Thursday, 27 November 2008
With reference to the previous post- I've just found this on You Tube. Its from the Imagined Village; a version of the traditional folk ballad Tam Lyn by Benjamin Zephania. There is also a version of Cold Haily Windy Night from the same album. For those who are interested in these thing, the driving force behind the album is Simon Emerson, who is also the main man of Afro-Celt Sound System. Imagined Village also involved Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, Eliza Carthy, the Dhol Foundation amongst others.
I’m getting increasingly interested in concepts of England and Englishness. Obviously with my academic background I am interested in the ways in which archaeologists have used England as a frame of reference for their research and the way in which the concept of ‘Englishness’ has been expressed and created through landscape, architecture and material culture (or as I prefer to term it ‘stuff and things’). But I’m also exploring a range of wider ways in which national identity is expressed, particularly through popular ruralist and historical writing (specifically in the inter-war period) and also in what might be termed folk culture, particularly music. The whole notion of ‘folk’ is as complex an idea as ‘Englishness’, but as a working definition I’d define it as something deriving from a vernacular tradition with an emphasis on an oral and practical mode of transmission, as opposed to a formalised and defined tradition (with an associated emphasis on written records). Whilst the folk tradition is something that was, in practice, highly fluid and constantly being re-worked, in the 19th and 20th century it was increasingly tightly defined and studied by a scholars creating a formal canon, and defining the way in which it was reproduced and interpreted. Georgina Boyes’ extremely interesting (but horribly written) book The imagined village: culture, ideology and the English Folk Revival (Manchester 1993) is very good on this (The title of this book was also nabbed for the music project Imagined Village which gave contemporary reworkings to traditional folk music). This ‘folkloric’ tradition can today often express itself in a puritan and reactionary attitude to the TRADITION.
Anyhoo…the reason why this has come up is that I’ve come across an interesting artistic response to this over-propriatorial approach. The artist David Owen has an exhibition at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Dance and Song Society, often seen as a bastion of the tradition (you can see a review here .
In the words of his manifesto
MOST OF MY WORK IS CONCERNED WITH FOLK MUSIC AND ITS IMAGE. FOLK MUSIC IS USUALLY PORTRAYED, OR PERCEIVED, AS ANCIENT, PASTORAL, VINTAGE, FROZEN IN TIME - THE USUAL STEREOTYPES OF BEARDS, JUMPERS AND FINGERS-IN-EARS. BUT FOLK MUSIC IS AN EVOLVING, LIVING, CONTEMPORARY VEHICLE FOR TRANSMITTING STORIES AND IDEAS, LIVES, LOVES AND FEARS - THE HUMAN CONDITION. FOLK SONGS HAVE EVOLVED OVER DECADES AND ACROSS GENERATIONS, SOMETIMES OVER CENTURIES. NAMES GET CHANGED, LOCATIONS GET MOVED, MODERN EVENTS ARE INCORPORATED, THE SONGS GROW, CHANGE SHAPE, ADAPT, EVOLVE, AND MUTATE. WHEN CECIL SHARP, VAUGHAN WILLIAMS ET AL TRAVELLED THE COUNTRY TO COLLECT AND RECORD THE SONGS, THEY INADVERTANTLY 'FROZE' THEM IN THEIR RECORDINGS AND WRITINGS. THEY HAVE SUBSEQUENTLY BEEN SEEN, BY SOME, AS COMPLETE, FINISHED AND DEFINITIVE. FOLK SONGS ARE DEAD UNLESS THEY CONTINUE TO BE SUNG, TOLD, EXCHANGED, RE-WORKED, ADAPTED AND RE-INTERPRETED.
Wednesday, 19 November 2008
I’ve finally had time to put down my thoughts about Matthew Johnson’s Ideas of Landscape , which I’ve recently re-read. In this book Johnson explores the distinctive English tradition of (primarily medieval) landscape archaeology, which has its roots, or at least is personified in the form of W G Hoskins, author of the Making of the English Landscape. He situates Hoskins as the inheritor of a wider Romantic tradition of writing about landscape; one which he sees as both empiricist and conservative. He argues that the methodology of much landscape archaeology in this mould is undertheorised, particularly in the way in which it goes through the process of interpretation. In Johnson's eyes, for the English landscape tradition the process of understanding field archaeology is unproblematic and essentially a procedure which involves the reconstruction of landscapes using models derived from historic sources. He focuses on what he sees as the empricist inferences behind the ‘mud on the boots’ emphasis on fieldwork and the tyranny of the Cartesian gaze in the use of maps and aerial photographs.
One of my major problems with this book is that Johnson misses the chance to turn his critique on many of the post-processual approaches to landscape. I would argue it is also possible to see the influences of the (Neo-)Romantic landscape tradition running through the phenomenological tradition (e.g. Chris Tilley) and what Andrew Fleming has called the hyper-interpretive approaches (for example in the work of Mark Edmonds). These are characterized by fixing on the experience of landscape (both in the past and by the modern investigator) and an aestheticised gaze. They are as reliant on ‘gut reaction’ as part of the interpretive process as is the English landscape tradition. Andrew Fleming has explored the methodological limitations of these approaches in a couple of recent papers (Camb Arch Journal 16/3 2006; Landscapes 8/1 2007). Because Ideas of Landscape focuses on the medieval landscape tradition, rather than approaches to prehistoric archaeology, which is the main arena for much of these post-processual approaches to landscapes, he misses exploring the more complex relationship between Romanticism and archaeology. In his eagerness to place the blame for all the problems (and there are undoubtedly many problems) with landscape archaeology in England on the Romantic tradition, he fails to see the complexity of this important tradition in British thought and its pervasive influence on archaeology in the UK. He briefly acknowledges the important stream of political radicalism in the Romantic tradition (such as Blake, Crabbe and Orwell)but fails to develop this line. By drawing all his fire on the Romantic geneaology of Hoskins et al, he fails to explore the way in which the empiricist approach to archaeology derives much from the Enlightenment project, which much Romantic thought deliberately set itself against.
As is also common in archaeological critiques which explore the intellectual genealogy and context of other scholars and traditions, the book fails to contextualise itself adequately. I would have liked to see Johnson carry out an element of auto-critique to his own work. Although he mentions his experiences as a student at Wharram Percy, he fails to situate his own work in a cultural tradition. There are hints of his preferences; he prefers the 'naughtiness, travelling, whoring and sharp comment on the social iniquities' of the 18th century to the sentimentality of Romanticism. But it is hard to get a sense of his own personal academic journey, which is a pity, as his own output on post-medieval archaeology shows some interesting biases. For example, he manages to write a book on the Archaeology of Capitalism which hardly mentions industry or industrial archaeology. Is this deliberate? Is there a methodological or theoretical reason for this, or even (whisper it quietly) a degree of anti-modernism in his own scholarship…
Thursday, 13 November 2008
This letter was written by my Great-grandfather's cousin, Private Patrick Canavan (Royal Irish Fusiliers), from the trenches in WWI. It is dated January 1915; he was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres four months later; he was just twenty-eight years old. He lived on Kashmir Road, Belfast, and left a wife, Rose, behind him. He is buried in St Sever Cemetery in Rouen.
My great great uncle, James Patrick McManus (Kings Own Scottish Borderers), was killed in the same battle four days earlier. His body was never found, but he is remembered on the Menin Gate at Ypres. He had previously won the Distinguished Service Medal.
Thursday, 6 November 2008
At last some good news about Bletchley Park, where Allied codebreakers worked in World War II. Its a fantastic site, but has been badly in need of investment to keep it standing. Whilst the house itself is in good nick, the huts are in pretty poor shape (somewhat inevitable as they are mostly pre-fabs which were never intended to have a long life). Its well worth a visit; many of the guides worked at Bletchley during the War. Its great that EH has finally provide some money for this site; I'm amazed that given its importance during the War and its key role in the development of computing technology that its had to struggle so hard for funds.
Wednesday, 5 November 2008
I've just finished reading Jaquetta Hawkes' wonderful book 'A Land'. Written in the late 1940s, it is a meditation on geology, archaeology and the development of Britain. Hawkes was that rare thing, an archaeologist who could write wonderful prose, in places coming close to poetry.
It is this immense antiquity that gives our land its look of confidence and peace, its power to give both rest and inspiration. When returning from hill or moor one looks down on a village, one's destination, swaddled in trees, and with only the curch tower breaking the thin layer of evening smoke, the emotion it provokes is as precious as it may be commonplace. Time has caressed this place, until it likes comfortably as a favourite cat in an armchair, also caresses even the least imaginative of beholders.
Like many of the writers I've been reading recently, Hawkes takes an unashamedly (Neo-)Romantic view of the landscape; she quotes extensively from Wordsworth and illustrates the book with a sketch by Ben Nicholson . Like W. H Hoskins she looks back to the period between the end of the Middle Ages and before the Industrial Revolution as a 'Golden Age' of English landscape, and, again like Hoskins, she revels in the immense regional variation within the British landscape (though unlike Hoskins her perspective is truely British rather than English). It is a useful counterpoint to the other book I'm reading at the moment Matthew Johnson's Idea of Landscape which emphasises the English landscape archaeology tradition in general, and (in Johnson's view) its founding father, WH Hoskins, firmly in an intellectual tradition that stems from 18th century Romanticism (and Wordsworth in particular). He clearly dislikes Romanticism in all its form seeing it as the progenitor of (in his words) 'dreary, dreadful, Victorin mawkishness', and I think his aesthetic tastes (he prefers the salty, roaring, bawdy 18th century) are perhaps clouding his judgement of later writing and scholarship on the English landscape. Though perhaps I'm letting my preference for the Romantic and particularly Neo-Romantic vision of England cloud mine.
postscript: despite my preference for Romanticism I can't stand Wordsworth (I blame A levels for this)