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.

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