Rootwork: “Christmas Mumming” and Campden Tapes

When a friend referred to the Archive and Study Centre as my “life’s work” a year or so ago, it turned a handle in my soul which the same comment by someone else a few months later cranked even further. The old Morris Minor had a precisely shaped hole in the front bumper to take a crank so that you could manually turn the engine over if the battery failed, and for an American in Britain in the early 1980s it was a real kick to get a car started that way. How many times as a student in Los Angeles would THAT have come in handy.

It came in handy at the end of a day at Gloucester City Library, going through the Local History Collection in the basement; where I lovingly traced a 19th century fieldmap of Chipping Campden onto specialist architect’s paper, in colours, with that research feeling of butterflies in the stomach the whole time. Outside it was rainy, grey, and everybody going home at night time; and in a multi-level car park nearby, the car wouldn’t start. One of the many citizens of Britain who specialise in helping strangers who look helpless – and who have been remarkably kind and important to me over the years -, first offered jumper cables; but then took me metaphorically by the hand, and introduced a whole world of technology long abandoned and barely whispered in memory in the States: Had I tried cranking it by hand yet? There’s a hole where? Turn an engine over by hand? Magic added to magic. (Although thinking about it now, the same principle must apply to the old third-hand Honda 350 which enlivened some of my college days, before Dad heard about it, and Mom threatened me with his heart attack if I didn’t get rid of it. The bike and I spent many happy hours together, working the heck out of the kick-starter).

Soul-wise, Jean Paul Sartre says somewhere that a life’s work only comes into being at the moment a person dies. Until then it is a book being written. Being invited by a friend to stand at the foot of one’s own funeral and observe the corpse of one’s life being closed over and assessed is a profoundly intimate experience. When it first happens, one has no words. When it next happens, one is not so stranded, and there are various ripostes and humours to hand. But what is really interesting is the engine that is set in motion in the background.

This post is about some of the first fruits of that turning:

Christmas Mumming in a North Cotswold Town: With Special Reference to Tourism, Urbanisation and Immigration-Related Social Change“, Submitted in accordance with the requirement for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies, School of English, The University of Leeds, May 1988, and made available here online for the first time.

My PhD thesis was buried with almost all of its momentum in the thrill of setting out in 1988-89 to create an Archive and Study Centre from nothing but a collection and a dream, quickly pursued by an epoch of survival and growth in the midst of an ocean hurricane. The thesis embodies one heck of a lot of work, but only a handful of people will ever have read it. It was one of the earliest theses presented to the University of Leeds printed via computer and not typed; something I only know, if it’s true,  because of the special permission I got to submit it that way. When the Internet came along almost a decade later, the BBC computer I had written the thesis on, and the 5 1/4″ floppy disks which held it (or perhaps they were 8”),  were already past-tense technology; and even if it had seemed feasible to struggle it onto the Web as the Web was then, I didn’t have the means to translate the technology. Making it available on the Internet now has only became possible because volunteers in the Campden and District Historical and Archaeological Society have recently scanned its copy of the thesis to pdf, and generously made it available to me; and because of the magic of OCR and the hard-graft of proofing and reformatting (which is still, beyond text and footnotes, in progress. My apologies for any remaining gurnwankles which the OCRing created and the proofing missed).

My first impression, when re-reading Section I “Introduction”, was that it was the work of an earnest young Werther; an immature barrage of theory and abstraction; and I dismissed it. My advice to any reader would have been to skip it, and go straight to the history and discussion which make up the body of the thesis, which are intensely research-grounded, and which I think hold up well. I particularly advise calling up the footnotes and reading text and footnotes side by side, enjoying the enthusiasm in the enquiry and discovery, and the conversation carried forward in the notes, beyond the text (and also in the Appendices; and the Bibliography is a delight as well). It was only in changing my mood, and reading the Introduction well, that I realised it was a serious piece of thinking, written when everything else was done, coming back to the beginning from the Conclusion in Section VI and therefore completing a circle; written under heavy pressures which compressed its expression to the point, almost, of obscurity: But a genuine distillation of seven years of research, hundreds of pages of thoughtfully-written and argued history, and a decade of theatre and theatre history before it. (But skip it if you’ve come for the history).

The Campden Tapes Project.

This speaks for itself. I made over 200 recordings during my work in Chipping Campden. Almost all were recorded before the Copyright Act of 1988 took effect, and certainly before I had the means to ensure that interviewees all received copies of the recording. Many of the people I recorded are now dead, but their children or other relatives may well be alive; and it would be good to begin to get these recordings to them.

If you enjoy these, you may also be interested in:

Or other writings from the Campden period, listed but not available online: See “History, Oral History and Folk Life Studies” . I can particularly recommend “Maypole Dance in the 20th Century: Further Studies of A North Cotswold Town”, Traditional Dance 5/6 (1988), pp. 97-134.

Writing conference papers is an agricultural process

Writing conference papers is an agricultural process.

You see the Call for Papers, and prepare the ground by studying the conference theme, allowing your imagination to raise a number of virtual crops which you study carefully in your mind; and if you feel one is viable and inspiring and useful in the overall development of your farm and the work of others, you write it up and send it in. Will it be accepted? You can’t hold up the rest of your work waiting to find out, but at the same time you have to set aside notional time and mentally re-balance future tasks and projects in case it is. So: it is.

You plough and plant, and realise the ground wasn’t quite as you’d imagined it, but the seed goes in. The weather is unpredictable, and the rest of the farm refuses to stand still and steady; but at first it doesn’t matter, because the conference date is so far away. But then it begins to matter, because the date is suddenly looming. Your plans for fertilising and weeding have gone out the window, along with time to recover from any torrential downpours at terrible times in the growing cycle, or equally relentless bouts of dry weather and scoriating winds. By force of will, late nights, and endless anxieties you find yourself with a field of golden heavy-headed corn that surpasses your wildest imagining: Indeed, so vast has the crop become that by itself it could fill the entire conference several times over, and overspill the 20 minutes allotted without registering.

You break out the combine harvester. The weather changes, and suddenly  a farm inspection team arrives, all 250 ewes begin to lamb, and a neighbour arrives with some bad news about the herd. You really need 20 minutes of standing crop to deliver. You cut your first swathe around the field; the grain is excellent, and that’s wonderful from one point of view, but agonising from another as you’ve already cut it down, and also because you still have a massive field in front of you. Excellent point after excellent point is ruthlessly cut down, threshed out and left in the field – no time for tractors and trailers and taking grain back and forth to the barn. Agony after surgical agony. But finally the joy of a 20 minute stand: Finally a paper and presentation you can deliver. Never mind that the answers to many of the questions people ask you in the discussion period afterward lie rotting in the field and blowing about in the wind; that 10 minutes is wonderful: Some of those threshed and winnowed ideas that blew past the combine’s cab come briefly back to life again – disjointed and out of context, but vital and excited at being used.

And then it’s back to the farm.


Combine harvester, evening, field of corn, dust cloud and chaff: bringing in the conference paper

(Written in honour of an excellent #ARA2016, 2/9/2016.)

2004: What is the purpose of the Archive and Study Centre?

2. from: “The Archive and Study Centre and the Business Plan. Where do we want to be in twenty years’ time?” a paper presented to the Trustees of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust, 28 April 2004

When I describe the purpose of the Archive and Study Centre to people outside, and even when describing our approach to fellow archivists, I draw attention to the self, and to the role and nature of memory in being human. People readily understand from their own experience the consequences of Alzheimers and dementia, and can see what happens to refugees and others ripped away from living experience of their past. Those who work therapeutically with children or adults, or who know themselves introspectively, know what happens when memory becomes separated from its roots in ongoing experience, and destructive patterns are repeated, or new experience is inhibited or distorted, or the present becomes overwhelmed in memory, or in its fragmentation or inaccessibility. And people readily understand that the deeper and richer memory is, the more readily accessible and inter-connected it is, and the more fully and appropriately engaged with the processes of the present in containing the past and forecasting and realising the future, the healthier, fuller, and more creative a Self and a Society can become.

What the Archive and Study Centre aims to be, with the Conference Centre, is what a healthy memory is within a creative and healthy human being. We need to continue to create the depth and richness of the holdings; we need to improve and enhance their accessibility, and the connections among them and with experience held elsewhere; and we need to get them integrated, as dynamic partners, with people and organisations for whom the experience they contain will be valuable. That will conduce to healthier individuals and a healthier Society.


We are like Macrocosmic neutrinos passing through a world whose complexities we can not see, but sometimes feel, through a deflection unaccounted for.

The essence of oral history is that it exists in the here and now, so that even within its own history and traditions, it is being created and invented by those who are doing it, in the medium of the interview itself; whatever the interview is and wherever it begins

Work is not the best way to get things done. It is incidental, a distraction, and a medium through which certain things can be done

I suppose I could call this ‘Ruminations’

One morning a while back I was walking across a field near the house. I was taking particular care, because several of the cows in the herd had recently given birth; and while bulls and cattle generally are amenable beings when treated with respect, the atmosphere palpably changes when babies are around.

The herd itself was at the far end of the field, apart from one lone cow off to one side, by the lip leading down to the mill stream. I didn’t know the farmer, and I wasn’t quite sure why the herd had left her alone; but her look at me was so forlorn and empty of challenge that I wandered over, and she accepted my approach almost as if I had been a friend. She didn’t budge or demur, but directed my gaze with supplicating eyes (no, really); and I saw a calf, in the middle of the trickle of the mill-stream below, up to its knees in mud, with thoroughly dried mud caked everywhere. It looked exhausted, and hungry, and as if it had been there throughout the night. It tried but couldn’t escape when I slipped down the bank; and it didn’t have energy to struggle significantly when I put my arms under it to lift.

When the calf was back up the bank and with its mother, it felt as if the mother and I were friends. When I went back the next day, the herd was all together, and the atmosphere was as one would expect: Keep your distance, stranger. No exceptions; and no glimmer of recognition, nor expectation of it from me.

One of my favourite experiences of cattle in those fields was having my daughter on my back in a backpack, scrambling down in the river, and her singing bringing the cows to the fence lining the river above, on the other side. It never failed.

That is the river along which she, my daughter, built a tiny but intricate house for fairies; while her younger brother and I skipped stones and waded.


Face blindness

One of my earliest memories is racing out into the street to ecstatically greet some adult who turned out to be a stranger; while in a more recent encounter, in a meeting at the British Library, a person who drew out no associations when they approached turned out to be someone I had worked closely with in organising and running a conference session only months before.

At least once in any public meeting or event, especially if I have not prepared by reading and re-reading the delegates list, I will abash myself by one mode of tumble into the abyss or the other. Nor is it absolute or predictable. I gave two oral history trainings on consecutive days in neighbouring museums last year, and only in leaving the second and trying to understand both the warmth of welcome from the curator and its cooling did it dawn on me that they had been part of the intensely engaged and creative training on the day before. I recently followed a very old friend down the street without any sense of recognition until we stood next to each other at an intersection; my astonishment doing mid-air pirouettes from the internal Olympic high beam of identity reconstruction, in split seconds, cried out, from her reaction, for explanation. But how do you graciously explain a failure to recognise someone you know well?

Because my default position in life seems to be to like people, and because I am happy to stand in Will Rogers’ shadow with that particular lariat in my hand, the face blindness can  sometimes be a good and welcome friend. Some time after completing my PhD I met someone in the road who was leading a walking tour of my subject-town; and it was only after the warm and lively conversation, drawing the tour members in with the kinds of details and appreciations that only students and lovers of a place can have; and only after the tour had moved on, and was well down the road, that I gradually realised that the leader of the tour was someone who had offended me in the course of my work more than anyone ever has; and indeed did something unforgivable. My face blindness generously saved me from diminishing the reservoir of joy in the world, and from diminishing my soul as well.

But knowing that it is going to open a trap door beneath my feet at some unknown point or points in the midst of an event, with a sense of humour I have not quite learned to appreciate, tickles my native apprehensions about venturing into the world. Conferences approach, and I approach them with trepidation.

The Archivist

Midnight. 2015.

I open the door of the room of dreams
and file the box on a numbered shelf.

Cold in the air conditioned womb,
I turn the lights off
and stand in a darkness so profound
and locked
that silence struggles
with the angel of death
until their bones crack.

And that is the noise of documents
in foetal hibernation
giving birth to conversations of
Time and possibility
That only lovers
and midwives



“To understand their ways, advised the old man…”


To understand their ways, advised the old man, “you got to understand where the White Man comes from, and his history.” When Indians did conduct their own ethnohistorical investigations into Euro-American culture, they discovered that here were poor, hungry commoners whose ancestors had killed the son of their God and who themselves had fled from an overbearing king. Cut loose from both, his grandfather said, they brought to Indian country an overriding principle that explained their behavior: “The new rule was that you could keep as much as you get hold of any way you could get a hold of it.”


Peter Nabokov, A Forest of Time. American Indian Ways of History, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 228.

“Historians do not psychoanalyze…”


“Historians do not psychoanalyze people of the past; rather, they work in the archives, with the residues of the dead whose voices remain silent until they re-sound in the mind of the historian. Historians explore the many ways that the past survives within the present – as institutions, myths, habits of thought or silences; they show how that which has been forgotten may yet influence some of the most recalcitrant problems of an age….” (emphasis added)

– Sally Alexander and Barbara Taylor, “Introduction”, in History and Psyche: Culture, Psychoanalysts, and the Past, edited by Sally Alexander and Barbara Taylor (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 2.

every people live their own myth


“It has been claimed with justice that every people live their own myths, that is, that their conduct in the present reflects what they believe their past to have been, since that past, as well as the present and the future, are aspects of the “destiny” in which they exhibit themselves as they think they really are.”

– Frederica de Laguna, The Story of a Tlingit Community: A Problem in the Relationship between Archeological, Ethnological, and Historical Methods, Bulletin 172, Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1960, p. 202.) Quoted in Peter Nabokov, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 90.