Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Katharine Briggs evening 2012

Is it that time of year again already?

Tomorrow night is this year's Katharine Briggs evening at the Folklore Society. The FLS, like every other society, has developed its own ritual year, and the Briggs evening is one of my very favourite parts of it.

It begins with the Katharine Briggs lecture, which this year will be given by David Atkinson on 'The Ballad and Its Paradoxes'. David is editor of the Folk Music Journal and one of those satisfyingly unshowy scholars who are (quite rightly) most interested in the intellectual content of their work. A few years ago I saw David give a typically brilliant conference paper, rich and stimulating: he was rather deflated that there were no questions afterwards, but this turned out to be because every scholar in the field was trying to assimilate and grapple with his ideas. Over the next couple of days every interesting paper I saw was marked by a moment when the scholar would suddenly say 'And THIS is something David Atkinson raised yesterday ...' It's the best kind of scholarship, and I'm very much looking forward to hearing him again.

The lecture is also followed by a wine reception and the announcement of the winner of the Katharine Briggs book award. This manages to be both jolly and inspiring, as the award was set up to promote the publication of folklore books. This year's shortlist looks to cover a lot of bases, popular and academic. I've seen some of the other titles that were submitted (they'll be on display during the evening tomorrow) and I think there was quality in depth this year. The shortlist's exciting:

Dave Arthur, Bert: The Life and Times of A.L. Lloyd (Pluto)
Regina Bendix and Galit Hasan-Rokem, eds, A Companion to Folklore (Wiley-Blackwell)
R. Andrew Chesnut, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press)
Sara Hannant, Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids: A Journey through the English Ritual Year (Merrell)
David Hopkin, Voices of the People in Nineteenth Century France (Cambridge University Press)
Craig Koslofsky, Evening's Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press)
Katherine Luongo, Witchcraft and Colonial Rule in Kenya, 1900-1950 (Cambridge University Press)
Emily Lyle, ed., Galoshins Remembered: ‘A Penny Was a Lot in These Days' (National Museums of Scotland)
Mark Stoyle, The Black Legend of Prince Rupert's Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda during the English Civil War (University of Exeter Press)
Marina Warner, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights (Chatto & Windus)

I've commented on a couple of these titles here already. I have others (and others from the longlist) sitting on my desk awaiting review in various places, and I hope to comment on a few more here. I'm looking forward to catching up with some old friends and esteemed colleagues at an event which really seeks to set out folklore's stall in the best possible way.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Rats and Ghosts (again)

I'm looking forward to a couple of events this week. On Thursday I'll be at Treadwell's bookshop talking about London's Strange World of Rats. I'll be going over my continuing exploration of the folklore about rats, and admitting to another room full of strangers that yes, I really am obsessed by the topic. Then on Saturday I'm at the London Fortean Society's London Ghost Conference, talking about ghosts in London's hospitals and theatres. A year after finishing my PhD I finally feel able to talk about ghosts again, and I'm looking forward to the company of some good speakers.

It was fitting then that I prepared by hearing an East Anglian man talking about both rats and ghosts last weekend. John, from the Cambridgeshire Fens, heard about my researches with interest, and chipped in with two stories of his own.

He had been told about rats by a friend who worked in a chicken farm. The rats would come into the pens to steal eggs. One rat would clasp an egg between all four legs, then roll over onto its back and be dragged out into the yard, where the rats could safely break the egg and eat it.

In this story you see the idea of rats as intelligent and cooperative animals. (Both John and the other listeners commented on how far this proved the intelligence of the animals). I've written about this kind of idea before, and there is a link in that piece to a Walter Potter tableau of rats stealing eggs. A writer on Potter's taxidermy described this familiar story as 'an evergreen topic of folklore in the countryside', so it was very nice to hear it directly in oral testimony.

John also filled in the background to my friend's house, which is reportedly 'the most haunted house' in Soham. Well, John explained, there used to be a monastery on the other side of the road. One of the monks had had an affair, and the girl had become pregnant. When her time was due the monks tied her legs together in the house to prevent her being able to give birth. She and the child had died, and it is their ghosts that haunt the property. John and the resident of the house both indicated which room was affected, and I was told that several residents had been unable to stay there.

Again, this is a hugely familiar motif that turns up in legends across the country. In many cases (although not apparently in this telling) the woman was a nun, thus doubly compounding the errors committed. The motif turns up frequently in connection with legends of secret tunnels allegedly connecting monasteries with convents. John's account had a particularly lurid ring, but it fitted perfectly with the legend. It would be interesting to hear how it fits with other local accounts, so I'm looking forward to accounts from a forthcoming ghost walk in the village.

Friday, 10 August 2012


During my recent studies I periodically encountered the Head of Department. He would usually beam at me and ask engagingly ‘Are you sick of it yet?’ Funnily enough, I never actually was, but by the end I was almost physically incapable of taking on anything further. It’s been, therefore, a pleasure and a relief to have been able to survey some recent folklore publications over the last couple of months, and to be able to read more widely than just thesis-related subjects.
One delight has been the charming Galoshins Remembered: ‘A Penny Was a Lot in These Days’, ed. Emily Lyle (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2011). It’s an unassuming little book, and all the better for that.
Galoshins was a fairly typical folk play of the combat and recovery type. It was performed as a house visiting play across the south of Scotland either on Old Year’s Night or Halloween by groups of (usually) boys aged between nine and 14. Its performance lasted well into the first half of the twentieth century. Such was the enthusiasm for it that some former practitioners have also been active in promoting its revival amongst local children, like the group shown on the front cover. (When I was trying to find footage online all I came up with were some consciously ‘traditional’ and rather overblown revival performances by adults. They’re pleasant and entertaining enough – and rather wonderful in some cases – but not quite the same as a group of small boys in costumes fighting in your front room).
The book provides an overview of recent field research amongst surviving practitioners. It is exemplary in its presentation of their words and its demonstration of field interviewing techniques.
Emily Lyle’s wide-ranging scholarship is formidable. She has combined some theoretically challenging approaches to a very long cultural history in the ritual year (approaches I have not always found convincing because of their historical and prehistorical sweep) with some sensitive and nuanced work on ballads and singers. This book really shows her at her best, working closely with informants in the field to document their lives and practice.
From their recollection Lyle is able to reconstruct local texts of the play, and give musical notation for the short song that concluded the performance. More significantly, I think, she is able to capture something of the real joy and excitement involved in the performances.
This is the book’s strength. Although it provides good documentation of the artefacts of performance (the play, costumes, music etc) its real focus is its importance in the lives of performers and their communities. One informant here was even known locally, and introduced to strangers, by reference to his part in the play.
By really placing the participants at the heart of this book Lyle is able to provide a comprehensive examination of the play as a limited and specific ethnographic practice. It is probable that the book will mainly attract the attention of folk drama specialists to begin with, but its strength, to my mind, is that it is really about the practice as a part of local childlore, which is a rather wider subject. The book is unlikely to satisfy those looking for deeper artefactual analyses of the play, but I think it opens a much richer and more fruitful way of approaching communities and their practices. It makes no great claims for itself, and is likely to be the more enduring because of that.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Melodeons and the British labour movement

My interest in the relationship between folklore and folkloristics and politics takes a number of forms. At a theoretical level there is the question of how folklore embodies and expresses broader social conditions, and what conclusions can be drawn from that. Antonio Gramsci (who died 75 years ago this April) saw folklore as 'a conception of the world' of various social strata. Folklore, he argued 'can be understood only as a reflection of the conditions of life of the people, although folklore frequently persists even after those conditions have been modified in bizarre combinations' (1).

This is useful, because it allows the complex relationship between society and cultural expression to be appreciated without falling into either of the traps of a reductive 'radical' scholarship. One version of this is strip out the social context from folklore, seeing it only as an obstacle to consciousness and emancipation that simply needs to be overcome. The other version (particularly found in song scholarship) has tended to treat Marx's point that 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles' (2) as suggesting that all cultural expressions are therefore conscious expressions of class struggle. This seems a reductive disservice to Marx. The place of the individual within society is rather more complicated than that, particularly in relation to the transmitted fabric of folklore.

Of course, some folkloric expression can be applied directly in political questions, as we've seen in the recent resurgence of Rough Music in protests. There can be a political element to the material that we document and record.

And, of course, there is also the place of folklore in the private lives of political figures. Although it seems unlikely today that a senior politician might engage in intellectual debate and scholarly pursuits, previous parliamentarians have been directly involved in discussions of folklore. Gladstone, for example, wrote  on mythology, which he saw as a remnant of revelation: he very publicly resigned from the Folklore Society after Edward Clodd's identification of 'savage' and 'barbaric ideas' with elements of Christianity.

Aside from such intellectual engagement with folklore as a subject, there is also the elements of folklore practised by politicians as individuals. I was delighted recently to come across an 1897 book on musical instruments (3). Inside the covers are numerous advertisements for instrument manufacturers and supplier, including two pages for Campbell & Co of 116 Trongate, Glasgow.

One advertises their 'Peerless' hand-made violins, while the other details their 'Grand New Models' of melodeons. The melodeons page is predominantly testimonials, including one from 'Prof. Brown, the Champion Melodeon Player of Great Britain, Ireland and Wales'. (I haven't done any research into this player yet, so I'd be grateful for any information). The other testimonials are from 'three great Temperance Reformers', suggesting the melodeon was being marketed as an improving parlour instrument rather than for rowdier pub playing. Two were religious men: the Rev. R.W. Dobbie, Grand Chaplain of Scotland (1892) and member of the temperance organisation the International Order of Good Templars, and the Rev. H. Powers of Hull, who is described as a 'Poet-Evangelist'. Dobbie wrote of singing and playing 'the Auld Scotch Songs' on the melodeon, while Powers had 'for several years ... accompanied his own singing and the solos of Mrs Powers' with the instrument.

The third testimonial was the really intriguing one. J. Keir Hardie, MP, is quoted as saying that the instrument was 'a most marvellous musical production at the money'. Keir Hardie had been the Independent Labour MP for West Ham South between 1892 and 1895. A later issue of The Celtic Monthly: A Magazine for Highlanders (5.viii, February 1900) features the same testimonial in slightly expanded form. Hardie went on to comment that the instrument 'is got up in excellent style, the finish being superior. The tone is sweet, yet strong'. He also praised its various reed effects (organ and celestial).

Involved throughout his life with various church and temperance bodies (including the Good Templars), it seems likely that Hardie, too, saw the melodeon as an instrument available for moral improvement. Campbells were obviously addressing this market specifically, as the order of material in the Celtic Monthly advertisement makes clear. The piece pledges that 'The Solemn Psalm, the Soul-stirring Hymn, the Cheerful Song and the Merry Dance, can all be played on these charming instruments'. (The company clearly targeted specific audiences carefully: in that advert they also extol their Great Highland Bagpipes).

All of this opens a sudden new insight into the life of a specific, well-known, individual, and it also gives us a better insight into domestic music-making more generally. As Campbell's delightful slogan has it, 'Music in the house makes cheerful, happy homes'.

* * * * *

1: 'Observations on Folklore', in International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp. 131-136
2: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), p. 79
3: William Lynd, A Popular Account of Ancient Musical Instruments and Their Development, as Illustrated by Typical Examples in the Galpin Collection (London: James Clarke, 1897)

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Rough Music as Political Protest

I've been following the ongoing student strike in Quebec with interest. Partly, of course, I'm interested in attempts to impose punitive fee increases on students and the reactions to such moves, as these affect everyone in and around education. Alongside that general political interest I've also been watching with a folklorist's eye.

The situation in Quebec, briefly, is this: the regional Liberal government, as part of its austerity measures, is moving to raise tuition fees by 82 per cent over the next seven years. There was an immediate response from students, and over the last four months their strike has gained ground. In order to control the growing anger the government introduced Law 78. This draconian measure has effectively criminalised the student strike. It also severely curtails the right to protest more generally, making all protests subject to police approval. Since the introduction of Law 78 on 18 May some 1,500 people (including a Québec Solidaire member of the regional parliament) have been arrested for protesting, and homes have been raided.

Around 100,000 people demonstrated when Law 78 was introduced, and protests against it continue. These protests have reverted to a traditional folkloric expression of anger and disapproval. The 'casserole' protests that began last month have a long history, which has probably contributed to an enthusiastic and broad response for them far beyond the initial limited call on social media sites.

It was proposed that protesters demonstrate their anger against Law 78 by beating pots and pans. This has taken off. The nightly protests in Montreal have escalated, and similar demonstrations are now taking place elsewhere across Quebec and Canada more generally.

This is, of course, Rough Music. Night-time demonstrations involving the beating of pans are well known across Europe. They tend to be community expressions of outrage at breaches of moral or social codes, often working within the limits of the existing establishment of social order. In England Rough Music is best known as expressions of criticism of sexual misconduct - adultery, most frequently - but an element of political protest has also been recognised (1). This article on the casserole protests identifies the recognition of social disruption, although it does not note the traditional form of protest being invoked.

As a folklorist it does not seem surprising that political protests against the impact of the economic crisis are taking such traditional forms. The spread of this resurgent Rough Music is quite wide, and can probably be attributed to the disturbance of social life caused by the financial crisis. There have been plenty of demonstrations in Spain over the recent period, for example, but the pan-banging's been a particular feature of the protests against the latest bank bailouts. (The Metro had a good picture). It will be interesting to follow the forms of protest used as well as the political events to which they are responding.

* * * * *
1: 'Rough Music', in E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common (London: Merlin, 1991), pp. 467-538

Monday, 14 May 2012

May 12

May 12 marked the 75th anniversary of a remarkable venture, the Mass-Observation Day Survey of the coronation of George VI. MO had been launched earlier that year and was just about to issue its first publication, called simply Mass-Observation. At that point the venture had around 50 Observers around the country, who reported the minutiae of their daily lives on the 12th of each month.

For the coronation MO changed their focus. Their Observers were providing a survey of the riches of their ordinary daily existence, but this provided the opportunity for examining the extraordinary. From a combination of observation and documentary sources they put together a record both of

MO meant different things to the different people who'd launched it. It was part poetic, part sociological, and part psychological, and it aimed grandly at providing data for a snapshot of everyday life across Britain. It was received very badly by sociologists, particularly, although its worth has come to be recognised by social historians above all. The book that resulted from the coronation day survey is wonderful and beautiful, and brims with the real stuff of people's lives (1).

It is, of course, also full of the stuff of folklore. Here is spontaneous singing: there is a useful index of the popular songs mentioned through the text. Their documentation tells us not only what songs were being sung in this context (contemporary popular songs, music hall songs, hymns, political anthems and patriotic songs) but also when and where and how. Two girls in Birmingham sang It's a Sin to Tell a Lie, having also been playing tunes on comb and paper; a 'disorderly procession' down Shaftesbury Avenue was led by youths banging dustbin lids and singing Glory Glory Hallelujah; two sailors outside Edgware Road station were taunted with Popeye the Sailor Man. This isn't songs as artefacts, it's singing as practice.

The book is also a rich source of contemporary legends. In the run-up to the coronation stories circulated that it would not take place. On Romney Marsh such remarks are reported twice: on both occasions they were offered as parting gifts by gypsies who had just been given a lift.

May the Twelfth deserves commemoration. I have little interest in royal events, but I'm enthralled and delighted by the rich documentation of people's lives.

* * * * *

1: May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day-Surveys 1937 by Over Two Hundred Observers, ed. Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge (London: Faber, 1987)

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Bulgarian customs in the Fens

Last weekend I had dinner in a nice bar and restaurant some way outside Cambridge in the Fens. It prided itself on being friendly, international and eclectic, and it was all rather charming. At the end of the meal (while we were listening to a pretty good kora/mandola duo playing live) the owner came over for a chat.
I'm not quite sure how we got on to the subject but seasonal customs and festivities were mentioned. The owner introduced his partner, who is Bulgarian, to tell us about practices there. I'd recently seen a picture of a red and white Bulgarian charm bracelet and asked whether that was a New Year custom.
It isn't, she explained. It's a March 1st custom, dedicated to Baba Marta (Grandmother March). You give a red and white bracelet with the greeting 'Happy Baba Marta'. The charm is worn around the wrist until the first migrating birds appear, and is then tied to a budding fruit tree to ensure a good crop.
She sought to give us some background explanations for this. These sounded suspiciously of the 'ancient origin' type communicated officially and semi-officially to provide evidence of national antiquity, but they were no less interesting for that. In particular she attached the Baba Marta figure to the arrival of the Roman god Mars in the region.
Because we were interested she suddenly announced 'I have a present for you', and brought back the mass-produced Baba Marta bracelets pictured. The picture on the card is wrong, she told us, because the man should be in red and the woman in white, but the gift of the charm was still consistent. (The printed phrase is 'Happy Baba Marta').
We sat the charms on the table while we drank coffee, and a little while later the waitress (her daughter) came past and saw them. 'Who gave you those? My mum?' she asked delightedly, and then told us that not only was it Baba Marta, but the Saturday (3rd March) was also a national holiday of independence. She seemed less concerned in the nuanced details of the custom - possibly because she had not learned them in any structured, official way - but took it more as a general expression of Bulgarian-ness.
A few days later I met a Bulgarian postgraduate student at the Folklore Society's library. She discussed Baba Marta quite enthusiastically, and filled in some of the background detail with the keen eye of a folklore scholar. She wasn't buying the Mars origin, for example, but did add the detail that tying the charms to trees is often associated with the appearance of the White Storks, because these are generally the first migrant birds to arrive in Bulgaria in the spring.
She also said that a tradition of celebration of Baba Marta has begun to establish itself in London more in line with the waitress's discussion of the custom. In South Kensington, apparently, it has become the practice over the last couple of years to attach Baba Marta charms to specific trees en masse. I hope that somebody has some pictures.
Happy Baba Marta!

Friday, 2 March 2012

On cream cakes and the invention of tradition

I recently spent a few days in Stockholm. I've spent a fair bit of time there, and I can work my way round a cake menu with a reasonably adept eye. I'd never been there at this time of year before, so I was delighted to make the acquaintance of a cake new to me, the semla (plur: semlor).
The semla is a hollowed-out bun, filled with a mix of milk, almond paste and breadcrumbs. This is covered with whipped cream, then the top of the bun is replaced, dusted with powdered sugar. The semla is traditionally served in warm milk. Although I didn't try them with warm milk I ate several during my stay, and I can confirm that they are as fantastic as they sound.
But this isn't (just) about my taste in cakes. Semlor are traditionally a cake for Shrovetide, before the Lent fast. ('Semla' comes from the German 'semmel', and is etymologically cognate with the Shrovetide Simnel cake here in Britain). After the Reformation in Sweden semlor became more generally cakes eaten between Shrovetide and Easter.
On returning to London we checked out the availability of semlor in a Scandinavian café here. They had been available, but only until Shrove Tuesday itself. None of this available till Easter stuff here.
This is consistent with the invention and adaptation of traditions to express a national identity away from home. Rather than the constant development of a tradition we begin to see a more rigid codification of one. (In a rather different sphere, one could point too to the strict exclusion of LBGT banners from American St Patrick's Day parades organised by the Ancient Order of Hibernians: such an exclusion took place even as these banners became a more familiar sight in Ireland itself).
This is interesting from a folkloric perspective. Sadly, it's not getting me another semla this year.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Squeaky shoes

Shortly before Christmas my shoes were in a terrible state of disrepair, so my partner bought me a new pair of boots. They are warm, they are comfortable, and they took virtually no breaking in.
The only problem is that they have flexible soles of some man-made substance, and they squeak. Not just a little, but with every step I take. In London crowds that isn't so bad, but in quiet side streets or late at night it can be quite embarrassing, to say the least.
I was suddenly reminded last night, as an otherwise silent street echoed to my squeaking feet, of a comment I heard in the early 1980s from a schoolfriend in south London. When a teacher's shoes creaked he turned to me instantly and said 'He hasn't paid for his shoes'.
I'd never heard this before and didn't understand. He explained that shoes only squeak until they're paid for. I was delighted by this, and had forgotten it completely until last night.
Maybe I should buy my own shoes in future.