Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A Sense of Place

From Glasgow to London

When I went to the British Library's Writing Britain a few weeks ago, it was in the context of already having spent some time as a doctoral postgraduate pondering on the importance of place to song-collectors (and writers) like Robert Burns, James Hogg, Sir Walter Scott, or Alexander Campbell, to name but a few!  So, with my PhD graduation day now a happy memory, I was all set to spend a couple of hours down memory lane.  I knew I'd be enthralled.

I arrived later than intended that morning, having spent an extra four hours on the sleeper down from Glasgow.  (This was after a week of flooding in England, and a landslide at Oxenholme meant a major detour for my train.)  Still, I had time to look at most of the exhibition, and what made it so enjoyable was the realisation that not only was I seeing publications that I'd encountered in my doctoral reading - I was also meeting old childhood friends as well: Charles Dickens, Alan Garner, Malcolm Saville, Arthur Ransome, George Eliot, Du Maurier, John Fowles - there they all were; and I realised that the common link in all of them was - yes, the descriptions of the localities in which the stories took place.

Now, whether this means I was a child particularly sensitive to the delicate nuances of description, or a child fortunate enough to have excellent English teachers, is a moot point.  Similarly, did all these descriptions of English places somehow resonate when I came to think about the effect that particular localities had on my Enlightenment and early Romantic Scottish song-collectors?  Or did I simply enjoy the idea that different places provided particular inspiration for these generations of collectors?  I can talk for hours about cultural nationalism now - I hadn't even heard of it as a child!  

All I knew about nationalism then was that Vaughan Williams based many works on English folk-tunes; that Sibelius's music evoked cold, chilly Nordic scenes; Smetana's Die Moldau (from Ma Vlast) made me think of peasants dancing beside a flowing river; and Mahler used folk-tunes he'd have known from childhood.

And from Norwich to Glasgow
 But let's return to today.  Well,  yesterday, actually.    We've just spent a long weekend in Norwich, where my teenage sons had been keen to wander around the mediaeval part of the city.  We criss-crossed from Tombland to St Benedict's Street, from Elm Hill to Castle Meadow, and from Gentleman's Walk to the City Hall.  I knew and was proud of Norwich's mediaeval past, but I had truthfully never realised just how many mediaeval, Tudor and eighteenth century buildings are still standing.  Buildings that were already old when my Scottish song-collectors were active.  Buildings in a place that "my" collectors had almost certainly never visited, of course.  I wondered, in an abstracted kind of way, what Norwich musicians were doing while "my" Scots were scuttling between peasant cottages collecting songs in the Hebrides, the Highlands or the Scottish Borders.

Yesterday, we drove back from Norwich - where I grew up - to Glasgow, where I've spent the past 24 years.  Until we reached the Borders, we had brilliant sunshine.  North Norfolk churches stood stoutly against a vivid blue sky, their dressed flints almost glistening in the sun.  After Newark, the motorway offered fewer tantalising delights, although Nottingham Forest made me think of Robin Hood, and with him all the old legendary images of green men - and green giants.  Ballads tell their stories; and my eighteenth-century ballad-collectors debated long and hard about which was the oldest, the most authentic, version. Now, we smile and nod as we go past - "Do you think we'll see Robin Hood today?" - and then it's gone, at 70 mph, and our conversation changes subject, just like that.

The sight of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station chimneys had a different effect.  Suddenly, I was thinking about the "industrial north" that Norwich schoolgirls only encountered in their geography textbooks.  They're iconic, those chimneys - and they always mark a significant point in our journey.

The weather became greyer and even a bit drizzly as we drove up the A66.  I love the wildness of the countryside in the Borders.  How can I describe the difference from Norfolk?  Norfolk is basically quite flat, a tidy grandma's patchwork quilt of fields - whilst the Lincolnshire fens are to the Borders like a hospital room compared to the crumpled mess of a teenager's pad.


The Borders always make me think of Hannah Hauxwell, the old lady who lived a life of unbelievable hardship up in the hills near Barnard Castle.  I compare her staunch tenacity with another old lady about whom I've just been reading - May Savidge, who moved her whole house to Norfolk rather than let the planners demolish it for a roundabout.  They don't breed them like that any more!  I thoroughly enjoyed a book that I bought with my Christmas money this year - The Garden Cottage Diaries, by Fiona J. Houston.  Fiona actually lived the life of an eighteenth-century countrywoman for a whole year, just to see what it was like.  In some senses, Hannah and May shared some of those experiences.  But that was what life was like for my song-collectors.  Fascinating.

And then suddenly, there we were on the new M74 extension, hurtling along to join the M8 near our home in Glasgow.  What stood there 150-200 years ago, before the motorways and cars?  Just green fields and maybe a few cottages?  Before the tenements that had to be knocked down for the motorways themselves.  I'm fascinated by the idea of what preceded the realities that we know now.  Although my living in two parallel universes can sometimes prove just a bit confusing to the people closest to me!

Our Ancient National Airs: book on Ashgate website!

I realised at midnight last night - my book is already on the Ashgate website.  Publication date March 2013:-

Our Ancient National Airs: Scottish Song Collecting from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Era

Needless to say, I am rather excited!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Writing Britain: a Sense of Place

I bought the book - I love it! - from the British Library Shop
We drove up from Norfolk to Glasgow today; the passing scenery reminded me of the British Library's Writing Britain exhibition and all those evocative texts and images.  (I can't believe it was less than a month ago that I was there.)  As I drove today, I thought I could write a piece of my own on the subject, but before I embark upon that, I need to do a bit of post-trip domesticity.

So meanwhile, I'll share a piece that I wrote a few months ago:-

Musical Ghosts

Studying Scottish songs changed my perspective on history

 Since I’m a musicologist - or, to be absolutely precise, a historian of late eighteenth and nineteenth century Scottish song collecting - I suppose I can be forgiven for a mild obsession with dates. You see, to me they’re not just dates.  They’re markers in a period of history that I know very well indeed.  After all, I probably know more people in early nineteenth century Edinburgh than I do today!   When I walk around Edinburgh,  in my imagination I’m stripping away the trappings of the twenty-first century, the traffic, the road-markings, the street-lamps and the gaudy gift-shops, watching out for old cobble-stones, and imagining a time before trams and even steam-trains.

I’m surrounded by the ghosts of James Hogg, Alexander Campbell, Sir Walter Scott, and George Farquhar Graham - the list goes on, I can assure you.    And when I went to an Edinburgh conference about the history of the book, in summer 2010, I could barely get up and down the stairs to the lecture theatre without being jostled by the ghosts of generations of university students.   It was quite a crush, though no-one else seemed to feel it!

I love the sense of history invoked by old things, too.  Before commencing my doctorate, I did a small piece of research into the Dundonian James Simpson’s three flute-books.  They had turned up in RSAMD Library during a refurbishment a few years ago, and I spent a few enjoyable weeks looking at the repertoire that Simpson had assembled: flute duets copied from an early nineteenth century flute instruction book; psalm tunes; and Scottish song settings.  It was fascinating to see where the different pieces had been gathered from.  Just as intriguing, though, was the biographical information I unearthed about Mr Simpson himself.  He was superintendent of a lodging house, but music was one of his passions, and his own son ended up co-proprietor of Methven Simpson, a music seller and publisher that continued to flourish in Dundee until halfway into the twentieth century. 

Preparing for a seminar that I was invited to give, I had the opportunity to take Simpson’s books back to Dundee, where I was actually able to lay them on the table in Myrekirk, the house that James Simpson bought towards the end of his working life.  There was a sense of completeness that these manuscripts, which had at some stage in the twentieth century been given to RSAMD Library, were just momentarily back under the roof where they must have lain for some years in the mid-nineteenth century, even if Simpson had begun their compilation in his younger bachelor days.

Having now completed my doctorate, I have a head so full of dates that I can barely read a concert programme without mentally comparing dates and working out what “my” collectors were up to at the same time.  If the music now being performed was composed in the early Victorian era, you can be sure that I’ll be calculating who was then musically active in Scotland. 

I heard a fabulous string quartet a few months ago, and the programme notes mentioned how old the players’ instruments were.  As I listened, I was thinking about what was going on in Scotland whilst these instruments were being made, and played, on the Continent.  I couldn’t help wondering where they were, and what was being played on them, while James Hogg was still a Borders shepherd, Robert Burns an excise officer, James Simpson practising his flute in Dundee, or George Farquhar Graham earnestly writing letters about Scottish songs in Edinburgh? 

But I don’t just compute musical coincidences!  Between string quartet pieces at that recital, I  worked out that all of their instruments pre-dated the Napoleonic Wars; some pre-dated James Macpherson’s Ossian epics; and one was made before the Scottish Act of Union.  I reflected that while those craftsmen were working away, they had absolutely no idea just how much the political climate in Europe was about to change. 

Briefly, I tried to get my head around the combined age of the quartet instruments, but it took me back earlier than the medieval plainsong manuscripts I once studied, and certainly earlier than my knowledge of all but the most rudimentary historical dates.

As the next item on the programme commenced, it was time to come back to the present day.   I resolutely immersed myself in the concert and dismissed my musical ghosts whence they had come. 

“Did you know”, I said to someone conversationally after the concert, “that the combined ages of those instruments takes you back before the Norman Conquest?”  And they looked at me as though I was quite mad.  Ah well, there you go, then.  Doctor Who probably experiences the same thing.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Somewhere in cyberspace

Right, that's the paper written and submitted.
Pittman, Brown and Mackay's song collection arrived today, and was there the slightest hint that we were talking about the same Colin Brown?  No.  But I did a bit of biographical, genealogical detective-work and decided it probably was one and the same.

Degas - Woman Ironing
Anyway, now that paper is winging its way through the ether, what shall I do next?  (Apart from the ironing, which doesn't excite me.)

I do have a couple more ideas - both requiring a bit of work, of course.  Maybe I should sleep on them for a while.

This was one of my ideas. Not sure if there's anywhere for it to GO, though.  Scottish singer John Wilson ...?

Sunday, 15 July 2012

More Victorian Friends

Colin Brown (Rob Allan's site on harmoniums &c)
Oh, my! I've acquired some more Victorian song-collecting friends.  Introducing Colin Brown and James Merrylees of late nineteenth-century Glasgow: they were Euing Lecturer and esteemed alumnus respectively, at Anderson's College, which became the University of Strathclyde nearly a century later.

Along the way, I also met a world-touring vocalist from the first part of the nineteenth century; and James Cuthbert Hadden, (1861–1914), whom Wikipedia describes as 'a prolific Scottish author, journalist, biographer and organist'.  Prolific?  You're not kidding!

But I digress.  My latest paper weighs in at 4,000 words.  It's just about finished, apart from waiting for a book to come from Amazon.  I need to know whether my 'new friend' Colin Brown was responsible for it, and the only way of establishing this was to order a second-hand copy and see if the introduction mentions where he was from.  I found a snippet of a review on Google Books, which at least assured me that it did have an introduction.  Ooh, I do hope it comes tomorrow!

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Getting there!

Three and half thousand words later, and I'm about to write the conclusion of my paper.  Will I like it when I revisit it tomorrow, though?

There can't be many people who think about structuring a musicology paper, whilst thrashing up and down in the nearest leisure centre swimming pool!  Today I was allocating section headings and deciding what would better fit under a different heading, which made a change from my habit of 'mentally singing' hymn tunes and Scottish melodies to myself to while away the lengths.

Whale thinking (from The Telegraph)

I can't claim to have had any breakthroughs, really.  Apart from remembering my doctoral supervisor's advice to insert headings into a conference paper, in order to check that things followed on logically - that was the main inspiration.  And it definitely has helped.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Two weeks' holiday - fine time to get an idea!

I came across another Victorian Scottish songbook the other day - The Thistle, by Colin Brown and James Merrylees.  A bit of investigation revealed an indirect link with Strathclyde Uni.  SuperSleuth was off like a greyhound out of the hatch.

Which led to an idea for a paper.  I'm halfway through it - my evenings have seen me clattering away at the laptop - so, isn't it a good thing I've got a fortnight's holiday starting tonight?  I did have to buy a couple of old books on Amazon - luckily, inexpensive ones.

But if my book is published next year, it would - theoretically - be good to have other writing published around the same time.  So, there's good reason for this paper; I just need to get it written and submit it.  I have a target audience in mind ...