Friday, 6 July 2018

Shifty Grades of Fey


In the dark with fairies
Much to my own surprise, I have been thinking about fairies and fairylore lately.

It was some way from my main areas of interest. It was somewhat remote, historically: while fairylore has remained a persistent presence in Ireland, here in England it was rather more distant in time. I was not exactly hostile. The influence of literary representations in developing belief systems is always fascinating (1), and my work on belief in ghosts had made me aware of the way various constructs of supernatural lore are transmitted diachronically with changes in the attributed entity.

I had also not set out initially to research emergent spiritual beliefs, and the place of fairies in contemporary thought called for some quite specific focus outside my chosen areas of interest. The historical separation between earlier and contemporary forms of belief and thought required particular attention.

My doctoral researches, and my continued interest in the history of my discipline, have taken me some way into a consideration of new, eclectic and syncretic forms of spiritual observation. I would include the resurgence/reappearance of fairylore in this category. There has been a flurry of recent publications on the subject, both scholarly and less so. Simon Young has been active in research and in bringing together other writers on the subject, as in the volume he co-edited with Ceri Houlbrook, Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present (London: Gibson Square, 2018). I am not going to offer here a full review of that interesting volume, much as I enjoyed some parts of it and greatly disliked others. Rather, I want to flag up some general concerns.

The book is extremely mixed. One or two contributions were sound enough but still felt like a Greatest Hits compilation, both of their author’s work and of the fairy records. The best work in the book is the historical conspectus material: not much of it feels new, but some of it is well reviewed. There is also a body of contemporary material here, which is intriguing. (Simon Young has been particularly active in collating this material elsewhere). Not much of that material feels well processed here, and it is where the volume tends to drift into spiritual travelogue mode.

The great problem is that in the historical record there is essentially a break between the earlier documented material (which also operated in close interaction with literary sources) and this contemporary lore. The latter seems a voluntary and wilful adoption and adaptation of antiquarian and imaginative literature of Ye Olden Dayes, which points to the necessity for careful consideration and reflection. In the absence of any thorough consideration of the gap between the historical material and contemporary reports, however, we end up with an argument by implication: this is the classic bad Frazerian comparison of purportedly similar phenomena from different periods and with different histories as if they were the same, and with the result (if not the intention) of implying direct continuity through survival. Which very much does not seem to be what we have with fairylore.

This requires some sensitivity, because with the contemporary material we are looking at a belief practice. It is problematic to see that practice presented by practitioners as being simultaneously scholarship: scholars who are themselves practitioners will have emic insights that are of inestimable value, but the practice itself cannot uncritically and unreflexively also be presented as its own scholarly appraisal. At a recent conference a practitioner raised kataphatic visionary techniques as a research tool in the field to enable fairy encounters: this is an accepted belief practice within that group, but as scholarship it is self-serving and circular. It enables the researcher to find exactly what was already believed, thus confirming a contentious historical narrative that might not otherwise stand up.

It was instructive, then, to read Michael Ostling’s much better collection Fairies, Demons, and Nature Spirits: ‘Small Gods’ at the Margins of Christendom (London:Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), with its sharper historical focus. Ostling’s ‘Introduction’ places fairies as a product of Christianity rather than a pagan precursor to be overcome. This necessarily prevents universalising speculation, whether by design or accident, and focuses the research much more clearly. It also enables Sabina Magliocco’s consideration (pp.325-347) of contemporary belief practices (including the visualisation mentioned above) to be really shrewd on the limits and character of the fairy revival. As Magliocco notes, ‘In fact, were fairies still creatures of terror and awe, the process of belief revival, with its kataphatic practices designed to contact them, could not take place’ (p.330).


The historical depth and sensitivity I am discussing here is a requirement not just to make scholarly sense of fairylore (or whatever other belief practice). There is, of course, no requirement for belief practitioners to observe such scholarly niceties in their own practice, but for any kind of accurate understanding of the development and interaction of those practices there absolutely is.

This is not, however, just about understanding a belief practice or performing one. It has implications for the scholarship too: as a folklorist I am concerned that my discipline is invoked in some antiquated and unrepresentative ways to support a belief practice. As part of an invented tradition’s own mythopoiesis it is all too common to find an airy resort to an Edwardian armchair universalism that really no longer has any place in contemporary folklore scholarship. I am not denying practitioners their choice of syncretic materials, but if it goes unremarked by folklorists it will be to our detriment. There is a widespread and erroneous popular view, thanks largely to folklore’s academic marginalisation, that folklore is still a Frazerian collation of popular rites and speculation on their pagan origins. It took folklore (especially in Britain) a long time to break the stranglehold of that outdated approach, and I am extremely chary of seeing it being smuggled back in under the guise of practitioners with an interest in folklore conflating the two. If this were to happen we would be at risk of losing what we as folklorists have achieved, and losing it moreover in a process it would require a folklorist to explain.

*  *  *  *  *

1: There’s an interesting discussion in Ronald Hutton, The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present (New York and London: YaleUniversity Press, 2017), pp. 215-242, although the book is a little problematic, being inclined to a more sophisticated version of the tendency described below.
-->

Monday, 28 May 2018

A Question about Dolls

As those colleagues and friends who specialise in material culture never fail to remind me, my research interests have primarily tended towards the intangible aspects of folklore, particularly in verbal and musical tradition. It would be wrong, however, to portray me as wholly resistant to material culture. It's just that I know the limitations of my informed knowledge.

Which is why this post is really an appeal for some (possibly quite basic) information.

I recently and belatedly got to visit the Lilliput Doll and Toy Museum in Brading. It's a really excellent small museum of children's toys and dolls: crowded but well-maintained displays, with the tempting allure of how much more they have in store. It's lovely - charming and fascinating.

My eye was caught by this astonishing piece, a doll made of crab's claws and dressed. The notice explains that she's mid-nineteenth century (1865), made by 'a poor fisherwoman in Perth'. Nearby in the case (not shown in this photo) is a rather fancy pedlar doll made by a small Portsmouth company: she is distinguished by the quality of reproduction of the items in her pedlar's basket, but once you strip down the astonishing craftsmanship there you find that she is, at core, the extremely traditional pegdoll, a clothespeg with a painted face and dressed.

The pegdoll suggests traditional crafts being adapted for commercial purposes, which is all straightforward enough, but I had not come across such crab dolls before. So here is my question: is this the crafted invention of a particularly imaginative and gifted individual alone, or is it also reflective of a broader tradition of making such dolls? Can anyone point me to readings on this?

And if you can't, don't worry. Just enjoy the magnificent craft and skill on display here.




Thursday, 26 April 2018

Hi ho, hi ho ...

I'm busily gearing up for a couple of conferences, and finding that my fascination with the history of folklore is moving on apace.

Tomorrow I'm off to the Folklore Society's annual conference. This year's theme is 'Working Life: Belief, Custom, Ritual, Narrative'. It looks, as ever, a fascinating event (it's always the central point of my intellectual year, I must say), and I'll be talking essentially about the folklore of folklorists. This has been raised and discussed before, but I'll be considering the lore that we deploy to consolidate our understanding of our own thinking and practice: like any occupational group, folklorists use folklore to consolidate our social cohesion and to consolidate our occupational practices. It may be a slight topic - I don't want it just to be an exercise in navel-gazing, but it's also not the main event in folkloric research - but its personal significance for all of us makes it rather special to me.

When I get back I'm working again on some earlier folklorists, but in the meantime I've also written a guest blog post for Twitter's #FolkloreThursday crowd. When I started my Folklore MA in the much-lamented National Centre for English Cultural Tradition at Sheffield, Julia Bishop asked us 'Ok, then, you're all interested in it: so what is folklore?' And we struggled for an answer. At the end of that module Julia asked us again 'After a whole term's study: what is folklore?' And we realised that it hadn't been a trick question, after all, but finding ways of explaining succinctly what folklore is involves some knowledge of how it had been understood and explained previously. I'm happy to find that I've been doing this quite a bit of late, but this blog post, '"Folklore"? What do you mean? And why?' marks another attempt by me to set out some of the issues, highlight some of the problems, and hopefully still make it all as fascinating as I find it.

Once I'm back from the 'Working Life' conference I'm intending to get down to some more serious work on one or two of these questions. I've described my paper tomorrow as 'another love letter to my discipline', and I'm standing by it.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Getting back to it

It's been over a year since I posted here. Latterly such an absence has usually indicated some health catastrophe (my 'career dogged by injury', to borrow the footballing phrase), but the last year has finally seen me getting back into the swing of things a little. I've given papers at conferences and symposiums (including my first international trip since the major medical interruption), I've done a couple of more popular talks and events (the first large-scale outing for my singing voice since 2014, for example), started to get used to indexing Folklore (in my second year at it), drafted a long-awaited chapter for an edited collection, and taken part in various other events and ventures that begin to feel like me finding my place in the world of folklore again. As someone who's still a little wary of his own physical fragility I'm surprised by how much I actually have done in the last year.

More interesting to readers here is the fact that I haven't just been picking up old threads. I have been doing that, of course, because it's essential - the book chapter sees me reviewing some of my thinking about ghost beliefs and new religious syncretism, for example, while last week I was giving a Vaughan Williams Memorial Library lecture on ghostlore in traditional songs - but it's not been static. My ongoing engagement with the history of the discipline has become ever more a way of introducing non-academic non-specialist audiences to its full range (I've just written a forthcoming guest post for the Folklore Thursday blog), as well as a way of trying to negotiate the survival of academic folklorists and other interested academics in a university world that offers us little security or support.

It's also seen me getting interested in some new figures and areas: I spoke twice last year (at the splendidly titled 'Folklorists Are Fallible' conference in my beloved Tartu, and then at the third Folklore Society/Royal Anthropological Institute 'Folklore and Anthropology in Conversation' seminar) about the 20th century field collector and writer Violet Alford, and will be speaking about her again this summer. My paper at the forthcoming Folklore Society conference is also very much about how we are as folklorists, what we do to identify as such and how we interact with other folklorists. Later in the year I'll be going back to the question of ghost belief and religious syncretism (particularly around Spiritualism) for a major conference in Oxford.

I actually have things to blog about again, it seems, so I will.

Part of this reorientation/reawakening has involved some apparently cosmetic fiddling with my library, refiling and reshelving books and copies of papers. In doing so I also moved around a lot of my fieldnotes. One sheet caught my eye as it fell loose. It dates from early in my MA researches (2004-6), when I asked co-workers in the Civil Service department where I was temping for their recollections of childlore, skipping games etc. The following was remembered by a woman in her late 20s from her schooldays in South Essex:

1, 2, 3 Mother caught a flea
She put it in the teapot and made a cup of tea
The flea jumped out,
Mother gave a shout,
And down came father with his winkle hanging out.

It's good to be back.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

More Than Just a Word: A Podcast on Folklore's History and Background

Back in October I gave a talk at the South East London Folklore Society on the intellectual history of folklore (or, more properly, of 'Folklore'). Mark Norman at The Folklore Podcast thought this sounded right up his listeners' street, and I hoped so too. Shortly before Christmas I sat down in a darkened room with a voice recorder, and the results are now online. The podcast is free to listen to (but the site happily accepts donations to support their work), and they've already broadcast a lot that's worth listening to.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

On the Chance Remark

Fieldwork is, of course, the best thing about folklore. This is where you get to engage with people about the folklore they share, perform and practice, where you get to see and hear about it at first hand. Fieldwork can be beguiling: all that time in the field, recording and documenting, listening and probing, then demands more time in the study with careful and accurate transcription and annotation even before you get down any kind of description and analysis.

Fieldwork is also the most complicated part of folklore, because it involves the folklorist in a network of relationships that have attendant responsibilities. The key point here is that we are investigating other people’s lives. We are not taking things from them, we are inviting them to share their lives with us, and we should be celebrating that sharing. It is a collaborative process, not an acquisitive one.

The history of folklore and its fieldwork has left us with a rather difficult terminological legacy: I am reluctant to use the term ‘collector’ because it sounds so appropriative, but in some areas of research it is still a current term that – for many of the individuals involved – does not have the negative connotations I fearfully read in it. The field of song research, particularly, is torn between documenting the songs themselves as artefacts and how the songs and their singing fit into the lives of the singers. Shortly before my first foray into the field (long before I began any academic study of Folklore) I had the good fortune to speak to the late Simon Evans (a fine oral historian, researcher of musical traditions and documenter of Gypsy life in the south east of England). I spoke to Simon a few times over the ensuing period, as our interests coincided geographically as well as by subject. In that first conversation he gave me the best advice any fieldworker could possibly be given. He warned me not to focus on the songs to the exclusion of everything else: ‘These aren’t just songs’, he insisted, ‘they’re part of people’s lives’.


Simon Evans

Closely related to the transformation of other people’s culture into artefacts is the idea that the fieldworker, no matter their relationship with their informant, is simply a detached and dispassionate observer. It is all too easy to detach our analysis from the context of fieldwork and documentation. Where an ‘artefact’ can be presented separated from its context (and the early song collectors [sic] talked about ‘rescuing’ songs, as if singers and singing were somehow secondary), fieldworkers investigating other areas can be suckered into the notion that their questions haven’t shaped the responses they hear or that their interpretation does not reveal anything of their own biases and positions. Under the guise of dispassion they can end up objectifying what they are observing.


Greater reflexivity does enable fieldworkers to identify, and work with, some of these problems. In particular it enables us to recognise how we are interacting with the items of collectanea we are documenting. Perhaps a larger problem, one not so easily recognised, much less addressed, is that of the informants’ role in shaping the direction of our research.

Under a model of rather objectified collectanea, the fieldworker goes into the field looking for artefact x or cultural practice y. Examples of x or y are then gathered together and the fieldworker interprets the whole. Reduced to this format, the limitations in such an approach are clear. (Like all over-simplified models, this one doesn’t actually point to the realities of field documentation even among researchers who may have thought it an appropriate theoretical starting point). One thing it doesn’t take into account is what else an informant may tell the fieldworker, which may shape how the fieldworker continues to investigate, or the directions in which the fieldworker takes subsequent investigation. The ‘objectification model’ (for want of another term) removes the fieldworker from the same world context as the informant: obviously cultural differences remain (otherwise why would we be investigating?), but the suggestion that fieldworker and informant live in separate global contexts seems a lingering throwback to Victorian notions of folklore as ‘primitive survivals’ in the modern world.


I have been thinking again about these questions since learning of the sudden death of Toby Freeman a couple of weeks ago. Toby was a friend, first, who later made a contribution to my research as an informant. I met him at Sharps Folk Club, and knew him initially through a shared love of traditional music. He was charming, very good company, a witty and cultured man who had worked in television production. A keen sailor, he had a thunderous bass voice and a good way with an anecdote. It was only as I sat and processed news of his death that I realised how fundamentally important he had been in shaping the direction of my doctoral research.


Toby Freeman

I had applied for a funded PhD position at the University of Hertfordshire investigating contemporary ghost belief. For the application I had revisited earlier field notes and identified ghost narratives I had been told previously but had hitherto found no way of examining or discussing. Herts were looking for someone who would be prepared to undertake fieldwork in some way. It was a perfect match, and I was offered the post.

I immediately started rushing off telling everyone I knew. Inevitably I ended up at Sharps, and it’s difficult to overemphasise the importance of that night to the next years of my research.

For one thing, I told a good friend Jim about my position. His response was a dramatic and eerie story from his own experience. (I have discussed this story and its narration in my Contemporary Legend article – despite the issue date, this journal was actually published in 2010). A couple of weeks ago later Jim returned to the subject and made a number of comments that fired my thinking on belief and experience. The groundwork had already been laid, however, by Toby’s comment that first night I announced my news. (Nine years ago next month, I see from my field notes).

I told him, first, that I’d secured a funded PhD place. He boomed appreciatively, and asked what the subject area was. ‘Contemporary belief in ghosts’, I told him. His eyes lit up, and he said ‘That’s so interesting – I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’ve seen at least one, and possibly two’.

Like Jim, Toby came back to this in subsequent weeks, filling in personal accounts and thoughts on the subject on three occasions. (Both men are documented, anonymously, in my thesis). Toby’s narratives and contemplations, like Jim’s, are there (anonymised) in my thesis, but his initial comment stuck with me. As with Jim’s story, reported in the Contemporary Legend article, the elegance and artistry of the comment was noteworthy: I have learned a lot about traditional narrative arts from listening to singers talking, but they are not alone in being able to shape an elegant epigram. (One of my informants told me, cleverly, ‘There’s nothing on earth would make me believe in god …’)

More important, for the research I was about to undertake, was the way Toby shaped his comment about belief. This was no easy, reductive explanation, and his comment was not one that assumed an easy, reductive relationship between belief and experience. Toby was an educated man, but while this may have had an impact on his expression his magnanimous and generous thinking here was by no means atypical generally. His comment opened up emic ways of looking at my subject that were quite widespread and needed to be taken on board and engaged with in my fieldwork and in my analysis.

In my writing I have always aimed to reflect appropriately and accurately my informants’ thoughts, beliefs and practices, but at the same time I should be crediting how far they have also led me in certain directions. I don’t know that I ever acknowledged to Toby how much his comment had helped define an investigative direction I had not yet begun to formulate. I'm sorry, and sorry not to have had one more pint, one more song, with him. What’s important is that we not only reflect what we set out to document from our informants, but that we pay tribute to our endlessly creative and thoughtful informants for what they bring that we were not expecting. And that, after all, brings me back to where I started: that is what is so wonderful about fieldwork.