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.