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.

A write-up of some memories, impressions and stories from the festival will be here on this page soon. Thanks to Melbourne market gardeners Richard Jackson and Brian Heath for their generous and enthusiastic contribution of materials, 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.