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.

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



10 September 1956 pt 2

Stars and Stripes ( I think –  it may have been a different paper), put it this way:

sept10-1956-thumbUSAF Bomber Tracking Typhoon Emma Vanishes With 16 Aboard

From The News Services

TOKYO, Sept. 10 – A U.S. Air Force bomber, with 16 crewmen aboard, disappeared over the Sea of Japan today while tracking a typhoon that left a 1,0000-mile-long trail of death and devastation in its wake.

A huge air-sea search was set into motion after the big RB-50, carrying six officers and 10 enlisted airmen, failed to return to its Yokota base, near Tokyo, from a weather reconnaissance flight.

THE BOMBER was last heard from in a radio message reporting its position as 200 miles northwest of Niigata off the west coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island.

Far East Air Force Headquarters in Tokyo later announced that the plane was officially listed missing one hour after the time it’s [sic] fuel supply would have run out in flight.

At the time it vanished, the plane was collecting directional and wind velocity data on Typhoon Emma.

Typhoon Emma was blamed for 50 deaths and multimillion dollar property losses in Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines.

Winds in the center were down to 90 miles an hour when U.S. Air Force weather planes pinpointed it 200 miles northwest of southern Honshu, Japan. The winds had been 156 miles an hour over Okinawa Saturday and 115 miles an hour over Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost home island yesterday.

TWENTY-NINE persons were reported killed in Japan, one in South Korea and three on Okinawa. Okinawa fatalities included a military policeman and two Ryukyu Islanders. Six drowned in the Philippines in weekend floods on the typhoon’s edge.

Last Wednesday 11 U.S. Marines who had gone swimming off a north Okinawa beach were drowned in an undertow laid to the typhoon.

The U.S. Army said Emma was “the worst Typhoon disaster of the last decade” on Okinawa, site of numerous American bases, where it lasted 36 hours. Forty-three Okinawans and 15 Americans were injured, 9 of the Americans severely. Damage was estimated in the millions of dollars.

A preliminary report said 1,701 houses, 2,230 miscellaneous buildings, and 84 public buildings were destroyed and other buildings damaged.

 Personally, as a child, I was proud of a father who could fly into a typhoon. I did not apply my imagination to his experience, and resisted the imaginations of others. His mother, my grandmother, lay beside me on a bed in Prescott and in tears shared the hope that he had  crashed and was being held prisoner by the Chinese. I felt at the time that it was the wrong thing to be imposing on a child. My mother had no noticeable doubts, because he had kissed her during a service of prayer for the missing men; and even before the plane was declared missing had had a prescience while ironing and had found herself saying out loud “But what am I to do with the children?”

But the truth is important; and whatever the truth might be, the story which we were given and which I grew up with, which I shared in various classrooms as we moved around, which shaped who I am and formed a stable point in a changing world, was not true.

10 September 1956 pt 1

One of the key archival issues the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” project set out to tackle was the problem of the Data Protection Act, both in its specific terms, and in the more general miasma it has created around personal files, amplifying a built in conservatism when it comes to sharing information with former children in care and other ‘vulnerable’ people, whose access to information in files about them threatens to destabilise institutional equilibrium.

We were aware, as archivists and oral historians,  of the enormous absence which lives inside persons who, as children, find themselves torn out of the ground of the everyday and grafted into a strange new life;  who may thrive there, or who may find themselves  pulled up again and re-grafted elsewhere, sometimes many times; but who find in documents, files, and the memories of people who once knew them a promise of Something which the rest of us take for granted; and which we therefore can’t imagine their need for: Until the power of it is encountered. The need is so powerful that it is never entirely rational; and it presents challenges which a traditionally imagined and structured archives service is not designed to meet, especially when encumbered by the involuted language of the Data Protection Act, and the threat everywhere of legal action if you get the interpretation of the Act and its various Guidances wrong.

The principle of giving access as freely as possible to those people for whom it means most; vs. the Dark Abyss of its consequences. The “Other People’s Children” project was designed to work this boundary: to find the real as opposed to the imagined legal and moral limits of the possible; to engage the subjects themselves in the process; and to test and establish protocols and procedures which could then be shared and used by other archive services, to reduce the risk and effort required by others to legally and safely open up as much material to its subjects as possible; and in that way to address, as far as humanly and institutionally possible, that great absence, which subtracts so much from the well-being and happiness of the world.

That project began in 2010. It was not, in its own terms, fully successful; something partly discussed in the Final Report of the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” project. “Institutions” are people, expressed in particular ways; and former children, and archivists, and oral historians, and other people are all expressions of institutionalisations whose differences require more time, and more emotional and intellectual resources to bring into full communication, than we had, given all of the other work and issues being handled at the time. But what was personally significant for me was a phone call that a cousin I didn’t know I had, in America, received from someone purporting to be working on behalf of the United States  government, and seeking relatives of the late Capt. Rodger Alan Fees to take DNA samples by which his remains might be identified. As my brother and I are pretty well present on the Internet, and on the face of it are more closely related to our father than a distant until-then unknown cousin (who had just moved in to her new house in a new town, adding to the mystery), my initial reaction included “barge pole” and “don’t touch”. As it turned out, however, the query was legitimate. The American government has a program of finding and bringing home all of its lost servicemen and women, from whatever conflict or war (including the American Civil War); and they needed mitochondrial DNA, the kind most strongly passed down through the maternal side, to potentially identify him. So Paul and I and our sister were less useful than my cousin or, in the end, my Aunts, my father’s sisters.

But the inference I drew from this contact was that they had found remains, and they thought they might be my father’s. They hadn’t; it was part of a long-term project of building a database; establishing an archive for identification. But a hole, which covered a chasm, had been opened up; a charnel house of memories which coincided nicely with the issues, the anger, the uncertainties and unknowns, and the hopes, and joys and devastations we were exploring with archives and oral history in the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” project.




Transitional Objects

When we came back from Japan, we brought a wooden step-stool with us. From adult hindsight it must have been cedar, because it was red and had a scent. It came back to Colorado, went with us to Texas, and then to California, where it was part of the kitchen. The shoe-shine stuff lived in the box formed by its base; and Mom sat us on it to cut our hair. It was part of my life from the age of four, when we were probably about the same height and I was probably most aware of its smells, to perhaps fifteen, when first it was painted, and somehow lost some of its soul; and then disappeared entirely, like my father, of whom it was a reminder, without trace or explanation. That was one of my earliest conscious experiences of the importance of apparently non-significant things; and the irretrievability of feelings and their understandings which objects hold for us and enable us to let go of and then have for us if we return, when the object is lost.

“Who, after all, is really interested in knowing…”

“Who after all, is really interested in knowing the roots and intricacies of this work, and the political and social consequences of that knowledge?”

In going through my papers and presentations for this website I keep being surprised by the things I’ve known and said, and forgotten, and reinvented. Am I one set of ideas, in different circumstances?

The quote above is from an unpublished presentation in my first public foray out of archives into oral history, the Oral History Society’s annual Conference at Sussex University in 1999, “Landscapes of Memory: Oral History and the Environment”. PowerPoint was still a novelty, and a major discussion point at the conference; I recorded my “slide show” on video, videoing the photographs and documents, and dubbing in the recordings. An interesting way to ensure you keep a talk to time.

In looking up over/under shotguns on wikipedia to confirm the mental image that came to mind on re-reading the quote – it’s a double-barrelled quote, but not in the conventional way – I was taken even further back, into Jung and the world of meaningful coincidence and the autochthonic humour of the Universe introduced to us by Prof. Floyd Ross in Philosophy 101 (no, really) during Freshman Year at college. “A notable example [of an over-under shotgun] is the Springfield Armory M6 Scout, a .410 / .22 issued to United States Air Force personnel as a “survival” gun in the event of a forced landing or accident in a wilderness area” foreshadows the theme with which I thought I would be initiating the “Archives are Personal” thread of this blog.

THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND: a specialist archive and study centre for ‘alternative’ therapeutic and educational communities” unpublished paper delivered to the Oral History Society Annual Conference (15 May, 1999).