Sunday, 31 May 2009

Research into Contemporary Belief in Ghosts

My current research project, conducted at the University of Hertfordshire, is into contemporary belief in ghosts in post-war England.

All of the post-war opinion polls and surveys suggest that belief in ghosts has been steadily on the rise over the last 60 years. What might this mean? Does it mean that more people believe in ghosts? Or that they are more prepared to say so? One question that goes unasked is what people actually mean when they say 'ghost'. Might the increase in stated belief mean a change in popular definitions?

Accordingly, I've begun my research with some simple (but big) questions. What do people mean when they say 'ghost'? How is this understanding reflected (or not) in their beliefs? Are the things people believe the same as the stories they tell? What is the relationship between belief or non-belief and experience? How do these beliefs fit into other, maybe more orthodox, beliefs?

Quite apart from library research, these questions clearly demanded fieldwork amongst believers and non-believers. I've been conducting interviews, and also distributing a questionnaire. The plan is to continue this field research early into 2010, and then spend the majority of next year working through my findings.

My research is primarily into the situation here in England. Because of the University location, I'm concentrating to some extent on Hertfordshire. However, this is by no means a restricted or parochial survey - there have been huge demographic shifts in the post-war period, and I am interested in the ways in which ghost beliefs may reflect changing cultural influences. As such, I'm more than happy to consider broad comparative international material.

So, within those parameters, I am looking for participants and informants. The questionnaire is available to download below. and it can be returned to me electronically. I'm interested in as broad a range of responses as possible, from believers and non-believers alike. I'm also looking to identify possible informants for interview. This is more restricted geographically than the questionnaires, obviously, but I am still rolling out the interview programme and still looking for participants.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Local names (SE1)

I used to take my boys to play football up at - well, you'd know it as Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, but we all call it Bedlam Park.

I noted this from Mrs Barbara Jeffery in 1998. Mrs Jeffery was approaching retirement at that time, and had lived all her life in and around south east London. The park she was talking about now houses the Imperial War Museum, in a building purpose-built as the Bethlehem Mental Hospital in 1815. The last patient moved out in 1930, and Lord Rothermere bought the site, donating it to the London County Council as a tribute to his mother, Geraldine Mary Harmsworth. Mrs Jeffery was taking her sons to the park in the early 1970s, but her usage of the place-name remained current at the time of collection.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Keith Summers

As the 4th annual festival in his name comes to a close, it might be a good time to acknowledge here the life and work of Keith Summers, who died 5 years ago. Other people knew him better, so I don't just want to rehash their obituaries or memories, which are better off being read in full on the Musical Traditions site (obituary and memorial page). I just want to pay tribute to a thoughtful and intelligent fieldworker.

Keith was very much in the finest traditions of amateur collectors. He'd fallen in love with traditional music, and began making recordings in the late 1960s. He found singing traditions still alive, and documented them enthusiastically. He travelled up to East Suffolk from his Essex home, and made a series of invaluable recordings. These were released commercially: highlights featured on Topic's Voice of the People CD set, and the recordings are now lodged at the National Sound Archive. He wrote sensitively about both the traditions he found there, and his own place in recording them, in his monograph 'Sing, Say or Pay!', which is the best introduction to his musical voyage of discovery.
Keith was never restrictive in his musical tastes: he recorded extensively in County Fermanagh, and was enthusiastic and passionate about all forms of traditional music. The breadth of his taste was a marker for the range of Musical Traditions magazine.
What distinguished him as a fieldworker - he disliked 'collector', preferring 'recorder of traditional music' - was his instinctive realisation that this music reflected a social life. As a sociable fellow, he was at his ease in situations where people shared company and music. People liked being around him, and musicians recognised that not only was he good company, he knew what he was hearing, too. It's a mark of the man that he was able to get practical jokes out of some notoriously prickly characters.
His sociability may have led to him being underestimated, but he was sincere and enthusiastic. I've few proud moments as a singer, but hearing Keith call me a 'good old boy' after a song is one of the proudest. He could be hilariously, obscenely, funny. I'd introduced myself because my Dad was born in his home town, Southend. When he discovered which pub my Dad was born in, Keith waved his arms in horror, saying 'Fuck me that's a rough pub', all in one breath. When he found that I was a West Ham fan he even became rude (he was a loyal Southend fan). I once heard Ken Hall introduce Keith at the Musical Traditions club in Fitzrovia with the words 'God help us, anything could happen'. It did. Keith sang 'Always the Bridesmaid' (one of his specialties) and (as ever) brought the house down. It wasn't affected: singing was a genuinely social event. He also remains the only person I've ever heard in a folk club sing 'Davy Crockett' (with missing lines completed by Doc Rowe); it illustrated a point about Southend's Saturday morning cinema clubs, and deep-sea fishing. Or maybe it was illustrated by them. It certainly said a great deal.
I didn't get a chance to know him well, but I knew and trusted his judgement, just as the musicians he recorded did. He valued them, and his recordings show that. We should value him for that.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

After the Ball Parody

An earlier post about a parody of a popular song brought in a number of responses. Gavin Atkin (now of Marden, Kent) sent me this one, which he remembers his father singing:

After the ball was over
She lay on the sofa and sighed
Put her false teeth in salt water
And took out her lovely glass eye
Propped up her leg in the corner
And hung up her wig on the door
And the rest of her went to by-byes
After the ball!

I've also been told that this was current in Herts/Cambridgeshire in the late 1970s/early 1980s. (I'll post the variant if I can get it taken down accurately).

I never tire of these parodies, and I also never tire of body-part songs, so expect more (and feel free to send me more).

Friday, 1 May 2009

May Day, 1954, Ashford, Kent

In Ashford, Kent, the garland-carrying is less ostentatious. A correspondent writes on May Day, 1954:

'This morning three girls (looking the Marsh or Gipsy type) came to the door with a pole held between two girls with a thick navy cloth draped over it. - "Would you like to see the garland?"

'I was busy and refused. We have only been here three years, and it was only when they had gone that I remembered that it was May Day. I went to our neighbour next door and asked if it was a local custom. She said that in the old days and up to the last war children brought these wreaths or garlands to the door on May morning always covered. In answer to the question you lift the curtain and criticise the garland - saying if it is better or worse than the others you have seen; and if it is up to standard you reward with a copper or two.'

Iona and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (St Albans: Paladin, 1977; first pub. 1959), p. 283

My mother grew up in Ashford, but does not recall this custom.