Monday 19 February 2024

Folklore Without Borders

As so often with me, quietness here does not mean that I have been idle. The last year has seen quite a lot of activity, in fact, including publication at last of a couple of long developed pieces, and what felt like a hugely belated first trip to an American Folklore Society conference.


What Matt Cheeseman, who took it, tells me was my official AFS portrait.

Like much of my other activity, these were in truth also shaped towards a very exciting project now underway that will take up all of this year. We had received confirmation that it was going ahead late last year, but I wanted to hold off mentioning it here until I could tie it in formally with the institution that will be hosting me for the duration. New year new job, yes, but this has been long in preparation.

Over a protracted period, I was able to support my excellent colleague and friend Dr Matthew Cheeseman at the University of Derby in a successful AHRC network funding bid. We received notice we’d been successful late last year, and it’s been a little frantic getting everything sorted and underway, but we have. Matt is the project’s Principal Investigator, and the University of Hertfordshire have taken me back on for the duration as Co-Investigator.

The project is ‘Folklore Without Borders’, a network of academics and organisations working to develop greater diversity within folklore. We are holding an international knowledge exchange on folklore theory, methodology and creative practice, connecting three groups who work with cultural tradition: academia (research, teaching, impact), individual stakeholders (artists, writers; entrepreneurial folklorists) and cultural industries (museums, galleries, archives; media). This network considers both theoretical and practical to make change happen in several domains that would not normally have the opportunity to meet.


Part of this involves identifying the obstacles and issues within the sphere of folklore and folkloristics on a sound historical basis, so my developing interest in the reception of folklore is finally becoming a more directed examination of disciplinary history. The open access publication of an article developed from a piece originally written for Jacqueline Simpson’s 90th birthday marks another gleeful step down that road, with a piece on two Victorian folklorists to follow later in the year.


But for now, I’m just looking forward to the network beginning to develop and take on a life of its own. And I’m looking forward to reporting on this more widely.

Wednesday 29 March 2023

A flatlander by inclination

I love flatlands. There is something about a big sky and an uninterrupted horizon that speaks directly to me, and some of my fondest memories of place involve an unbroken wash of sky. (The sort of place, as comedian Rich Hall described the plains of Montana, that’s ‘so flat you can see the back of your own head’). Not the least intriguing thing about these places is that they require careful management and maintenance. They are very deliberate landscapes.


The North Kent Marshes. The Somerset Levels, with their strange punctuating polyps Glastonbury Tor and Burrowbridge Mump. I’ve known and loved Romney Marsh, which is four marshes really, since I was a child, visiting its shingle headland and farming inland regularly over many years. (My parents spent their last 20+ years here, as my mother had grown up nearby). I made my first stab at fieldwork here, too, discovering that flatlands offer certain advantages to those of us who don’t drive but can cycle. Over decades, now, I’ve seen shifting patterns of habitation across the Marsh, and I’ll be reflecting a little on changing land use and attitudes to the terrain in marginal reclaimed water areas at the Folklore Society’s forthcoming annual conference on ‘Folklore,Geography and Environment: Ways of Knowing Water, Landscape and Climate in the Anthropocene’. (I’m looking forward to getting back to Hull, too, somewhere I haven't been in too many years).


The other flatland that occupies a major part of my imagination is the Cambridgeshire Fens. I still recall one magical January afternoon being driven across a snowy grey wasteland. Ahead of us we could see a snowstorm as a discreet column of weather. Sometimes we had to drive through it, and out the other side. Sometimes, as the roads turned around the waterways, the storm would temporarily obstruct our view of Ely Cathedral, the most prominent building breaking the skyline.


So I was delighted recently to find a cheap second-hand copy of Edward Storey’s The Winter Fens. Storey was from Whittlesey, near Ely, and wrote several books on the area. But this particular copy has more than just its contents going for it.


It is inscribed with the name of a previous owner, and in the same hand a short poem is written inside the back cover. A brief and thus far cursory search online has revealed no authorial source for the poem, so until I discover otherwise I will treat the poem as likely written by Joan Bush. It is a rather nice little piece of verse:


January is the month of Xmas bills

Leaking ceilings and sore throat pills

The month that kids lose mittens in

And the cat has 13 kittens in

To top it all the car won’t go

It’s sitting in a bed of snow

January would be a curse

If February didn’t promise worse.

Tuesday 15 November 2022

Hello! Anybody there...?

I had the great joy last week of getting in person to a Folklore Society Council meeting again, after my previous attempt was thwarted by finally catching COVID. The meeting was followed by a quite bracingly excellent Katharine Briggs lecture by Katherine Langrish, and the announcement of the Katharine Briggs book award winner – Folklore, Magic, and Witchcraft: Cultural Exchanges from the Twelfth to Eighteenth Century, ed. Marina Montesano (Routledge). I have read a couple of the shortlisted books and can confirm their excellence, so anything that beat them must be worth a look. Edited collections don’t always do so well in the final placings, so it’s impressive to see such volumes both winning and making it to runner-up (the outstanding The Routledge Companion to English Folk Performance, eds Peter Harrop and Steve Roud (Routledge), which I reviewed highly favourably in the Folk Music Journal).


Katherine Langrish

Not the least part of the joy of the evening was socialising again, catching up with dear colleagues I hadn’t seen in an age. I may have some moderately gregarious tendencies, even though I am quite happy beavering away at my desk, with the result that I do not always realise that I have actually accomplished stuff unless I tell other people.


Which may be where the title comes in. Kenneth Horne, usually seeking commercial assistance of some more or less ludicrous kind, would call out the introduction in his fruitily suggestive tones in episodes of the 1960s radio comedy series Round the Horne. What followed was an encounter with the latest hilarious and rather risqué business venture of sometime theatrical couple Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams), with Horne a game and delighted straight (in every sense) foil to their camp.


The scripts and performances are hilarious and still stand up, but they are lent considerable extra power by their context. These two evidently gay characters appeared regularly at a time when homosexuality was only just in the process of being decriminalised. There was no pretence here: as Noel Coward once told Nancy Spain about her frock, they ‘wouldn’t fool a blind child of nine’. But they also spoke in an argot cultivated both as defence mechanism and as a means of disguising their criminalised conversation: Polari.


Polari was a specific language usage by gay men, but it had common roots with other argots and street languages, including among theatre and carnival people. (It’s always amused me that the rather macho and aggressively straight Ewan MacColl included in one song a slang word he’d obviously heard from truck drivers which is also well known in Polari). This was where I mostly heard it, and still do to some extent.


Times change, and usages change, and it is possible that the appearance of Polari in Round the Horne marked some sort of decline in its necessary use as a defensive measure even as it popularised some parts of it. Enter linguist Paul Baker, whose charming and readable history of Polari, Fabulosa!, charts its early life but also follows a more stubborn persistence. It’s a terrific book, and I had the great pleasure of talking to Paul about it and about Polari. I’d all but forgotten I’d done this, in fact, but it is now finished as part of a Folklore Podcast episode on the subject. Clap your Polari lobes on it here.

Paul Baker

This is what I mean about forgetting things I have actually done, perhaps because they were entirely done at my desk without direct personal contact. I was delighted to be reminded of my conversation with Paul at about the same time I was reminded of another online conversation I’d had. This was about a longstanding interest of mine – cannibalism at sea. A while back, those lovely people at Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast got in touch via Twitter. In the course of the correspondence they even called me a ‘cannibalism celebrity’, and then appeared pleasantly surprised that I had immediately put this on all of my biographical material.


For their final mini-season they wanted to have a chat with some people they’d cited along the way. I am always happy to talk cannibalism with anyone, and we spent a fun afternoon chatting about the Custom of the Sea. This has been worked into one of their ‘Dinner Guests’ episodes, and is now available. I think between us we must have done every pun on cannibalism that has ever existed, so I won’t repeat any of them here. All I will say is that it’s out now, and it turns out I haven’t just been locked away to no purpose.


As it happens, another long outstanding piece of work has also finally seen the light of day, but that is for another time. For now – just tuck in. (Oh. I said I wasn’t going to do that, didn’t I?)

Wednesday 17 August 2022

When Packaging Counts

I received this week a very welcome reprint. In the early 1990s, Penguin published a great series of folktale collections. There were variations in the series, but it contained some brilliant anthologies by weighty and reputable scholars like Jacqueline Simpson (Scandinavian Folktales) and Henry Glassie (Irish Folktales).


It also included two magnificent collections by Neil Philip, Scottish Folktales and English Folktales. The latter was absolutely essential to me when I first came to folklore. For an MA class assignment I wrote on ‘The Small-Tooth Dog’, collected by Sidney Oldall Addy in Derbyshire, picked enthusiastically if randomly from this book. (The photograph here is my copy, bought second-hand in Highgate Village, and I’m surprised at how well it has borne its heavy use).

The Penguin Book of English Folktales, ed. Neil Philip (London: Penguin, 1992)

It wasn’t just that its 136 stories were marvellous, nor that they provided an invaluable snapshot and overview of the earlier collections of tales. The book also provided a useable small scholarly apparatus of Aarne-Thompson Tale Type numbers alongside the bibliographical data. As an editor, Philip was everything I could have wanted: his Introduction was fascinating and informed, shedding critical light on the stories, the narrators, the folklorists and the re-tellers, all with a sympathetic and shrewd writer’s eye for their qualities. On my beloved ‘Small-Tooth Dog’, he wrote, briefly but astutely: ‘The only real Beauty and the Beast story recorded in England, this succinct narration seems to me a much more potent text than Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s wordy and literary La Belle et la Bête (1756), which has been the basis of almost every retelling ever since.’


Such an historically informed and solid collection was clearly vital as a way of orienting the reader to oral traditions as well as scholarly interactions with them, so its unavailability for many years was a blow. This kind of book becomes all the more essential as volumes of retellings of traditional tales proliferate, as it helps the ever-growing numbers of people fascinated by this wonderful stuff to understand it a little better, to understand what might lie behind and around it.


I would have welcomed its reappearance in any form, therefore. What arrived this week, however, exceeded my expectations. It is more durable than my now-retired paperback, obviously, but that is only one criterion. The book is essentially a straightforward reprint of the 1992 volume with a couple of additions. (The apparatus reprints the Aarne-Thompson details, although the Introduction to the reprint does cite updated Aarne-Thompson-Üther numbers). Philip’s 2022 Introduction takes account of the flourishing storytelling scene since his original publication, and uses this and more folkloresque interpretative and creative uses of folklore (my description, not his) to offer a magnanimous reconsideration of some of his earlier comments. He gives Ruth Tongue the benefit of the doubt this time – I remain more ambivalent, but I take his point – and he points to Maureen James’s convincing work as clearing up his concerns over Marie Clothilde Balfour. He also, excitingly and compellingly, points to the durability of the oral tradition. As he notes, ‘the English folktale, far from being moribund, is alive and kicking’ (xix). 

The Watkins Book of English Folktales, ed. Neil Philip (London: Watkins Media, 2022)

But there is something, too, in its presentation. The book is extremely attractive. The title of each story is contained within light black-and-white decoration – nothing too fancy, but elegant rather than austere. The beautiful cover features imagery invoking both specific stories and a more generalised view of folklore as it might be understood by an interested contemporary audience. It appeals to what a readership might think it already understands, while bringing readers to a body of work that will flesh out and expand dramatically that understanding. It seems the perfect meeting and interaction of form and content, aimed at the specific conditions of current interest in folklore.


In this respect, the Foreword by Neil Gaiman is charming and outstanding. Gaiman, with his usual generosity of spirit, outlines exactly the voyage of discovery awaiting those who have come to it without perhaps fully expecting what they will find within, just as he did when he read the first edition. The cover will get people in. Neil Gaiman will get even more in. And when they arrive, they will find folklore in all its riches, courtesy of Neil Philip. An exciting journey of discovery awaits, and this is exactly how such a journey should be prepared.

Tuesday 16 August 2022

Catching Up

I’m rather surprised to find how long I’ve left this blog. There have been times when that might have reflected inactivity, but in the last year or so I’ve actually been getting underway again. Perhaps it’s because I’ve only recently recovered from having finally caught COVID that I’m taking stock a little, and recognising signs of some return to engagement.


It may in fact appear that I’ve been rather productive, as I’ve revisited some older projects for conference papers and online talks as well as finally publishing a couple of pieces of rather long gestation. I returned enthusiastically to ghostlore for the recent International Society for Folk Narrative Research conference, and will be presenting an expanded version of this for the Folklore Society later in the year. This year should also finally see publication of a chapter I wrote while recovering from surgery on metaphor in academic and vernacular discussions of ghosts. While that publication is still ahead, it is very much a conclusion to several years’ work.


An earlier paper for the Folklore Society’s excellent Open Voices: Folklore for All, Folklore of All conference also saw a return to ghostlore, combined with one of my other current preoccupations, disciplinary history and its ongoing reception. As I began that paper, ‘There is a spectre haunting folklore – the spectre of folklore itself.’


For British folklorists, and English folklorists specifically, there are many historical and historiographical issues still to be addressed, especially under conditions where interest in folklore has never been greater. How do we deal with the legacy of the weaker periods in our disciplinary history? What is that legacy? That was one of the drivers behind my interest in the prolific and fascinating Violet Alford. Over a (too) protracted period I’d spoken about her many times, with the result that pretty much everyone involved in folklore in Britain had chipped in at some point. Whatever deficiencies still remain in my arguments, those contributions strengthened what I wrote, which was finally published in Folklore. I’m hugely grateful. This is a collaborative process.


The other area where I’ve been trying to trace the legacies of some more doubtful British folklore studies – Murray and Frazer in particular, who remain powerful poles of attraction outside academic scholarship – has been through representations in popular culture. I followed up my Western Folklore article on Folk Horror with a chapter in this collection, tracing similar themes and representations in a 1930 crime novel.


I haven’t quite said my last word on this subject, but that’s still work in progress.

Clearing the decks in this way does allow me to sharpen my focus on such works in progress, as well as on projects which are not so far advanced. It’s a nice feeling.

Sunday 20 June 2021

Contextless Ethnography?

When my parents died a couple of years ago, my sister and I were left with a vast amount of physical stuff to clear from their house. Conditions last year were hardly conducive to long travelling to do this, so we’re only now finally getting it all sorted. As a result, I have recently become the custodian of my father’s photographs. All of them.

My dad, Tony Day (1937-2019), was a serious amateur photographer from adolescence right up to his death. He kept all his photographic images, good and bad – prints, negatives, slides, cine film, digital video tapes. On top of this, he had also received all his family’s photographs, including those taken by his father, and on top of this were all the pictures from my mother’s family. My conservative estimate is tens of thousands of images, which posed the question of what to do with them all.

The sheer volume was compounded by what one might charitably call my dad’s often cavalier attitude towards tidiness. Many of the images were loose in boxes. He had latterly begun to put his prints into albums, although he had not dealt with all of them by the time of his death. Some of these were roughly labelled, but many more were not. (I have not even begun looking at the slides or cine films yet: I see that he did make a rough catalogue index of slide boxes, but seems to have used the same numbering system more than once).

As all this stuff had arrived at my house and was filling up my spare room, I urgently needed to get it into a more immediately manageable space. The first step was to empty out the albums he had so lovingly filled, which was perhaps the oddest of the emotional pangs during this process.

I initially worked to separate the prints into three very rough top-level categories: Family; Friends; and Other. The latter was ridiculously unwieldy, but a necessary starting point just to work out what I was looking at. The rolls were rarely thematic, but a sequential record of what he saw and found interesting: he loved churches, stained glass, birds, plants, caravans, landscapes, cars, things he found curious, odd or funny …

His curiosity, as a very serious practising Anglican, about people and their religious and other practices threw up some surprises for me. Here were morris dancers, giants, processions. (The morris dancers were my fault: he had given me a lift to the Tenterden Folk Festival, and photographed the passing troupes while I was giving a talk). His intimate knowledge of churches and church life meant there were a lot of photographs of craftsmen engaged in church renovations. Here (somewhat to my alarm, given his occasional lack of worldiness and general conservatism) were gable end murals in Northern Ireland. It may have been simple curiosity, but the result was ethnographic evidence.


Free Derry Corner. Photo: Tony Day

Yet how to understand the pictures?

I cannot say that his curiosity at what he saw was leading him to investigate directly the practices he photographed (although this is complicated, as he was also thinking deeply about religious observance and meaning), so many of the pictures are probably best treated as discreet records rather than part of any inquiry on his part. This is compounded by the somewhat random character of his taking of photographs, further randomised by the distribution of the prints. I do not know, for example, in which French town the Chinese parade seen here was taking place.


Chinese New Year(?) procession, France. Photo: Tony Day


Investigation of the images would require treating them as contextless ethnography to some extent, although that does an injustice to his inner life, his unstated thinking. I have to start from that position simply because the context is not available to me. From my knowledge of him, he could have commented on most near any picture if asked, but would not have put this together into any overall record. Yet his obvious love of xeroxlore, which ties to the images he found amusing, obviously fits into a broader, more consistent outlook.

2010 well dressing. Photo: Tony Day

Buxton (?) well, 2010. Photo: Tony Day

I am starting slowly, therefore, with individual images, like the ones here. I may not be able to put him back into many of them yet, but I can start by making sense of some of what he saw. One of the dressed wells, for example, is conveniently dated 2010, so the other photo from the same roll of a trip to the Peak District is clearly from the same time. The town centre dressing is, I believe, in Buxton, outside the NatWest on Spring Gardens. Funnily enough the other one, which should be the easier to identify, currently eludes me. If anyone can help, I’d appreciate it. Because making sense of this stuff is what I’m going to be doing for a while, I think.

Sunday 16 May 2021

A couple of upcoming presentations

Academic folklorists without an institutional position, like me, have to find various workarounds to provide such things as university library access. I am grateful, therefore, to the University of Hertfordshire for my Visiting Research Fellowship, which has given me this as well as some sort of institutional recognition I can appeal to when out in the wider academic world of conferences and publications. It is all too easy for the precarious academic to feel that they are under-achieving, or not achieving at all, simply because they have no wider social academic context in which to place their work. Over the last month or so I’ve been reviewing my output for the period of the Fellowship to date, and it’s been a relief after all to see that I have put out more than I’d realised, which has therefore gone out over that institutional affiliation as the quid pro quo.


What hasn’t happened so much – inevitably, given the circumstances – is conference and live appearances, but even that is beginning to change. Having missed two years of Folklore Society conferences (family bereavement followed by COVID-19 suspension of events), I’m really happy and quite daunted to be back presenting at next weekend’s Folklore, Learning and Literacies conference, held over from last year.


I’d submitted a proposal to force myself finally to have a look at some 1920s Belgian notebooks containing songtexts that I was shown some years ago. As some of the notebooks were previously study exercise books, I’d hoped to investigate the relationship between formal school/informal folklore education and transmission of knowledge. I’m not convinced I’ve got very far with that aspect of the investigation, but I have started to piece together an overview of interwar popular singing traditions as they’re represented and play out in these notebooks. This is beginning to pose questions about interpretation, as well as further historical research: some of the songs, for example, came from the doyen of marktzangers, Lionel Bauwens, known as Tamboer, a man so significant he has this statue in his hometown of Eeklo. I think this paper is very much the starting point for research rather than its conclusion, but that makes it all the more stimulating to me.
Lionel Bauwen, 'Tamboer' by Spotter2 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


Shortly afterwards, when I’ve caught my breath, it will also be my turn to give an online talk for the Folklore Society. ‘Old Clem! Blow the fire, blow the fire: St Clement’s Day and Dickens’ is a return to a talk I gave some years ago (but have now completely forgotten, it seems). It started with an investigation into Joe Gargery’s song at his forge in Great Expectations, which led me to contemplation of the relationship between folklore and literature (something which has exercised me more recently in consideration of the folkloresque) as well as to the specific folkloric content of St Clement’s Day observations. This, in turn, opened up something of a rabbit warren of details about saints’ days generally. Bernardino Fungai's lovely picture of St Clement being hoiked overboard chained to an anchor, for example, codifies one account of his martyrdom, but it is unclear who (if anyone) he really was. The situation gets even murkier when you look at the various St Catherines with whose observations Clement’s later merged, so it’s a pleasingly chaotic mélange of ideas and avenues for exploration. And it does involve dynamite. Booking is still open!


The Martyrdom of St Clement, by Bernardino Fungai

Thursday 8 April 2021

Subversive folklore in the military?

I’m not particularly a fan of online meetings/events, but needs must when the devil drives – why, yes, I have recently been reviewing a book of proverb scholarship for Folklore – and I’ve been very happy about the current series of Folklore Society events. (I’ll be doing one myself in June). On Tuesday I had the great pleasure of chairing Professor David Hopkin’s excellent talk on ‘The Soldier’s Tale: Military Storytelling in Revolutionary Europe’, which was followed by the usual invigorating discussion. David’s focus was very much on the genre of folktales, and I wondered about the place of legend in military narrative traditions.


Professor David Hopkin

I mentioned in passing, for example, the song McCafferty (Roud 1148), based on the true story of a soldier killing an officer at Fulwood Barracks in Preston (1). From recollection (subsequently filled out in the discussion by William Roberts), one staple of the song’s performance is a comment on its subversive/banned character. In the late 1960s Shropshire singer May Bradley recalled singing the song some 40 years earlier ‘and a man jumped up and said, “Mrs Bradley we mustn’t allow that song in this house”. And I said “What’s that got to do along o’you?” and he said “If you was found singing that song you’d get 10 years in jail”.’ (2) Roy Palmer reported that ‘In the army itself it was widely believed that to sing the song was a chargeable offence’: his father had heard it sung in the Leicestershire Regiment in the 1920s, but ‘only when there was no one [in authority] about’ (3). It certainly continued to circulated within the military, with one of A.E. Green’s informants having learned it while serving in the Navy.

This kind of introductory comment gets me very excited, because non-sung verbal contextualisation of performances was often omitted/ignored by the early collectors, who were much more interested in the songs as musical artefacts, but is clearly an essential part of understanding what exactly is going on in the sharing of lore. David Hopkin added an extra layer to this with a wonderful story about Roy Palmer. David had been at a conference with his PhD supervisor, Peter Burke. They had met Roy Palmer, and Peter Burke said ‘The last time I saw you was at Catterick Barracks in 1952: I heard they’d court-martialled you for saluting the red flag!’

The story went that on the firing range, where red flags were hoisted to signal live fire, then Communist Party member Palmer had stood to salute one, resulting in disciplinary action. Not true, said Palmer, although as a CP member he had been removed from signalling duties as a possible security risk. However, the development of the legend – paralleling the claim that singing McCaffery was ‘chargeable’ is itself an interesting moment of military folklore.


By chance I have also just picked up a book on the 1797 naval mutinies, where, in another echo of the Burke/Palmer story, the Spithead mutineers used the hoisted red flag as a prearranged signal for sending delegates to central meetings – although the Spithead mutineers do not seem to have intended it as a republican gesture, that was certainly how it was seen by the Admiralty. I was reminded of the wonderful broadside ballad The Death of Parker, or President Parker (Roud 1032) on Richard Parker, hanged for his part in the Nore mutiny. It is a sympathetic song, treating of Parker’s widow and the story that, in Roy Palmer’s words, ‘the navy buried his body on the shore between high and low tide marks, and that his wife secretly removed it for proper interment’ (4). Here’s a nice version sung by Annie Dearman, accompanied by Steve Harrison.


Richard Parker about to be hanged

I first heard Parker sung in a folk club by Dave East (who had himself done military service). Dave would comment that singing this song was a disciplinary offence because of the line comment that ‘although he was hangèd up for mutiny, worse than him were left behind’. I’ve seen no evidence to support the claim, nor have I yet found any evidence of other singers believing the same, but the similarity with the McCaffery comment is suggestive. (Even if it is only suggestive of an experienced singer with a wide repertoire transferring legends from song to song on the basis of similarity). It suggests an intriguing nuance to some singers’ selection and perpetuation of specific songs, with some interesting implications for attitudes to military service and activity.

*  *  *  *  *

1) The best consideration of the song I’ve read is A.E. Green ‘McCaffery: A Study in the Variation and Function of a Ballad’, Lore & Language, 3 (1970), 4-9; 4 (1971), 3-12; 5 (1971), 5-11.

2) Fred Hamer, Green Groves: More English Folk Songs (London: EFDS Publications, 1973), p. 48.

3) Roy Palmer, ed., The Rambling Soldier: Life in the Lower Ranks, 1750-1900, through Soldiers’ Songs and Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), p. 120. Palmer gives a good historical account of the story, pp. 119-126.

4) Roy Palmer, ed., The Oxford Book of Sea Songs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 167.

Sunday 31 January 2021

Into the Future Thanks to the Past

The last year has brought home how much I’ve missed fieldwork, but I have found other ways to fill my time.

Seasonal customs have been hard hit by the pandemic and restrictions on meeting, and folklorists have been documenting how this has played out. There’s been a huge proliferation of online material, inevitably, from virtual events to the spread of memes and legends of all sorts. The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research have been collecting COVID contemporary legends, while the spate of memes photoshopping a masked and gloved Bernie Sanders are being collated by archivists at the VermontFolklife Center.


Shortly before the second lockdown I learned of an excellent local legend, in family tradition, and had made a provisional arrangement to speak to at least one of the two people known to tell it. She wanted to speak to the other, her brother, so I’m optimistic I’ll be able to compare their tellings directly, at some point – but that ‘at some point’ rather vanished into the unknown, inevitably.


I’ve been busy, however, with some things which are not fieldwork dependent but are tied up instead with the history of folklore studies as a discipline. One is a chapter in an intriguing edited collection Folklore and the Nation that follows up my recent Western Folklore article on the folkloresque. While I’ve always found investigations of the ways folklore and popular culture interact fascinating, it surprised me somewhat to find myself contributing. The folkloresque is a handy set of ways of thinking about this interaction that started out by probing how popular culture creates representations of what looks like folklore. Watching the Hammer film The Witches (1966), and later reading its source novel, I’d come to see this folkloresque representation leaning heavily not just on folklore, but on the evolving history of the discipline itself. The forthcoming chapter pursues this further in an investigation of a 1930 detective novel.


For British folklorists this takes a particular historical slant, as the folklore studies that are reflected are often exactly the low points of our history that we’d much rather forget – what I’ve come to refer to casually, but with a shudder, as ‘the Murray/Gardner years’. So it’s been a pleasure too, to take up some actual historical research into this for a couple of projects. One was a small essay to mark the 90th birthday of that doyenne of recent British folklore scholarship, Professor Jacqueline Simpson. I confess I wrote it in part because it felt a shame not to use the title: ‘Margaret Murray: Who Didn’t Believe Her and Why’.


Jacqueline Simpson with Terry Pratchett

This came hot on the heels of some extensive rewrites to an article on the rather neglected Violet Alford, which should hopefully now appear later this year. In lots of ways Alford’s a massively appealing figure, but she’s slipped from sight a little because of her rather retrograde theoretical positions, including her critical agreement with some aspects of Murray’s thinking.

One reason for going into some of this awkward history is because of the valiant and ultimately successful efforts by serious folklore scholars to overcome it. One of the real joys of this recent study has been reading pieces by two of the extraordinary group of scholars who reoriented and rescued British folklore from the edge of that abyss. Leading the way in the modernisation of the Folklore Society was the great scholar of Norse and Germanic mythology, Hilda Ellis Davidson, who wrote a charming reminiscence of the 1949-1986 period within the Society (1). In it she described Gerald Gardner as ‘flamboyant and rather sinister’. The skewering that follows is immensely witty, but points to how the Folklore Society was steeling itself for more serious work: ‘It is, in retrospect, difficult to see how Dr Gardner ever got on to the [Society’s] Council, but possibly it was after his arrival that people became so cautious’.


Margaret Murray interviewed by the BBC (UCL Institute of Archaeology, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps even more entertaining, and possibly more revealing of how this defence of serious scholarship actually played out on the ground, is a characteristically hilarious piece by Jacqueline Simpson, written not for the Folklore Society’s journal but for its newsletter, FLS News (2). The piece commemorates a lecture given on 19 February 1964 – Jacqueline’s first meeting following acceptance of her application for membership. The lecture was The Synthetic Sabbath by Rossell Hope Robbins, a critical demolition of Margaret Murray’s views on the history and persistence of witchcraft as ‘a secret society of fertility cultists’. It is a great pity that the Society never published the lecture, but the evening was clearly part of a scholarly accounting with ideas that had until recently dominated its existence.


What made the event so extraordinary was that those ideas still held great sway, and the Murrayite contingent fought a determined rearguard action against this very public redress. Arriving, Jacqueline noted ‘a pile of broomsticks in the corridor, brought, I hope and believe, by students, not witches. And I noted with dismay that female scholars and witches can look rather alike, both tending to dramatic jewellery and hats’. The lecture ‘passed smoothly’, aside from the occasional squawk from Hotfoot Jackson, the tame jackdaw perched on the shoulder of Sybil Leek, High Priestess of the New Forest Coven so closely associated with Gardner. The ensuing questions were all together more riotous, with witches haranguing and denouncing Robbins. Peter Opie, another of the brilliant fieldworking scholars who did so much to revive serious folklore study in Britain, was, in Jacqueline’s words, ‘the luckless Chairman, sat with his head in his hands, speechless’.


But the scholarship and debate remained robust. It’s worth quoting Jacqueline at length, both in regard to the argument and its impact:


‘Angrily, the witches asked how Dr Robbins could explain the close likeness between what they did and believed and what Dr Murray had described in her books. Simple, said he, modern witches had cribbed all their ideas from these very books, which had been around for forty years, and from later ones by Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner. None of these were historically sound. It must have been bitter for the witches to hear all this; not only was their cherished self-image being denied, but Margaret Murray was being criticised by the very Society where she had been President … Probably the FLS Committee were feeling equally tense – dreading bad publicity and striving to make clear their academic standards’.


The extensive press coverage of this well-attended meeting (Angela Carter was among those present, it turns out) seems to have been ‘reasonably balanced’. It was not the first or last shot, nor the decisive turning point – intellectual history rarely works like that, even though that’s how narratives are constructed – but is emblematic of a resolute and determined struggle to champion the best of scholarly standards.


I’m missing the field, but telling the story of how we are able to do what we do now is not a second-best alternative. It’s an integral part of the same story, and I will continue to work at it, if only to pay due homage to scholars of the brilliance of Jacqueline Simpson, without whose efforts we would not now be doing what we do. 


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1: Hilda Ellis Davidson, ‘Changes in the Folklore Society, 1949-1986’, Folklore, 98.2 (1987), 123-130  

2: Jacqueline Simpson, ‘Which Was Witch? And Witch Was What?’, FLS News, 15 (1992), 3


Friday 21 February 2020

A Fox Terrier Moment

Ten years ago, reviewing Gillian Mitchell’s The North American Folk Revival (i), I commented on a strange and misleading formulation in the author’s survey of historical folklore research. She had written: ‘Influenced by the activities of British folksong collectors, particularly Cecil Sharp, scholars such as Francis James Child and his pupil, George Lyman Kittredge, began to involve themselves in the study and classification of folksongs’ (p.27). This seemed unlikely, to say the least: Child died in 1896, while Sharp only heard his first Morris tunes in 1899 and did not begin the field collection of song with which he is most associated until 1903. Further, there was no evidence elsewhere that Mitchell really thought this was the case.

I attributed the comment at the time to an unnecessary compression of writing, a problem I came to sympathise with more as I wrote up my PhD. I did also acknowledge that ‘It is impossible to eliminate typos altogether, of course’. (I am glad of this, as my review erroneously gave Child’s death as 1898). I attributed it to individual circumstances, but it was odd enough to remain in my memory.

I now suspect it was not just an individual wrinkle in Mitchell’s writing. Reading Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt’s American Folklore Scholarship (ii), one of the important historical works published around the centenary of the American Folklore Society, I came across this in her survey of Child and Kittredge’s orientation to European scholarship: ‘[Child] maintained extensive correspondence with Andrew Lang in Britain, Reinhold Kohler in Germany, Kaarle Krohn in Finland, Giuseppe Pitré in Italy … and was influenced by Cecil Sharp in England’ (p.101).

Mitchell gave no attribution for her comment on Child and Sharp, but Zumwalt’s book is listed in her bibliography so may well have been an influence. Zumwalt did give a reference for her claim, citing a 1966 article by Alan Dundes. The argument seemed peculiarly un-Dundes-ish, so I went back to his article (iii). Discussing European influence on American scholarship, here is what Dundes actually wrote about Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: ‘Francis James Child … specifically mentions that he “closely followed the plan of Grundtvig’s Old Popular Ballads of Denmark” … With regard to the collection of Child ballads in the field, one must note that such fieldwork was largely stimulated by the work of an English collector, Cecil Sharp, in the southern Appalachians’ (p.12).

Dundes, then, very much wasn’t saying Child was influenced by Sharp, but that (American) collection of ‘Child ballads’ in the field was. This is actually rather important for Zumwalt’s book, which sometimes does not clarify adequately that the American ‘literary folklorists’ did also engage in fieldwork, although perhaps not as systematically or routinely as their  ‘anthropological’ counterparts. (The less than ideal labels compound Zumwalt’s problems, but playing the terminological hands history has dealt us is a major part of folklorists’ theoretical work).

Given Zumwalt’s reference, it seems likely that this is the earliest point of this confusion. Given Mitchell’s later repetition of the error, clarification was clearly worthwhile.

My aim was not just to clear that up or score one over on Zumwalt, however. In one of his classically witty and smart Natural History essays, the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould examined the place of the fox terrier in what he called ‘the case of the telltale textbook’ (iv). Gould examines the frequently repeated textbook comparison of the size of the early horse Hyracotherium with ‘a fox terrier’. He was intrigued, because he realised he had no idea how big a fox terrier was, prompting his inner voice to say ‘I can’t believe that the community of textbook authors includes only dog fanciers – so if I don’t know, I’ll bet most of them don’t either’ (p.159).

This is how big a fox terrier really is. NB no size referent is given.
He traces the textbook repetition backwards historically. Reading Zumwalt I had a Gouldian fox terrier inner voice moment. Hopefully, in identifying her thankfully well-referenced misrepresentation of Dundes, I have similarly found the earliest appearance of this particular error, albeit working with a much smaller sample than Gould. (I would be interested to know if the mistake is replicated in other scholarship, especially if it transpired that the confusion had been made independently of – or earlier than – Zumwalt).

However, Gould’s broader point also applies. We need to be careful of a temptation simply to reproduce statements from previous scholarship, especially if they seem (suspiciously) neat and succinct. We need to check our sources more carefully, and our writing, to ensure that we have evidence and that we have represented it accurately.

I’m above all mindful of these questions as I start to think about my paper for the Folklore Society’s forthcoming conference, one of the themes of which is precisely learning and the transmission of knowledge. I won’t be speaking directly to my fox terrier moment, but I will try to remember it as I put pen to paper.

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ii: Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt, American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1988).
iii: Alan Dundes, ‘The American Concept of Folklore’, Journal of the Folklore Institute, 3 (1966), 226-249. I am quoting the article from its reprinting in Alan Dundes, Analytic Essays in Folklore (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1975), pp. 3-16.
iv: The essay ‘The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone’ is in Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Further Reflections in Natural History (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), pp. 155-167.