01 October 2012
I entered the 2012 World Gurning Championships
I don't know when I first encountered gurning. I think I was really young. Perhaps I found out about it from watching The Generation Game, or some local news snippet. The idea of gurning on mainstream TV is ludicrous today, but times were different then. As with life's greatest pleasures, gurning appealed and appalled in equal measure. I think it would be hard to find someone of my generation and demographic who isn't faintly obsessed by it.
Gurning, for people who don't know, is the act of pulling a really grotesque face. The idea is to rearrange your features in the most bizarre and dramatic way possible, without using your hands or any other devices. Its sheer muscle power and imagination. Gurning is about transforming your face. People who are very pretty, very ugly, old, or with supernatural facial control have an advantage as gurners, as do people with no teeth. People on certain rave drugs often find themselves gurning like crazy at 4am, but this is a different kind of gurning to that which I am talking about here.
Egremont, a small town in Cumbria, is the place to be if you are a gurner. Every September the town hosts The Egremont Crab Fair, a gathering that first took place in 1267. The Crab Fair includes a parade, an agricultural fair, a funfair, street entertainment, and The World Gurning Championships.
There are three competitions in the Championship: Junior, Ladies' and Men's. For 27 years the Ladies' competition had been dominated by Anne Woods, but age and frailty had brought about her retirement. In 2011 a younger woman took the trophy. My girlfriend Kay saw her picture in the paper one morning and thought "I could do better than that." This is how the pair of us ended up 300 miles from home, gurning for our lives in front of a packed Market Hall.
We arrived at Egremont too late to see the street parade, but in time to enjoy some of the goings-on in the field. My favourite things were the giant onions in the produce competition, the fancy pigeon competition, the ferret display, and Egremont Town Band. I wish I'd had a better view of the Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling competition. I stroked an owl and Kay patted a horse. It was a grey day, but people weren't put off by that, or the mud, and there was a good turn-out.
We went off to get some dinner, and then returned to the Market Hall, arriving to a set by Don MacKay, a crooner who sang some karaoke pop hits to get everyone going. A pair of beautiful oil paintings of legendary gurners decorated each side of the stage, we'd come to the right place! In the build-up to the gurning competitions, we enjoyed a Junior Talent Contest, and other competitions for horn-blowing and, er, hunting songs, as well as some comedy and singing. The crowd got busier as the night went on, there was a great atmosphere.
Then it was gurning time. The compere brought on the judges: the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Copeland, the boss of Egremont and Area Regeneration Partnership, and a bigwig from Sellafield, the local nuclear power plant that employs many people in and around Egremont. They sat at a table at the side of the stage.
Anyone can sign up to take part in the Championship. You just have to go and put your name down on the list for each competition. You then get called up to the stage, the compere asks where you're from, and you go over to another guy called Kevin who puts the braffin round your neck. The braffin is a horse collar used to frame each gurner's face. You gurn, he guides you to the judges where you gurn at each of them in turn. Kevin then shuffles you to the middle of the stage, where you gurn wildly at the audience to the left, the centre and the right. Everyone gets a good look at your gurn and cheers or cringes appropriately. I didn't realise this before, but your stance is also part of the gurn, lots of people pulled a kind of ape-like, lumbering stance, most people are sort of crouch when they put on the braffin, like they're ready to spring at you. It is an assertive stance. After you've gurned, the braffin comes off, you leave the stage and watch the rest, hoping that you've given it your best.
During the wonderful kids' competition I started to see a bit more of what gurning is about, or at least what I think it's about. The rules say that you are judged on your ability to transform your face. Before the competition, I wondered if gurning drew on people's fear and hatred of disabled faces, or underclass faces. When I was a kid it was common to do disablist renditions of 'flid' or 'spazz' in the playground, indicating stupidity. I wondered, too, if the gurn was connected to racist caricatures of the primitive savage, especially given people's animalistic stances. I'm not sure, but I don't think so. Gurning looked much more to me like an embodied discourse of disrespect using the pleasures of being really grotesque. This is very queer, I think. You gurn to a panel of the great and the good, in front of an audience of people over whom they have power. I couldn't help but think that this was a great subversion of their power, and a reclaiming of power for the people. "You think you're so great? Here's what I think of you, and you can't touch me," is the sentiment I felt in the competition. It reminded me of sticking your tongue out, or pulling a face behind one's back, forms of resistance that anyone can do. Although you're gurning at the judges, you're gurning for the audience, from which you come and to which you return. Generations of gurning families take part in the Championships every year. I love that passing-on of gurning know-how.
I hadn't planned on entering myself into the gurning, but I enjoyed seeing the kids pull faces at the Lord and Lady Mayor so much that I thought, "Why not?". Who wouldn't want the chance to pull a terrible face at a manager of a nuclear power plant in front of people he hires, fires and bosses around? Kay didn't mind and didn't think I'd be stealing her thunder. I practised a face quickly, downturned mouth, crinkly chin, cross-eyes, and surprised eyebrows. That would do.
Suddenly it was the Ladies' competition and I was called up first. My legs were shaking as I got on the stage. I went and gurned as hard as I could. I couldn't really see anything because my eyes were crossed, but I made out the kindly and interested judges' expressions as I pulled the most insolent face at them I could muster. As Kevin shuffled me to the middle of the stage, I felt that I had to do something with my arms, so I pretended to be an angry bearcat and clawed at the air with my fingers. Here's a tiny video clip (.mov, 3mb). Kevin took the braffin off me and I nipped down the stairs to watch Kay take her turn. She was brilliant.
Kay's secret weapon in the competition was her fat neck, a feature that she had already put to good use in various fancy dress scenarios, and in group or formal photographs where she wishes to convey disrespect. I have a photo of her doing 'fat neck' on the jumbotron at the Aquatic Centre in the Olympic Park, for example, as well as another of her standing with a pair of armed police. I would like to get a picture of her doing fat neck with a royal, or one of the Camerons. I didn't think fat neck was enough to get her through the competition, so she pulled a variety of faces and in the weeks before the competition I coached her through a gurn that drew on the best elements. This included fat neck, protuberant wet lips, one big bulging glaring eye, one small, and some forehead wrinkles. Killer!
I feel compelled to talk about gender and gurning. The women's – or rather, ladies' – competition is secondary to the men's. I don't know how long there has been a women's competition, they aren't included on the Crab Fair's Gurning Hall of Fame, although there are notes that women entered the main competition for the first time in 1966, and 1974 was the only time a woman in that competition reached the top three. The women's prizes are smaller, there are fewer entrants, and far less fanfair, although 2012 marked the first time the Anne Woods prize, a special prize, was awarded to the women's winner.
I think it's terrible that women are secondary, though it reflects a common and wider marginalisation of women in sport in general. It might also echo the social positioning of women in northern working class communities such as Egremont, most of the entrants were from much further away whereas the men's competition is more local. But gurning is far risker for a woman than for a man. Women are supposed to be pretty and nice, and compliant. Gurning is a fantastic refusal of those social constrictions, it is a really brave thing for a woman, a lady no less, to make herself publicly and gloriously ugly, or to flaunt her age or toothlessness, and to seek reward for it. I think the guts of women who dare to gurn should be acknowledged.
There was a short break and then it was the men's competition. About twenty men took part, give or take a few. Up they popped, one after the other. Most were forgettable, but some were really amazing. How do they get their faces to do that? It was no surprise that Tommy Mattinson scooped the title for the fourteenth(?) time. In everyday life he looks like a distant cousin of George Michael, but that braffin transforms him into something eye-popping and inexplicable. I can't even describe it, let alone think about how he manages to do it. His gurn is terrifying and awesome. The runners up also did things with their faces too weird to understand.
Neither Kay nor I won the women's title, alas. But Kay came second! She won a rosette, a plaque and £20. We were elated! I think Kay's gurn must have been really good for the judges to award a southerner a prize. Helen Irving was truly deserving of the winning spot, delivering a gurn in which she, um, inflated her face. As we left the Market Hall, we saw her sitting with Anne Woods, hopefully swapping tips and notes. Gurn on, sisters.