The phrase Merrie England refers to a period in English history when the average peasant lived in harmony with nature. Treated with fairness by the monarchy, and understanding by the clergy, it was a peaceful time in the Middle Ages, notable for thatched roofs and merriment.
Of course, Merrie England never existed. It was an idea coined by nineteenth century romanticists retreating from the turmoil of their own age. Industry, urbanisation, and extreme poverty prompted scholars to withdraw into a bucolic Neverland of the past. Otherwise known as ‘the good old days’.
Every generation is guilty of it, and in our own unstable times, even the most eccentric of institutions got a little nostalgic recently. The theme of this year’s Alternative Miss World was Psychedelic Peace – a homage to the new found freedoms of the swinging sixties, and an invitation to embrace its message of peace and tranquillity today.
Andrew Logan created Alternative Miss World in 1972, and has mounted a show in a handful of the intervening years. I interviewed him ahead of the last one in 2014. My editor at the time encouraged me to find a radical angle about how the show was way ahead of its time. A reaction to the depression of the 1970s, which exploded from the underground, and became a permanent feature of the mainstream.
That narrative is true, and can be demonstrated by the cast list alone. Contributors and attendees over the years have included some of the most subversive and influential figures in popular culture – Derek Jarman, Zandra Rhodes, Divine, David Hockney, Leigh Bowery.
But Andrew wouldn’t put it like that. He describes it as a fancy dress contest inspired by Crufts, and when I asked him about the origins of the event he told me that there wasn’t much to do in Hackney in the seventies. You had to make your own fun.
The whole event is infused with Andrew’s naturally self-effacing charm. Co-hosting with the wonderful Sarah Kestelman, he watched on with quiet pride as the chaos of an unrehearsed drag race exploded like a glitter bomb inside Shakespeare’s wooden O.
The winner was Russian sculptor Andrey Bartenev, who was processed around the pit in a sedan chair, taking the crown from previous winner Miss Zero+ and her gaggle of latex covered courtiers. But it wasn’t about who won.
With so many allies, friends, and family in the audience it felt more like a drag Olympics. Everybody cheered for their own nation but then they cheered just as loud for the nation who couldn’t get through the door because their costume was too big, for the nation who’s music failed to start on time, and for the nation who threatened to engulf everybody on stage in a giant golden parachute.
Alternative Miss World is a modern day pageant that feels like a centuries old tradition. Morris dancers, maypoles, mummers – once you start looking you can see references to Merrie England everywhere. With the doors to the theatre open throughout the evening, the eclectic programme, the booze, the costumes, and the interaction of a live audience it felt more like an Elizabethan atmosphere than any play I’ve ever encountered at the Globe.
And as for its politics, the most radical thing about it is how inclusive it is. Andrew has described it as a drag show with the amendment that drag doesn’t have to be man to woman, or woman to man, you can become whatever you want to be. It’s only radical because they actually believe it.
Grayson Perry was on the judging panel this year, and I’m hoping that because of his recent Channel 4 series Rites of Passage, he might campaign to get Alternative Miss World recognised as a national holiday. Like May Day, or Whitsun, it’s a wild celebration that takes the form of ancient ritual, and one which should be cherished.
Alternative Miss World was on at Shakespeare’s Globe. More information here.