Monday, 10 October 2016

An evening with the history of folklore

It is taking a while to get back into anything approaching a normal swing of things, but this week I'm happy to be making a first stab at public talks again. On Thursday evening I'm back with the lovely folk at the South East London Folklore Society (SELFS) giving 'A Beginner's Guide to Folklore'.

The idea came about earlier in the year when I heard George Hoyle, SELFS's charming and urbane host, give an introductory talk on John Dee, and it occurred to me that talking about the history of the subject I love might be fun and worthwhile for several people, including me. The more people are fascinated by folklore, the more important it becomes to talk about the history of the subject. What do we mean when we say 'folklore'? And who are the mysterious 'we' in that sentence? Does 'folklore' mean the same in popular usage as it does for folklorists? How do we balance all its various meanings? How do we go about looking at folklore?

I'm not particularly alarmed if that sounds like an intellectual rabbit warren: that's how I think of folklore, which is part of the reason I find it so massively, thrillingly exciting. I am genuinely excited at getting involved in this history.

Folklorists today don't think of their subject in quite the same way as their Victorian forebears. This means getting a handle on what they did think and how it changed.The blurb I sent SELFS gives my starting point:

170 years ago a letter appeared in the Athenaeum. It was signed ‘Ambrose Merton’, a pseudonym for literary antiquarian William John Thoms, and it proposed a neologism: ‘folklore’. This provides a good origin story for the study of folklore – it’s the first time folklorists identify themselves as such – but while Thoms may have invented the word he didn’t invent the subject. This talk will be a brief introduction to how we’ve come to think about folklore. Amongst other things it’ll discuss what William Thoms meant by the word and how he arrived at that meaning, and where we’ve taken folklore since. Folklore: we’re all interested in it, we all do it, let’s think about it.

And what a starting point! It takes you everywhere ... If you're in London on Thursday evening and that sounds as exciting to you as it does to me, come along.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

What you can learn from a new moon

Last week’s #FolkloreThursday took me back to a comparative annotation assignment on my MA in Folklore at the late lamented NATCECT, University of Sheffield. Each student chose random items of collectanea from the NATCECT archives and/or from our own fieldwork collections, classified them, and offered an appraisal of comparative material from other folklore collections.

My heart soared, then, when Marianna Villanueva @mariannevill714 asked ‘what does a crescent moon mean?’ and @madebyfae replied ‘Bow 3 times to the crescent moon with money in your pocket & you'll have riches all month’, as this was one of the items I had researched. Below I have copied the assignment as originally submitted, with one addition. This assignment was designed to familiarise students with research in folklore collections and ways of thinking about items of collectanea. When I had completed the assignment a happy accident of conversation taught me a little bit more about fieldwork and terminology.

I had selected the following item from the NATCECT files: 
It is bad luck to look at a new moon through glass. When one does see a new moon for the first time, one should turn one’s money over in the pocket and wish. 
This was collected by C.V. Ibbotson in ‘1945 approx’ from Mrs A. Ibbotson, aged 90, of Millhouses, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. Mr Ibbotson notes that Mrs Ibbotson ‘really believed’ this, which she had learnt from her mother in Sheffield.

Classification: This is an item of Customary Tradition – Traditional Belief (beliefs concerning cosmic phenomena and the weather). Under Mrs V.M. Halpert’s classification of Folk Belief and Custom, this falls into category K: Weather and Cosmic Phenomena.


This is one of the most widely documented items of customary belief in the British Isles, both geographically and historically. Virtually every regional collection of folklore published in the last 150 years contains some reference to it, and it is not confined to any one language group within the British Isles. (It is documented among Welsh-speakers, and it is recorded among communities where previously Scots Gaelic and Guernsey-French had been the first language). It is also recorded in the USA.

A few examples will suffice:

‘[the new moon] should never be first seen through glass’ (Jacqueline Simpson, The Folklore of Sussex (London: Batsford, 1973), p.101);

‘It is unlucky to see the new moon through glass for the first time; you should … turn your money in your pocket’ (In the Troublesome Times: Memories of Old Northumberland, ed. Rosalie E. Bosanquet ([n.p]: Northumberland Press, 1929; repr. Spredden Press, 1989), p. 79);

‘An elderly Cambridge man recalled in 1958 that when he used to stay with his grandmother in Ely when he was a boy, he remembers being told by her to stand by the open kitchen door to warn her of the appearance of a new moon so that she could … see it from the doorstep and not through a window’ (Enid Porter, Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969), p. 59);

‘The widespread customs of bowing to the new moon and turning the money in one’s pocket are observed in the Highlands [of Scotland]’ (I.F. Grant, Highland Folk Ways (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), p. 355);

‘It is considered unlucky to see the new moon the first time through the window’ (Jonathan Caredig Davies, Folk-Lore of West and Mid-Wales (Aberystwyth: [] 1911; repr. Felinfach: Llanerch, 1992), p. 219; and

‘You should never look at the new moon through glass … You must … rattle the money in your pocket’ (Marie de Garis, Folklore of Guernsey ([St Pierre du Bois, Guernsey?]: the author, 1975), pp. 102-3).

Many more examples could be adduced (it features in most of the Folklore Society’s County Folklore Printed Extract series, published in the first decade of the twentieth century, for example, and also in most volumes of the Batsford county folklore series published in the 1970s), but these should be sufficient to disprove William Henderson’s idea that this was ‘a Durham superstition’ (William Henderson, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (London: Satchell, Peyton, 1879)).

Opie and Tatem give the earliest record for not looking at the new moon through glass as 1830 (Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 282), and for turning money over as 1808 (Opie and Tatem, p. 279), but both are related to other beliefs. A belief that it is unlucky to see the new moon through trees (emphasising the aspect of a distorted vision) is also widely reported, as is divination by looking at the new moon through a silk handkerchief.

Bad luck incurred through seeing a new moon through trees can also be counteracted by customs involving money, for example spitting on both sides of a coin (quoted in Opie and Tatem, p. 283). The turning over of money is related to an earlier recorded belief that it was unlucky to see the new moon without any money in your pocket. Opie and Tatem record instances back to 1507 (Opie and Tatem, p. 279). The penalties for breaching these customs vary. For an 88-year-old Ohio woman recorded in 1958, it meant the likely death of one of your family, but in most instances it brings bad luck for the duration of that moon. You will continue to have no money if you have none when you see the new moon. (This is the substance of the 1507 reference). This is in turn related to the equally well-documented custom of greeting the new moon, again with the intention of securing good luck for the remainder of the lunar cycle.

As spectacle-wearing has become more prevalent, this has been incorporated into the folklore concerning glass. In 1891 J.C. Atkinson was told that turning money in his pocket was useless because he always saw the moon through spectacles (quoted in Opie and Tatem, p. 280). A Warwickshire girl (born during the First World War) was told by her mother that ‘“Spectacles don’t count.”’ (Angela Hewins, Mary, After the Queen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 93). For one African-American informant in Illinois, however, the belief is not adapted to the spectacles, and your sight would weaken unless you took them off to see the new moon (Harry Middleton Hyatt, Folklore from Adams County Illinois, 2nd rev. edn ([New York?]: Memoirs of the Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1965). Both elements of the belief remain current, and are incorporating new developments.


I finished the assignment there, but there was more. I spoke to my dad on the ‘phone shortly after I had finished. He asked how the course was going and I told him about this assignment. I said that I had never heard of this belief before I drew out the archive card, and I had been somewhat surprised by the extent of its observation.

‘Oh,’ said my dad, ‘You should have asked your grandfather about that. He used to do that’.

I was stunned. His father, my grandfather, had died some 20 years earlier and I had no recollection of him mentioning anything of this kind. I had spoken to both my parents a few weeks earlier soliciting collectanea for another assignment, and I asked my dad why he had not mentioned this belief then.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘It’s just superstition.’

And with that I learned a number of important lessons. I continue to be uneasy about the word ‘superstition’: it implies a hierarchy of beliefs, sometimes used etically to distance the researcher from the subject but sometimes also used (as here) emically to assert the primacy of the informant’s beliefs.

But the word continues to be used, and it is negotiable. Explaining to an informant (who happened to be my dad) that I was interested in exactly these bits of undervalued (or secondary) belief and practice could both convince the informant that I was taking them seriously and encourage them to open up with what might otherwise have felt too trivial for consideration. It’s about taking apparently not very serious things very seriously indeed, and taking the people who believe or do them even more seriously. Otherwise you won’t find out anything.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Brahn boots

Implausibly, I am going to write here about clothing styles. This is not my area of expertise, and there are some who would say my ignorance of fashion goes far beyond a simple academic blindspot, but a small incident recently has pointed up a bigger theoretical issue.

Rapidity of cultural change has always been a matter of interest for folklorists. The foundation of the discipline was driven in part by a notion that as times changed the ancient past, which had lingered on into the present, was now being lost. Folklorists have moved away from such positions over the last century, but such notions still crop up among amateur enthusiasts (and not just there).

In some cases this shaped a romantic glorification of the lore being documented with the result that other lore that did not fit the required model was at best marginalised, at worst ignored completely. This was the notion of 'rescuing' lore from folk who did not understand its significance and therefore could not ensure its survival: it was an overstated argument, of course, predicated on an often wrong-headed interpretation of the material in question, and it served to remove the lore from the folk. The Edwardian folk song collectors, for example, had clear ideas of what they were looking for, and they not only did not collect the music hall songs their informants were singing alongside those traditional songs they also did not always note down what they were or that they were being sung: the result is a fantastic body of what the collectors regarded as 'folk songs' proper, but a much sketchier notion of what, how, when and where people actually sang.

This has been addressed by more recent scholars, who have identified both the newer material present in repertoires and the problems this causes in the actual practice of singing. As Ian Russell put it in his 1977 doctoral thesis 'Traditional Singing in West Sheffield, 1970-2' (which I consulted at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library):

'[A] singer who is exposed to vast amounts of new material quickly becomes unable to assimilate it. Secondly, such is the speed of "turn-over" in popular songs that singers do not have the time to absorb a new song. In practice, therefore, the availability of both recorded and broadcasted music in large quantities almost certainly produces a decline in the need for singing or playing an instrument even though it may increase the desire'.

What happens, then, with styles of dress? I am not particularly talking about either a notional 'traditional dress', assumed (probably wrongly) to be ancient and static until it is swept aside by the advent of a conveniently nasty modernity, nor of a rapid turnover of fashion, but of the ethnographic sense of dress conformity. How you dress may be the best way of putting it, because it would cover a season's fashion fads just as much as the rather slower-changing attitude towards formal wear. (I note that I come back, in my thinking here, to notions of folklore as often quite conservative in its formalising of relationships within a group).

This was prompted by going to the wedding of a very dear cousin a couple of weeks ago. For context, the bride and groom are around 40 and live in Surrey. Both work in insurance (a factor I think is important, as I will explain). The groom, his ushers and best men all wore uniform striking blue suits and brown shoes. During the speeches my uncle, the bride's father (who worked in the financial sector himself) made an oblique reference to his inability to agree 100% with the groom on style matters. On investigation I noticed that my uncle was wearing black shoes.

I also don't particularly like the look of brown shoes with strong blue suits. I would like to believe that that is a style preference all my own, but it is shaped, I know, by familiarity and expectation. The blue suit/brown shoes combination strikes me as a younger look of city/financial professionals, which may also provoke a certain reaction from me. It isn't a look I'd choose for myself, which may be an unexamined instinct I need to work through.

In the evening, sitting with another family member (81 years old, retired after a lifetime working in banking), I mentioned to my uncle that I was with him on the colour combination. This prompted an interesting exchange.

My uncle said that his attitude was shaped by an entire working life. When he had started working in the City in the late 1960s/early 1970s it had been made clear to him that he could wear a brown suit with brown shoes on a Saturday, but during the week he was expected to wear a dark suit with black shoes. My other relative, a decade or so older, agreed completely. There was an expectation imposed by work, yes, but one that shaped and trained their dress.

After they had agreed on this, my older relative laughed and said, 'Of course, it is a bit ... Brahn Boots!' This monologue by R.P. Weston and Bert Lee is most famously associated with Stanley Holloway, who recorded it in 1940. It concerns a cousin who turns up at a funeral in brown boots and is shunned by the family as a result. Only later do they realise it is because he has lent his black pair to someone who has no boots at all.

If brown shoes with blue suits becomes more established it may not only mean a change in dress trends (which might previously have been interpreted as the end of a particular dress tendency, although that's a perverse way of looking at changes in the way people actually live their lives): any such such change would be accompanied by a change in cultural representations. The less surprised people are at seeing brown shoes with formal wear the less likely they are to remember such pieces from an earlier period, or even to invoke them. I don't feel regretful at this, although some such pieces are better than others: I am interested to see what happens and how.

For completeness' sake, I should note that I was wearing a brown suit and brown shoes. But then, it was a Saturday.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Bee stings as a treatment for rheumatism

I'm interested in rheumatism, having seen relatives suffer badly from it, so I was interested to stumble accidentally across the following observations made in New Zealand in the 1920s/'30s:

'Speaking to an Auckland bee-keeper, he said that before keeping bees he had had rheumatics badly for many years. When he started keeping bees he got stung by them a great deal, and this soon appeared to have cured his rheumatics. He had lost it entirely.'

The source is Crook Frightfulness, by 'a Victim' (Birmingham: J.G. Hammond, n.d.), p.63. The book is a rather strange little memoir by a former rent collector who became convinced that he was being pursued globally by villains employing ventriloquism (amongst other things) to menace him. The less frenzied tone of offhand remarks like this one - exactly the sort of folkloric item one picks up in casual conversation - suggests they are rather more reliably related than all of his stories of corner-of-the-mouth insults.

A quick online search now reveals that there is some scientific literature on the subject, pointing to proper investigation of folk remedies. (A very brief scan suggests the scientific jury is still out, at best, but that might also highlight the attractiveness of the treatment as a folk remedy).

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Twitter and Folklore (Part 1)

Anyone who has ever sat with me at folklore events will know that I spend a lot of my time fretting about folklore’s status as a discipline in Britain.

Describing it even as ‘marginal’ in academia might be an overstatement. Most of the interest in our subject currently comes from amateurs. There is no academic funding in England and the situation in Scotland, although better, is hardly glowing. Its disciplinary status is almost invisible through this marginalisation.

I have inclined towards a certain apocalyptic tone when discussing the state of affairs but this is the reality of the situation and we have to deal with it. There is no place for academic folklorists to be sniffy about amateur research or scholarship. That is, thankfully, rare enough anyhow, not least because so much of the history of our discipline was shaped by amateur enthusiasts.

I have always argued that academically trained folklorists can and should usefully think about how they might help develop and strengthen such amateur research. If the majority of people actively engaged in folklore research at present are outside academia (certainly true in England), those with academic training can offer skills and expertise to help amateur researchers bring their work forward.

Because, let’s be blunt: scholarship is not the exclusive preserve of academics, no matter what some academics might think or hope. A serious scholarly approach is available to all.

Some proselytising and encouragement will be necessary, but so much amateur research is already going on that that hardly seems the most urgent task. Rather, I think, we should be encouraging more cautious and critical thinking among amateur researchers.

Similar remarks have begun pretty much every contribution I’ve made on the responsibilities of academic folklorists in Britain over the last 10 years or so. Whatever follows is dependent on those ideas.

But I’m musing out loud on this now because of the enormous success of the Twitter hashtag #FolkloreThursday. It’s a clear indication of the widespread interest in folklore. This is obviously A Good Thing, but it is not without its problems. A number of folklorists have grumbled quietly about the lack of attribution of material on the hashtag: there does seem to be a bias towards visual material (as one might expect, given the textual limitations of Twitter), and the source of the images presented is not always identified.

Non-visual material, too, is often presented in a universalising, non-specific way. Even if universalising is not the intention it may be a by-product of the presentation. To take an example unfairly, I today read the unsourced claim that ‘Cattle were made to leap over fires to prevent disease & to protect against the fairies who might sour their milk’. Who did this – farmers, landlords, farm labourers? Where – was it regionally specific? When did this happen
now, previously, a long time before the claim was written down or contemporaneously with it? Who documented it – someone close to events geographically and temporally, or someone at a greater social, linguistic and time remove? Who interpreted it – the person who did it or the person who wrote it down?

#FolkloreThursday has set me thinking about a huge range of subjects, and it’s clear that one post isn’t going to work for them all, so I will come back to this again. For now, though, I want to emphasise the need for concreteness. Folklore is what people do, think and say, informally and collectively. There’s a syncretic aspect to it, certainly
– the folk are adaptive and creative but it isn’t simply an agglomeration of abstract or more-or-less whimsical concepts. Folklore isn’t all mystical or supernatural, although that seems to form a large part of the Twitter material.

I noted on Twitter a couple of weeks ago that the hashtag was making me even more inclined to a performance-related ethnography than I already was. More than that it’s pushing me to an ever-greater insistence on the place of the tradition-bearers themselves in folklore, on seeing folklore in its practice. That's been on my mind over the last few days since the death of that fine scholar William A. ‘Bert’ Wilson. He wrote extensively and well on the folklore of his Mormon background, dealing sensitively with how much is missed by etic researchers without blinding himself to the problems confronting the emic investigator. Having fallen in love and married while a missionary in Finland he also wrote widely on the development of Finnish folkloristics and its relation to questions of nationalism.

William A. Wilson
Browsing through his wonderful 2006 collection of essays The Marrow of Human Experience (available online courtesy of Utah State University's Digital Commons) I came across an insistence on the place of the folk in folklore that bears repeating in this discussion.

Wilson recounted an experience at a faculty social event where, after an initial confusion over his work as a folklorist, he observed the sharing and discussion of legends. He made his point elegantly and graciously to his colleagues, and then to his readers:

‘More than almost any other subject, folklore must be experienced directly in actual life, as I experienced these narratives, to be properly understood. In twenty years of teaching, I have discovered that my students can listen to my lectures, can read assigned books and essays on the subject, and can still leave the course not understanding folklore unless they have encountered it in the actual settings in which it is performed.’ (p.83)

Wilson (interestingly, given his so close identification with a specific religious grouping) saw folklore’s development along group transmission lines as a secondary characteristic: ‘I am convinced that we generate and transmit folklore not because we belong to a particular nation or to a particular group – not because we are westerners, loggers, Catholics, or Finns – but because we are human beings dealing with recurring human problems in traditional human ways.’ (p.20)

For this, of course, you need to examine what these recurring human problems are. You need to look at the context of practice. I’ll come back in a later post to the question of the material being circulated, but what I often feel is lacking from the #FolkloreThursday material is people, the people doing and saying these things. There’s no need to exoticise folklore, or look only for the mystical and supernatural: people do interesting stuff all the time.

As an example I’ll finish with something that came up during a Twitter conversation yesterday. The wonderful collection had tweeted the following skipping rhyme recorded from Ballyshannon:

Up the long ladder

And down the short rope

To hell with King William

And god bless the Pope.

To which an Irish historian responded that she had skipped to the song:

Vote vote vote for de Valera.

In the discussion that followed she confirmed this was sung to the tune of George Root’s ‘Tramp Tramp Tramp’ [the boys are marching], although she didn’t know the song by name. I mentioned that is recorded as being used for election songs in England, often sung by gangs of locally recruited youth and so liable to remain in circulation as a children’s song. (It’s also noted in association with strike songs, particularly a very famous one relating to the 1883 Great Docks Strike, but that’s probably a different discussion). At this point one of the historian’s followers announced that his father, when a young boy, had sung it campaigning for Leslie Hore-Belisha in Devonport in the 1930s.

This is the sort of thing that passes into oral traditional circulation although its background may quickly be lost. Being able to document actual use and practice is worthwhile in and of itself and may also be able to fill out a broader record. It’s fun and it’s valuable, and that's where folklore research should be aiming.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Under the Clock

Recently I read Robert Fraser’s biography of the poet David Gascoyne. It isn’t a terribly satisfactory book, for reasons related to Surrealism and poetry rather than to folklore. Fraser’s other work, however, is directly connected to folklore – he has written extensively on James Frazer and The Golden Bough, and one of my more interesting discoveries in the Gascoyne book was that Enitharmon, Gascoyne’s later publisher, was founded by Alan Clodd, grandson of the hugely important Folklore Society President Edward Clodd – so I might well find myself coming back to him. (I have tried to avoid J.G. Frazer as far as possible but he keeps cropping up: he might ultimately prove to be unavoidable).

What did catch my attention as a folklorist was a passing reference in Chapter 29, dealing with Gascoyne’s period of hospitalisation in Whitecroft Hospital, also known as the Isle of Wight Mental Hospital or the Isle of Wight County Asylum. Construction on Whitecroft began in 1894. Like other mental hospitals of the period its outbuildings centred on a clock-/watchtower. The phrase that caught my attention was Fraser’s comment that ‘The local expression for admission to this monument to Victorian philanthropy, or for simply losing one’s mind, was to go “under the clock”’ (p.352).

Fraser cites no source for this statement, and it sounds (particularly given the tenor of the rest of the book) like an unattributed reference from a local history pamphlet. The hospital closed in 1992, and I wondered how far (if at all) the phrase remained in current usage. I’ve noted previously how older usages hang on (and die out), and I was curious about this one.

A brief and unsystematic look online revealed that the phrase is still in use locally on the Isle of Wight, but how widespread that is remains to be seen. One reason I was interested was because I was in the process of moving to the Island myself: as if I hadn’t had enough going on in my life lately I was moving house. This may also have triggered my interest in the phrase (and concept) of being ‘under the clock’. We arrived about a month ago, and I am slowly beginning to get my eye and ear in. I’m hoping that the move will see me easing gently back into fieldwork after the disruptions of the last two years.

One other area of interest has already begun to make itself apparent. Whitecroft Hospital has now been converted into accommodation, with Fraser noting tartly that the developers’ ‘glossy introductory brochure makes no references to its original function as a mental institution’. Maybe not, but one should never underestimate the capacity to generate legends of place, particularly around former hospital sites.

A 2014 tourist article by Jo Macaulay noted Whitecroft as ‘another huge haunted site’, where ‘former inmates are thought to inhabit its walls, screaming in mental or physical pain’. She remarked that ‘Perhaps unsurprisingly the flats are not selling particularly well and the development has had a few starts and stops in the past ten years’.

Of course one might expect a proliferation of such stories around defunct hospital sites, and there is evident enthusiasm for them across the Island. The site of the former Chest Hospital (now the car park for Ventnor Botanic Garden) is another site regularly identified as haunted. Macaulay, in passing, also manages to highlight how local publications become part of legend negotiation. Pointing to local author Gay Baldwin’s series of books on the Island’s ghosts, begun in the 1970s, Macaulay writes that ‘Everyone knew the old stories that had been passed down by oral tradition, but nobody laid claim to having seen a ghost in print until Gay started to prompt them. But once the gates were open, stories began to flood in …’ Macaulay used Baldwin’s books as the basis for her own tourist piece.

It began as a moment of curiosity and minor irritation at an unsourced comment. That's how research starts.

Friday, 1 January 2016

A Return

Over 18 months ago I posted a short piece announcing my intention of resuming this blog on a more regular basis again. I outlined some ideas for continuing the blog, looking to overcome a few of the impasses I had reached with it in the previous period.

There’s nothing like foresight.

At the time of writing that piece I was at the beginning of a known medical situation that I expected would see me out of action for a month. As it happened, complications left me hospitalised for several months. After discharge I continued to have ongoing serious medical problems. I am definitely on the mend at long last, but I have been out of action for over a year and am even now still not 100 per cent. I am expected to be back to full health before too long, but I am still in the process of recovery.

The physical impact is easy to assess. I have not been able to return to fieldwork yet, and have only been gingerly easing myself back into work more generally.

The mental impact is harder to gauge. My intellectual stamina and concentration levels are still diminished. For a long period I avoided attempting to engage with theoretical questions, even reading articles, because I wasn’t really up to it. That is, happily, changing now, but I am still not back to my best. (I have always had unreasonably high expectations of my ability to engage with arguments, however, regarding this as a proper part of any engagement with a discipline and its theory).

I am, though, now beginning slowly to get back into thinking about folklore. Earlier in the year Professor James Grayson, the current President of the Folklore Society, was kind enough to read a version of a paper of mine at the Society’s AGM Conference on ‘Folklore Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’. An earlier version of the paper can be found here. I can hardly claim to have been actively involved in the AGM conference but I wanted to be present somehow: the future of folklore (and basing that future on the history of the discipline) was definitely always going to be something I wanted to throw myself back into when I could. 

James Grayson
More recently I made it to (and through) the Folklore Society’s 2015 Katharine Briggs lecture, given this year by that estimable scholar Julia Bishop. I confess to bias – Julia was one of my tutors on the folklore MA at Sheffield, and she’s one of the most inspiring teachers I’ve ever been privileged to study with – but it was also an excellent overview of a century of collecting children’s lore. Hearing a lecture on research outside my usual areas of interest may have made it easier for me to manage, but it also gently set me thinking again about more general theoretical questions. I’m starting again to read on folklore, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to start writing about some of these things again before too long.

Julia Bishop
It wears me out, but it’s what I want to do. It’s nice to be back, even tentatively. Thanks for bearing with me. See you again soon. Happy New Year.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

The 1st of May is garland day ...

I took a little break from this blog because I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it.

I certainly haven’t stopped investigating and researching folklore. A couple of articles have been published since I last posted here. I’ve also managed to carry on giving talks, papers and lectures in various different arenas. I’ve revisited cannibalism at sea for SELFS, I gave a lunchtime talk on ghosts at the Museum of English Rural Life, I went back to class readings of folksong for a Folklore Society conference, and I gave two guest lectures on ghost belief at the University of Tartu.

On reflection, I’m still not entirely sure what to do with the blog, but that may be about the problems of being a folklore scholar in England rather than my scholarly or folkloristic pursuits. So when better than May Day to announce that I’m going to bumble on? (The picture was taken on May Day last year in Lyric Square, Hammersmith).

I’ll continue to use this as a forum for airing the beginnings of ideas and snippets of collectanea, part of my working notebook towards more realised work in journals and lectures.

In that spirit I’ll note here a rhyme I overheard from two children (c.7) on a train from Waterloo heading to the Folklore Society conference (11/04/14). I remembered the first part of the rhyme from my own childhood, but don’t recall having heard the second part:

Made you look, made you stare
Made you lose your underwear.
Underwear, I don’t care
I can buy another pair.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Dr Buck Ruxton

The last of my classes at the City Lit folklore summer school on Saturday dealt with contemporary folklore. I was highly delighted when one of the students, Carol, started thinking about the new development of songs.

It occurred to her, she said, because her grandmother had been treated by Dr Buck Ruxton. Ruxton, an Indian-born GP in Manchester, murdered his wife and housemaid in 1935. He was subsequently arrested and executed for the murders.

The case was extremely high profile. As with the Maria Marten Red Barn murder of the previous century there seems to have been a theatrical dramatisation of the crime. As also happened with the Red Barn murder, Ruxton's crime also prompted a folkloric response. Across the country we find records of people singing, to the tune Red Sails in the Sunset:

Red stains on the carpet,
Red stains on the knife
Oh Dr Buck Ruxton
You murdered your wife.

I was pleased to find someone who remembered the song from within her family, but even better was the family legend that accompanied it. According to family legend, Ruxton treated Carol's grandmother on the very day that he had dismembered the corpses of his victims. He arrived at the patient's bedside, it was reported, with a cut on his hand, which he claimed he had done on a tin can.

It's a wonderful story. I have some doubts about its veracity, because there are many records of earlier criminals being used to scare children (Jack the Ripper turns up as an East London bogeyman in the early part of the 20th century, for example). Whether true or not, it's exactly how folklore tradition works with details of crimes. Perhaps the most satisfying part of the event in class was that a younger student didn't recognise the name, so Carol got to relate the whole story to her. Folklore in action!

Saturday, 6 July 2013

SIEF Congress and questions confronting fieldworkers

I'm just back from Tartu, where I had a brilliant and exhausting time at the SIEF Congress. (I took this picture of the university building on my 'phone because I was so overwhelmed by its scale and elegance).
 I'd had to miss the 2011 SIEF Congress in Lisbon because I was busy writing up my thesis. The last one I'd attended was Derry in 2008, so it was very nice to meet up again with some old friends and admired colleagues I hadn't seen since then: one or two even remembered me. I was particularly happy to run into Barbro Klein, whom I had only met once before, at an Anglo-Scottish Young Folklorists Conference in Edinburgh in 2005. (The picture below was taken at that event by Gunnella Þorgeirsdóttir).

One reason the Congress was so exhausting was the sheer volume of papers and discussion. I couldn't possibly summarise the event as a whole, but I found one recurring topic of discussion particularly interesting. It's possible I identified it because it's always been of interest to me, but it cropped up in a number of panels and sessions.

It was first flagged in a panel on archives and their use. Discussing making archive material available to a broader public, Kelly Fitzgerald of University College Dublin raised a question that was left hanging somewhat: what are the implications of this for fieldworkers? She was questioning above all what this meant for the training of future fieldworkers. I found this highly thought-provoking: are we in danger of trying to structure incoming field collections, and thus shaping field collection itself, in line with future output? How are archives to deal with the slightly random and unpredictable character of fieldwork? How are fieldworkers to deal with it?

This was followed a day later by a stimulating panel discussion on the role and responsibilities of the fieldworker in politically controversial and ethically contested situations. John Helsloot had given a brilliant opening presentation dealing with the concerns raised by Zwarte Piet (see, for example, the Zwarte Piet is Racisme campaign). Michael Herzfeld had contributed some interesting comments on the responsibility of the fieldworker both to express disagreement with participants and to engage politically on their behalf where necessary.

It was disappointing, then, to find that position expressed in a rather more conservative way in Michael Herzfeld's subsequent keynote address. Herzfeld's warning against prostration before arguments alleging evolutionary inevitability ('things are changing and there's nothing you can do about it') is sound enough, and is a useful corrective to a progressive positivism that was certainly voiced during the Congress, but in the absence of an articulated alternative there is a danger that this just leads us back to an uncritical nostalgia for what already exists. Some speakers in the floor discussion highlighted this in relation to the examples he had advanced.

The critical response brought out, too, that this nostalgia had led to a misreading of the evidence. Where Herzfeld read the lack of sociability with other customers in chain coffee shops as a destruction of social exchange, other speakers pointed to it as demonstrating new forms of social interaction. People on their mobiles and using social media on their laptops aren't failing to be sociable just because they're not being sociable with the staff and other customers of the coffee shop they're using as a venue. That may not be ideal, or even to be celebrated, but ethnologists, folklorists and anthropologists have a duty to understand how such new forms of social interaction work for our informants and participants. Otherwise any political engagement on their behalf is likely to be misjudged.

These are not easy questions, and I enjoyed the opportunity to think about them in the company of some really excellent scholars. I hope that I can bring them to bear in some useful way on my own work.