1988: Folk Memory in a North Cotswold Community

Craig Fees, “Folk Memory in a North Cotswold Community”, TALKING FOLKLORE 1:4 (1988), pp. 22-38

 


Community Folklore

Writer’s Foreword [1988]

The Folklore Society instituted its groundbreaking programme of annual research awards in 1984, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the first two recipients for a project which I called “Folk Memory in a North Cotswold Community”, and which basically gave me licence to behave like a community folklorist for a year. As Britain doesn’t have any professional community folklorists this required some invention, and I embarked on a series of projects which ranged from cataloguing the materials in the Church archive, to developing, indexing, identifying and storing in silversafe envelopes a substantial collection of glass negatives, to compiling the materials for a history of the local Scout movement.

This article is taken literatim from the heart of my final report, which is lodged with the Folklore Society in London. I would like to repeat my thanks to the Folklore Society for giving their support to an exciting personal experiment, and my gratitude to the people of Chipping Campden who have been very patient in teaching me the ways and purposes of folk studies. On my colleagues at Talking Folklore rests the blame for thinking that this article might be of interest to others.

 

Folk Memory in a North Cotswold Community

Craig Fees

Background to the Research

I came to England from the United States in 1981. I had already taken my masters’ degree in Theatre, and enrolled in the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies of the University of Leeds to pursue work towards a Doctorate in folklore. I expected, in the course of this degree, to be familiarised not only with the techniques, methods, and materials of folklore, but also with a deeper understanding of the purpose of the study of folklore. By Joining the Institute, I was hoping to become part of a unique and exciting tradition of scholarship.

Within a year I had begun my fieldwork. Within two years, for all intents and purposes, the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies had ceased to exist. Although still registered as a degree candidate at the Institute, I was, in essence, a partially trained free-lance folklorist, with good instincts, perhaps, and a solid background in library research, but without the support of the tradition-bearing institution for which I had originally come to England.

The loss of the Institute, as such, was a blow to my sense of security, and this in itself affected my work in the field. More disturbing, however, in my attempt to determine the value and purpose of Folklore, was that the collapse of the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies was not the occasion of a great storm of protest. The Folklore Society did not convene an emergency meeting, and mobilise its members to defend the Institute from disaster; nor did the English Folk Dance and Song Society. There were no ripples among the public generally, and no expressions of dismay in the academic community. The only university department in England in which people were paid to teach Folklore simply ceased to have staff and faculty, and it didn’t seem to matter. It is impossible to work in a field that doesn’t matter and I set myself the question:

Do Folk Studies Matter?

I had two aims in undertaking the Project for which the Folklore Society’s award was made. One was to continue my training, and explore a variety of methods of information gathering. The other was to determine for myself and discover whether my skills and orientation as a folklorist could be of service to the community; that is, whether Folklore matters, whether there is a place for Folk Studies in the community,

The Model

The model with which I am most familiar is the therapeutic. If Folklore could be seen to have a definite and unique contribution to make to the health of the community, then Folklore as such would be justified. Our culture takes the value of therapeutic disciplines for granted, even if it is not always willing to pay for them.

Cecil Sharp’s was a therapeutic concept of Folklore: English culture was threatened with decline; the songs and dances of an older time could help to revitalise it. T. F. Ordish (see his articles in Folklore in 1891 and 1893), believed that the sophisticated classes, for all the improvements of the industrial era, were essentially uprooted: the re-introduction of Folklore into this culture would prevent it from withering, and restore its grip in the soil.

A therapeutic view requires an a priori judgement on the nature of sickness and health. These judgements, and the insights that give them life, are part of the tradition that an academic institution passes on as part of its life and its teaching. The collapse of the Institute has meant the collapse of the transmission of that tradition.

I know that many of the concepts underlying the work of Sharp and Ordish are no longer accepted; that the simple concepts of social progress and evolution from which they are formed have been set aside by most of the academic and scientific community. I don’t know, however, what guiding purpose Folklore has discovered which gives its work a place – an honoured place – among those institutions of caring which transform research into application in the everyday world. My aim has been to discover some of that purpose and some of those applications. I have no doubt that many of my discoveries are primitive and prosaic in the context of a flourishing Folklore community; I am aware that I may be reinventing the wheel.

The Projects

The overall Project consisted of a network of smaller projects. In choosing to undertake a project, my criteria were:

1. To explore methods and areas of information-gathering with which I was not familiar, and/or which gave unexpected insights into areas of interest to Folklore;

2. To explore ways in which my skills and knowledge as a folklorist could be put to the service of the community.

The question I asked myself was: if there were such a thing as a professional community folklorist, what role would he play in the community, and how could that role then benefit a flourishing academic community?

St James’ School

Because I was already familiar with it as the subject of my doctoral research, and because I could justify setting that research to one side as long as I was still involved with it, I decided to carry out my projects in the North Cotswold town of Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. My dissertation involves mumming there.

Chipping Campden is a rural town of just over two thousand persons. A little over a century ago it was struck by the Agricultural Depression. To make up something of the decline, there was a move to encourage tourism, and settlement by leisured residents, and residents with jobs elsewhere – commuters. The automobile accelerated the rush of tourists, and the demand for weekend homes. To accommodate native Campdonians displaced from more desirable properties in the centre of town, council estates have been built on the town’s outskirts. In the course of this century, and particularly since the last war, the proportion of native Campdonians to new residents has dropped dramatically. A great many of the new residents have retired into Campden: over one third of the population is now over sixty-five. Young people leave the area because there is so little work, because living costs are so high, and because they are part of a culture which educates them towards life and jobs in the city. There is only a narrow foundation for the continuity of local culture.

In all of the fieldwork for my dissertation, I had been among Campden natives, or long-term Campden residents only. Most were in their seventies or eighties. They recalled streets in which children could play, and on which everyone knew everyone who passed by. People made their own entertainment; young people were among older people who had grown up in the area, and with whom they worked. There were two or three hundred children at school fetes. They contrasted this with the current schools in the town, which could only be made viable by bringing children from outside, in a town where almost everyone one met in the street is now a stranger. They had very little, if any, contact with children, and the streets were so crowded with cars that an attempt to come into the town to do the shopping became a major endeavour. More importantly, almost none of them could see a rising generation of their family staying in Campden: the children and grandchildren were moving or had already moved away.

This was expressed to me, in my research, as culturally unhealthy, and I accepted it as an a priori definition of health and disease, as coming from the community itself. This gave me an opportunity to explore the therapeutic possibilities of folklore without imposing an inappropriate definition.

I must say at the outset that I did not take it as my brief to do anything more than take the situation as found. I did not consider ways that Folklore Studies could be applied to keep younger people in Campden, for example, or to attract young people back. I think this is possible, but at a cost of a degree of research which the Folklore Society award did not afford me, and which my commitment to my dissertation would not stand. Indeed, there is a great deal that Applied Folklore could achieve in our towns and cities, given support and funding.

As a folklorist, I had been given a concept of ‘unhealthy’ with which to work. It was a complex concept, but broken into its simplest components, and taking my orientation as a folklorist, a practical project emerged. The problem was one of cultural continuity, and its breakdown. These older people were expressing a sense of personal cultural irrelevance, of disconnection from the future. Younger people had disconnected themselves, or had never been connected, to the accumulated experience in life which older people are. The discontinuity in cultures between Old and Young, which has become almost a principle in Western society, places the old in the difficult position of having the authority of years in a world changing so rapidly that those years have no apparent authority. There is, in short, no reason to be an old person in the modern community.

I was, simultaneously, working with photographs the Gloucester Record Office had let me take into the field, with the aim of identifying the photographs and stimulating reminiscence. It first occurred to me that these photographs, all (or most) of them of Campden, and dating from the end of the last to the early part of this century, would be both familiar and strange to a child living in Campden. The photograph itself could be viewed as a kind of puzzle, a frozen story needing to be decoded before it could be told. The process of searching the photograph for clues — learning to “read” the photograph, developing attention, observation, and the historical imagination involved in lifting a photographic image out of two-dimensional “familiarity” into a realm in which the child’s personal knowledge is engaged in the photograph’s unfamiliarity — could be followed by a process of seeking clues to the story from other sources. To an extent, because of the research I had already undertaken in Campden, I could provide a great many clues from a variety of records and taped interviews with local people. What would be asked of the children would be that they tap sources of information uniquely available to them: family photographs and documents, the memories of parents, grandparents, and older friends of the family. In this way, decoding the story of ‘Old Campden’, as initiated by the puzzle of the photographs, would become a genuinely joint venture between the children of Campden and the folklorist, and the potential and power of Folklore Studies given a thorough examination. Not only would I be using the knowledge, skills and techniques of the folklorist to set up the project, but these would be constantly present and on call in the classroom, and the children would be acquiring these skills, techniques, and knowledge as part of their search for clues and knowledge. At the same time, I would be gathering information from the children which was not otherwise known or available to me, and in that way contributing to my interests as a scholar.

I took this idea in outline to the Headmaster of the Church of England Lower School in Campden, St James’ . The school is, in many ways, a special one. It is a federated school, an experiment in which the village school of nearby Ebrington, and that in Chipping Campden, are partially joined in order to keep both open at a time of falling enrolment. The schools therefore have built into them a self-conscious sense of local community. The Headmaster, Ian Jones, has pioneered the serious ethnographic field trip with his children. In 1980, for example, he took a group of older children to Fair Isle in the Shetlands, and in the period of a fortnight interviewed each resident using a set list of questions, compiled a detailed census of all the crofts, took soil samples, made an illustrated list of sheep ear-croppings and so on. The results were published in 1981 by Mr Jones under the title Fair Isle.

Mr Jones was therefore receptive to the idea that I proposed. Mrs Kate Thorpe, who had been with Mr Jones on the excursion to Fair Isle and a subsequent expedition to Macedonia conducted on the same lines, suggested that she could re-adjust her Autumn curriculum into a “local history” term, and that I could come into her classroom during the periods designated for local studies. After several preparatory meetings, I came into her classroom in September 1984, generally twice a week, for an hour and a half to two hours each session. Hers was a combined third and fourth year class comprising thirty-one children aged nine to eleven.

The Course of the Project

One of my initial premises foundered almost immediately in a logical contradiction I should have foreseen. If the continuity of a community has been ruptured with a consequent fall in the number of children in the community, and a high proportion of recent residents, the average classroom will have few children who actually live in the community, fewer still with parents who are native or local to the community, and fewer still with native grandparents. An old photograph will mean little to the majority of children who come from communities outside, and most will have little information about the local community to supply in return.

There were about half a dozen children to whom the project could be addressed as originally intended, and they did provide an on-going resource as the project developed. The other children needed to be included, and indeed, needed to be introduced to Chipping Campden. One of the first things we did as a group, therefore, was to take a brief tour of the town. Each child had a map, and a set of photocopies of four of the old photographs: one a general view of one part of the town, the others more specific to one or two buildings which had been changed in the course of the years. In concert with Mrs Thorpe, I provided a running commentary on changes: street surfaces, trees, what shop was what. The presentation was heavily anecdotal, but drew in broader concepts: Health and Sanitation, Public Services, Education, Transportation, and so on. At a point roughly equivalent to where the original photograph was taken, we stopped with the children, and determined what changes there had been, and used these discoveries as leaping-off points for the provision of further information. Much of the purpose of the excursion was simply that of the excursion: giving the children the opportunity to perform as a group in public, to learn the discipline of it. Several of the children found group work, particularly with relaxed boundaries, difficult, which affected what we were able to do with the group as a whole. One of my original, stated intentions was to take groups of children into the homes of older Campdonians to interview them, and this certainly remained a goal to be worked for. Indeed, this goal was precisely what tied the project together for me: my time in the classroom with the children could be seen, inter alia, as preparing them (as one would prepare an undergraduate) for the situation of the interview.

On one of my first visits to the classroom I introduced them to the tape recorder, both as a machine, and as an encounter: that is, volunteers came to the front of the group to be interviewed by me on the subject of “special days” – Christmas, birthdays, and so on. Ideally, this would have been done with each child, but we took the opportunity to use each “interview” to instruct and comment on the difficulty of talking to a microphone, of searching one’s memory, of interpreting what the interviewer would be interested in. We broached questions of tact, timing, listening, and put into the children’s minds at this very early stage that they themselves would be expected to interview older people, using a tape recorder if possible. During each class meeting I set up at least one, sometimes two, and on one occasion three different tape recorders: cassette and reel-to-reel. There were major parts of each session during which I was tape recording, and towards the end of the project I began to use a video-tape camera. Children would occasionally be involved in the setting-up and running of the machines, and opportunities were taken to point out basic techniques of microphone use (e.g., shout into it and it distorts), and simple questions of etiquette and self-discipline. In later sessions, we had child-lore collecting groups, in which six to eight children had a tape recorder to themselves for half an hour to forty-five minutes: in telling jokes, rhymes and riddles they had the practical problems of sharing time with one another, being audible, performing on demand, and recognising the consequences of context in their own performances. There was a continual programme of familiarising and de-mystifying the machinery of folklore collection, developing the sensitivity, technical knowledge, self-awareness and discipline of interviewing.

There was the problem of awakening in the children the notions of ‘culture’ and ‘items of culture’ which are fundamental to folklore. A large part of this was an exercise in self-awareness, directing the attention of the class onto their own group and individual games, jokes, beliefs, foodways and so on. This was an on-going part of the class sessions: it involved discussions of how (and if) the children celebrated the Fifth of November; it involved sessions of skipping rhyme and clapping rhyme collecting; we investigated the siting of furniture in their homes, especially as relating to the fireplace (or stove), television and radio, and table setting. My role, apart from directing attention to these by eliciting information from the children about them, was to bring, where possible, Campden sources to bear. Children were also asked to talk to their parents, and older friends and relatives, and therefore provide a living sense of the history of the items of culture being examined (discovering that a parent or grandparent knew the same skipping rhyme from her own childhood, for example). Ideally, the children’s personal experience would be united with living family reminiscence, as well as the information from the variety of external documents that I could provide.

Among the first tasks the children were assigned was a long questionnaire to be taken home and answered by a parent or older relative. This was a starting document: it indicated the breadth of the subject, and that the children would be expected to talk throughout the project with their elders. It did not, and was not designed, to lead the children into extended interviews, but gave an indication of family background, and areas where further research might be undertaken. Among the subjects included in the questionnaire were questions of living space: the design and layout of the informant’s childhood home, with names of rooms, and placing of furniture; table-setting and foodways; calendar customs celebrated, and “special days” remembered; jokes and games recalled, and so on.

The two guiding structures to the project were the ‘local history’ designation within the terms of the curriculum, and the aim of having the children themselves conduct interviews. The two, again, were interrelated; if the children could acquire a coherent and integrated concept of the recent past, they could more effectively and confidently conduct an interview. The class sessions therefore followed a broad chronological thread of Campden from the end of the nineteenth century until the Second World War, with a concentration on the First World War period and its aftermath. We conducted a number of projects.

As a group, we collated the information from Kelly’s Directory from 1885-1939. Each child had an occupational group to follow, and as we read through the directories for each year, he or she kept a tabulation of the number of persons or firms listed within that occupation. Once compiled, this information was transformed into bar-graphs, and it was possible, visually, to plot changes in the number of farmers, bakers, butchers and other trades within the town. This information was then related to the broader social and economic changes that were occurring in Campden. Using the Parish Registers, the children plotted the changing fashions in personal names, and the relative numbers of boys and girls christened over the century.

We compiled information on the birthplaces of the children’s parents, to compare them with the comparable information available for the census year 1881. We went further into the schools, as a method of bringing the unfamiliar and familiar together, and increasing the children’s sense of their own particularity. I brought in transcriptions I had made from the school’s logbooks, and these logbooks of a town school were compared with the logbooks from the village school at Ebrington. Where a grandfather, uncle or father was mentioned in the boys’ school log, the child involved would put questions to his/her family on the situation involved. We plotted the changing nature of the school, using anecdotes and reminiscences I had collected, and by drawing pie-graphs of the school day and school year at different periods. The children drew pie-graphs of their own days, an interesting exercise with a great deal of research potential.

Through these and other projects the children were familiarised with a wide range of documents, and were given a diverse pool of anecdotes, illustrations, reminiscences and images to work with, to comprehend time, change, and continuity. There was involvement, through selected local children, with connecting documents to living persons or persons remembered. When I finally brought one of my informants into the classroom to be interviewed, the children were thoroughly and intelligently prepared to participate in the reminiscence of his childhood.

We had opted to bring him into the classroom in part because the group itself was not yet ready to venture into other people’s homes: they had not yet been tested on attention, self-discipline, and the ability to concern themselves in a genuine manner with the person talking about his childhood. Mr Ellis was therefore taking a risk, and it required a good deal of courage on his part to step back into an unknown and potentially hostile – or worse, indifferent – crowd of small children. In his early eighties, he had not had children of his own in school for over thirty years, and was one of those persons who commented strongly on the overwhelming presence of strangers in the town, and on the fact that his descendants were not remaining. He had a certain unavoidable query about his own relevance to our children.

In the event, it was an exciting and fluid interview for all concerned; the children clearly surprised Mr Ellis by their grasp of what he was saying and its context, and asked appropriate and interesting questions which he fielded fluently and with evident enjoyment.

At the end of the interview Mr Ellis asked what the children would like to know about if he came again. One of the boys said “football”. Mr Ellis’ brother had been a keen footballer in his youth, and several days later – encouraged by the success with the interview in the classroom – Mrs Thorpe let me take a deputation of three boys interested in football to talk with him. He has since died, and was homebound at the time, and admittedly felt isolated. He expressed misgivings about his ability to entertain and interest the boys. In the event, however, a genuine conversation about football in Campden past and present was carried on among them: photographs were shown, a formal interview conducted. Mr Ellis grew more animated, and was obviously pleased with himself and the boys, who were animated and interested in return. It was a pleasant and successful experiment.

When the term came to a close in December, so did the formally agreed period of my involvement with the class. I carried on, however, with more time devoted to the children’s own folklore and history until their graduation in June. At that point, as a sample and summary of the year’s work, I put together a booklet called Local Studies. Each child received a copy, and a copy has gone into the local library and the Gloucestershire Record Office. The studies undertaken by the children were diverse but original and genuinely useful, and if some of those involving the children’s own culture can be followed up in future years, we will have the basis of a strong and useful archive.

Conclusion

For a short period I was able to live the life of a community folklorist, putting to the test the essential question: “Does Folklore Matter?”, acquiring skills, exploring methods of information-gathering, and discovering whether there is a role for the professional folklorist in the local community. The answer, I think, is “Yes”.

In the past, the scholarly folklorist has typically lived within an academic community, servicing a certain educated and interested audience. On the basis of this home community he visited other communities, within which he lived whilst he studied them. In the end, however, his “client” community was that from which he had come, and to which he would return. The community folklorist, on the other hand, applies his knowledge and training in the service of the community he is studying. For the community folklorist, the researched community is his primary “client”. In carrying out my study, I discovered that applied folklore through the role of the community folklorist is not only possible, but that a major contribution can be made by the community folklorist to both the community and to academic folklore.

The community folklorist is, among other things, an interested participant-observer. He engages his life with the lives of the people he is studying, and therefore becomes a channel of communication between people who are, knowingly or unknowingly, isolated from one another. He provides intelligent contact, for example between old people and young people. He provides contacts between living persons and future generations through his collecting and publication activities.

The community folklorist is an agent of self-awareness, in the sense that he draws attention to the significance of the familiar, or the importance of the generally unnoticed or disregarded: this can cover such things as table manners, or perishable items such as photographs and documents (which are frequently destroyed or destructively stored), and also includes those items of personal life or memory which older people take for granted or themselves put aside as uninteresting to the modern generation. As a community folklorist one is an agent of the living archive of culture: not attempting in any crude sense to conserve or revive customs, but calling attention to them, and bringing people’s awareness to the fact that decisions have and are daily being made concerning them. One leaves it to the community itself to determine what, immediately, it chooses to use and therefore carry on as a living part of its future. But one collects and preserves on behalf of a potential future generation.

In a community such as Chipping Campden, where much of the local culture has been disrupted and dispersed, one can put oneself in the position of collecting and putting into generally accessible form the knowledge and memories of local persons. Where cultural redundance and direct cultural transmission have been interrupted by immigration, emigration, and the alienating tendency of modern culture, one can utilise modern media to ‘artificially’ re-introduce redundance and direct transmission into the community. An older woman may not be able to see or talk to more than a handful of children, but a book can be read and a video-tape can be seen by thousands over the years. Incomers are no longer provided with orienting insights through multiple contacts with a variety of local people, but a higher degree of assimilation to local ways can be achieved through exposure to a range of anecdote and reminiscence on tape, in print, in photographs, and through video-tapes. Single transmissions, between tradition-bearer and folklorist, can be artificially multiplied and compensate to a degree for the reduction of personal contact within the culture.

Furthermore, because he is living and working within the community (this, it must be said, is an extrapolation; I was not able to live or work full-time in Campden), the community folklorist is in a position to observe a broader range of phenomena, and to record the transitory or ephemeral. He is, in short, a much finer recording instrument than is currently available in Folk Studies. This, in itself, must impact on academic Folklore and be to the benefit of the Folklore community generally. When a new instrument is developed in any science, it must introduce new information and generate renewed debate and theoretical activity. To fulfill its potential, the role of the community folklorist requires a thriving academic folklore community with which it can share insights, and exchange suggestions. Without a reconstructed Folklore community, the community folklorist — if such could suddenly be invented and funded — is nothing but a new and better telescope which remains unfocussed.