Cheese-rolling and other curious pastimes of the English

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

In an old English tradition, believed by some to have pagan origins, the people of Brockworth, Gloucestershire, chase a wheel of cheese down a steep hill on the last Monday of every May. The cheese is taken home by whoever tumbles to the bottom first.

In Leicestershire, meanwhile, an annual event known as Hallaton Bottle-Kicking sees the residents of two rival villages competing to carry a beer-filled barrel across two muddy streams by any means necessary (only eye-gouging, strangling and weapons are prohibited).

These are just two of the odder pastimes captured by photographer Orlando Gili, who set about documenting how the English have fun. Elsewhere, he depicts an entertaining array of quaint rituals — many of which involve dressing up — from the Victorian-themed Broadstairs Dickens Festival to a road race whereby participants must carry 60-pound sacks of wool over their shoulders.

The resulting book, “Trivial Pursuits: The English at Play,” spans ages, locations and social classes, offering a humane portrait of a nation not only unwinding but navigating its history and place in today’s world. Gili’s survey also shines a light on music festivals, pubs and the more conventional activities of England’s cosmopolitan youth.

“It’s nice to not just photograph the niche things in any country, because you can end up with just oddballs,” Gili said during a video call. “Eccentrics are visually interesting, and I am struck by that too, but there’s something potentially quite powerful about capturing mass society, because it cuts through to the general feeling of a place.”

Understanding Brexit

While the photos are underpinned by a sense of togetherness, their genesis lies in the most divisive issue in the UK’s recent history: Brexit. The 2016 referendum, in which Britain opted to leave the European Union, inspired Gili to explore what makes the English tick. (Given that the majority of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the union — as did those in London — he focused his lens on the English specifically, rather than the British at large.)

“I live in London, and many Londoners were quite puzzled about how Brexit happened and how it even came up as an issue,” he said. “By looking at leisure, I thought, ‘Can that give us clues about what makes us different from other countries?’ Not necessarily for better for worse, but to understand what it is to be English.”

While Gili makes no claims to be neutral on Brexit, the project was nonetheless executed with anthropological objectivity. Some so-called “Remainers” may see England’s idiosyncratic hobbies as fueling the kind of exceptionalism that led to Brexit (or dressing up for World War II reenactments as an attempt to cling to former glories), but Gili’s photos never come across as jeering. They are instead underpinned by a shared sense of joy and what he called “a sort of anti-snobbery.”

“I try not to be too judgmental about people’s views,” Gili explained, adding that he avoids “having a loaded opinion on who I’m photographing.

“But it did seem like people wanted a sense of nationhood, of their country, and they felt that it was being weakened.”

The photographer’s attempts to cut across social and class divides are reflected in curatorial decisions made throughout the book. A picture of two friends fixing their ties at the traditionally upper-class Henley Royal Regatta is printed alongside a pair of rain-drenched revelers on the streets of the richly multicultural Notting Hill Carnival; a photo of a grime event in an East London club is paired with a young, bowtie-wearing Cambridge University student playing records at a college masquerade ball.

The juxtapositions carry a message: That these contrasting images of friendship, fun and folly are just as genuine and valid as one another.

“We are really more similar than we like to think,” Gili said. “And going to all these different types of events, and seeing different sections of society having fun, you see essentially the same things being played out.

“I think the core elements of what it is to have fun are so similar.”

Letting loose

When it comes to unwinding, there’s something else Gili said the English have common: alcohol.

While the photographer takes a documentarian approach to his work by maintaining an emotional (and, he said, sober) distance from the merriment unfolding around him, Gili sees intoxication as a “pretty essential” aspect of how the English enjoy themselves.

“Alcohol does grease the wheels,” he said. “There’s a minority that goes overboard, but I think that it’s inherently part of our culture that we need a drink — not just one, but a few — to get things going.”

He credits this to the qualities of fortitude and stoicism — the famed “stiff upper lip” — so often associated with the English. Indeed, it may be for this same reason that an otherwise reticent nation opts for elaborate feats of organized fun, like rolling cheese down a hill, over something more spontaneous, Gili ventured.

“Whether it’s a local fete that’s a bit ramshackle, or a festival or sporting events, my impression is that we are, as a people, a little bit shy. We need to know when to let our hair down — but then we really do.”

Trivial Pursuits: The English at Play” by Orlando Gili, published by Hoxton Mini Press, is available now.

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