Monday, 26 October 2009

Eyam's plague

I'm becoming increasingly interested in weather vanes as an indicator of local identity. This delightful rat is in Eyam in Derbyshire. Eyam is rather a lovely village, and its local history attractions are very much geared to the story of the plague outbreak of 1665-6.
I'm deeply fascinated by folklore about rats, so I couldn't resist this. What's perhaps most striking about it is that, according to the local legend, the plague didn't arrive in Eyam with an influx of rats. A local tailor is supposed to have received a parcel of cloth infested with fleas carrying the disease.
Even such a rattophilic folklorist as I am can hardly feel that the rats are getting a bad press out of this, though. One folk indicator of plague outbreaks is that the rats start dying. Indeed, to go back to an unrelated post, Tom Dudley died of the plague after removing the corpses of five recently-dead rats from the water closet of his business premises behind Darling Harbour in Sydney.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Roud 166

On 1st July this year the Daily Mirror reported that Aurica Cosmescu had been hospitalised in Brasov, Romania, following a shooting accident. She was wearing a black and white jacket when she was shot by a man hunting magpies.
This potentially tragic accident is a striking echo of the traditional song 'Polly (or Molly) Vaughn (Bawn)', number 166 in Steve Roud's Folksong Index. In the song the incident is usually blamed on poor light or weather conditions. Polly pulls her apron over her, sometimes to keep off the rain. Her lover is out hunting and shoots her, believing her to be a swan. In Harry Cox's charming Norfolk phrase, 'He shot his own truelove in the room of a swan'. The lover is appalled at what he has done. His relatives tell him not to run away but to stand trial, as no punishment will follow for his terrible mistake. Here's a version recorded in 1952 in Arkansas that tells the story up to this point.
Older versions of the song from the British Isles don't stop there. When the lover gets to court, Polly's ghost intercedes on his behalf. She appears and tells the court that this was an accident. This is a nice embodiment of the belief that those who have died untimely deaths are more likely to become ghosts, and will intervene to finish some unresolved business before they can rest.
I've just been learning Harry Cox's fine version of this song, 'The Fowler', and will be singing it at the Spectres at the Feast event in a couple of weeks.

Saturday, 3 October 2009


I've long been intrigued by this graffito, which has stood for some years in Wild Court, WC2. The photo was taken in 2006, but it's still there. And I still don't know what it means.