Thursday, 28 April 2016

Twitter and Folklore (Part 1)

Anyone who has ever sat with me at folklore events will know that I spend a lot of my time fretting about folklore’s status as a discipline in Britain.

Describing it even as ‘marginal’ in academia might be an overstatement. Most of the interest in our subject currently comes from amateurs. There is no academic funding in England and the situation in Scotland, although better, is hardly glowing. Its disciplinary status is almost invisible through this marginalisation.

I have inclined towards a certain apocalyptic tone when discussing the state of affairs but this is the reality of the situation and we have to deal with it. There is no place for academic folklorists to be sniffy about amateur research or scholarship. That is, thankfully, rare enough anyhow, not least because so much of the history of our discipline was shaped by amateur enthusiasts.

I have always argued that academically trained folklorists can and should usefully think about how they might help develop and strengthen such amateur research. If the majority of people actively engaged in folklore research at present are outside academia (certainly true in England), those with academic training can offer skills and expertise to help amateur researchers bring their work forward.

Because, let’s be blunt: scholarship is not the exclusive preserve of academics, no matter what some academics might think or hope. A serious scholarly approach is available to all.

Some proselytising and encouragement will be necessary, but so much amateur research is already going on that that hardly seems the most urgent task. Rather, I think, we should be encouraging more cautious and critical thinking among amateur researchers.

Similar remarks have begun pretty much every contribution I’ve made on the responsibilities of academic folklorists in Britain over the last 10 years or so. Whatever follows is dependent on those ideas.

But I’m musing out loud on this now because of the enormous success of the Twitter hashtag #FolkloreThursday. It’s a clear indication of the widespread interest in folklore. This is obviously A Good Thing, but it is not without its problems. A number of folklorists have grumbled quietly about the lack of attribution of material on the hashtag: there does seem to be a bias towards visual material (as one might expect, given the textual limitations of Twitter), and the source of the images presented is not always identified.

Non-visual material, too, is often presented in a universalising, non-specific way. Even if universalising is not the intention it may be a by-product of the presentation. To take an example unfairly, I today read the unsourced claim that ‘Cattle were made to leap over fires to prevent disease & to protect against the fairies who might sour their milk’. Who did this – farmers, landlords, farm labourers? Where – was it regionally specific? When did this happen
now, previously, a long time before the claim was written down or contemporaneously with it? Who documented it – someone close to events geographically and temporally, or someone at a greater social, linguistic and time remove? Who interpreted it – the person who did it or the person who wrote it down?

#FolkloreThursday has set me thinking about a huge range of subjects, and it’s clear that one post isn’t going to work for them all, so I will come back to this again. For now, though, I want to emphasise the need for concreteness. Folklore is what people do, think and say, informally and collectively. There’s a syncretic aspect to it, certainly
– the folk are adaptive and creative but it isn’t simply an agglomeration of abstract or more-or-less whimsical concepts. Folklore isn’t all mystical or supernatural, although that seems to form a large part of the Twitter material.

I noted on Twitter a couple of weeks ago that the hashtag was making me even more inclined to a performance-related ethnography than I already was. More than that it’s pushing me to an ever-greater insistence on the place of the tradition-bearers themselves in folklore, on seeing folklore in its practice. That's been on my mind over the last few days since the death of that fine scholar William A. ‘Bert’ Wilson. He wrote extensively and well on the folklore of his Mormon background, dealing sensitively with how much is missed by etic researchers without blinding himself to the problems confronting the emic investigator. Having fallen in love and married while a missionary in Finland he also wrote widely on the development of Finnish folkloristics and its relation to questions of nationalism.

William A. Wilson
Browsing through his wonderful 2006 collection of essays The Marrow of Human Experience (available online courtesy of Utah State University's Digital Commons) I came across an insistence on the place of the folk in folklore that bears repeating in this discussion.

Wilson recounted an experience at a faculty social event where, after an initial confusion over his work as a folklorist, he observed the sharing and discussion of legends. He made his point elegantly and graciously to his colleagues, and then to his readers:

‘More than almost any other subject, folklore must be experienced directly in actual life, as I experienced these narratives, to be properly understood. In twenty years of teaching, I have discovered that my students can listen to my lectures, can read assigned books and essays on the subject, and can still leave the course not understanding folklore unless they have encountered it in the actual settings in which it is performed.’ (p.83)

Wilson (interestingly, given his so close identification with a specific religious grouping) saw folklore’s development along group transmission lines as a secondary characteristic: ‘I am convinced that we generate and transmit folklore not because we belong to a particular nation or to a particular group – not because we are westerners, loggers, Catholics, or Finns – but because we are human beings dealing with recurring human problems in traditional human ways.’ (p.20)

For this, of course, you need to examine what these recurring human problems are. You need to look at the context of practice. I’ll come back in a later post to the question of the material being circulated, but what I often feel is lacking from the #FolkloreThursday material is people, the people doing and saying these things. There’s no need to exoticise folklore, or look only for the mystical and supernatural: people do interesting stuff all the time.

As an example I’ll finish with something that came up during a Twitter conversation yesterday. The wonderful collection had tweeted the following skipping rhyme recorded from Ballyshannon:

Up the long ladder

And down the short rope

To hell with King William

And god bless the Pope.

To which an Irish historian responded that she had skipped to the song:

Vote vote vote for de Valera.

In the discussion that followed she confirmed this was sung to the tune of George Root’s ‘Tramp Tramp Tramp’ [the boys are marching], although she didn’t know the song by name. I mentioned that is recorded as being used for election songs in England, often sung by gangs of locally recruited youth and so liable to remain in circulation as a children’s song. (It’s also noted in association with strike songs, particularly a very famous one relating to the 1883 Great Docks Strike, but that’s probably a different discussion). At this point one of the historian’s followers announced that his father, when a young boy, had sung it campaigning for Leslie Hore-Belisha in Devonport in the 1930s.

This is the sort of thing that passes into oral traditional circulation although its background may quickly be lost. Being able to document actual use and practice is worthwhile in and of itself and may also be able to fill out a broader record. It’s fun and it’s valuable, and that's where folklore research should be aiming.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Under the Clock

Recently I read Robert Fraser’s biography of the poet David Gascoyne. It isn’t a terribly satisfactory book, for reasons related to Surrealism and poetry rather than to folklore. Fraser’s other work, however, is directly connected to folklore – he has written extensively on James Frazer and The Golden Bough, and one of my more interesting discoveries in the Gascoyne book was that Enitharmon, Gascoyne’s later publisher, was founded by Alan Clodd, grandson of the hugely important Folklore Society President Edward Clodd – so I might well find myself coming back to him. (I have tried to avoid J.G. Frazer as far as possible but he keeps cropping up: he might ultimately prove to be unavoidable).

What did catch my attention as a folklorist was a passing reference in Chapter 29, dealing with Gascoyne’s period of hospitalisation in Whitecroft Hospital, also known as the Isle of Wight Mental Hospital or the Isle of Wight County Asylum. Construction on Whitecroft began in 1894. Like other mental hospitals of the period its outbuildings centred on a clock-/watchtower. The phrase that caught my attention was Fraser’s comment that ‘The local expression for admission to this monument to Victorian philanthropy, or for simply losing one’s mind, was to go “under the clock”’ (p.352).

Fraser cites no source for this statement, and it sounds (particularly given the tenor of the rest of the book) like an unattributed reference from a local history pamphlet. The hospital closed in 1992, and I wondered how far (if at all) the phrase remained in current usage. I’ve noted previously how older usages hang on (and die out), and I was curious about this one.

A brief and unsystematic look online revealed that the phrase is still in use locally on the Isle of Wight, but how widespread that is remains to be seen. One reason I was interested was because I was in the process of moving to the Island myself: as if I hadn’t had enough going on in my life lately I was moving house. This may also have triggered my interest in the phrase (and concept) of being ‘under the clock’. We arrived about a month ago, and I am slowly beginning to get my eye and ear in. I’m hoping that the move will see me easing gently back into fieldwork after the disruptions of the last two years.

One other area of interest has already begun to make itself apparent. Whitecroft Hospital has now been converted into accommodation, with Fraser noting tartly that the developers’ ‘glossy introductory brochure makes no references to its original function as a mental institution’. Maybe not, but one should never underestimate the capacity to generate legends of place, particularly around former hospital sites.

A 2014 tourist article by Jo Macaulay noted Whitecroft as ‘another huge haunted site’, where ‘former inmates are thought to inhabit its walls, screaming in mental or physical pain’. She remarked that ‘Perhaps unsurprisingly the flats are not selling particularly well and the development has had a few starts and stops in the past ten years’.

Of course one might expect a proliferation of such stories around defunct hospital sites, and there is evident enthusiasm for them across the Island. The site of the former Chest Hospital (now the car park for Ventnor Botanic Garden) is another site regularly identified as haunted. Macaulay, in passing, also manages to highlight how local publications become part of legend negotiation. Pointing to local author Gay Baldwin’s series of books on the Island’s ghosts, begun in the 1970s, Macaulay writes that ‘Everyone knew the old stories that had been passed down by oral tradition, but nobody laid claim to having seen a ghost in print until Gay started to prompt them. But once the gates were open, stories began to flood in …’ Macaulay used Baldwin’s books as the basis for her own tourist piece.

It began as a moment of curiosity and minor irritation at an unsourced comment. That's how research starts.