Thursday, 23 December 2010

Season's Greetings and a Horse Disguise

I'm now deep in the throes of writing my thesis, and unable to get away from ghosts no matter how hard I try. I even received a Christmas card this morning illustrating the M.R. James story 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad'. The card's manufacturer insists that 'Ghost stories are a tradition at Christmas'. This is true enough, and there's plenty of scope for research into traditions of telling literary ghost stories for seasonal entertainment, but I've put any other research projects on hold until I'm done with this thesis.
I'm looking forward to an end to this odd year, and looking forward to the promise of a new one. I can't think of a better way of marking the season than with a photo of a splendid winter house-visiting custom from East Kent, the Hooden Horse. This picture is of the St Nicholas at Wade horse. I had a rare chance to photograph them out of season (and away from their home turf) on 29 March 2008 when they performed at the Kent Gathering of Traditional Music in Frittenden. (Along with their history, Ben Jones's fine website on hoodening also has details of the script they used that day). It was a treat, and the thought of it cheers me up for the new year.
All the best for Christmas and the New Year

Friday, 5 November 2010

Remember, remember ...

Sitting at my desk I'm becoming aware of a rise in noise levels now it's got dark and the rain's eased up. A combination of Bonfire Night and Diwali means it may be about to get too noisy to carry on working.
A Leeds informant, in his early 40s, was telling me recently about their favourite Bonfire Night prank as children. They would steal the front-gates from local houses to use on their bonfires.
The theft provided an additional source of entertainment. A local man navigated his way back from the pub by working his way along the front hedges, singing all the while. There would be a sudden lull in his singing when he came to a gate that wasn't there to support him any more, and he would fall unceremoniously into a neighbour's garden.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Halloween: Trick or Contemporary Legend

Halloween in the UK this year has seen a higher degree of debate about the history and transmission of the festival than I can recall from previous years. In particular there's been an attempt to trace its transatlantic migrations more accurately than the knee-jerk 'it's an American festival' of some of the tabloids.
I'm also struck by the extent to which some older local formulations seem to be reappearing in discussions of the chaos around Halloween. In a report on home repairs after Halloween pranks, Santander General Insurance refer to the damage done during 'mischief week'. (They reckon nearly a quarter of British households have experienced damage, which may be why my local council is enforcing a ban on selling flour and eggs to under-18s for the duration).
But, of course, the real meaning of Halloween is the Contemporary Legend ... I'm delighted to see a return of the 'doctored Halloween treat' story, with this report that LA County Police are warning parents of an increasing number of marijuana-laced treats. (This is a difficult legend, because of the hideous ostension attached to it historically).
In the story linked to here, I particularly like the vagueness about the products themselves. LA County Director Public Health Jonathan Fielding has apparently said they are a risk 'because of the lack of information regarding their manufacture', while the story recommends detecting them 'by smell'.
The real pointer to the legendary character of this report, though, comes in this succinct statement: 'Although the Sheriff's Department has never received a report of laced Halloween treats being distributed, it is nevertheless warning parents about this new potential threat.' You have been warned.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Folklore in the news means cold on the way

The early arrival of eight Bewick's Swans (Cygnus columbianus) in Gloucestershire has, surprisingly, made the national press. The reports aren't about how attractive these small swans are. Rather, they focus on the distances they travel. 'Prone to ceaseless wanderlust', in the words of one ornithologist, Bewick's Swans fly some 2,500 miles from Russia/Siberia to overwinter in Britain.
More particularly, the press are interested in the date of their arrival. These birds have arrived a couple of weeks earlier than last year's migrants, and journalists have started reaching for Folklore. This, fairly standard version, was in the Telegraph: 'According to folklore, their early arrival signals the start of a long, harsh winter'. This makes a sort of sense, as Bewick's Swans fly south-ish to get away from Arctic winters, and early movement might indicate an early worsening of the weather behind them.
Looking at Richard Inwards's 1893 collection Weather Lore: A Collection of Proverbs, Sayings & Rules Concerning the Weather (repr. London: Senate, 1994), turns up a definite association of swans with bad weather. Inwards notes a Scottish belief that 'When the white swan visits the Orkneys, expect a continued severe winter' (p. 134). More generally, their flight is associated with rain or hurricanes. The rain connection seems quite venerable: Inwards quotes Dryden's translation of Vergil:
The swans that sail along the silvery flood,
And dive with stretching necks to search their food,
Then lave their backs with sprinkling dews in vain,
And stem the stream to meet the promised rain

They're a lovely sight, but it might be time to wrap up warm.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Gilda O'Neill

I'm shocked to learn of the sudden death of Gilda O'Neill at the age of just 59. I first came across her work because of an interest in hop-picking. Her oral history of East London women hop-pickers, Pull No More Bines: Hop-Picking: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life (London: Women's Press, 1990) was a brilliant study. It combined a sympathetic ear with an acute eye. She successfully achieved the balance of writing in an informed and objective way about something she also remembered experiencing. (It's still in print, now published under the much less evocative title Lost Voices).
She tried to bring serious thought about history to an audience that might not have had much opportunity for serious study. Her books were accessibly written, and focused on the East End working class life she had grown up with. They are rich with the minutiae of folklore and history. Her book about women's socialising A Night Out with the Girls (London: Women's Press, 1993) seems less well known than her big histories, but I remember being struck by its sheer pleasure at the social events it was examining, and the thoughtful points it made about them along the way. I haven't read any of her novels, but everything I've heard about them suggests she brought the same determined combination of accuracy and accessibility to that genre too.
Having benefited from a return to education as a mature student, she worked hard to inspire people from the same background as her to consider its possibilities. The photo shows her (right) talking with Maggie Semple at a National Reading Week event in 2008. Given this government's likely curtailment of adult education opportunities, her enthusiastic contribution on this front deserves mention.
Her accounts of working class life in the East End sought to celebrate the lives of ordinary people, and to use their history as a prism through which to view current events. She leaves a valuable body of work that remains a pleasure to explore.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Honouring the Dead - Officially and Unofficially

At the Folklore Society AGM and Conference in March, my eye was caught by some trees in the staff car park at Leeds Trinity and All Saints University College. They were decorated with ribbons and flowers - the usual markers of vernacular commemorations of the dead. On closer investigation, it emerged that all of the trees also bore an official, manufactured, plaque. These were an official dedication to a deceased member of staff from the College itself. I do not know which came first, the official or the unofficial celebration, but it was a striking example of vernacular custom and practice being recognised and adopted officially.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Recalled to Life

This weekend sees the latest in the Folklore Society's Legend and Tradition weekends. These are highly successful themed weekends, taking place outside of academic venues and (mostly) outside London. Having participated at last year's event on The Sea I can confirm that they are great fun.

This year's, unusually, is in London, but this was decided by the possibility of a magnificent venue. For where better than Brompton Cemetery to hold a weekend on Death in Legend and Tradition? The papers are the usual engagingly eclectic mix of entertainment and information. Some will be academic, and some won't be, which is one of the triumphs of the legend weekend format.

I'm looking forward to catching up with some old and new friends. The speakers include Scott Wood of the always-interesting South East London Folklore Society, Alan Murdie of the Ghost Club, Andrew Bennett of the Folklore Society etc etc. I'm looking forward to catching up with Helen Frisby, who is talking about English Folk Funerals: she and I have been corresponding through the FLS News on the subject of corpse-touching.

It'll be nice, too, to meet up once more with that very fine storyteller Pete Castle. I've expressed ambivalence about storytelling before, but I really enjoyed the week I spent listening to Pete at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2007. (The photo opposite is of Pete singing 'Hopping Down in Kent' at the opening ceremony of the Festival). It was also a great pleasure to hear the appreciation of punters and technicians alike for his storytelling. One sound engineer said his perfect afternoon would be sitting with a cool beer listening to Pete tell stories.

Of course my trip to the cemetery is also about my ongoing doctoral research, but I'm delighted to find that I still just enjoy the subject for its own sake. In part, too, I'm using this weekend to ease me back into a social world of folkloric research after the traumatic disruption of the last few months. In the cheesiest of Victorian anthropological manners, Death may ease my passage back into life.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Ate Doornbosch

I am sorry to learn, belatedly, that Ate Doornbosch (right, photographed in 2005) died last month at the age of 84.

As ever, I won't repeat the work of the obituarists. There is a nice Dutch tribute by Louis Peter Grijp, who had written well about Doornbosch in the book Blues en Balladen: Alan Lomax en Ate Doornbosch, twee muzikale veldwerkers. Ken Hunt wrote a fine obituary (in English) in The Independent. Dutch commentators have noted that the Independent piece was some way ahead of the Dutch press, which barely marked his passing.

I am pleased that his death has been noted. A lot of Dutch-language ethnography and folklore remains largely unknown because it is published in a minority language, (I was surprised to find that J. G. Frazer had made this complaint in 1934), but there is nothing negligible about Doornbosch's work.

In the field, building on the work of his colleague Will Scheepers, Doornbosch recorded around 5,000 folk song items. (Scheepers herself had recorded around 2,000). For any collector this would represent a substantial achievement. For a collector working in the second half of the twentieth century, in a country that appears to disregard its folksong heritage even more than the English, this is worthy of great admiration. Doornbosch began broadcasting a weekly radio programme, Onder de groene linde (Under the Green Lindens), in 1957. It ran for 1,316 episodes, before it was finally wound up in 1993.

Doornbosch played his field recordings on the show. This helped fuel the Dutch folk revival of the early 1970s, but it also generated wider attention from other tradition-bearers. As with the BBC's broadcasts of the 1950s, Doornbosch received correspondence from listeners who had heard a song and knew something similar, and would he be interested ... He was, and thus other singers were documented.

Aside from the ongoing spread of his research in this way, it meant that his collection focused on domestic singers, many of them women who were at home in the afternoons when his show was on. This led to a focus on rather different singing traditions than the largely male pub-singing events that dominated English fieldwork in the years immediately after the war.

Doornbosch's chief interest was narrative songs. It sometimes seems odd that he overlooked occupational song in his fieldwork, given his sympathetic interest in the working lives of singers. However, his focus on narrative songs and ballads gives his collection real depth in this area.

He was rather poorly served by CD releases of his field recordings for a long time, although there were some magnificent songbooks. The lack of available recordings was rectified in 2008 with the release of the boxset Onder de groene linde (left). The 9 CDs contained 163 of his and Scheepers' recordings. The songs were fully transcribed and translated in the handsome book that went with the set, while a DVD in the package contained two television documentaries on Doornbosch, and the last broadcast of the radio show.

His well-documented collection is also an integral part of the Dutch Folksong Database hosted by the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam. Here you will find song texts, tune transcriptions, and also sound recordings. Not everyone enjoys listening to field recordings, but there are some magical gems in his collection. Just to give an idea, try this performance of 'Jan Alberts stond op en die zong er een lied' by Douwe Johannes Booi. I picked it more or less at random: it's a version of 'Heer Halewijn' (Child 4), which was one of Doornbosch's favourite songs. (Georgina Boyes has suggested that much of A. L. Lloyd's writing on 'The Outlandish Knight' was taken wholesale, and without attribution, from Doornbosch). There's more like that throughout his collection.

I want to stress the qualities of the performances he documented because there's been a tendency to treat them as somehow secondary to the significance of his ethnographic research. Some Dutch scholars I spoke to were sceptical, ahead of the CD release, that domestic recordings of elderly singers would find an appreciative audience. Ate Doornbosch's exhaustive researches in some areas of Dutch song have informed our thinking about transmission and geographical spread of material, certainly, but they have also documented something truly wonderful in folk life.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Research into Folkloric Subjects Continues, but ...

These are odd times for an English folklorist looking at academia. Marginal disciplines are expendable as far as university financing goes (a situation already apparent under the last administration, but approaching apocalyptic levels under the present one). Folklore, which has never had a secure standing in English universities, is disregarded as an academic subject.
Yet research continues in areas of folkloric interest, and some of it is rather undermined by the absence of any knowledge of work in Folklore as a discipline. I have lately seen some postgraduate research into Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). ICH was outlined in a UNESCO Convention (to which the British government did not sign up) as 'a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development'. ICH was conceived of as the lore behind the artefacts of folklife, and the Convention set out to protect this by administrative measures.
Celebrating the importance of such lore is valuable, and European ethnologists and folklorists have enthusiastically sought to use the ICH Convention to raise awareness of folklore and its study. Of course, this leaves the question of how far folklore can (or should) be protected by fiat. Encouraging an environment where lore is respected sufficiently for its transmission to be possible is one thing; preserving a tradition which no longer has any inherent life of its own is quite another.
Certainly there is a tendency to look at ICH from the needs of institutional bodies rather than the participants in, and bearers of, the traditions being protected. As was cynically joked about institutional resistance to gypsy horse fairs in England: 'How do you know if an event's traditional? If the local council is trying to ban it ...' (The photograph, left, comes from a Travellers Times article on the 2009 Horsmonden Horse Fair).
I may be doing the postgraduate researcher a disservice, but the questionnaire I saw showed no awareness that there was any history of such questions within Folklore. The researcher seemed to view the questions largely from the perspective of administrating bodies. Maybe I am wrong: I look forward to the dissertation.
It was rather more depressing to find a similar position being taken by senior researchers at the Institute of Education, Professor Sue Hallam and Dr Andrea Creech. (I have not yet read their full report,
Music Education in the 21st Century in the United Kingdom: Achievements, Analysis and Aspirations, and what follows is based on their press release). Among their findings is the suggestion that restricted playlists limit access to a range of musical styles, and that this may have a damaging long-term impact on, for example, participation in brass band and folk music.
Some aspects of this are incontrovertible. Less folk music on the radio means fewer people will hear folk music on the radio. Put like that, it's hardly a shocking statement. Hallam and Creech also recognise other factors at work, particularly socio-economic ones. Much of the community basis for brass bands, for example, was eroded by the destruction of the heavy industry that had built those communities in the first place.
Yet this report appears during a particularly strong resurgence of interest in folk music. Why should that be, and yet not be reflected in their research? The radio is only one source of music now, as they note, and the do-it-yourself quality of much internet radio broadcasting is making a wide range of traditional musics easily available. (The English Folk Dance & Song Society has responded by drawing attention to the increased participation of young people at festivals and clubs).
More importantly, their focus on music transmission is chiefly on formal music education. This is the focus of their research, but there seems to be little recognition of the extra-mural folk transmission, learning, and making of music. The transmission of much folk music takes place through an informal group of like-minded enthusiasts - through a folk group, in one of the ways folklorists have understood that concept. Without investigating that, much is missed.
There seems to be little acknowledgement of any of the ways in which folklorists have examined groups, transmission, and folklore itself. Hallam and Creech's press statement came out at around the same time that Professor John Widdowson's 2009 Katharine Briggs lecture on the future of Folklore in English Higher Education was published (1). As I have said, I think the political climate was already making the kind of academic reconstruction envisaged by Widdowson unlikely even in November 2009. It is now, surely, dead.
In some ways Widdowson (right) followed Malcolm Taylor's Briggs lecture the year before. Taylor, unlike Widdowson, doesn't see the future of Folklore as depending on academic posts, although they both agree on the need for collaborative efforts by interested parties (eg the Folklore Society and EFDSS) in raising the profile of their work and their archives.
That's certainly a big part of the task ahead, but how do we ensure that research and documentation can continue to the same standard? I don't think this is easy. The work of earlier folklorists in fighting to establish academic status for the subject is of inestimable importance. (There was some earlier mention of this in relation to Richard Dorson in the US). Much of the work that has been done by academic folklorists is eminently readable and accessible. Some of it's harder, but just as important. It could, and should, be taken up more widely to provide a popular serious framework within which folklorists - academic or not - can work.

* * * * * * * *

1: J. D. A. Widdowson, 'Folklore Studies in English Higher Education: Lost Cause or New Opportunity?', Folklore, 121.2 (2010), 125-142

Thursday, 15 July 2010

St Swithin's Day

It being St Swithin's Day today, I thought I'd reprint the following local ghost legend from Gilmer County, West Virginia:

Annie Reaser had come to help with the house-work, as a member of the family. Our flattering attention to her store of folklore brought out the tale of a ghost who caused forty days rain because he did not like his resting place.
'He was a good man' said Annie 'And he liked the church so well that he never missed a meeting day, and he was there for evening prayer meeting, in time to light the candles and hand the hymn books around.
'When his time came to die, seeing he was a lone man with no row of family graves in the churchyard, the deacons thought of letting him lie close to the church he had served so long.
'So they laid him right near, but a little too close, for when a rain came, the drip from the eaves of the church fell right down on the new-made grave. Careless like, too, they forgot to bury his measuring rod alongside his coffin.
'Soon, strange tales were told about folks hearing a clatter at the back of the church, and some said the measuring rod was never laid twice in the same place. But the noise stopped when anybody went to look, and few did that, for it rained and rained all that spring, and no one could put in crops, nor a garden either.
'Week after week, that rapping agin the church walls kept time to the hymn-tunes the folks sang, and the rain beat on the roof like drums. At last, one late spring Sunday, the deacons and elders had a meeting, after the preaching, and all agreed something must be done. Next morning, they came with spades and shovels, and picked out a place at the far end of the churchyard.
'No sooner was the first spadeful of ground dug up, than the sun shone through the mist, and the sky cleared off. So they laid the old man alongside his friends - and his measuring rod, they buried that too. They read the burial service over him once more, for good measure, and there he lies, quiet and peaceful, till the Judgement day. But you watch and see - if there comes a hard rain on the fifteenth of July (they say that was his birthday), it'll still rain every day for forty days.''
(Blanche Whiting Keysner, 'The Measuring Rod', Keystone Folklore Quarterly, 1.2 (1956), 14-16)

Blanche Whiting Keysner, who recalled Annie Reaser's tale, noted that this was a migratory version of St Swithin's story, although his name had been lost along the way. According to the local English tale, rain on St Swithin's Day will be followed by 40 days of rain as the saint's burial was delayed for 40 days by bad weather. Here that motif survives, but it doesn't really make sense in the context so it's expanded by the slightly confusing detail about rain on the coffin, and augmented with another local tradition about burying the measuring rod.

I came across the article because Indiana University is making freely available online some journal holdings that are not so easily found (certainly in British libraries). These will migrate eventually to Google Books, but at the moment they're hosted on the HathiTrust Digital Library. They include: Keystone Folklore; Keystone Folklore Quarterly; Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review; and Folklore Historian.

HathiTrust has some other holdings of interest for folklorists. I suspect I'll be spending some time with them over the next few days - after all, it has just started raining.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

St Clement

This weather vane sits on top of St Clement Danes church in the Strand, London WC2. A church had stood on the site for a long time - according to one tradition, it was founded in the 9th century by Danes expelled from the City of London. (The boundary between the City of London and Westminster was only a little way to the east). It was gutted in 1941 during the Blitz. After the war it was handed over to the Air Council, who raised funds for its rebuilding. In 1958 it was reconsecrated as the Air Force church, a role it still has today.
The church has become the focus of a number of unstable traditions. Its very foundation legend is debatable: Steve Roud writes 'On the question of the Danes, there is no simple answer'. (1) The churchbells now peal the nursery rhyme 'Oranges and Lemons' four times a day, although the meaning of the current words is just as questionable as the song's attachment to this church, rather than St Clement's Eastcheap.
The weather vane is a nice example, having nothing to do with the nursery rhyme, the Danes, or the RAF. It is stamped with an anchor, representing St Clement, the patron saint of sailors. Happily, given the altogether unclear history of any of the traditions involved, St Clement's own past is equally murky. Even some sympathetic sources query whether he died a martyr. The most common version of his legend is that he was killed by being thrown into the sea with an anchor round his neck, hence his invocation by sailors, and, later, his adoption as the patron saint of anchor-smiths. This was logically extended to blacksmiths, too, although it isn't exactly clear when. Blacksmiths were widely honouring him by the early nineteenth century, but there had already been a long history of St Clement's Day (23rd November) as a day of general festivity, marked by fishermen and bakers amongst others.
I like the uncertainty. I like the whirling mass of stories out of which all sorts of customs emerge. I particularly like this weather vane, because it symbolises a group of motifs and themes which have now largely been superseded by other traditions. You could so easily miss it.

* * * * * * * * *
1) Steve Roud, London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World's Most Vibrant City (London: Random House, 2008), p. 114

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Traditional story about Cuvier

I had half an eye on the third part of the BBC programme The Story of Science: Power, Proof and Passion last night. The third part of the series, 'How Did We Get Here?', dealt with the rise of scientific assessments of biodiversity. Along the way, presenter Michael Mosley (left) looked at the contribution of the great French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). Mosley told this story about Cuvier (pictured below). I've transcribed the story from the broadcast programme:
There's a story about Cuvier which I like, which I think really sums up the man. It's late at night, and Cuvier has gone to bed, when one of his students, dressed in a devil's costume, bursts into his room and cries 'Cuvier! Cuvier! I have come to eat you!' Cuvier opened one eye, calmly looked the student up and down, and said 'All animals that have hooves and horns are herbivores. You cannot eat me'.
I've always liked this story, too, and it seems to have had an oral circulation. Augustus Hare recalled being told the story in Suffolk in 1894. Hare's version concerns 'some young men ... determined to frighten the famous naturalist'. His version doesn't change tense, as Mosley's does, but this might be because it was written down. Hare's punchline is a bit pithier than Mosley's rather classroom description, too:
Cuvier looked at him. 'Carnivorous! horns - hoofs - impossible! Good-night;' and he turned over and went to sleep. (1)
It's always a pleasure to hear a tale with some kind of traditional life being told orally, and it's a delight to hear them crop up on television.
• • • • • • • • •
1) reprinted in The Penguin Book of English Folktales, ed. Neil Philip (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 394

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Dorson, Hospital, and Folklore Lived

I've been thinking a lot lately about Richard M. Dorson (1916-1981). Dorson was one of the key American folklorists after the Second World War, responsible for cementing the reputation of the Folklore Institute at Indiana University. Anyone interested in the early development of folklore in Britain should read his book The British Folklorists: A History (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), and the two-volume anthology he edited to accompany it, Peasant Customs and Savage Myths: Selections from the British Folklorists (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968).
Dorson fought, above all, to establish Folklore as an academic discipline. He saw a university basis for the discipline as the way to ensure the training of new generations of folklorists. He was fierce in attacking 'fakelore', a word he coined to summarise 'the pseudo-scholar creating folklore for the mass culture', as he once put it. There's lots to argue with, to dispute, and to disagree with, in his conclusions, as well as in the positions he advanced in defending them, but his writings still burn as a passionate and reasoned championing of a marginal discipline that should be valued.
I was delighted to find that a couple of ghost traditions had attached to him. One is very funny (his ghost appearing in a dream to Henry Glassie to give him some important advice), the other is a deeply touching account of Nancy C. McEntire seeing his apparition. The stories are in Elizabeth Tucker, Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), pp. 51-53.
He'd already been on my mind, though. He was a clever fieldworker, and able to turn his clarity of vision onto his own situation. In 1972 he was hospitalised with arteriosclerosis, and underwent by-pass surgery. On his recovery he wrote 'Heart Disease and Folklore', about the procedures he saw in the hospital, and the folk medicine preventing such heart conditions. (It's reprinted in Readings in American Folklore, ed. Jan Harold Brunvand (New York: Norton, 1979), pp. 124-137).
I thought about that article a lot during a recent stay in hospital. I did observe a little of the changed folklore of nursing, but mostly I just lay there. I don't remember anything of the accident that laid me out, so I've renewed respect for Dorson's attentiveness on the ward. When he came out of hospital, he investigated folkloric mechanisms for managing stress and maintaining 'emotional equilibrium'. I wasn't in hospital because of any heart condition, but I was delighted with the concluding hypothesis of Dorson's essay. It's been a bit of an effort writing this, but now that I'm out again I'm happy to embrace Dorson's hypothesis fully: 'folklore lived, not studied, is the surest preventive of heart disease'.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Wild Signs

I haven't bothered to advertise my publications here, beyond putting them in an easily missed box at the bottom of the page, but I thought I would make the effort to note one new publication. I'm really pleased that the British Archaeological Report volume Wild Signs: Graffiti in Archaeology and History, ed. Jeff Oliver and Tim Neal, Studies in Contemporary and Historical Archaeology, 6 / BAR S2074 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2010) is now out. It's been a while coming, but it's well worth the wait.
The book is expanded from the proceedings of a panel on graffiti at the 2005 TAG conference at the University of Sheffield. (TAG is Sheffield's The Archaeology Group). Jeff and Tim, who convened the panel, made a point of sending the Call for Papers over to the folklorists in the university. I gave a paper on Banksy's rat stencils and their relationship to folklore about rats, and I was glad I'd gone. It was a broad and diverse panel, and it triggered a lot of my subsequent interest in graffiti. Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe's photographs of obscene tree-carvings done by Basque herdsmen in Western American states really got me enthusiastic about occupational graffiti. I haven't seen the whole book yet, but I've had the pdf of my chapter and the illustrations are looking good (which matters in a book about graffiti).

Graffiti is one of those areas that's being studied in a lot of disciplines, and it's all too easy not to know what else is out there. So I'm delighted to know this is.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Ghost Questionnaire Closing Shortly

As I've mentioned before, I'm into my writing up now. I've also just been reminded that the period of fieldwork I'd agreed with the university Ethics Committee is about to expire. I will therefore be taking down my ghost questionnaire in the next two weeks. If you've been thinking about completing it but haven't got round to it yet, now is your last chance.

This post gives some background information to my research, if you want some idea of where I'm coming from. I'm interested in hearing from you whether you believe or not.

Friday, 12 March 2010

FLS AGM Conference on 'The Supernatural'

I'm looking forward to the Folklore Society AGM and Conference at Leeds Trinity and All Saints University College, Horsforth, Leeds. It takes place between 26 and 28 March, and is dedicated to 'The Supernatural'. You can still (just about) get the advanced booking rate. The registration details are available here. There is now a draft programme available. There's lots of interesting things I'd actually go and hear even if I wasn't giving a paper myself (which isn't true of all the conferences I've been to, I must say).
Friday 26 March
Registration opens at 2pm, and tea will be available. The Folklore Society AGM, which is restricted to FLS members only, is at 3pm. At 4pm Eddie Cass will give the President's Lecture, which is open to all. This is on the subject of 'Alex Helm and His Collection of Folk Performance Material'. It will be followed at 5pm by a wine reception, and dinner at 6pm.
Saturday 27 March
9:00 Jacqueline Simpson (FLS), 'The Ambiguity of Elves'
9:45 Ariella Feldman (University of Birmingham), 'Jane Eyre: Fairy and Witch Power: A Study of Gender'
10:30 Mikel J. Koven (University of Worcester) and Gunnella Þorgeirsdóttir (University of Sheffield), 'Televisual Folklore: Rescuing Supernatural from the Fakelore Realms'
11:15 Coffee
11:45 Nickianne Moody (Liverpool John Moores University), 'Contemporary Urban Fantasy and the Lessons of Folklore'
12:15 Maureen James (University of Glamorgan), '"Tatterfoals, Will-o-the-Wykes, and the Old Lad": Exploring Supernatural Beliefs in Lincolnshire'
1:00 Lunch
2:30 Peter Robson (University of Sheffield), 'Thomas Hardy's Ghosts'
3:15 Paul Cowdell (University of Hertfordshire), '"I Have Believed in Spirits, From That Day unto This ...": Oral Narratives, Belief, Literary Adaptation, and Transmission'
4:00 Tea
4:45 David Clarke (Sheffield Hallam University), 'The Supernatural Content of the MoD UFO Files'
The day's proceedings end at 5.30.
Sunday 28 March
9:30 David Hunt (FLS), 'Perception of Time in Folklore: Transitions between Mortality and Immortality'
10:15 Gideon Thomas (FLS), '"Lady Margaret Was Standing in Her Own Room Door ...": The Roles and Meanings of Revenants in a Selection of Traditional Ballads'
11:00 Coffee
11:30 Irene Petratou (Panteion University of Athens/Kapodistrian University of Athens), 'Supernatural References in Advertising: The Case of "Supernatural Women"'
12:15 Lunch
2:00 Close

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Academic and/or Scholarly? Or just serious?

As you’d expect of someone involved in postgraduate study, I read a lot of academic books. I can’t stand academic books that are only written for other academics. I’ve always enjoyed finding serious scholarship in the humanities and social sciences that is also readable and accessible.
Many works of folklore scholarship, particularly, make important theoretical points, but they do so in a comprehensible and engaging way. I’m not suggesting that folklore is immune to academic jargon and the publication of self-indulgently baffling pieces for their own sake – career-minded folklorists are under just as much pressure to publish too much and be pleased with their own cleverness as graduates of other disciplines – but that, at its best, folklore never loses sight of its engagement with real people. This also means making folkloric research available to readers outside the academy.
I’ve been thinking again about readerships and scholarship this week, having just read an overdue English translation of Claude Lecouteux’s Fantômes et revenants au moyen âge (‘Phantoms and Ghosts in the Middle Ages’). Lecouteux is one of the outstanding scholars of mediaeval afterlife and supernatural beliefs; this book was a major contribution to our understanding of the interaction between Latin ecclesiastical literature of the Middle Ages and Germanic traditions, and I’m pleased to see it being made available to an audience that cannot read the French original. Other important French works in the field, like Jean-Claude Schmitt’s Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in the Middle Ages (1), have already appeared in translation, and this work belongs alongside them.The translation, however, may not. It is not that it is particularly bad. For the most part it reads well enough. It seems, rather, that the translator and his publisher have a slightly different aim to the author. Lecouteux’s book was certainly about the influence of Germanic pagan traditions on Latin Christian material, but the English subtitle (in particular) is rather overstated: from the neutral description of the French title the translator (Jon E. Graham) has entitled the English book The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind (2). There is little justification for this in the French. (By way of comparison, Jean-Claude Schmitt’s book was originally called Les revenants: les vivants et les morts dans la société médiévale – ‘Ghosts: The Living and the Dead in Mediaeval Society’).
Of course, the publisher specialises in esoteric literature, and so wants to make the work appeal to their readership. They go about this the wrong way, by confining it to that readership. They let down the author, and in doing so they patronise their own intended readership.
They fail the author not in the text, but in the scholarly apparatus. The footnotes, frankly, are a mess. Graham and his editor appear to be unfamiliar with most of Lecouteux’s source material, and not to care very much about it. One need not read mediaeval Latin, for example, to recognise the name of M. R. James, who edited some twelfth and thirteenth centuries English ghost stories. He turns up in the footnotes here as M. R. Graves.
Latin authors’ names and works have standard English renderings, which are different from their French equivalents: what we get here is an unhappy mixture of the two, with some novel mistakes thrown in to confuse things further. We find the standard English Cicero, Ovid, and Pliny, sure enough, but sitting alongside ‘Petronious’ [Petronius], Virgil’s ‘bucolica triennio’ [Eclogues], and the really odd ‘Titus-Livy’ [Livy]. This is clearly taken from the standard French form ‘Tite-Live’, but it is further compounded by a typo in the relevant footnote, making it ‘Titus-Levy’. As it happens, most of these mistakes are then not included in the index, making the book even harder to use.
I read no Danish, but it took me around 30 seconds online to correct the spelling mistake in the title of Svend Grundtvig’s collection of folksongs. Why didn’t an editor do the same? There is a cavalier attitude to translated quotations: some are given in standard English translations, others are translated from French translations, some old French passages aren’t translated at all. There is no acknowledgement that some works of French scholarship have already been translated: was it really not possible to find an English translation of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, for example?
If you read French, this translation in no way replaces the original text. If you don’t read French, the translation is useful, but you will still need some other help with the references.
So why is all this a problem?
It’s offensive towards the publisher’s target audience, as it assumes that none of this matters that much to them. This becomes a self-fulfilling argument: if the footnotes don’t enable you to find source material, you tend to stop looking for it. Yet here is a readable and serious work of history: if any work were capable of obtaining a wider readership it’s this one.
Whatever use one makes of such a book, it will depend for its effectiveness on its accuracy in these areas. I’m not here talking about academia, but about scholarly standards, which can be upheld by anybody. It’s about taking a subject, and an audience, seriously.

* * * * *

1: Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)
2: Claude Lecouteux, The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind, trans. Jon E. Graham (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2009)

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Pepper's Ghost

Posts are likely to be somewhat irregular for the rest of the year, as the writing up of my ghost research is now underway. I won't be taking down the questionnaire opposite for a while yet, but if you'd still like to participate, now is the time.
I've spent most of the last month writing about the historical appearance of ghosts. Part of this has involved looking at popular representations of ghosts in woodcuts, on stage, in films and so on. For a splendid woodcut (used a great deal through the 17th century), check out the ballad 'a true and perfect Relation from the Faulcon at the Banke-side; of the strange and wonderful aperition of one Mr Powel a baker lately deceased' in the Bodleian collection.
Of course, I've been having a look at everybody's favourite 19th century theatrical effect, Pepper's Ghost. It was all done with mirrors, as seen below.
Pepper's Ghost was tricky to fit into existing stage mechanics, it seems, but thrived in dedicated fairground shows. It's still highly regarded - here's a design for a recent model.
I also enjoyed learning that it was so popular that it entered London slang. By the mid-1860s, London cabbies used the term 'Pepper's Ghost' to refer to passengers who ran off without paying their fare. I don't know how long this usage lasted. Is there an equivalent term in use today?