Monday, 4 May 2015

Mayday, Mayday >>> 'The Seasons' and looking after 'Identity, Place and Sustainablity'

On Radio 4's Start the Week, our understanding of 'nature' was explored:
BBC Radio 4 - Start the Week, Vikram Seth, Nick Davies, Olivia Lang, Nick Groom

Nick Groom regularly appears on the radio:
▶ BBC Radio 6 Music - Cerys on 6, Professor Nick Groom joins Cerys, Nick Groom chats to Cerys

He is a professor at the University of Exeter:
Professor Nick Groom - English - University of Exeter

And it was there that Rik Mayall was nominated for an honorary degree:
Featured news - Rik Mayall - a tribute - University of Exeter
Nick Groom - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Prof Groom heads the The Exeter Centre for Literatures of Identity, Place and Sustainability (ECLIPSE):


Atlantic Archipelagos Research Project

AARP aims to imagine, map, and develop the identities, cartographies and cultural ecologies of the Atlantic Archipelago.

The Past in its Place

'The Past in its Place' project aims to identify and interpret the texts, oral traditions, material objects and customary practices of remembrance.

Common Ground

The project 'Common Ground' explores the relationships between local, regional and national forms of culture in light of conservation and environmental movements.

Politics of Place

Our 'Politics of Place' project is a peer-reviewed postgraduate journal focusing on the relationship between culture and spatiality in literature.
ECLIPSE - ECLIPSE - University of Exeter

Nick Groom has brought out a book:

he Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year, by Nick Groom, Atlantic Books
Whether it’s cheese-rolling or frost fairs, folk songs or cuckoo days, interest in England’s traditions is on the rise. With increasing globalisation has come a counter-swing towards localism, driven by a fear that we are losing track of what makes one place different to another and forgetting our connection to a more rural past. The publishing industry has not been slow to react, and several books in recent years have attempted to collect together ancient seasonal customs, including The English Year by folk historian Steve Roud, Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids by Sarah Hannant and the wonderful England In Particular by Sue Clifford and Angela King.
Joining them now is academic and critic Nick Groom’s scholarly book The Seasons, which, as well as covering local traditions and folk history relating to the English calendar, includes discussions of the seasons’ depiction in literature, some weather lore and a little natural history. His stated aim is hortative: in the face of climate change, local homogenisation and galloping species loss, he wants culture to be “enlisted in the defence of the environment” and used “to repossess it, if you will – by conserving, maintaining, reviving and also inventing traditions that celebrate both the seasons and the calendrical year, and our place within them”.
For wildlife fans and countryphiles it can be hard not to feel pessimistic about the times we live in, and from this perspective any attempt to reconnect people with nature and the seasons is to be welcomed. But despite its title, The Seasons isn’t about how spring, summer, autumn and winter look, sound and smell, or their role in our lives today. Instead it’s about their place in literature, folklore and history – because behind it is a sense that modern society has gone astray, and that the answers we need lie firmly in our past.

Book review: ‘The Seasons’ by Nick Groom - FT.com

The Seasons: an Elegy for the Passing of the Year by Nick Groom – review

Groom is a genial, likable author; no doubt he would love to see us all getting into quaint outfits and galloping off to pageants, but he seems aware that this is not going to happen. Most village greens are safe from flaming straw bears for the foreseeable future. The reason is simple: we are no longer a predominantly agricultural society, so we no longer see ourselves as being so utterly at the mercy of bad weather and failed harvests (even if in fact we are).
But I have to applaud when Groom urges the deployment of rural culture to help defend the environment. Bringing back a Mayday festival once it's lost is easy compared to reviving the songs of the wood warbler, turtle dove, willow tit, yellow wagtail and the loud-singing cuckoo – all in drastic decline according to the RSPB's latest State of the UK's Birds report. Mayday merriment in the bushes would not be the same without them.
I also like his idea of celebrating St George's Day by going out to plant one of the 2,000 or more English varieties of apple tree instead of waving a flag. He reminds us that we move forward best by looking back, at least occasionally – by remembering where we come from, even if we cannot or would not want to go back there full-time.
I'm also cheered by the excuse he gave me for not taking the Christmas decorations down promptly. I always thought it was bad luck to leave them up after Twelfth Night, but this is a Victorian idea designed, Groom suggests, to get everyone back to work. Earlier folk left their decorative boughs and conifer sprigs around the house well into February. This brightened up the bleakest months, kept cheery times going until spring was again in sight, and tied up the seasons in a circle. Sounds a jolly good idea.
The Seasons: an Elegy for the Passing of the Year by Nick Groom – review | Books | The Guardian

A Political Edge to the Landscape of the English Calendar

ONCE A YEAR, some Traditional British Customs. Isbn 0900406704Burry Man by Homer Sykes
The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year by Nick Groom
A review by Jos Smith.
A walk around Tate Liverpool’s ‘Art Turning Left’, an exhibition of political art from the eighteenth century to the present, will bring you, on the upper floor, face to face with a full bodysuit of burrs, the bristly flower heads of the burdock thistle. This is the costume of The Burry Man, famously photographed by Homer Sykes in the 1970s, who appears annually in South Queensferry near Edinburgh to parade along the banks of the Firth of Forth. Up close it’s an unsettling, even an uncanny, sight. Most of us will be used to the odd burr finding its way indoors – we might have torn their little hooks from a sock or jumper – but to lean in and see a whole bodysuit made of them, including headgear, is a shock to the eye. It also raises an intriguing question about why this might be political art.
This Burry Man costume is a part of Jeremy Deller’s and Alan Kane’s Folk Archive, a collection of films, photographs, banners and costumes concerned with such subjects as competition pipe-smoking, gurning, morris dancing and hobby horses. Deller and Kane have described the archive as a ‘celebration of subjectivity’, and therein, perhaps, lies its political edge. The gurners, pipe-smokers, and the Burry Man himself confidently assert a form of popular culture that is often marginalised as eccentric or backward. And doing so today – in our age of the passive assenting consumer and the globally homogenised ‘clone town’ – demonstrates a very happy disregard for the more bland and commercially driven popular culture of television and magazines.
Nick Groom’s outstanding new book, The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year, is similarly a politicised celebration of these forms of culture and subjectivity that have been ushered out onto the margins. It explores the way the different cultural practices of the English calendar have shaped our identity as a nation, but, interestingly, as a nation of distinctive local and regional communities rather than as one united front. Though our modern lives are not as intertwined with the agricultural year as they once were, it argues for a renewal of our seasonal culture as ‘the accumulated story of our relationship with the natural environment recorded over millennia’.
SeasonsIrwin Piper takes his sheep to slaughter
There is an urgency to The Seasons that may surprise some readers, but it also really brings home what is at stake. The subtitle ‘An Elegy for the Passing of the Year’, is polemical, but could also be slightly misleading. The book is elegiac in two subtly different ways: firstly, it describes the erosion of knowledge that has traditionally connected us to the passing of the year, (vocabulary, folk songs, weather lore, saint’s days and the practice of calendar customs); secondly, it expresses an anxiety about the destabilisation of our actual climate, considering the local effects of this on agriculture or bird and insect populations (for example, a concern that the cuckoo is ‘on the cusp of becoming a metaphorical creature rather than a real bird’ in England). It is also concerned with the way these two losses are felt in combination, aggravating the sense of disorientation we feel from the annual rhythms of the land. But The Seasons is by no means sounding the funeral bell. The book is, at heart, a rallying cry simply to get involved with the English calendar in all its natural and cultural forms (and a cursory image search reveals that Groom practices what he preaches!).
This said, The Seasons is not an uncritical endorsement of calendar customs and seasonal idioms. There are some very subtle readings of conventions all too familiar today. Royalist nostalgia on the verge of the English Civil War is unearthed from seventeenth century poetry about springtime, for example. The emphasis at that time on the season’s peace, harmony and anticipation of plenty is revealed as a boat not to be rocked. Poetic convention and meteorological reality are often shown to be at odds. Likewise there is a very powerful reading of ‘the most popular book of poetry in the eighteenth century’, James Thomson’s The Seasons. Groom explores the way that the incorporation of empirical science, philosophy and nationalist politics into Thomson’s pastoral vision comes at the expense of any reference to ‘festive traditions, agricultural proverbs, weather lore, saint’s days’ or indeed the plight of the rural labouring class. Thomson’s was an aesthetic which produced a vast blind spot in the representation of the countryside, and one that seamlessly paved the way for some of the worst upheavals and dispossessions of the Enclosure Acts over the next hundred years.
For Groom, a culture out of balance with the reality of what Raymond Williams called ‘the working landscape’ is a culture, firstly, bereft of its meaningful place in the world, and secondly, without a frame of reference for contemporary change. How many of us today can say that we really understand the workings of DEFRA (which he describes as ‘a byword for incompetence’), agricultural subsidies, European legislation on food production, or perhaps most importantly the way small farmers are being driven out of business by the supermarkets (The Grocery Market Action Group recently reported that 3,000 small and medium-sized farms closed in the first ten years of this century)?
Landscape tourism and the genres of the picturesque and the pastoral have a lot to answer for in blinding us to the realities of a life lived beyond the suburbs. Towards the end, Groom even turns to Guy Debord in an attack on the representation of the rural as a spectacle to be consumed by a passive public rather than as a living culture in which to participate. And he is right to do so, since this can have very real consequences. Currently there is no obligation being put on local authorities in the UK to protect the local customs of the ritual year from such things as over-zealous safety legislation, road traffic laws and proscriptively high insurance premiums.
The Bacup Coco-nut Dance in Lancashire, for example, which A.A. Gill once described as ‘simply, awe-inspiringly, astonishingly other’, may have to stop running soon because it cannot afford the rising cost of the road closure. This is just one of numerous other traditions currently at risk. As a result, many European countries have now stepped up to protect their customs, listing them with UNESCO as a part of the Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage but the UK is dragging its feet in what could easily become a great loss to our living heritage and cultural identity. As well as being a fascinating journey through the history of the English year, The Seasons will no doubt serve as a powerful tool in protecting and conserving many such practices that make our calendar a richly textured cultural landscape.
Jos Smith is an associate research fellow based at the University of Exeter. He has published various reviews and academic papers on the contemporary literature of the British landscape, some literary non-fiction and even some poetry. He is currently working a book about the history of the arts and environmental charity Common Ground.
A Political Edge to the Landscape of the English Calendar - Caught by the River


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