Town crier: a venerable calling that speaks volumes


ALFORD, LINCOLNSHIRE -- The not-quite-undisputed world's loudest town crier and his latest challenger bellowed like wounded water buffaloes in a high noon shout-out at the Corn Exchange in this old market town.

"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!" cried Alan "Mighty Mouth" Myatt, the doughty, round-bellied claimant to the title.

"Gawwwwd Saaave the Queen," responded Paul Gough, the bearded, dandyish contender.

"Oyez," the traditional call of the town crier, is an Old French word that came to Britain with William the Conqueror almost 1,000 years ago. It means: Listen up. "God Save the Queen" stands for the obvious.

In an age of the fax and the cellular phone, the town crier may seem a bit of an anachronism. But the art flourishes. The Myatt-Gough shouting match is only a preliminary to the main bout here last week: the Alford Town Criers Championship.

Resplendent in lace and velvet and gold braid, a dozen criers came from all over England to compete. Crying is so popular that aspirants are beginning to have a hard time finding a town to cry for. One doesn't just pop into the local pub and announce he's the town crier: Criers are appointed by the mayor or chosen by the lord of the manor.

"It's an ancient calling," says Pearl Capewell, town crier for the city of Peterborough and one of two female contenders in Alford. Nine women are town criers in the United Kingdom, including the oldest, Grace Hall, of Pathfinder village in Devon, who is 94 or a bit more.

There are about 120 criers in Britain, many in Canada and a half-dozen or so in the United States.

"It's supposedly one of the oldest professions," Mrs. Capewell muses.

Ted Davy, town crier of Alford and host for the championship, says, "There's been a town crier here in Alford since 1283."

Mr. Davy took over in 1987. He's a fine, rotund figure clad in red and black velvet reminiscent of a 1750s coachman's gear. A gray ponytail wags out from under his red-fur-trimmed headdress, and a whitish beard brushes his red-edged lace bib.

He had a Mohawk haircut when he was a wrestler called Chief Billy Whitecloud and a hard drinker. But he got religion and become a teetotaler, an evangelist and the town crier.

"It began as a fun thing, and it became very, very serious," he says.

People tend to think of the town crier as an amiable gent who ambled around town chanting "12 o'clock and all is well."

But the crier used to have more somber duties: He installed wavering husbands in the stocks, escorted the destitute to the workhouse, earned 2 guineas a year for administering floggings and officiated at hangings.

"He would read out why the person was being hung, and he'd go there and help to cut him down. It was a rather gruesome job," says a jovial Barry McQueen, the crier from Ludlow in Shropshire.

These days, town criers tend to promote tourism, making a loud noise for their hometown or shire.

The Myatt-Gough shouting match proceeds apace at the community's Corn Exchange, where grain was originally sold.

"I am the loudest crier in the world," Mr. Myatt says. "I've got two 'Guinness' records: one for 112.8 decibels, one also for vocal endurance when I cried for 48 hours."

Unfortunately, "Guinness" also records a louder cry. But Mr. Myatt claims that decibel count was compromised by the amplification of sound boards on a movie set.

"Mine was done in a natural environment," he says. "No artificial aids, amplifications, sound boards, nothing of that nature whatsoever. In the raw."

His rival, Mr. Gough, was the slimmest crier here and perhaps the wittiest. "Alan," he said, "I normally make it a golden rule in my life that as a gentleman I will never engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man."

"Your material is like your cry," ripostes Mr. Myatt. "Rubbish!"

Their shouting ended in a draw at 110 decibels, as recorded by the Rev. Ivor Haythorne, who is nostalgically and somewhat incongruously dressed in a World War II RAF chaplain's uniform. The flat Lincolnshire plains abounded with British and American airfields during the war.

The championship unfolded after noon at the well-worn stocks in the Market Square.

Mr. Davy explained that criers are judged for diction and inflection, bearing and confidence, accuracy and content of their cry, sustained volume and clarity.

The contending criers extol their towns and cities with thunderous voices projected from the cavernous depths of their leather-larynx throats, echoing oyezes off the Victorian and Georgian facades of the square like ricocheting cannonballs.

"Greetings from the lovable little Lincolnshire town of Market Deeping," cries Brenda Willison with a pitch and volume that could make a Marine drill instructor groan with envy.

"Market Deeping," she yells, "is renowned for its spirit, warmth and hospitality, especially within the two old coaching inns which provide weary wanderers with welcome drink to wet their whistles."

She is splendid; she wins the best-dressed crier award for her smashing frock coat and black breeches.

But Eddie Bowkett, the town crier of Blackpool, wins the championship, praising the long history of his home city as the favorite seaside resort of Britain's common man. He touts, in particular, a tavern known as Yates Wine Lodge, which is famous all over England.

Mr. Bowkett has been a town crier 16 years. He's cried all over England, in Toronto last year and earlier in Nova Scotia. He's even cried unofficially in Boston.

"My record is 104 decibels, which I reached on the Isle of Wight," he says, "shouting in the open air.

"I have beaten two of the loudest criers in the world here today," he says. He means Mr. Myatt and Mr. Gough.

"And I am very proud of that," says the new champion town crier in the village of Alford in the shire of Lincoln in the north of England.

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