their buyers who in turn are responding to what has evidently become an increasingly picky customer base with unrealistic expectations of how clean and tidy a living, or formerly living, product can be. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is the case, as fewer people than ever really have a meaningful idea of how their food is grown or manufactured. Whether they’d thought about it before or not, many people I met agreed that I looked perfectly edible…

Aside from the folklore and commercial aspects, I had some very interesting and in-depth conversations with locals, too. Older people in particular had lots of recollections about either themselves or people they’d known working in what was once a thriving market gardening industry in the area, now much reduced. Few of these people had much romance or nostalgia about it, other than the obvious regret at the loss of people livelihoods. Picking brussels sprouts was singled out as a particularly back-breaking, finger-hurting and generally odious job, which puts some of the current debates about foreigners “taking British jobs” into perspective. I’m definitely not the first person to point out– as some of the people I spoke to did– that British people generally don’t even want these kinds of jobs anymore and look down on them, so low paid immigrants do them instead. When or if these people “go home” (sic) because of Brexit, there’s going to be a problem that’s won’t be solved by having British natives just step into those jobs, because they generally can’t and won’t if they even stay around in rural areas, which increasingly young people don’t and can’t because of the lack of economic opportunities, facilities and infrastructure in general.

From growing up in Suffolk I also remember the smell of the fields, which had already put me off sprouts for life, even before I smelled the vicinity of the brussels fields after the farmers let sheep in to eat the stalks with the inevitable consequence of reeking sheep flatulence for miles around. So being out picking them must have been a nasty job indeed.

By the way, for my future reference and yours, lettuce and cabbage leaves are surprisingly heavy when you’re wearing a lot of them.

Thanks to Melbourne market gardeners Richard Jackson and Brian Heath for their generous and enthusiastic contribution of materials despite probably thinking I was insane, and to Janet Vaughan for general assistance and her unfeigned enthusiasm for making bean necklaces.

You can see some of my mummer, ghillie and living costume inspirations on this Pinterest board.

PS: This was in Melbourne, UK but I think Melbourne, Australia, needs a Mel Bear too. Invite me.