Monday, 12 August 2013

Dr Buck Ruxton

The last of my classes at the City Lit folklore summer school on Saturday dealt with contemporary folklore. I was highly delighted when one of the students, Carol, started thinking about the new development of songs.

It occurred to her, she said, because her grandmother had been treated by Dr Buck Ruxton. Ruxton, an Indian-born GP in Manchester, murdered his wife and housemaid in 1935. He was subsequently arrested and executed for the murders.

The case was extremely high profile. As with the Maria Marten Red Barn murder of the previous century there seems to have been a theatrical dramatisation of the crime. As also happened with the Red Barn murder, Ruxton's crime also prompted a folkloric response. Across the country we find records of people singing, to the tune Red Sails in the Sunset:

Red stains on the carpet,
Red stains on the knife
Oh Dr Buck Ruxton
You murdered your wife.

I was pleased to find someone who remembered the song from within her family, but even better was the family legend that accompanied it. According to family legend, Ruxton treated Carol's grandmother on the very day that he had dismembered the corpses of his victims. He arrived at the patient's bedside, it was reported, with a cut on his hand, which he claimed he had done on a tin can.

It's a wonderful story. I have some doubts about its veracity, because there are many records of earlier criminals being used to scare children (Jack the Ripper turns up as an East London bogeyman in the early part of the 20th century, for example). Whether true or not, it's exactly how folklore tradition works with details of crimes. Perhaps the most satisfying part of the event in class was that a younger student didn't recognise the name, so Carol got to relate the whole story to her. Folklore in action!

Saturday, 6 July 2013

SIEF Congress and questions confronting fieldworkers

I'm just back from Tartu, where I had a brilliant and exhausting time at the SIEF Congress. (I took this picture of the university building on my 'phone because I was so overwhelmed by its scale and elegance).
 I'd had to miss the 2011 SIEF Congress in Lisbon because I was busy writing up my thesis. The last one I'd attended was Derry in 2008, so it was very nice to meet up again with some old friends and admired colleagues I hadn't seen since then: one or two even remembered me. I was particularly happy to run into Barbro Klein, whom I had only met once before, at an Anglo-Scottish Young Folklorists Conference in Edinburgh in 2005. (The picture below was taken at that event by Gunnella Þorgeirsdóttir).

One reason the Congress was so exhausting was the sheer volume of papers and discussion. I couldn't possibly summarise the event as a whole, but I found one recurring topic of discussion particularly interesting. It's possible I identified it because it's always been of interest to me, but it cropped up in a number of panels and sessions.

It was first flagged in a panel on archives and their use. Discussing making archive material available to a broader public, Kelly Fitzgerald of University College Dublin raised a question that was left hanging somewhat: what are the implications of this for fieldworkers? She was questioning above all what this meant for the training of future fieldworkers. I found this highly thought-provoking: are we in danger of trying to structure incoming field collections, and thus shaping field collection itself, in line with future output? How are archives to deal with the slightly random and unpredictable character of fieldwork? How are fieldworkers to deal with it?

This was followed a day later by a stimulating panel discussion on the role and responsibilities of the fieldworker in politically controversial and ethically contested situations. John Helsloot had given a brilliant opening presentation dealing with the concerns raised by Zwarte Piet (see, for example, the Zwarte Piet is Racisme campaign). Michael Herzfeld had contributed some interesting comments on the responsibility of the fieldworker both to express disagreement with participants and to engage politically on their behalf where necessary.

It was disappointing, then, to find that position expressed in a rather more conservative way in Michael Herzfeld's subsequent keynote address. Herzfeld's warning against prostration before arguments alleging evolutionary inevitability ('things are changing and there's nothing you can do about it') is sound enough, and is a useful corrective to a progressive positivism that was certainly voiced during the Congress, but in the absence of an articulated alternative there is a danger that this just leads us back to an uncritical nostalgia for what already exists. Some speakers in the floor discussion highlighted this in relation to the examples he had advanced.

The critical response brought out, too, that this nostalgia had led to a misreading of the evidence. Where Herzfeld read the lack of sociability with other customers in chain coffee shops as a destruction of social exchange, other speakers pointed to it as demonstrating new forms of social interaction. People on their mobiles and using social media on their laptops aren't failing to be sociable just because they're not being sociable with the staff and other customers of the coffee shop they're using as a venue. That may not be ideal, or even to be celebrated, but ethnologists, folklorists and anthropologists have a duty to understand how such new forms of social interaction work for our informants and participants. Otherwise any political engagement on their behalf is likely to be misjudged.

These are not easy questions, and I enjoyed the opportunity to think about them in the company of some really excellent scholars. I hope that I can bring them to bear in some useful way on my own work.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Rough music: what reaction does it get?

It's been a while since I posted anything here. I've been busy with various things: I had a great time at the Folklore Society's 'Urban Folklore' conference in Cardiff in April and I'm gearing up for the next SIEF Congress, and I also had a very jolly time co-hosting a Folklore Society social event last week.

There's also been a lot going on in the world around me. I've been fascinated for a while by political protests using rough music, and the unfolding events in Turkey have offered a clear sense of how rough music is understood by the people at whom it is directed.

A week and a half ago, after police had cleared protesters out of Gezi Park with tear gas, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed a rally of his supporters on Istanbul's waterfront. Erdogan's speech sought to distance the country at large from the protests in Taksim Square, and blamed foreign governments and media for their destabilisation of Turkey.

One of his comments was particularly striking. Turkey, he told his supporters, 'is not the one banging pots at night'. For all that this was supposed to be a ringing denunciation to encourage his own forces, Erdogan's comment underscores the impact rough music has on its targets. There is a definite sense that the moral disapproval being expressed has registered. The reaction to it demonstrates the effectiveness of the practice.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Popular reactions to the death of Thatcher

The death of Margaret Thatcher has, predictably, elicited strong reactions. While the media coverage has tended to be respectful and/or celebratory, popular public reactions have taken a different course. Much of this is folkloric.

News reports have covered a number of spontaneous street parties. There has been a great deal of music. In Russell Square on Monday I heard a man burst into a tuneless but enthusiastic musical rendition of the phrase 'She's dead' at full volume. 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead', from Wizard of Oz, has been much sung. (April 8 was also, fittingly, the birthday of its lyricist, Yip Harburg).

Discussions on Twitter are encouraging two minutes of national rough music during her funeral as a peaceful expression of moral condemnation, in a way familiar from rough music protests elsewhere.

There has also been graffiti. This will likely be removed quickly, so documenting it becomes ever more urgent. These impassioned tags were photographed at a bus stop on Gower Street, WC1, the day after Thatcher's death.

I will make every effort to document more of this as I see it. Given her official standing, it is likely that the media record will chart official reactions better. It is one of the strengths of folklore that it can focus on this other, informal, material.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Kalevala and Folklore

My announcement last month that I'd had a haircut may have been surprising to some. I was scrubbing up because I'd been invited to speak, in my capacity as a member of the Folklore Society, at the Finnish Ambassador's Residence. The occasion was the launch of an English-language audiobook of the Kalevala. I hope that Naxos won't mind me reproducing the rather beautiful cover to the audiobook.
The launch took place on 28 February, which is Kalevala Day. When Elias Lönnrot first assembled the book from Karelian oral poetry in 1835 he did so with the intention of creating a Finnish national epic. That there is a national day dedicated to the book indicates his success. The audiobook was recorded by its translator, Keith Bosley, and I found myself giving a potted introduction to the poem's significance in a room full of people much better equipped to do so than me. Naxos posted a nice summary of the event here, while the Finnish Embassy reviewed the speeches by Irma-Riita Järvinen and myself in this nice article.

Below is the text of my speech on 'The Kalevala and Folklore'. It's somewhat rudimentary, but I hope it conveys a little of the excitement and enjoyment I got reading this great work for the first time.
* * *

Mr Ambassador, esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted and deeply honoured to be able to participate tonight in celebrating the (long-overdue) release of an English-language audiobook of the Kalevala. I should preface my brief remarks here by extending greetings and congratulations from the Folklore Society here in Britain. The Folklore Society is pleased to welcome this audiobook, which sets the seal on the splendid translation of the Kalevala by Keith Bosley, who is one of our members. The Folklore Society was founded in 1878: it was among the first such societies internationally to identify itself as a ‘folklore’ society, but we have some eminent forebears and predecessors. I’d especially like to pay tribute here to our colleagues in the Finnish Literature Society (which was founded in 1831 and has a magnificent folklore archive) with whom we still have good and close relations.

So, I am delighted and honoured, but also rather daunted to be speaking about the Kalevala in front of an audience which has grown up with this as their cultural patrimony and in front of someone who has spent so long living inside the poem, first translating it and then recording it. However, one of the things we’re celebrating tonight is the enormous global cultural significance of the Kalevala. This significance of Elias Lönnrot’s publication was quickly recognised far beyond what would become Finland’s borders, and these poems had an international impact in a number of fields.

Not least of these was in poetry itself, where Longfellow’s adoption of Kalevalic trochaic tetrameters set an uncomfortable model for English ears of how this verse might sound. So it’s an additional delight that the audiobook we’re celebrating tonight is the work of Keith Bosley, whose fine translation avoids that misleadingly plodding character and come closer to the flexibility and vitality of Lönnrot’s texts.

More importantly, as a folklorist, I have to point to the impact Lönnrot’s book had on the emerging discipline of folklore. There have been ebbs and flows in this. Taken initially as a body of folkloric material, the Kalevala played an important role in shaping the discipline of folklore as scholars argued over how folkloric it actually was. The discipline of folklore received all sorts of theoretical boosts from investigations that actually ruled out studying the Kalevala as folklore at all, treating it rather as literature. Lönnrot probably wrote about 600 lines, around 2% of the total, and we’ve now come to a much more satisfyingly complicated appraisal of the text, which acknowledges Lönnrot’s literary achievements as editor and writer, the oral poetic achievements of the Karelian rune singers whose traditional material Lönnrot shaped, and the folkloric material contained within the texts: the point, though, is that this book continues to stand at the centre of a whole nexus of argument, thinking and appreciation.

It’s appropriate, at an occasion where we’re celebrating the broader availability of the cultural masterpiece, to note that the Kalevala has from the start been part of an international discussion of folklore. Lönnrot was influenced by the Grimms and the German Romantics in his attempts to merge these oral texts into a Finnish mythology. That was reciprocated: one of the early champions of the Old Kalevala was Jacob Grimm, who gave enthusiastic lectures on it in 1845. One of the most important early critics of the Kalevala, who really fought to identify the traditional religious material within it even when Finnish scholars were treating it predominantly as literature rather than folklore, was the Italian folklorist Domenic Comparetti.

Here in Britain the pioneers of the Folklore Society were quick to champion the work and its significance. In 1888, just 10 years after the founding of the Folklore Society, W.F. Kirby announced his intention of producing an English version from a German translation of the Kalevala. There was an outcry among scholars in the new discipline of folklore: among the eminent scholars who insisted that Kirby really must work from the Finnish were Andrew Lang and Max Müller – I believe it is one of the few occasions on which those eminent folklorists ever agreed with each other. (Although the result was in a Longfellow metre, we should at least give Kirby credit for taking their arguments seriously enough to learn both Finnish and Estonian before undertaking the translation).

Studies of the Kalevala were to shape whole schools of folklore research. This began, appropriately enough, in Finland itself. All of the literary and oral materials on which the Kalevala is based are still in existence, and are held in the folklore archives of the Finnish Literature Society. Lönnrot preserved all his field diaries and journals, and there is clear evidence of every stage of the development of the text as we now have it. This body of material provided a stimulus to the early development of scholarly research into folklore there. It’s not a coincidence that one of the earliest chairs in folklore was established in Helsinki in 1898, and the department in Helsinki remains internationally important.

Julius Krohn, who was born 3 months after first publication of the Old Kalevala, began his studies of the genetic transmission of oral poetry and folklore with an examination of the Kalevala. He concluded that Lönnrot’s texts were not in origin homogeneous, or even specifically Finnish/Karelian, but brought together folkloric themes known from a wide area. (He pointed out that even though this was the case it didn’t preclude the material in its present form being taken to the Finnish heart).

Through the work of Julius Krohn and his son Kaarle, a whole school of folklore research developed, which became known as the Finnish or (later, when non-Finns were more involved) the Historic-Geographic method. This attempted to identify the origins and movement of individual folklore items and motifs by putting together all the known records and charting them historically and geographically. This has fallen somewhat out of favour now but it shaped a whole way of approaching folklore material that’s ultimately proved very useful with the Kalevala.

Looking at the source material we can identify four broad groups of poetry historically. Lönnrot was most interested in constructing a mythology, a spiritual or supernatural account of origins and situations. Much of the mythic material here seems to be the oldest poetry included. There is a later phase of magic and shamanistic poetry, perhaps dating up to about AD600. After this shared motifs with Scandinavian sagas start to appear in Baltic-Finnish material, and we see the development of more adventure poetry. A whole body of material also directly reflects the Christianisation of the region. Kalevala poetry began to decline from the Middle Ages, but there were periodic resurgences of the form for propaganda (16th/17th centuries) and 18th century plaints. This material existed disparately, and Lönnrot was able to blend the periods and themes together, so the shaman of one poem can also be identified with the adventure hero of another, or the god of one myth has his status changed to that of shaman throughout.

Comparetti noted the huge number of charms that appear throughout the Kalevala, describing it as ‘an epic of charms’. Lönnrot assembled a text which pointed to an ancient monotheism, what’s been called ‘a “good” paganism’: he adduced the charms as evidence of this practice, but seems not to have noticed always the christianisation evident within individual items.

Now I, as a folklorist, of course find this stuff fascinating, and worthy of closer attention. I can talk about the history of folklore till the cows come home, but the point of this audiobook is that it actually makes available in a direct, oral, form, the content. The stories themselves – the origin myth, the tragedy of Kullervo – are accessible enough, but the poem brims with other folkloric material. Folklore is the minutiae of people’s lives, the informal and unstated fabric of how people live and think, and this poem teems with it. Some of it is straightforwardly about folklife, about how people conduct/conducted themselves: the runes concerning the preparation of the bride for her new home tell you all sorts of things not just about relations between the sexes but also about how young couples are treated by their older relatives during betrothal ceremonies.

Given the blending of different source material from different historical periods you get a shimmering sense of different folklore passing before you. Some of them will find echoes in folklore familiar across the British Isles, too, for example the notion in rune 43 that singing on board a ship is unlucky.

Does it really matter, when you read or hear this captivating poem for the first time, whether Väinamöinen is a god or a hero, whether Lemminkäinen is a hero or a shaman? What’s more important here is the sense of something magical and possible, that’ll be immediately familiar to anyone who knows any of the English-Scottish ballad tradition. In rune 27, when Lemminkäinen duels with the Lord of Pohjola they sing each other into different forms – a pond, a bullock, a wolf, a hare – in much the same way as the protagonists of the ballad ‘The Two Magicians’ or the fairies in ‘Tam Lin’. The dreadful results of Kullervo’s seduction of his sister are echoed throughout ballads like ‘Edward’, while making a magical musical instrument from bones is also an important theme in the ballad ‘The Three Sisters’.

For those of you more familiar with the earthier end of English folksong, the Great Ox of rune 20 has a lot in common with the widespread (and often quite scatological) ‘Derby Ram’, while the creation of beer – and the warnings about its power – in the same rune have parallels in ‘John Barleycorn’.

Folklore is the minutiae of people’s lives. It’s fascinating, but not in the abstract. It’s fascinating because it’s about people, about their lives and thoughts. We can celebrate that in the Kalevala, and we can celebrate it now being more accessible to  us through Keith’s magnificent work. -->

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Historypin for folklorists?

I am currently doing some work for the University of Hertfordshire for the second phase of the Heritage Lottery Fund backed All Our Stories project. (I suspect the reason academic writing is worsening is that academics have to write sentences like that to keep their sponsors happy).

I'm basically helping out on the oral history front, but I the University is also setting up a Historypin project with the aim of bringing together various of the local researches. I recently went to an introductory session run by Historypin's Rebekkah Abraham that pointed the local groups towards what they could do on the site.

The site definitely has potential, and any social historian will want to keep an eye on it: it's possible to upload images, film and audio items, pinning them to GoogleMaps. It has some limitations at this stage. It's not yet well set up to upload text documents, and it relies on a number of other platforms for the uploading (film and audio can only be uploaded via YouTube, and registration is only available through a Google account). Even with these limitations it does offer the opportunity of comparing a range of historical material about specific locations. It feels like one to watch, rather than one that's already there.

For a folklorist who does not deal so much with specific geographical locations I think it'll be of perhaps even more limited application, but I'm keen to try and use it to interlace folklore (oral and ephemeral artefacts of social cultural life) with a more orthodox social history. I'm thinking about ways of using it as a platform for some oral documentary material that is specifically place-related (local legends etc), but that will require paying some attention to how informants are prepared to let me use their recordings.

More straightforwardly it offers the possibility of uploading photographs of folklife etc. I've set up an account, and I'm looking to put up the photographs of wayside shrines there sometime in the future. In the meantime I've made a small start to using it as a documentary platform for my photos of graffiti, and am hoping that if I can assemble enough it will be possible to organise them thematically and historically. The pedestrian underpasses of Hatfield, for example, have proved rich sources of evidence of popular attitudes. I snapped this comment on the financial crisis there last week.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Poets' Day

Last night I ran into that fine London-Irish singer/songwriter Anto Morra again. He sang one of his compositions, about looking to cut short the working week. 'This is about poets' day', he said - Push Off Early Tomorrow's Saturday.

Actually, he sang 'Piss off early ...', but I put it here as my maternal grandmother first explained it to me in the early 1990s, when I was working in an office for Mercury Communications. Anto saw the phrase and the practice as belonging to the period when workers were paid weekly in cash. You could slope off early as soon as you had your week's wages in hand. I wonder how far the phrase is still in use, and whether it's still associated primarily with weekly payments in cash.

Even if the practice is changing, however, there's a long history of workers trimming their working week to cut short the wage-slavery. 'Saint Monday' could be invoked as a reason for not going in. A former Kent miner told me that workers on the first shift on a Monday morning would sit in the canteen ahead of clocking on. Sometimes one of the workers would throw his tally onto the table. If the others joined in, they'd all bunk off and go fishing. (He also said he'd had to stop doing it when he had a family to support, indicating the financial sacrifices that are made just to get some time away from work). The comedienne Sarah Millican grew up in a north-eastern mining family, where the practice was known as 'having one off for the queen'.

I probably should have posted this last week for World Poetry Day, but that fell on a Thursday. Meanwhile, roll on Friday.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Hairdressers and contemporary legends

A trip to the barber this morning set me thinking about some of my earliest exposure to contemporary legends, long before I got interested in folklore. (Barbers' are still a good place to hear contemporary legends: my 2001 documentation of 'The Grateful Terrorist', submitted for a class paper at Sheffield, came back with a gleeful supervisor's comment that 'My hairdresser told me this one!').

When I was around 12-13 one of my closest schoolfriends, Billy, told me a story related to him by his older sister Tessa. One of Tessa's friends worked in a hairdresser's salon. She'd been cutting a man's hair, and had noticed suspicion movements under his gown at about crotch level. These continued, she put two and two together, and slapped the filthy masturbating swine in outrage. He looked completely baffled, and as the gown fell away it revealed him hard at work polishing his glasses ...

Billy told this as a true story. He was a very funny storyteller (as was Tessa, I must say) with a seamless string of true-sounding narratives and jokes. I've no doubt now that if I'd probed the reported experience I'd have found that it didn't actually happen to Tessa's friend, it was something she'd heard from someone else, who probably also had told it as a true story although its source was still somewhat vague.

Billy also reported a story from Tessa's husband Nick, who was a teacher. After taking a class on a day trip to the zoo Nick had been suspicious of the quiet on the coach on the way back. When he went to see what was happening one of the pupils unzipped a holdall, and out jumped a penguin ...

Again, Billy told this as an experience of Nick's. Again, I suspect that probing it would quickly have revealed a much less certain chain of narratives. (Both stories remain excellent, I must say). The age difference between Billy and Tessa was probably an additional factor in the transmission - these were sophisticated, rather adult, tales to our aspirant adolescent ears, which is another reason they remain so memorable. They probably added to the accumulating material that eventually led to me getting interested in folklore.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Prone burials in popular culture (again)

I've written before on prone burial - burying someone face down to prevent their return after death - and its occurrence in popular literature.

The most recent documented historical occurrence of this happened in 1916, although I noted before that it is the sort of event that might be too sensitive to be shared with fieldworkers. I was reminded of the practice then by its appearance in a late nineteenth-century story by Ambrose Bierce.

Listening the other day to a Jake Thackray compilation I came across a much more recent popular reference to the motif. The song 'The Jolly Captain' features a long-suffering old salt who is plagued by his cantankerous wife. (This is fairly typical of Thackray's representations of marital relations). First off the wife threatens to haunt the Captain if he remarries:

'From her deathbed she said "If you marry when I die
I'll crawl from my coffin to haunt you vexatiously".'

I'd come across such threats before, although not always attached to this rather misogynistic domination. Yeats noted it as having been 'a common threat' (1) in Irish folklore, and it turns up in the repertoire of that fine Irish Traveller singer Tom McCarthy. In the song 'Don't Be Beguiling' it is the abused lover who threatens to haunt the woman who has tormented him while alive. (Sadly this song isn't on Tom's first CD Round Top Wagon, but that only points to the need for him to record more!).

Even more striking than this motif in Thackray's song is the last stanza, where the Captain promises she'll 'stay in her place':

'No she won't come to haunt me and taunt me, I know,
'Cause I buried her face downward, she's a long way to go.'

Jake Thackray

Thackray was born in 1938, and this song was first released in 1972. Thackray's use of the motif doesn't presuppose widespread familiarity with it, although it doesn't treat it as unusual and unexpected. (This is similar to Bierce's sly presentation of it: the narrator does not see the implications of the burial, but the reader feels an unpleasant lurch of recognition). This suggests that prone burial may still have been known or mentioned somewhere in Thackray's own background, which points to a continuation of the idea more recently than the evidence of the practice might indicate.

* * * * * * * * *

1: W.B. Yeats, ed., Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland (London: Pan, 1979), p. 117.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Conferences, collaborations, conversations

It took me most of last year to get used to the idea that I'd finally finished my PhD. Such a drastic change in one's social status requires the appropriate ritual observation, as I've known since I first read Arnold van Gennep as an undergraduate. Sure enough, after the rite of passage that is the graduation ceremony I did at last feel I could resume normal intellectual life. (The accompanying picture was taken on his 'phone by Pany Costa as we queued in the bitter wind outside St Albans Cathedral in November).

There was a slight blip in that resumption, as we were burgled a week later and I lost my laptop. I've retrieved most of the documents, but there are one or two recordings that are gone forever, I'm afraid. I found that so traumatic that I found it difficult to get back to full speed, even when I had a computer in my hands again.

So it was very nice to spend a little time at the Folklore Society/Warburg Institute Alliterativa Causa conference at the weekend. I gave a paper at the previous alliteration conference (which resulted in this volume) so it was nice to catch up again. I'm not sure I'm entirely on top of the technical aspects of the question, and I confess to feeling somewhat intimidated by the linguistics scholars: in part I think there may be work to be done on the gulf between scholarly and vernacular understandings of alliteration. There was, though, much to enjoy even in papers well outside my research interests and comfort zone.

It was also nice to catch up again with Jonathan Roper, who organised the conference. Jonathan supervised my MA dissertation: I enjoy his company and his scholarship, not least because I don't always agree with his interpretations or readings, but they're always suggestive and make for interesting thinking. I enjoyed, too, a conversation over coffee with Fionnuala Carson Williams, who also gave a paper at that first conference. She insisted on the importance of going to conferences, mainly as a way of participating in the intellectual life of a discipline and engaging other scholars in your shared pursuits.

I've haven't gone to many conferences over the last couple of years (busy writing up, then broke and ill), but I really enjoy them for those very reasons. So I've belatedly made a resolution to get back out into the world of conferences so I can find out what my colleagues are up to, and float my ideas with other people engaged in this field. I'm looking forward to it.