Englishness Rising – Symposium, University of Sunderland: 6th Jan 2015

You are warmly invited to Englishness Rising, a one-day symposium held in The David Puttnam Media Centre, University of Sunderland on 6th January 2015.
In the wake of the recent Scottish referendum there has been renewed political debate about “English votes for English Laws”, but it is worth noting that in the realm of culture there has been a rising interest in Englishness and the expression of English identities over the last fifteen years. The Englishness Rising symposium takes a look at new English identities and especially the ‘folkish’ impulse that can be seen not just in the resurgence of English folk arts themselves but as a wider tendency in English culture. The symposium will include not just prominent academic speakers, but also commentators from beyond the academy, including Sam Lee (Mercury Prize nominated folk singer) and the writer and journalist Madeleine Bunting (former columnist and Associate Editor, Guardian).

Conveners: Dr Trish Winter (University of Sunderland); Professor Michael Kenny (Queen Mary University of London); Dr Simon Keegan-Phipps (University of Sheffield)

Attendance at the symposium is free, but registration by 20th Nov will guarantee you a free lunch! For further information, and to register, please follow the link below:-


The Blacking-up in Morris debate returns…

The Camerons have posed for a photo with a group of Border Morris dancers (in their traditional blacking), and so the debate over blacking up rears its head once more.  Whether or not it was a deliberate move by Big Dave to align himself in opposition to “political correctness gone mad”, one can only speculate. But it’s worth trying to understand why this debate perennially appears, why it matters, and what it tells us. The real answers would involve a lot more than a blog post, but here are a few thoughts on the subject…

The arguments on both sides would, at first sighting, seem simple enough: on the one hand people are outraged by the practice because it signifies (to complainants, at least) the kind of offensive racial stereotyping associated with (e.g.) the Black and White Minstrels, and other overt, dated displays of racism which should be considered intolerable in modern society.  On the other side of the argument are the dancers themselves, who argue that the practice has nothing to do with the representation of black people, and that it was simply a traditional method of disguise so that dancers through history would avoid prosecution for begging, or persecution from the church.

As with most things to do with the performance of English tradition, the practice (and the debate around it) actually says a lot more about the contemporary English political context than it does about history. Specifically, it tells us a good deal about the politics of white representation in a climate of increasing dischord over recognising and performing Englishness in contemporary, multicultural British society.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the way the topic is handled in the press is that this traditional activity is seemingly “discovered” – as if for the first time – whenever the story comes around. The fact that blacked-up morris dancers are “news” to people is telling in itself: it’s been happening for quite a while… OK, so the border tradition had died out and was revived in the 1970s, but the traditions of the Britannia Bacup Coco-nut Dancers (who also regularly come under fire for blacking-up) have been going strong for well over a century. There are literally hundreds of border morris sides, many of whom black up.  [A large number of sides go for the “safer” option of colouring their faces with multi-coloured face paints. It’s probably also worth noting that most border sides are represented not by the conservative Morris Ring (who every reporter runs to for a quote at moments like these), but by the relatively liberal/progressive Morris Federation and Open Morris.]  They perform not in the shadowy recesses of private events, but openly, on the streets and outside pubs in centres of population and at the few hundred folk festivals that take place around the country. The fact that they are happened upon and presented as a shocking abomination by the press, then, says something of the status of traditional folk arts in the English consciousness (although, as I – and others – have written elsewhere, that tide has gradually turned with the new-found popularity of folk music).

As to the “real” reason for blacking up – this is a difficult one.  Certainly there seems to be a certain amount of plausibility in the idea that this would have been done in order for the performers to avoid being identified by the local magistrate or clergyman as they went about illegally begging for money via the trappings of (apparently) pagan ritual.  Anyone who’s ever tried to quickly identify a single member of a border morris side while the whole group is in full kit and blacked-up will know that the disguise is pretty effective. But there has been some excellent recent research – including from within the morris community – that would seem to “bust” this as myth.  The practice of colouring ones face for ritualistic purposes could also be credible as an ingredient in this muddy mix, since it is a fairly common one worldwide (see for instance the whitening of faces in Xhosa circumcision initiation rites). The more uncomfortable possibility is that it did – at some time – perhaps have something to do with representing the “Moorish” people from whom it has been suggested the dances originated, or even that it did in fact originate with the rise of minstrelsy in early 19th century England. It’s interesting to note, though, that while some forms of morris dancing have this face-blackening as a feature, others (notably the most culturally “visible” form, Cotswold morris) do not. The fact is, then, that while historical contexts and narratives might explain the origins of the practice, they do little to explain the inconsistency of blacking-up, and even less to justify its continuation.

Which brings us to the next difficult sticking point: tradition as justification. BBC’s Newsbeat quoted the charity Show Racism the Red Card as branding the activity of blacking-up ‘no longer “relevant”‘. The concept of relevance is an interesting one to draw on in relation to this topic. It could, after all, be argued that to do something because it is “traditional” is precisely to do something that is “no longer relevant” in terms of its material content, but is significant only for its symbolism of arcana and history.  The further from function or ‘relevance’ a practice is removed, the greater the strength of the historicity and symbolism. The impact of a judge wearing a strange white wig is now far greater than it was when the things were introduced (in line with standard polite fashion) in the late Stewart period: the sight now evokes a sense of awesome, mysterious antiquity not because it reminds us of Charles II, but precisely because it is totally removed from any specific associations that might explain it. It reminds us only of a judge. It is precisely because people don’t generally know exactly why judges wear the wigs that the wigs become so culturally significant.

The crucial question, then, is what does the blackened face actually represent (a) to the people who do it, and (b) to those who look on. The answer to (a) is easy: clearly (and I can rely on the evidence of many years’ ethnographic fieldwork, here) there is not a morris dancer alive today who associates the blackening of their face with the representation of black people. To these morris dancers, that association is an irrelevance.  More significantly, a very large proportion of morris dancers are part of a larger “folkie” community that is overwhelmingly left-wing in its politics, and made up of people with an above-average awareness of – and concern for – intercultural cohesion and respect. For them, then, the idea that blackening their face speaks to minstrelsy and racism simply does not compute. It’s just a deeply upsetting accusation. And it’s worth mentioning that nothing else about (e.g.) border morris in any way mimics or stereotypes black people (as, for instance, minstrelsy did).

The answer to (b) is more problematic: clearly there are people for whom – on the face of it (no pun intended) – the activity indicates a regression to historic racisms, either because the complainants receive it directly in that way, or else because they believe it insensitive to do something that might elicit that association . Maybe the dynamics of historically rooted racial politics are simply too strong to be trumped by the “unrelated tradition” card – particularly when that card is being played by an overwhelmingly white, relatively privileged ethnic majority.  To those with no experience of border morris dancing (that is, to the majority of people in England), even the words “blacking-up” are understandably pregnant with racist undertones.  For such people the only cultural icon of such an activity is Al Jolson et al.  In the face of such popular associations, it might be reasonable to argue that blacking-up in morris dancing – however innocent in its motivations – just has to stop.  Maybe it is simply not possible to reeducate an entire, multicultural nation on this small part of English folk art in order to effect its complete rehabilitation.  And maybe it’s simply not worth the inflammatory argument.  But tradition doesn’t quite work like that: reason rarely prevails over more instinctive drives to celebrate local antiquity and identity; and the current drive to do those things continues to increase. The discussion will rage on.

As a final thought, perhaps it might be worth seeking the thoughts of a black morris dancer? There is – at least – one. I’ve interviewed him, and I know what he makes of the debate. But it would be interesting to see if any journalists covering this kind of story are ever moved to seek out that perspective…

“English votes for English laws”: will Westminster dance to the tune of English folk?

The Scottish referendum results are in, and the answer represents a significant – if not exactly overwhelming – mandate for the continuation of the British union… at least from the Scottish perspective. But no sooner has Huw Edwards’ twelfth cup of coffee gone cold, than the political rhetoric has moved on to the debate over the need for reforms for the English constituent of that union.  Cameron has already called for the need to move towards “English votes for English Laws” – a careful rebranding of the “West Lothian Question” – in a bold but remarkably delayed recognition of the constitutional imbalances on which the British political framework is now teetering.

It is, of course, worth noting that the English cultural landscape has, for about the last fifteen years, been moving well ahead of (mainstream) political commentary in engaging with the concept of Englishness.   I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that the period since c.2000 has seen a considerable increase in the profile and popularity of the English folk arts – by which I mean traditional music, dance, drama and festival activities that are specifically (often emphatically) labelled as “English” by those that participate in them. Whilst it might be easy to dismiss folk music and dance as tangential to mainstream English society, the resurgence has actually seen English folk arts becoming far more mainstream than they had been in the late 20th century… Morris dancing, for instance, went from being represented in a comical BBC 2 ident of robotic dancing 2s (in comparison to all the “serious” dance forms positively represented by the BBC 1 ‘Rhythm and Movement’ idents) to something that has since appeared on The Culture Show,  Later with Jools Holland, and in the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games.  It’s still a bit of joke to large numbers of people, but it’s far more visible and acceptable to mainstream audiences than pre-2000.


But aside from these developments, and considered from the vantage of cultural political theory, the concept of “folk” is more generally significant as a weathervane of political change. This is because it does one – normally – of two things: on the one hand, it can speak to a sense of an ancient, “indigenous” relationship of a population with their “homeland”; on the other, it can invoke a notion of “the people” as the vernacular, labouring mass-underdog of political and economic structures.

The majority of people involved in the English folk scene at present have come to it (either directly or “second generation”) as a result of engagement with the socialist-leaning “second folk revival” movement of the 1960/70s, which did the latter of the two things mentioned above. But they have recently found themselves caught up in a growing impulse to re-engage with English folk as a performance of national identity, a project central to the “first folk revival” of the 1880s-1920s.  While significant (and largely successful) efforts have been made by folk artists to distance themselves from the unspeakable bigotry of the far right, the celebration of key characters and “collecting” activities of that earlier revival, specifically Cecil Sharp and his contemporaries, adds to the suggestion that the nationalist (or, at least, nationally conscious) underpinnings of the current English folk resurgence are undeniable. The types of Englishness that have been explored and constructed through this recent resurgence have been multiple and varied – ranging from images of very white people in green-and-pleasant-land portrayals, through to the radical, contemporary reworkings of Englishness by inter-/multi-cultural projects like the Imagined Village.

But the English consciousness has been awake in popular cultural worlds far beyond the boundaries of folk for some time, with the E word making meaningful appearance in the outputs of artists ranging from Shane Meadows to P J Harvey.  Meanwhile, academic observation and explanation of the phenomenon are now fully established in both the literature and in general discussion: on January 6th 2015, the University of Sunderland will play host to the one-day symposium “Englishness Rising”, itself to some extent following up on commentary offered in the earlier conference “Mad Dogs and Englishness” held at Queen Mary’s University College, London, back in June 2013. And the English/Scottish division is also likely to feature in discussion at a well-timed symposium on Scottishness and Music, being held in October at Newcastle University.

The devolution debate and referendum are a helpful reminder of the separation that can be seen between political decisions (which, as in this case, are very strongly linked to pragmatic concerns for economic stability), and cultural identity (which has more to do with a more instinctive sense of self, and our perceptions about with whom we share things like kinship, experiences, location, and history). While still muddied by post-colonial guilt, an English consciousness has emerged. Though a political break with Scotland has been halted, clearer definition, distinction and parity between the electorates of Britain’s nations must certainly be on the cards as an impact of this referendum result: a discomfort with the status quo has, after all, been a key creative driving force in English cultural activity for some time.