While we were building the Barn in the summer of 1995 Peter Wilshaw asked me if I could think of a suitable wooden present that he could give to his partner Susan Clarke. Why does it have to be wood I asked – “Because we’ve been married for five years and it’s our wooden anniversary. You know; Paper, Cotton, Leather….Silver,Ruby,Gold…..” No I didn’t know. Not having got married me and Kate didn’t even have an anniversary marker date to hang a celebration on if we had wanted too. Peter’s question got me/us thinking and we decided, somewhat arbitrarily, to make Halloween our anniversary. We knew we had met in 1978 when Kate came down from Laurieston on a workswap as we were preparing to hold a spooky Halloween party in the derelict Mill resplendent with real 6ft long hanging cobwebs – we didn’t get together then but it did seem to be a suitably ironic date to acknowledge seventeen years of not being married. A few years later we did celebrate our 25th unwed anniversary. Not with anything silver, but by doing 25 things together that we had never done before throughout the year. (At the time someone seriously asked us had we not decided whether we really wanted to live together yet!)
We were in part inspired by some work that Welfare State was involved with in parallel to the construction side of the HOUSE project. Building on the work they had done involving artists in making funerals more personal and meaningful they were looking at other secular life marking ceremonies. Again me and Jonathan How were involved with our communal living / Diggers & Dreamers hats on. The small ceremonial spaces team looked at how people could design and arrange their own ceremonies At ways to create secular ceremonial spaces and at how other cultures marked life events. A second Dead Good Guide was produced this time on Namings and Baby Welcoming Ceremonies. However the third book in the imagined Dead Good Hatching, Matching and Dispatching series never materialised. For some reason The Dead Good Guide to ‘Partnering’ , ‘Relationship ceremonies’ – what do you call them if you don’t want to use the W word – proved harder to write. I do think writing about alternatives to weddings was a bigger ask. Partly because with funerals and namings the person being honoured / celebrated is generally a fairly passive participant in both the planning and the ceremony itself. The ceremony being primarily about the community that surrounds the individual. Whereas weddings these days are pretty much the opposite.
From my early adulthood I have had very mixed feelings about marriage and weddings in particular. In my mid twenties my best friend from school didn’t invite me to her wedding – so she wouldn’t have to fall out with me if I refused to come! – now that signals a complicated relationship if ever I saw one. Anyway I don’t even know now how I might have given the impression that I might not have gone. Yes, by then I’d had my first brush with feminist ideas while squatting in London and started to read the likes of Wilhelm Reich, Germaine Greer and R.D.Laing about the role of the ‘nuclear family’ – but I really don’t think I had formulated any anti-marriage ideas by then that would have made me refuse to attend a close friend’s wedding.In a strangely sort of matching occasion a few years later I turned up on her doorstep literally the moment she was walking out on her husband.
I have attended a few weddings over the years: close family, friends at PIC,and more recently a number of gay friend’s civil partnerships. But I always feel awkward at them. Fundamentally I find it hard to believe the ‘vows’ that are made at them. Seeing so many ending up in splits and divorces it is hard to take the whole thing very seriously. Don’t get me wrong I can see why couples want to make some sort of public commitment to each other. But I’ve never really understood quite why it needs to involve the State or the Church. Though in a similar way that it was Trevor Howell’s view that a group needed a legal constitution to “protect yourself from the arbitrariness of the State.” I can see that a couple might also need some sort of protection from: the State, the Church or maybe even from each other.
There weren’t any ‘proper’ weddings while I was at People In Common. Rod married a Portuguese visitor so that she could continue traveling in the UK and that was it. There were a couple of weddings of members who had left and still lived locally. And just after we had left the group hosted a wedding at the Mill with marquee on the field. But most of these weddings were prompted by largely pragmatic reasons – rather than what shall we say more ‘traditional’ reasons. It seems that there is a tendency for family and friends to hijack and make a big romantic thing of a couples desire to get hitched for a pragmatic reason. Turning the event into something more than the couple had really intended – I once advised our son to run away to Gretna Green, and not tell anyone, to escape such a takeover. At Barbara and Peter’s wedding me and Kate performed a sketch where we posed as Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Marriage from the Blairite New Labour Watchdog OFWED – come to check that the happy couple were marrying for legitimate reasons and that it wasn’t a sham wedding to avoid paying tax, or to beat immigration restrictions. Some people clearly thought it was all a bit too close to the bone and slightly in bad taste. But Barbara and Peter appreciated it.
The nearest me and Kate ever came to any sort of coupling ceremony was a spontaneous handfasting we did through a hole in a standing stone. Just the two of us inspired as we stumbled across the stone one day whilst out for a walk on the side of Pendle Hill. Whether it was really an ancient standing stone, or just and old gatepost we weren’t sure at time. Either way it still stands in my mind as the only ‘ceremonial commitment we have ever made to each other. If we ever split maybe we have to go back and unfast ourselves through the same stone.